America’s current standoff with Iran over the direction of Tehran’s nuclear program is only one symptom of a larger problem. Concerns over climate change and the rising costs of ever-scarcer hydrocarbons are leading more countries to turn to atomic energy as a long-term source of cheap and emissions-free energy. While some of these nuclear newcomers will trust that international markets will be able to guarantee access to nuclear fuel, others will want to control the entire fuel cycle on their own territory.
That means we may soon be faced with a situation where many countries will aspire to the technological capabilities currently enjoyed by Japan -- and herein lies the problem. Though Japan currently is not a nuclear-weapons state, it has for many years had a latent “breakout” capacity whereby a Japanese government, if it so desired, could quickly and easily fabricate nuclear weapons with little or no warning. Whether Iran is actively pursuing a weapon or not is open to debate; but what appears incontrovertible is that Tehran wants to attain a level of technological expertise that would enable it to exercise just such a “Japanese option” in the future if it so desired.
This helps to explain why so many countries of the rising South and East have been reluctant to join the United States and Europe in applying punitive sanctions against the Iranian government: They are reluctant to take steps against Iran that would subsequently sign away their own potential rights under the current nonproliferation system to acquire the full panoply of nuclear technology.