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What would happen if Iran had the bomb? (+video)

Even as Tehran signals an interest in nuclear talks, many experts have already envisioned what the world would look like if the country got nuclear weapons. It wouldn't be as dire as many fear, but it would unleash new uncertainties - and perhaps a regional arms race.

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In this case, the TV commercial wasn't warning explicitly about a rogue country getting the bomb. It was an ad by Democrats that was intended to imply that President Lyndon Johnson's opponent in the campaign, Republican Barry Goldwater, was trigger-happy and would, if elected, take actions that would engulf the US in a mushroom cloud. Goldwater had talked about giving NATO field commanders greater discretion in using tactical nuclear weapons and about the possibility of using atomic bombs in Vietnam. The Johnson team used these and other statements to depict Goldwater as an unstable warmonger.

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Yet one reason the campaign was so effective was that the country was already anxious about the inexorable rise of the Soviet Union, under Nikita Khrushchev, as a nuclear power and even more notably over the emergence of a newcomer to the atomic club – "Red China." China tested its first atom bomb in October 1964.

"China in the 1960s was viewed, at least in the US, as a crazy state – certainly no saner, no more stable, no more understanding of the world than Iran is today, so in a sense we've been through this," says Robert Jervis, a professor of international politics at Columbia University in New York who has written extensively about nuclear deterrence.

Indeed, the Johnson administration in 1964 considered airstrikes to stop China's program, not unlike how President Obama today is weighing action against Iran. But the Texas Democrat eventually ruled it out, in part because he didn't want to provoke a confrontation in an election year.

"Mao [Zedong] made a series of highly irresponsible statements about the PRC [People's Republic of China] surviving and even thriving in a nuclear war," notes Francis Gavin, an international affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin, in a 2009 paper in the journal International Security. "No country in the post-World War II period – not Iraq, Iran, or even North Korea – has given US policymakers more reason to fear its nuclearization than China."

Yet the day China's test happened half a century ago, Washington's description of the "threat" changed dramatically. Johnson told Americans that the military significance of China's test "should not be overestimated" because "many years and great efforts separate the testing of a nuclear device from having a stockpile of reliable weapons with effective delivery systems."

China's test did "not serve the cause of peace," Johnson added, "but there is no reason to fear it will lead to immediate dangers of war."

Within five years, in fact, the US and China began a covert dialogue and later started an anti-Soviet alliance that helped end the cold war.

"Nuclear weapons did not make China more hostile. If anything, its foreign policies became less aggressive and more mature over time," noted Dr. Gavin. "Nuclear weapons could make Iran more aggressive. Or, as with China, they could provide international legitimacy and security, making Iran less aggressive than it has been."

Columbia's Dr. Jervis agrees, and asks what the West has successfully deterred Iran from doing even without nuclear weapons. Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah Shiite militia didn't hesitate to launch 4,000 rockets into northern Israel during the 2006 war, for instance. In the Persian Gulf in 2007, Iran seized 15 British Royal Navy sailors and held them for 13 days. Jervis says nuclear weapons are better used to "defend than to extend influence."

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