Reading Waltz in Tehran or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb



Forget for a minute about parsing the nuances of Iran’s controversial nuclear program—whether, for example, the officially ‘civilian’ program has a covert agenda aimed at developing nuclear weapons, how far along such a component might be, and whether this merits a pre-emptive strike by the United States or its allies. Forget that and stop agonizing. The sooner Tehran gets the bomb, the better. A nuclear-armed Iran would bring stability to the Middle East.

At least, that’s what one of the most famous theorists of International Relations (IR) has to say in the cover story of the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. No one familiar with Kenneth N. Waltz’s work should be surprised with this analysis as the article strikes the same basic theme that the doyen of IR has been sounding for the last three decades, namely, that a balance of power is what keeps the peace in the international system. What is surprising is that the IR school of realism, with which Waltz is so closely associated, has advanced in recent years, but insights from this literature and from history are missing from the ongoing policy debate. Between blithe optimism and pre-emptive striking there are other ways of dealing with Iran’s controversial nuclear program, one that doesn’t require accepting a priori all of the assumptions on which Waltz’s analysis depends, and one that ought to include regional states beyond Israel, notably Washington’s Arab allies.

Over the course of a career spanning half a century, Waltz has articulated an elegantly sparse answer to one of the “big questions” in IR: what determines the conditions of war and the prospects of peace in international politics? In short,

  • The cut-and-thrust of international politics is driven by the competitive self-interest of states to survive;
  • This is because the fundamental condition of politics between states is anarchic. A state can never be certain about the intentions of others and can never be certain that its allies of today won’t become its enemies of tomorrow;
  • Because it cannot rely on others, a state must rely on itself. Self-reliance generates strong tendencies for states to compete rather than cooperate.
  • To understand how states behave towards one another, what matters is how powerful they are relative to each other. What matters is the distribution of power among states in the international system. Whether states are democracies or dictatorships is largely irrelevant for understanding how they will interact.
  • States ensure their survival by seeking to prevent potential rivals from becoming too strong.  A balance of power that prevents the emergence of a single overwhelmingly dominant state will be more acceptable to surrounding states.

From this perspective, a distribution of power between states that is lopsided—such as Israel’s unofficial status as the lone nuclear power in the Middle East—is far less stable than a symmetrical balancing between two powers. In other words, a system with two major powers is more stable than a system with one. Washington should thus stop worrying and love the Iranian bomb. Waltz writes,

There has never been a full-scale war between two nuclear-armed states. Once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, deterrence will apply, even if the Iranian arsenal is relatively small. No other country in the region will have an incentive to acquire its own nuclear capability, and the current crisis will finally dissipate, leading to a Middle East that is more stable than it is today.

IR theory contains a rich literature that has debated Waltz’s theory and this is not the place to rehearse all of these arguments. What matters here is whether Washington and its allies would be willing to accept prima facie Waltz’s basic premise that decision-makers in Iran are rational enough actors to act responsibly with a nuclear weapon. This would mean Tehran would only be looking out for its own national security interests rather than say, contemplating how a nuclear deterrent might help it coerce its Arab neighbours into accepting Iran’s de facto possession of Abu Musa and the Tumbs islands.

History isn’t black and white on how aggressive the Islamic Republic has acted towards its neighbours. At times, Iran tried to export its revolution and actively interfered in the politics of its neighbors. But more often Tehran has been geopolitically isolated and without alliances. What’s more—and what can never be forgotten—is that the international community supported Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran and turned a blind eye when he used chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers and civilians. It’s pretty solidly rational for Tehran to be interested in nuclear weapons if only to deter an enemy state from ever committing such an atrocity again.

History should also make us pause when considering if Israel is really so central to Iranian nuclear calculations as Waltz would have it. While his article suggests that the principal audience for Tehran’s supposed nuclear program is Tel Aviv, Israel and Iran have never fought a war against each other. Indeed, realism as it’s generally understood is poorly equipped to account for the broader cultural and historical reasons for animosity in the region that go beyond power politics. Given that the conflict in the Middle East did not begin and end with Israel’s tacit nuclear status, it is unclear whether Iranian nuclear parity with Israel would have much effect on the conflict’s regional dynamics more broadly.

But, the problem of the security dilemma is the problem that always striving to do the most to ensure its own security may be the mechanism that convinces a state’s adversaries that it is bent on the path of war. As the IR literature suggests, conflict is often the byproduct of unintended consequences and strategic interactions. In Europe before World War I, for example, actions that one state took to increase its own security had the unintended consequence of progressively diminishing the security of its neighbours.

Is there a way out?

Charles L. Glaser’s Rational Theory of International Politics (2010) builds on Waltz’s earlier work, but also introduces new independent variables at the level of state characteristics. More importantly, Glaser’s theory suggests that cooperation is possible under anarchy given the conditions that states are security-seeking and that they can signal as much.

Glaser’s argument would suggest that the most important diplomatic work right now should be aimed at establishing a wider variety of signaling mechanisms to Iran, one that could both acknowledge its legitimate security preoccupations while also preparing the ground-work for dealing with a more belligerent Islamic Republic should such an eventuality come to pass.

All this points to the merits of considering a calibrated policy of regional containment, properly adapted from something along the lines of the most famous article that Foreign Affairs ever carried: the pseudonymous essay published in 1947 that was later revealed to be the work of the American diplomat and thinker, George F. Kennan.

What would containment look like? Most visibly, it would entail setting the groundwork for a more formalized regional security architecture in the Gulf that would bind Washington’s Arab allies, notably Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Given the longstanding American commitments to the region and the fears that these Gulf states have of Iran’s nuclear program, the grounds for such actions are especially propitious. Engaging these neighbours—a key audience for Iran’s nuclear program that is missing from Waltz’ analysis—in a pro-active balancing posture underwritten by American power will help to communicate to Tehran how isolated a nuclear-armed Iran would eventually become.

The ivory tower owes policy-makers a real debate on more options between bombing Iran or enthusiastic acceptance of it as a nuclear state. What we need is to find ways forward that would help empirically test whether Iran is a security-seeker or a state driven by more aggressive tendencies.


5 thoughts on “Reading Waltz in Tehran or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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  4. I didn’t understand this excerpt: “Once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, deterrence will apply, even if the Iranian arsenal is relatively small. No other country in the region will have an incentive to acquire its own nuclear capability,” Why shouldn’t Iran’s immediate neighbours have an incentive to balance against Iran? I’m sure Waltz deals with this, Can you elucidate, Mike?

  5. Pingback: Do Policymakers Heed the Advice of Academics? | The Smoke-Filled Room

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