It appears that the rumors of Iran’s atomic weapons program will not go away.

«The report, by IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei, lists findings of traces of weapons-grade enriched uranium and other evidence that critics say point to a weapons program.

“The United States believes the facts already established would fully justify an immediate finding of noncompliance by Iran,” Brill said during a meeting of the agency’s board. Still, he said, the Americans were ready to give “Iran a last chance to drop its evasions” before pushing for Security Council involvement.»

Setting aside the hypocracy of countries that have nukes restricting atomic weapons technology from those that do not, it seems that the US alone cannot afford to continue to use military force to stop every “rogue” state from getting The Bomb (even though I admit I’d sleep better at night knowing that nukes were in fewer hands). It doesn’t seem that Iran has nuclear weapons now, but if they have a clandestine Manhattan Project, one Israeli source suggests that they could have a working weapon in two or three years.
I don’t know if I believe that, but let’s grant that that is true. Is there a way to discourage nations from developing a nuclear weapons program?

One way to approach this question is to ask why any country wants nukes in the first place. Nuclear weapons are expensive to make and expensive to maintain. Because uranium decays, the weapons require constant monitoring and adjustment.
The care and feeding of the US atomic stockpile is expensive. While I can’t find the exact numbers, the cost appears to be in the billions of dollars per year (I welcome pointers to more accurate information). The report cited above provides the answer to why the US has atomic weapons: deterrence. Countries that have a credible atomic weapons program are perceived to be in less danger of a first strike (conventional or atomic) from another country. It helps to explain why the US is reluctent to use the same muscle in the North Korean affair than it did with Iraq. The lesson many smaller countries have learned is that a credible weapons program will deter military invasion. For another object lesson, look at how the tensions between Pakistan and India (who both have atomic weapons) manifest. But this isn’t the only lesson to be learned from current political events.

If your country’s atomic weapons program is discovered before you have weapons, your are likely to be harassed or invaded, as Iran is experiencing. You can debate whether the harassment is justified, but you cannot deny it is happening. Is the threat and use of military intervention to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation a tenable long-term policy for the US and UN? I don’t believe so. The cost of rebuilding Iraq is more than the US wants sustain alone. Imagine the cost of simultaneously rebuilding Iraq and Iran.
Moreover at some future point, it simply won’t be that difficult to get an atomics weapons program up and running. The technology will continue to become cheaper and better understood. The US won’t have time to stop “rogue” regimes from getting nukes. That’s when the US will need to have to decide how far it will go to enforce it’s policies. Those promise to be some very difficult days indeed.

Deterrence isn’t the only reason to have nukes, although it is probably the most important one (certainly the late Dr. Teller would agree with this).
Once you have nukes, your country is in a lot better position to negotiate with or extort from neighboring countries. Again, North Korea’s example of getting oil from the US in exchange for “stopping” their weapons program is an excellent example of this. Another example is the US threatening to relatiate with atomic weapons if any form of WMD are used against it.

It appears there’s a lot of upside for any “rogue” country to develop nukes as fast as possible. The only way to effectively combat nuclear proliferation is to nullify its benefits. Frankly, I’m at a loss as to how to do that.
Although I do believe that most people in the world will respond with respect if shown the same, I’m also aware that there are those who only understand force (again, Saddam Hussein is a good example that this). Should we extend ESR’s notion that a universally armed citizenry promotes a “polite society?”
If so, then giving nukes to everybody ought to easy world tensions.
After all, you’d have to be mad to attack a country with nukes, right?
Perhaps ESR’s suggestion doesn’t scale up well.

I don’t have a solution to stopping nuclear proliferation. I’m trying to work out what I believe about this thorny, ugly problem. Increasingly, US foreign policy seems to involve this issue.

Your thoughts?

[Original post and comments.]