Once again, war rhetoric against Iran is being ramped up. That reliable warmonger Tom Gjelten of NPR had a report this morning about Iran threatening to blockade the Straits of Hormuz in retaliation for the increased economic sanctions that are being applied by the US and its allies in order to force Iran to give up its nuclear program, which the US and Israel claim is aimed at developing nuclear weapons and which Iran denies. As usual, Gjelten framed his report on whether the sanctions would be effective in forcing Iran to bend to the will of the US and Israel.
But the latest issue of Foreign Affairs had an article by Kenneth Waltz, emeritus professor of the University of California, Berkeley, titled Why Iran Should Get the Bomb that took a completely different tack in which he argues that it would be to every one’s benefit if Iran obtained the bomb.
The article was surprising not just because it goes against current mainstream discourse in which the only options are whether the US and Israel should bomb Iran now to stop them developing nuclear weapons or briefly apply sanctions and then bomb them, but also because Foreign Affairs is very much an establishment journal.
The article is unfortunately behind a subscription paywall but I will excerpt just enough to give you the flavor of Waltz’s argument, in which he systematically takes apart all the arguments of those who argue that Iran must be prevented from getting nuclear weapons.
Most U.S., European, and Israeli commentators and policymakers warn that a nuclear-armed Iran would be the worst possible outcome of the current standoff. In fact, it would probably be the best possible result: the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.
The crisis over Iran’s nuclear program could end in three different ways. First, diplomacy coupled with serious sanctions could convince Iran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. But this outcome is unlikely: the historical record indicates that a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons can rarely be dissuaded from doing so. Punishing a state through economic sanctions does not inexorably derail its nuclear program. Take North Korea, which succeeded in building its weapons despite countless rounds of sanctions and UN Security Council resolutions. If Tehran determines that its security depends on possessing nuclear weapons, sanctions are unlikely to change its mind. In fact, adding still more sanctions now could make Iran feel even more vulnerable, giving it still more reason to seek the protection of the ultimate deterrent.
The second 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). The problem is that a breakout capability might not work as intended.
The United States and its European allies are primarily concerned with weaponization, so they might accept a scenario in which Iran stops short of a nuclear weapon. Israel, however, has made it clear that it views a significant Iranian enrichment capacity alone as an unacceptable threat. It is possible, then, that a verifiable commitment from Iran to stop short of a weapon could appease major Western powers but leave the Israelis unsatisfied. Israel would be less intimidated by a virtual nuclear weapon than it would be by an actual one and therefore would likely continue its risky efforts at subverting Iran’s nuclear program through sabotage and assassination-which 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.
The third possible outcome of the standoff is that Iran continues its current course and publicly goes nuclear by testing a weapon. U.S. and Israeli officials have declared that outcome unacceptable, arguing that a nuclear Iran is a uniquely terrifying prospect, even an existential threat. Such language is typical of major powers, which have historically gotten riled up whenever another country has begun to develop a nuclear weapon of its own. Yet so far, every 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.
Stephen R. Walt provides a summary of the main arguments in the paper.
Waltz’s brief article on Iran echoes this logic. He argues that nuclear asymmetry is inherently destabilizing, because it makes the unarmed side (Iran) feel weak and vulnerable and thus encourages it to look for ways to make itself more secure. At the same time, rival states who already have the bomb (in this case, Israel and the United States), will spend a lot of time contemplating preventive war (as indeed we have). If Iran gets the bomb, however, then the logic of deterrence will kick in and relations between these countries will be more stable, not less.
Waltz maintains that this pattern has generally applied in other nuclear contexts, whether one looks at U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, China’s acquisition of the bomb in the 1960s, or the troubled relationship between India and Pakistan, which fought major wars before each got the bomb but have fought only relatively minor skirmishes since. He also reminds his readers that there is no evidence that Iran’s leaders are irrational (and certainly no more irrational than ours), and no good reason to think they would ever use a nuclear weapon for offensive purposes or give one away to terrorists. (This latter possibility is especially absurd: Why would any country devote millions of dollars and decades of effort to get a few bombs, and then blithely give them away to people over whom they had little control?)
But of course, rationality has little to do with this discussion. What is driving this push towards war is the desire by Israel and the Israel lobby to make sure that Israel is the only nuclear power in the region.