A Response to Waltz: Why Iran Shouldn’t Get the Bomb

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A Response to Waltz: Why Iran Shouldn’t Get the Bomb

Iran getting the bomb won’t set off an arms race in the region. But it might provoke some states, writes Robert Manning.

In an essay sparking debate amongst the chattering classes, Kenneth Waltz, one of the nation’s most prominent International Relations (IR) scholars and the doyen of the “neo-realist” school tries to make the case “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs.  With little optimism surrounding the next round of “5+1” talks set for next week (July 24th) the question seems particularly timely.

While in some respects, this provocation is an understandable counter to the end-of-the-world hysteria that often surrounds the Iran nuclear debate, Waltz’s essay suggests that IR theory suffers from a serious deficit of regional knowledge.

Waltz is best known for his classic 1981 essay, “Nuclear Weapons: More is Better,” in which he makes a compelling argument that nuclear weapons were a major reason why major powers have not gone to war since 1945. Certainly, the “balance of terror” created by the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons was an important factor in keeping the Cold War ‘cold’.

Today, Waltz argues that Israel has had a nuclear monopoly that “has long fueled instability in the Middle East” and suggests that a nuclear Iran would become a stabilizing balance.

The first assertion is simply wrong: would a non-nuclear Israel be viewed as significantly different by Arab states?

The second assertion at best, oversimplifies the reality.

Far Cry from the Cold War

Differences in geography, history, and culture between the contemporary Middle East and the bipolar realities of the Cold war–not to mention an entire region engulfed in turmoil of historic proportions– raise questions about how much the balance-of-terror logic would apply to the region. The risks of miscalculation in a volatile region are enough to raise doubts.

One need look no further than the antagonism between the Saudi/GCC  backing of anti-Assad forces and Iran’s full-blown support for Damascus for evidence of volatile passions bumping up against each other. A Sunni-Shia quasi-proxy war is playing out not just in Syria but in varying degrees, across the region from Lebanon to Yemen.

Waltz argues that since, “an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race…there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.”  He claims that once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, deterrence will apply: “No other country in the region will have an incentive to acquire its own nuclear capability.”


Has he talked to the Saudis, Egyptians or Turks lately?

Iran’s nuclear program is dangerous in the region for those concerned with the proliferation of nuclear technology and its possible militarization in later flashpoints. Several countries in the region, from the UAE to Jordan, are developing their own nuclear energy programs. As NPT members, they have a right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy, and in some cases have legitimate energy needs. Yet Iran’s ambitions and the tension it causes in the region have the potential to change the nature of regional programs from peaceful to militarized.

Waltz goes still further and argues that “the nuclear age is now almost 70 years old, and so far, fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded.”

I guess India, Pakistan and North Korea don’t count.

That fears of a world with 20-30 nuclear states that President Kennedy warned about half a century ago have not materialized is cold comfort. Whether or not a nuclear Iran would trigger a chain of proliferation may be arguable. But I would not bet the mortgage that all of the likely suspects would refrain from nuclear competition.

To be fair, Waltz has a point about the specter of “mad mullahs” and an “innately irrational” Iranian regime being exaggerated. Tehran’s obscene rhetoric not withstanding, its leaders give every indication of seeking regime survival and power and do not appear suicidal.

Waltz disputes the notion that a nuclear Iran would be an emboldened if not more reckless international actor, arguing that states acquiring nuclear weapons have been sobered and more cautious.

He again may have a point–but not for the reasons he thinks.

In its quest for regional dominance, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and elite Qods force have allegedly been mucking around from Afghanistan to Yemen so extensively that it is difficult to imagine that a nuclear Iran would sow much additional mischief.

In fact, it is this Iranian imperialism — with a Shia missionary overlay — that makes Iran’s nuclear ambitions particularly troubling. Iran’s actions suggest that it is still a revolutionary state, not a status quo power seeking acceptance in the global order. One metric for that sort of behavior is the fate of the “5+1” nuclear talks. A failure of Iran to reach a nuclear bargain–despite unprecedented global sanctions crippling its economy, and looming threats of military action  –would say a lot about the character of the regime.

Is a nuclear bargain possible with such a cantankerous actor?

A claimed inventor of chess, Iran has on occasion known when it has been checkmated. Faced with a costly stalemate in its protracted war with Iraq, Tehran reached a discomforting capitulation in 1988.  Whether a deal that precludes Iran building a nuclear weapon that both sides can live with is achievable may boil down to whether Tehran concludes that the pain of sanctions overrides the regime’s need for the U.S. as an enemy –at least for now.

Robert A. Manning is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He has served as Senior Strategist, DNI National Counterproliferation Center until June 2012 , on the  National Intelligence Council, and on the State Department  Policy Planning staff (2005-08).