Recent upward revisions in key sink/source terms for fixed nitrogen (N) in the oceans imply a short residence time and strong negative feedbacks involving denitrification and N fixation to prevent large swings in the ocean N inventory over timescales of a few centuries. We tested the strength of these feedbacks in a global biogeochemical elemental cycling (BEC) ocean model that includes water column denitrification and an explicit N fixing phytoplankton group. In the northern Indian Ocean and over longer timescales in the tropical Atlantic, we find strong stabilizing feedbacks that minimize changes in marine N inventory over timescales of ∼30–200 years. In these regions high atmospheric dust/iron inputs lead to phosphorus limitation of diazotrophs, and thus a tight link between N fixation and surface water N/P ratios. Maintenance of the oxygen minimum zones in these basins depends on N fixation driven export. The stabilizing feedbacks in other regions are significant but weaker owing to iron limitation of the diazotrophs. Thus Fe limitation appears to restrict the ability of N fixation to compensate for changes in denitrification in the current climate, perhaps leading the oceans to lose fixed N. We suggest that iron is the ultimate limiting nutrient leading to nitrogen being the proximate limiting nutrient over wide regions today. Iron stress was at least partially alleviated during more dusty, glacial times, leading to a higher marine N inventory, increased export production, and perhaps widespread phosphorus limitation of the phytoplankton community. The increased efficiency of the biological pump would have contributed to the glacial drawdown in atmospheric CO2.