In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Kenneth N. Waltz argues “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.” The article is a welcome example of calm and sobriety in what is mostly a sea of irrational pro-war hysterics. Waltz argues that the apocalyptic rhetoric railing against Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon (which is not imminent) on the grounds that they would use it in a first strike against Israel or use the deterrence it would afford them to be more aggressive with proxies like Hezbollah is way off the mark of what we would expect to see from a nuclear Iran.
[E]very time another country has managed to shoulder its way into the nuclear club, the other members have always changed tack and decided to live with it. In fact, by reducing imbalances in military power, new nuclear states generally produce more regional and international stability, not less.
Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, which has proved remarkably durable for the past four decades, has long fueled instability in the Middle East. In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist. It is Israel’s nuclear arsenal, not Iran’s desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis. Power, after all, begs to be balanced. What is surprising about the Israeli case is that it has taken so long for a potential balancer to emerge.
As we’ve reiterated over and over again here at Antiwar.com, the international hysterics over Iran’s nuclear program are way overblown. First and foremost, there is no known weaponization going on in Iran. Additionally, the chances that Iran would become more aggressive with nuclear weapons or use them against Israel are essentially zero. As Waltz writes, “Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, Iranian policy is made not by ‘mad mullahs’ but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders.”
Furthermore, there is so much talk about Iran’s role in destabilizing the region and how a nuclear Iran would fuel a destructive arms race in the Middle East. Yet there is very little talk about Israel’s nuclear weapons and the role they are playing in fueling an arms race and, indeed, provoking certain Iranian postures in the nuclear context.
Almost always absent in the mainstream analysis is what Iran’s current posture actually is. Again, Waltz explains precisely what I have been writing about for the past year:
[One] possible outcome is that Iran stops short of testing a nuclear weapon but develops a breakout capability, the capacity to build and test one quite quickly. Iran would not be the first country to acquire a sophisticated nuclear program without building an actual bomb. Japan, for instance, maintains a vast civilian nuclear infrastructure. Experts believe that it could produce a nuclear weapon on short notice.
Such a breakout capability might satisfy the domestic political needs of Iran’s rulers by assuring hard-liners that they can enjoy all the benefits of having a bomb (such as greater security) without the downsides (such as international isolation and condemnation).
This is another vital piece of the story which should, if policymaking were rational, warrant the reduction of the garrisoning of Iran’s surroundings, the constant threats and intimidation, the crippling economic warfare, the sabotage, extrajudicial assassinations, etc. Yet these have not ceased.
Importantly, Waltz describes a few policies now being followed by the US and Israel which are likely to result in exactly the outcome they claim to be trying to prevent. Israel’s “risky efforts at subverting Iran’s nuclear program through sabotage and assassination,” Waltz writes, “could lead Iran to conclude that a breakout capability is an insufficient deterrent, after all, and that only weaponization can provide it with the security it seeks.” Similarly, “the current sanctions on Iran can be dropped,” Waltz argues, since “they primarily harm ordinary Iranians, with little purpose.” Sanctions could also lead to an emboldened, nuclear Iran, as opposed to their “official” stated purpose, which is to prevent an Iranian bomb.
One has to expect that the Obama administration is aware of all this, yet the pressure, sanctions, and intimidation continue unabated. The reason seems to be that Obama is fearful of appearing weak, and so keeps up this counterproductive belligerence. The other reason is that Washington doesn’t give a hoot about Iranian nuclear proliferation. Rather, it is important to them to keep Iran weak and without nuclear capability, so as to leave open “avenues for regime change.” If Iran has a deterrent, US dominance is jeopardized.
Update: Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations says the argument that a nuclear Iran wouldn’t be destabilizing is the general consensus among political science scholars. See here for more expert and academic opinions on that.