Kenneth Waltz’s recent article on Iran’s nuclear program has engendered discussion and debate, in no less of a place than this blog with Michael Kalin’s post two weeks ago. Rather than rehashing what he has already mentioned, I want to try and reorient Waltz’s argument in the ongoing debate over Iran and emphasize what I believe should be the takeaway: Iran getting nuclear weapons does not automatically equate to a worst case scenario.
Politicians and academics alike have been clamoring for hitting Iran with, effectively, a preventive strike in order to take out their nuclear facilities. The word “preventive” is the most important and also the most contested. From a just war perspective, a preventive war, based on the idea of the target being a potential threat one day in the future, is unjust compared to a “preemptive” strike, which is justifiable since it is in anticipation of a clear and immediate threat.
There are many arguments employed in favor of attacks: the regime is irrational and will use them to attack Israel; nuclear weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists or others unfriendly to the U.S. and its allies; Iranian nukes could be a destabilizing force in the region, leading other states to obtain them. Aside from questionable assumptions regarding whether the U.S. or Israel could guarantee that the facilities could be eliminated (which is by no means a certainty), that there would be minimal backlash against such a strike from the Middle East and world in general (which makes little sense, as Posen notes), or that it could be contained to a few tactical strikes and nothing more (see Walt’s response to Kroenig’s call for “preventive” strikes, these three fears about Iran should be addressed individually.
The irrationality argument is that the character of Iran’s regime, with the Supreme Leader Khamenei seeking to spread a fundamentalist form of Islam, is such that the U.S. cannot expect them to act in a rational manner. No less of an expert than Bernard Lewis has claimed that Iran is a different kind of state than the Soviet Union was in the Cold War and, as such, cannot be treated in a similar manner. But this is also the same Iran (with the same Supreme Leader) that held spontaneous candlelight vigils after 9/11, out of respect for the people who perished. This is the same Iran that was party to a potential “grand bargain” that would have led to them abandoning their WMD programs (the origins and validity of the bargain are questioned, but evidence for it seems credible enough, and by ignoring it some believe the U.S. undercut the Iranian reformists and solidified the position of the conservatives). There is nothing inherent that makes rational cooperation with the U.S. impossible. If the world has been able to keep North Korea (an “irrational” state if there ever has been one) in check for as long as we have, why not Iran as well?
The point of “loose nukes” is also important. The idea is that Iran might hand off nuclear weapons to other actors, who could then use them against the U.S. or Israel. Waltz argues that not only would it be very difficult for Iran the spread of these weapons, but that due to the expense and danger of developing them, it makes little sense for Iran to just give them to a third party (especially, I would point out, since they would have so few of them). I agree with these points, but also want to add one more: Iran has had nuclear material for quite a while now, but yet there is no evidence that any has been given to non-state actors, for the use in a “dirty bomb” or any other such device. The fact that this has yet to happen, while not iron clad evidence, does seem to imply that Iran wants to maintain control over the material. Yes, material for a “dirty bomb” is qualitatively different than a nuclear device, but it is interesting that nothing along these lines has occurred as of yet, and does lend credence to the idea that Iran is treating their nuclear program very gingerly.
Finally, there is the issue of destabilization – that Iran gaining nuclear weapons would lead to other states obtaining them. Waltz’s point that nuclear proliferation fears are unfounded is well taken. Although Pakistan responded to India’s nuclear tests in kind, that’s the only real instance of a state’s nuclear program leading to a reaction from another. As Debs and Monteiro rightly note, there was no rush for nuclear development after Israel gained the bomb. In addition, there was no such response from Japan or South Korea after North Korea tested their bomb, which undermines the idea that it has to do with the regime’s nature, since North Korea is considered just as, if not more, unstable that Iran. To argue that the act of Iran gaining nuclear weapons is enough to lead to a nuclear race seems like an empty claim.
I am not saying, as Waltz does, that the spread of nuclear weapons is inherently a beneficial thing. The U.S. should do everything in its power, short of tactical strikes or war to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities. But I firmly believe that if Iran were to get the bomb, containment and deterrence are more than capable of keeping Iran in check and to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons throughout the region. Hopefully it will not come to that, but the important thing to take away from all this is that preventive strikes are unnecessary and will do more damage than good.