It would be time to calm down.
The political survival of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has moved the question of Iran's nuclear program back to the center of U.S. diplomacy. Iran, it is argued, cannot be allowed to build nuclear weapons because its leaders say crazy things, wear funny hats without ties, and believe that God will reward them with virgins and whatnot for consuming friendly countries in a nuclear firestorm. Iranians, in short, are so different, weird, and threatening that they cannot be trusted with the bomb. Fortunately, no such state has ever successfully developed nuclear weapons...except for the People's Republic of China (PRC). And this historical analogy holds a highly relevant lesson for today.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the PRC embarked on a crash program to develop nuclear weapons, ultimately testing a device successfully in October 1964. Even its own allies believed China's communist leaders to be reckless and dangerously casual about the threat of nuclear war. The regime's ideology precluded the notion of an afterlife (and thus of eternal damnation), and its leaders had demonstrated a willingness to kill millions upon millions of their fellow citizens in the service of utopian goals. (Also, Mao conspicuously refused to wear a tie.) There was every reason to believe that the Chinese leader could push the button without remorse.
But pursuing nuclear weapons was altogether rational for the Chinese, especially given the unreliability of their Soviet ally. The Chinese communist regime found itself on the receiving end of nuclear diplomacy three times in the first 10 years of its existence. Although U.S. President Harry Truman rejected proposals for the use of atomic weapons against China during the Korean War, his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, had no apparent qualms about threatening their use to bring the war to a close and later to defend Quemoy in 1954 and 1958. With its own nuclear deterrent, it was thought at the time, the PRC might be emboldened to engage in all manner of aggression, conventional and otherwise.
The Chinese nuclear threat seemed particularly dire to a tiny U.S. ally in East Asia. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was unnerved by Beijing's nuclear test, and he agreed with his American boosters who urged Washington to "unleash Chiang." The idea was that Taiwan could carry out preventive strikes to destroy Chinese nuclear facilities, perhaps seizing a few provinces in the process. The generalissimo believed that world opinion would not constrain China from using nuclear weapons on its own territory, as Beijing regards Taiwan. In spite of the strong advocacy of the China lobby, Washington politely demurred.
Even the Soviet bloc worried that the Chinese were crazy. The causes and course of the Sino-Soviet split are complex, but nuclear weapons were near the heart of the dispute. Chinese brinksmanship in the 1958 Quemoy crisis prompted the Soviets to suspend nuclear cooperation. In a ridiculously entertaining series of pamphlets issued between 1959 and 1963, China and the Soviet Union sparred over the role that nuclear weapons were to play in defense of the socialist world. The Chinese displayed on almost casual disregard for the atomic bomb, dismissing it as a "paper tiger," and argued that peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism was a fantasy. The exasperated Soviets responded with a question: "We would like to ask the Chinese comrades who suggest building a bright future on the ruins of the old world destroyed by a thermonuclear war whether they have consulted the working class of the countries where imperialism dominates?"
In 1969, tensions between China and the Soviet Union came to a boil over a border dispute near the Ussuri River. Heavy firefights broke out along the border in March and August. In the background of these skirmishes lay the specter of a Soviet nuclear attack on China. Chinese nuclear forces at the time did not have secure second-strike capability, and a preemptive Soviet attack could have eliminated China's ability to respond. In spite of the strong incentive for both sides to launch a first strike, calmer heads prevailed.
There are profound differences between the Islamic Republic and the People's Republic, and 2009 is not 1969. Simply because the PRC survived a superpower confrontation, several chaotic leadership changes, and a Cultural Revolution without ever using its nukes doesn't mean that Iran poses no threat. However, it does suggest that nuclear deterrence may be as robust as advertised and that deterrence applies even to states led by people who say and do crazy things (like refraining from Western neckwear).
Given Mao's penchant for bizarre behavior, earlier concerns that China might recklessly employ the nuclear weapons it was seeking in the late 1950s were probably even more legitimate than such concerns over Iran now. Nevertheless, China has acted as a responsible steward of nuclear weapons, even in situations of existential danger. So, rather than preparing for war against Iran, or believing that unconditional talks will eventually succeed (a nice hope, but unlikely), or offering a green light to a nervous regional ally convinced that nukes in crazy hands will inevitably lead to their use, perhaps American policymakers should take some comfort from history. Why not let Iran cross the nuclear threshold and spend time and energy focusing on how to make the deterrence of a nuclear Iran effective? After all, that now seems to look like the only realistic option.
In short, the best lesson for the West may be this: Calm down.
Flickr user Pierre J.