Stephen M. Walt says that the rhetoric being used against allowing Iran to have any nuclear capability is similar to what was said about China back in the 1960s when that nation was developing nuclear technology, right down to impugning its leaders as irrational crazy people who might go berserk and blow up the world if they were able to make a bomb.
He says that then secretary of state Dean Rusk was wrong in his warnings about China then for the same reasons that people are likely to be wrong about Iran now.
China tested nuclear weapons and eventually built a modest nuclear arsenal, but it didn’t try to blackmail, invade, or intimidate anyone. In fact, the acquisition of nuclear weapons did almost nothing to increase China’s international influence. What did increase China’s global stature were the post-Mao economic reforms (the “Four Modernizations”), which unleashed three decades of rapid economic growth.
Iran has far more to gain in the long term from becoming a major player in the world’s economic system.
But over the long term, what really matters is Iran’s overall power potential and not whether it has a latent nuclear capability, a few weapons hidden away, or a fully developed arsenal akin to the ones that Israel, India, and Pakistan already possess. Iran has a large, relatively young population, considerable oil and gas, a lot of well-educated people, and considerable economic potential. As with communist China, sooner or later the leaders who have mismanaged Iran’s economy will lose their grip or change their policies, and the sanctions imposed by the West will be lifted. At that point, Iran is likely to take off rapidly. So the real question is whether a more powerful Iran will be eager to be a “half-friend” to the United States — which is how Friedman now describes China — or will it be angry and resentful and looking to push us out of the region entirely? That depends at least in part on us.