Friday, August 17, 2012

Should We Stop Worrying About Iran?

Few things have caused more angst and more political turmoil than the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Kenneth N. Waltz presents a contrarian view that suggests an Iran in possession of nuclear weapons would be an agent of stability in the Middle East. His argument is simple and thought provoking. He presents his case in an article in Foreign Affairs: Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability. "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."

Waltz bases his argument on rather scant historical data. The fear and the predictions of doom over Iran becoming a nuclear power are the typical response whenever another state decides to join the nuclear club.
"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."

The example most closely resembling Israel and Iran is India and Pakistan. Given the history of religious, ethnic, and territorial strife between those two countries, the acquisition of nuclear capability by one would have been terrifying to the other—and to the rest of the world.
"In 1991, the historical rivals India and Pakistan signed a treaty agreeing not to target each other's nuclear facilities. They realized that far more worrisome than their adversary's nuclear deterrent was the instability produced by challenges to it. Since then, even in the face of high tensions and risky provocations, the two countries have kept the peace."

Would anyone now believe the world to be a safer place if only India or only Pakistan possessed nuclear weapons?
"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."

"Of course, it is easy to understand why Israel wants to remain the sole nuclear power in the region and why it is willing to use force to secure that status. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq to prevent a challenge to its nuclear monopoly. It did the same to Syria in 2007 and is now considering similar action against Iran. But the very acts that have allowed Israel to maintain its nuclear edge in the short term have prolonged an imbalance that is unsustainable in the long term. Israel's proven ability to strike potential nuclear rivals with impunity has inevitably made its enemies anxious to develop the means to prevent Israel from doing so again. In this way, the current tensions are best viewed not as the early stages of a relatively recent Iranian nuclear crisis but rather as the final stages of a decades-long Middle East nuclear crisis that will end only when a balance of military power is restored."

Waltz also denies the validity of the argument that the Iranians are unstable and likely to act irrationally.
"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. Although Iran's leaders indulge in inflammatory and hateful rhetoric, they show no propensity for self-destruction. It would be a grave error for policymakers in the United States and Israel to assume otherwise."

Waltz also disposes of the concern that Iran would aid terrorists with its nuclear capability.
"Some analysts even fear that Iran would directly provide terrorists with nuclear arms. The problem with these concerns is that they contradict the record of every other nuclear weapons state going back to 1945....Maoist China, for example, became much less bellicose after acquiring nuclear weapons in 1964, and India and Pakistan have both become more cautious since going nuclear. There is little reason to believe Iran would break this mold."

Iran would presumably recognize that the terrorist organizations it might be expected to assist are the ones who are most likely to be unstable and irrational.
"Moreover, countries can never entirely control or even predict the behavior of the terrorist groups they sponsor. Once a country such as Iran acquires a nuclear capability, it will have every reason to maintain full control over its arsenal. After all, building a bomb is costly and dangerous. It would make little sense to transfer the product of that investment to parties that cannot be trusted or managed."

Waltz makes an interesting argument. It is probably true that a nuclear Iran could lead to a stable balance of power in the Middle East. But, that does not make the case that stability is inevitable. The analogy with Pakistan and India is imperfect. How much of the "stability" between the two countries can be attributed to a nuclear standoff is arguable.

The political situation in the Middle East is complicated, and it is difficult to see how a nuclear Iran addresses any of the political issues. Some might applaud a countervailing nuclear capability, but some countries would also see a more potent Iran as a threat to their political prowess in the region. And one should remember that a balance of power requires two rational actors. One has to worry that Israel might be the country most likely to act impulsively or "irrationally."

I’m still worried about Iran—and about Israel.

KENNETH N. WALTZ is Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged