Should Iran get nuclear weapons?

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.


  1. says

    But Iran hates Israel and wants to destroy it by any means even if it means funneling all of its infrastructure into creating a bomb that will then be used to destroy the nation of Israel and they won’t let UN inspectors into their nuclear facilities and Iran is a power hungry madman and blah blah warmongery talk.

    There’s no evidence Iran would use the bomb if they got it. They’ve got numerous countries around them that hate them and they need to show they can be a player in the world stage. It’s the same as North Korea, exactly the same. They’ll posture, they’ll show off, and that’s as far as it will go.

  2. says

    The argument that “Iran is full of crazed nihilists who will use a bomb if they get it” is exactly as good as an argument that the Israelis are crazed nihilists, or the Pakistanis are crazed nihilists, etc. It flies in the face of the obvious fact that the reason any country wants nukes is for some kind of long-term purpose (usually promoting itself to the point where more developed nations can’t threaten attack anymore) crazed nihilists don’t operate on a long-term plan, by definition, because a) long-term planning is not “crazed” and b) expecting any outcome at all is not nihilistic.

    What Iran wants is a bomb so that they don’t have to sit there and grip their ankles while the US and Israel openly discuss “regime change” while overflying them with surveillance assets and maneuvering naval task forces in their transverse colon. They’ve seen that a pissant nation like Pakistan gets taken semi-seriously if they have nukes, and they want to be taken semi-seriously, too. That seems eminently rational, to me, and not at all nihilistic.

    As usually, the news team at The Onion gets it right:,27325/

    This is all about preserving Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, which allows them to bomb and airstrike anyone they want to with impunity. They enjoy that privilege and don’t like the idea of having to actually treat anyone else in the region as equals.

  3. jamessweet says

    I think this article is mostly on target, with one glaring point missing: This is basically MAD writ small (Iran with nuclear weapons couldn’t “assure” anybody’s total “destruction”, but Iran dropping a nuke on Tel Aviv would sure as shit fuck things up real bad for the entire world), and MAD is effective-but-risky. I’m not generally in favor of any new countries joining the nuclear club, just because the worst case scenario gets a whole lot worse every time one does.

  4. 'Tis Himself says

    Any country capable of building an oil refinery is capable of building a nuclear weapon. The most cumbersome and expensive part of manufacturing nuclear weapons is uranium enrichment.* The technical aspects of nuclear weapons are well understood by nuclear engineers.

    If an impoverished country like North Korea can make nuclear weapons, then a rich country like Iraq would have an easier time doing so.

    *Or plutonium production. The material and economic costs of each are roughly the same.

  5. says

    The hypocrisy and exceptionalism from nuclear powers on this issue has always been astounding. “Nukes for me but not for thee!”

    If Israel and/or the United States fear Iran having nuclear weapons that badly, their first step should be to dismantle their nuclear arsenals. That would show good faith and eliminate the power disparity that causes nations to seek out these weapons in the first place.

    I’m in favor of complete (or nearly complete) disarmament. I don’t even limit it to nukes; most military weapons simply have no place in times of supposed peace. The heavy institutional support for force as the first and only response to many world problems shows how little we’ve moved beyond “might makes right” as the peak of moral reasoning.

  6. mnb0 says

    We know this fallacious argument from the Cold War, don’t we? Anybody who thinks that the world becomes safer when more nations get nuclear bombs is fooling him/herself. Do I really have to remind of all the times the Earth was close to a nuclear disaster since WW-2? Can anybody guarantee that this won’t happen if Iran gets a nuclear bomb as well?
    The whole argument is based on a wrong assumption: that the responsible people won’t make mistakes.
    If you Americans want to make the world safer then withdraw all American nuclear weapons from Europe. That’s something I have been wishing for more than 30 years.
    MAD is easy when your country is not going to be the battlefield.

  7. mnb0 says

    Yeah, a few more nihilists having a nuclear bomb really, really reduces the risk of a nuclear war. Great argument. Not.

  8. left0ver1under says

    The whole argument and that article are based on a fiction. There is no evidence that Iran is trying to get, or wants, a nuclear weapon. That’s what the CIA says, anyway. I guess the CIA must be run by “pro-islamic leftists”.

    Sixteen intelligence agencies have failed to confirm the existence of a nuclear weapon in Iran. In fact, an intelligence assessment dating back to 2007 stated that Iran had abandoned its nuclear aspirations some time ago. That view was re-confirmed in 2010, and it is the opinion of the intelligence agencies that it is still held today. So why in the world are we talking about going tear-assing into Iran because they have nuclear weapons?

    There IS evidence, however, that Iran wants nuclear energy to reduce its dependence on oil, and THAT is something the US doesn’t want. If Iran doesn’t need to export and re-import oil, oil prices go up.

    Yes, Iran is a net importer of oil, because the country was prevented from buying refining equipment both during Mossadegh’s presidency and since the 1979 revolution. And the Shah was a puppet who gave away Iran’s oil on the cheap for his own personal benefit, so of course he never invested in refining equipment.

  9. slc1 says

    I would have to disagree with Mr. mnbo’s claims here. I would argue that, if nuclear weapons had never been developed, there is an overwhelming likelihood that there would have been a third world war between the former Soviet Union and its allies and the US and its allies, which, even without nuclear weapons, would have been devastating. MAD worked, the nuclear standoff prevented a third world war as the former Soviet Union and the US exercised great care not to directly confront each other militarily (yes, the Cuban Missile crisis was something of an exception; however, it was resolved by the former Soviet Union withdrawing its missiles from Cuba and, later, the US withdrawing its medium range missiles from Turkey). Thus, the former Soviet Union did not send the Red Army into Vietnam and the US did not send the US Army and Marines into Afghanistan.

    As for Kenneth Waltz, according to articles on him, he belongs to what is termed the realist school on American foreign policy, which includes the likes of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. Just to even the playing field, attached is an article taking some exception to the views expressed by Prof. Waltz.

    The arguments from the Waltzs, Walts, and Mearsheimers of the world eerily recall the arguments from their predecessors in the 1930s who claimed that Frankenberger was a reasonable man who could be engaged with in negotiations. How did that work out?

  10. says

    Iran already has conventional missiles that would probably be capable of demolishing Tel Aviv. Or, at least, they’d have a good chance if they tried. Why haven’t they? Because they’re not suicidal nihilists. Duuuuuh?!

  11. slc1 says

    Wrong, Iran has refrained from directly attacking Israel, preferring to work through intermediaries such as Hamas and Hizbollah, because Israel’s nuclear deterrent, which may include as many as 600 devices, possibly including hydrogen bombs, would wrack far greater devastation on Tehran and other Iranian cities. They also have to consider the possibility of a US retaliation that would be even more devastating. The mullahs are quite round the bend but they are not suicidal.

  12. says

    Hello? What about “deterrent” and the fact that they have been deterred, doesn’t just scream “not suicidal nihilists” to you?

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