The past several months have witnessed a heated debate over the best way for America and Israel to respond to Iran's nuclear activities. Although the U.S., the European Union and Iran have recently returned to the negotiating table, a palpable sense of crisis still looms.Continue reading.
It should not. In fact, a nuclear-armed Iran would probably be the best possible result of the standoff and the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.
The crisis over Iran's nuclear program could end in three ways. First, diplomacy coupled with sanctions could persuade Iran to abandon pursuit of a nuclear weapon. But that's unlikely: The historical record indicates that a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons can rarely be dissuaded. Take North Korea, which succeeded in building its weapons despite countless rounds of sanctions and U.N. Security Council resolutions. If Tehran decides that its security depends on possessing nuclear weapons, sanctions are unlikely to change its mind.
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. Such a 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).
Israel, however, has made it clear that it views a significant Iranian enrichment capacity alone as an unacceptable threat. It 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 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 an existential threat to Israel. Such language is typical of major powers, which have historically gotten riled up whenever another country begins to develop a nuclear weapon. Yet 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.
Professor Waltz is the father of "structural realism," and the appearance of his piece has set off a little flurry of awe around the web. (Note that Harvard's Stephen Walt was a student of Professor Waltz at UC Berkeley back in the day. At one point these "neorealist" scholars were the envy of international relations theory. Now, not so much, not least because such systemic theories are wildly out of vogue, but from my perspective, because such abstract theorizing has been fodder for the most literally diabolical attacks on the Jewish state, the only democracy in the Middle East.)
Jonathan Neumann at Commentary has a bit on Waltz, for example, "The Reality of Structural Realism." And this is good:
The problem with structural realism – its limited analytic value notwithstanding – (as with all structural theories) is that it largely evacuates notions of ideas and agency from world affairs: facts such as Israel’s democratic politics as compared with Iranian theocracy, or the caprices of dictators, or domestic politics, and so forth, do not drastically change a state’s aspirations and behavior. Yet these facts are so critical to any reasonable observer – and, in the case of the Middle East, that includes all the Arab regimes, who have never shown the sort of alarm toward Israel’s supposed nuclear capability that they have toward Iran’s. This reality fatally undermines Waltz’s thesis.Exactly.
Incidentally, the case of Israel has also undermined the approach of another structural realist, John Mearsheimer. Though his perspective differs slightly from Waltz’s, his obsession with the power of the ‘‘Israel lobby’’ in the United States is inconsistent with his theory that domestic politics are largely irrelevant to the actions of states.
And also at Commentary, from Rich Richman, "Do Iranians Read “Foreign Affairs”?"
And following the links takes us to Waltz's full-length version of his Iran argument at Foreign Affairs, "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability."
I prefer to read the full essay in hard copy, but mine hasn't arrived yet. More on that later. The contents to the new edition is here.
Meanwhile, an earlier version of Waltz's beneficial proliferation thesis is here: "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better."