Here is a paragraph from Lea Brilmayer, a professor of international relations at Yale University, which does an admirable job representing one of the arguments made by the neoconservatives:
Even if all states would like an agreement not to build nuclear weapons, there are formidable practical problems with constructing a compliance regime because enforcement is costly and few states are willing to contribute to the cost. The hegemon has more to lose from violations than smaller states (both because it is large and because it is more subject to nuclear threat). Its existence makes a nonproliferation regime possible, because smaller states would not get enough benefit to make it worthwhile to enforce the regimes themselves. Enforcement of nonproliferation treaties by the United States is a public good; for when states keep their promises to the United States, they are simultaneously keeping their promises to one another. The smaller states can all free-ride on the willingness of the United States to undertake the cost of enforcement, and in this way they benefit from American hegemony. (American hegemony: Political morality in a one-superpower world, 1994, page 118)
This is a typical realist explanation of proliferation motivations. The obvious answer, I will call it the ‘empirically denied argument’, others will make to this argument is that it is an old theory and recent events (if post-94 events, 1995, can be considered recent) disprove the theory. That argument goes something like this: since 1995 the US has been the sole hegemon with few drains on its willingness to fight and ability to do so. But there have been proliferation efforts regardless of the US presence, forcing the above theory to be inaccurate.
However, instead of disproving the argument, it actually helps bolster Brilmayer’s argument. The realist conception says a nation will not pursue nuclear weapons because it is not in their interest (the weapons are not needed and therefore those resources would be wasted.) But, what if the hegemon were seen to be a menace to one of these free-riding states? It seems the realist account would then explain why some nations do proliferate. The empirically denied argument then uses the Brilmayer thesis to explain why Iran and North Korea did begin proliferation efforts.
This is not to say the Brilmayer view is complete. There are surely other factors that influence a state’s decisions than just the security dilemma. Iran is a great case study here, because the Persian people have a culture that actively remembers itself as great. Darius, after all, once challenged Alexander the Great not just for regional supremacy but also for global domination. Nuclear weapons have a status and can be seen as granting a status to those that possess them.
What does this mean for current US policy towards Iran? I contend it means the US should take a more conciliatory approach to Iran. The stability of the unipolar world was not seen to include Iran because of US condemnation since 1980. Maybe a more friendly approach would have staved off the current crisis. It also seems the harder the line we draw with Iran the more we emphasize a fundamental difference between Iran and the US, the gap in military proficiency. By emphasizing Iran’s deficiency we only make it more attractive for Iran to close that gap. The quickest and easiest way to do that is by acquiring nuclear weapons. I will concede the possibility that the genie is out of the bottle and a concillatory approach now would be too little too late. That is a subject for later exploration