The “nuclear option” may have receded in the U.S. Senate for the time being. Unfortunately, it’s still very much on the table for the two newest aspirants to the nuclear club. Not to mention those who already have their membership cards.

Iran and the EU3 (Britain, France, and Germany) essentially agreed to an atomic breathing spell in Geneva on Wednesday, May 25th. The EU3 committed to hold off on its stick (referring the Iranian nuclear issue to the UN Security Council) for at least a couple of months, and to define more precisely the carrots it might offer the mullahs. Iran pledged that it would continue to suspend its processing of nuclear materials—for now.

On the same day the Pentagon abruptly terminated a little-known agreement between Pyongyang and Washington that had permitted U.S. officials to recover remains of U.S. soldiers killed inside North Korea more than a half century ago. This followed warnings from U.S. intelligence that North Korea might be on the verge, for the first time, of conducting a nuclear test. Some suggested that officials in Pyongyang would inevitably suspect that the United States was laying the groundwork for a preemptive attack, and didn’t want any potential hostages inside the country when it occurred.

Two days later, on Friday, May 27th, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)five year review conference at the UN came to a disheartening close—nonew protocols, no new anti-nuclear strategies, no consensus about the road ahead.American representatives to the conference complained relentlessly about thenascent nuclear arsenals of Iran and North Korea (alleged by us in the firstcase, claimed by them in the second). Officials from much of the rest of theworld, in concert with numerous non-governmental voices (including a large delegationof hibakusha—the aging survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima), directedtheir ire instead at the colossal and renascent nuclear firepower of the UnitedStates.

But virtually no one in Geneva or Washington or New York talked about the soberand rational motivations Iran and North Korea might possess for crossing thenuclear Rubicon, based on hard-headed calculations of their own perceived securityneeds. Virtually no one publicly admitted that these states might hold quiteunderstandable reasons for invoking Article X—which allows a party to withdrawfrom the NPT if its “supreme interests (are) jeopardized”—asNorth Korea already has done and Iran eventually may well do. And virtually noone seemed to acknowledge that we may be witnessing the emergence of a new modelof nuclear deterrence, one that will radically transform the 21st century nuclearlandscape.

During the Cold War’s long atomic arms race, it became clear that nuclearweapons had little actual military value. It was difficult to conceive of anyscenario where the benefits of employing a nuclear warhead could possibly exceedthe almost infinite risks. Instead, nuclear arsenals came to be seen less asusable weapons, and more as a means to persuade others not to use weapons.

To some extent, nuclear weapons discouraged conventional aggression. Americanmilitary doctrine explicitly threatened to respond to Soviet tank divisions crossingthe Elbe River in Germany both by attacking those divisions with “tacticalnuclear weapons” (an earlier generation of George Bush’s oxymoronic “mininukes”),and by lobbing immensely more powerful strategic nuclear weapons directly ontoSoviet soil. This is why American presidents, Democratic and Republican, alwaysrefused to commit to “no first use.”

To accomplish this deterrent purpose, however, the United States might need,oh, 70 invulnerable nuclear warheads or so. But during the Cold War the totalnumber reached more than 70,000! We needed thousands of nuclear weapons, theargument ran, to dissuade our Soviet adversary from launching thousands of nuclearweapons against us. This, of course, was the logic behind the doctrine knownas “mutually assured destruction,” or “MAD” (surely themost appropriate acronym in history). As the Cold War ground on, it became apparentthat the only rational purpose for nuclear weapons was to deter the use of nuclearweapons by others.

If Iran and North Korea acquire nuclear arsenals, their function for these regimeswill be dramatically different. For Teheran and Pyongyang, the primary functionof their nuclear weapons won’t be to deter the use of someone else’snuclear weapons. Why not?

Because Iran and North Korea aren’t afraid that the United States is goingto attack them with nuclear weapons. Iran and North Korea are afraid that theUnited States is going to attack them.

Consider the outside world as viewed from Tehran and Pyongyang. George Bush delivershis 2002 State of the Union address, and singles out three countries as constitutingan “axis of evil.” He announces his intention to initiate unilateraland preemptive wars against nations that his administration subjectively determinesto be a potential threat. Defying almost universal world opinion, he actuallystarts such a war against one of the three, and succeeds in decapitating itsregime, killing its leader’s sons, and driving that leader himself intoa pathetic hole in the ground. In the case of Iran, he surrounds it on all sideswith bristling American military power—Iraq to the west, Afghanistan tothe east, enormous new U.S. bases in Central Asia to the north, and the unchallengeableU.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf to the south. In the case of North Korea, he adamantlyrefuses to offer the non-aggression pledge that Pyongyang has repeatedly requested.And even when he tries to offer reassurances he only exacerbates fears. “Thisnotion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous,” heproclaims, only to immediately follow with “that being said, all optionsare on the table.”

Does it occur to anyone in the bowels of the Bush administration that these statementsand actions might clash with their accompanying insistence that these two nationsengage in immediate unilateral disarmament?

Iran and North Korea, of course, cannot hope to take on the United States ina direct military confrontation. But they can aspire to deter what must seemto them to be the very real threat of American military attack. How? By developingthe capability to vaporize an American military base or three abroad, or an Americancarrier group in the Indian Ocean or the Sea of Japan, or even an American city.And by holding out the possibility that they would respond to any assault byemploying that capability immediately, before it becomes too late, followingthe venerable maxim: “Use them or lose them.” (This, we have learnedin recent years from now elderly former Soviet military officers who were onthe ground during the Cuban missile crisis, is precisely what they were preparedto do with the nuclear warheads in their hands at the first hint of an Americanstrike on Cuba.)

There is, of course, only one thing that can provide these two countries withthe capability to inflict that kind of damage. Hint: it’s not nuclear electricity.

Iran and North Korea don’t need thousands of nuclear warheads to fulfillthis deterrent purpose. They just need perhaps a couple of dozen, well hiddenand well protected. American military planners might be almost certain that theycould take out all Iranian or North Korean nuclear capabilities in a lightning “surgicalstrike.” But “almost” isn’t good enough. It is inconceivablethat the anticipated benefits of an attack on Iran or North Korea could outweighthe risk of losing perhaps a million Americans—3 times as many as duringthe long years of WWII, 300 times as many as on 9/11—in the blink of aneye, the snap of a finger, the single beat of a human heart. If these statescan create enough uncertainty in the minds of a potential adversary about thepossible catastrophic response to any attack, it will probably be enough to causethat adversary to pause indefinitely.

It is difficult, on the other hand, to imagine any circumstances in which Americancommanders would find it militarily necessary to employ nuclear weapons againstIran or North Korea. After all, the United States today spends more on its militarypower than all the other countries in the world put together—a situationprobably unprecedented in all of world history. The United States toppled theIraqi regime in a few short weeks with conventional weaponry alone. (Securingthe peace, of course, has been another matter—but no one has suggestedthat America’s vast nuclear arsenal can do anything to help with that.)This is especially true of the U.S. Air Force, which today can operate at willover most of the world with virtually zero risk to its aircraft or crews. Ifany country can exercise deterrence without having to resort to nuclear deterrence,it is us.

Hence we see one of the more delicious paradoxes of the embryonic new nuclearage. Iran and North Korea need nuclear weapons to deter the United States. TheUnited States doesn’t need nuclear weapons to deter Iran or North Korea.The country that has them doesn’t need them. And the countries that needthem don’t have them. Perhaps. Yet.

The best way to dissuade Iran and North Korea from going down the nuclear highwayis to assure them they have nothing to fear from us. Tell them we’re notgoing to invade their countries. We’re not going to seek to change theirregimes. We’re not going to launch preemptive, unilateral, illegal warsof aggression against them. We’re not going to drive their leaders intospider holes of their own.

Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to mention that we also don’t expect themto endure the nuclear double standard forever until the end of time. We don’tenvision a world with a few permanent “nuclear haves” and a greatmany permanent “nuclear have-nots.” Just as we expect them to abideby their NPT obligation not to acquire nuclear weapons, they can expect us totake seriously our NPT obligation to eventually get rid of ours.

There have been, and are, of course, other forms of nuclear deterrence. Indiaand Pakistan use their nuclear weapons to deter both conventional and nuclearattacks by the other. China never came close to amassing a nuclear arsenal likethose of the United States or the USSR (even today Beijing possesses fewer thantwo dozen warheads capable of striking the continental United States), yet itsnuclear weapons still function as some kind of deterrent. (The greater deterrentto any American attack on China, however, surely remains MacArthur’s admonitionagainst a “land war in Asia” … and our memories of such a war inVietnam.) Britain and France, unsure that at the moment of truth the United Stateswould risk New York to save Paris or London, felt the need to develop their ownindependent nuclear deterrents. And Israel refused to join the NPT because ofits fear of continued Arab aggression—even though its bomb in the basementfailed to deter the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

But the Big Story of the first 45 years of the nuclear age remains the blow-up-the-world-a-thousand-times-overatomic arms race between Washington and Moscow. And the new theory of nucleardeterrence as practiced by Iran and North Korea is likely to differ from thattraditional Cold War model in several fundamental ways. In the old, it was onebig superpower state deterring the other big superpower state. In the new, wehave small states deterring a big state. In the old, nuclear weapons primarilydeterred nuclear weapons. In the new, nuclear weapons primarily deter conventionalaggression. In the old, the opponent’s entire country was put at risk.(Our threat—and theirs in mirror image—was not just to obliterateMoscow, but hundreds of Soviet cities, and hundreds of millions of Soviet citizens.)In the new, a threat of far lesser magnitude is surely enough to act as a deterrent.(Iran and North Korea probably never will be able to threaten the United Stateswith anything similar to that Cold War threat … but probably they don’tneed to.) And in the old, it was felt that tens of thousands of nuclear weaponswere necessary for an opponent to be effectively deterred. In the new, probablya few dozen well-protected warheads will be sufficient to do the job.

Another Cold War concept that never captured the public imagination quite like “MAD”—butthat those madcap fellows known as “nuclear theoreticians” from timeto time employed—was the simple one of “unacceptable damage.” Ifa nation possessed the capability—even the possibility—of imposingunacceptable damage on an adversary in response to aggression, that adversarywould be effectively deterred from undertaking any aggression.

This already appears to be the case with North Korea, since our military plannersare uncertain as to whether Pyongyang has already succeeded in obtaining thebomb. No one is seriously proposing any kind of a military strike on North Korea,because of the mere possibility that before the entire country was annihilatedit might succeed in getting even one nuclear missile off the ground—aimedat South Korea, Japan, a large U.S. naval formation in the Pacific, or an Americancity on the west coast. Any of those would presumably qualify as “unacceptabledamage.”

Although “UD” hardly contains the rich acronymphomaniacal irony wroughtby “MAD,” Iran and North Korea may be the first states to base theirnational nuclear strategies solidly upon it. There is no reason whatsoever tosuppose that they will be the last.

Tad Daley is Peace and Disarmament Fellow in the Los Angeles office of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Nobel Laureate anti-nuclear organization.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.