What is the best way to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon?
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It seems surprising that the ultra-establishment journal Foreign Affairs would go to the extreme of publishing a lead article by the noted political scientist, Kenneth Waltz, with the title “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” in its current issue. It is more the reasoning of the article than the eye-catching title that flies in the face of the anti-proliferation ethos that has been the consensus lynchpin of nuclear weapons states, and especially the United States. At the same time, Waltz takes pain to avoid disavowing his mainstream political identity. He echoes without pausing to reflect upon the evidence undergirding the rather wobbly escalating assumption that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons at this time. Waltz does acknowledge that Iran might be only trying to have a ‘breakout’ capability of the sort long possessed by Japan and several other countries, that is, the technological capacity if facing a national emergency to assemble a few bombs in a matter of months. Nowhere does Waltz allude to the recently publicized agreement among the fourteen American intelligence agencies that there is no evidence that Iran has decided to resume its military program that had been reportedly abandoned in 2003. In other ways, as well, Waltz signals his general support for the American approach to Israeli security other than in relation to nuclear weapons, and so, it should be clear, Waltz is not a political dissenter, a policy radical, nor even a critic of Israel’s role in the region.
Waltz’s Three Options
Waltz insists that aside from the breakout option, there are two other plausible scenarios worth considering: sanctions and coercive diplomacy to induce Iran “to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” which he deems unlikely to overcome a genuine appetite for the bomb, or Iran defies the pressures and acquires nuclear weapons, which he regards as the most desirable of the three options. It seems reasonable to wonder why. In essence, Waltz is arguing that experience and logic demonstrate that the relations among states become more stable, less war-prone, when a balance is maintained, and that there is no reason to think that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons it would not behave in accordance with the deterrence regime that has discouraged all uses of nuclear weapons ever since 1945, and especially during the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. In this regard, Waltz is expressing what I regard to be a wildly exaggerated faith in the rationality and prudence of leaders who make decisions on matters of war and peace.
The more governments possess the bomb, the more likely it becomes that one of those horrible scenarios about a nuclear war will become history.
He does make a contextual argument that I mostly agree with, namely, that Israel alone possessing a regional nuclear monopoly is more dangerous and undesirable than Iran becoming a second nuclear weapons state in the region. In effect, a regional nuclear monopolist is worse than a regional system of balance that incorporates deterrence logic. For Israel to be deterred would contribute to peace and security in the region, and this seems likely to reduce somewhat, although at a level of risk far short of zero, the prospect of any use of nuclear weapons and other forms of aggression in the Middle East. But to say that A (Iran gets the bomb) is better than B (breakout capability but no bomb) and C (sanctions and coercive diplomacy induce Iran to forego bomb) is to forget about D, which is far better than A, B, and C in relation to sustainable stability, but also because it represents an implicit acknowledgement that the very idea of basing security upon the threat to annihilate hundreds of thousand, if not more, innocent persons is a moral abomination that has already implicated the nuclear weapons states in a security policy, which if ever tested by threat and use, would be genocidal, if not omnicidal, and certainly criminal. This anti-nuclear posture was substantially endorsed by a majority of judges in a groundbreaking Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on 8 July 1996, although these strong findings as to international law were, not surprisingly, cast aside and ignored by the nuclear weapons states, most defiantly by the United States.
The Case for Option D
What then is Option D? Option D would involve the negotiation and implementation of a nuclear weapons free zone throughout the Middle East (MENFZ), reinforced by non-aggression commitments, normalization of economic and political relations, and ideally accompanied by genuine progress toward a just and sustainable Palestine/Israel peace accord. Significantly, Waltz does not even pause to consider it as in all likelihood he regards such an approach as completely inconsistent with the hard power realities of global diplomacy, making it foolish and irrelevant to take the possibility of a MENFZ seriously. Needless to say, D is also not in the Netanyahu playbook, and quite likely no future Israeli leader will be prepared to give up the nuclear weapons arsenal that Israel has been consistently acquiring and developing over the last four decades. And it seems fair to conjecture that anyone who proposes a MENFZ would be at odds with the realist camp in international relations, and such a piece would almost certainly be rejected by the editors of Foreign Affairs, among the most ardent guardians of the realist status quo.
Waltz’s preference for A, favoring an Iranian bomb, is an extension of his long-standing belief that proliferation as actually desirable based on a view of global security that depends on sustaining power balances. In my judgment this carries confidence in the logic of deterrence (that is, the rationality of not using the bomb because of a fear of nuclear retaliation) to absurd degrees that go well beyond even the extreme rationality relied upon by the most influential war thinkers during the Cold War era. In this sense, Waltz is correct to equate the Middle East with the rest of the world, and not engage in the widespread practice of ethno-religious profiling: that is, Israel’s bomb is okay because it is a rational and ‘Western,’ while Iran’s bomb would be a world order disaster as it is irrational and governed by Islamic zealots that have declared their implacable hostility to Israel. If such distinctions are to be made, which is doubtful, it should be appreciated that Israel is the antagonist that has been threatening war and pushing for coercive diplomacy, while it is Iran that has so far peacefully tolerated a variety of severe provocations, acts of war, such as the assassination of several of its nuclear scientists, the infecting of its enrichment centrifuges with the Stuxnet virus, and verified violent covert acts designed to destabilize the Tehran regime. Had such incidents been reversed, it is more than 100 percent likely that Israel would have immediately gone to war against Iran, quite likely setting the entire region on fire.
Objections to Option A
My basic objection to the Waltz position is a disagreement with two of his guiding assumptions: first, with respect to the region, that other countries would not follow Iran across the nuclear threshold, an assessment he bases largely on their failure to acquire nuclear weapons in response to Israel’s acquisition of the capability. Surely Saudi Arabia and Turkey would not, for reasons of international status and perceived security, want to be non-nuclear states in a neighborhood in which both Israel and Iran had the bomb. Such an expansion of the regional nuclear club would become more prone to accident, miscalculation, and the sort of social and political pathology that makes nuclear weaponry generally unfit for human use in a conflict, whatever the region or occasion. In this respect, the more governments possess the bomb, the more likely it becomes that one of those horrible scenarios about a nuclear war will become history.
If human society is ever to be again relatively safe, secure, and morally coherent, a first step is to renounce nuclear weapons unconditionally…
And secondly, Waltz does not single out nuclear weapons for condemnation on either ethical or prudential grounds. In fact, he seems to hold the view that we can be thankful for the bomb as otherwise the Cold War would likely have resulted in a catastrophic World War III. In my view to have sought the bomb and then used it against the helpless Japanese at the end of World War II was certainly one of the worst instances of Promethean excess in human history, angering not only the gods but exhibiting a scary species death wish. Leaders have acknowledged this moral truth from time to time, most recently by Barack Obama in his 2009 Prague speech calling for a world without nuclear weapons, but politicians, including Obama, seem unable and unwilling to take the heat that following through would certainly entail. In the end, anti-nuclearism for leaders seems mainly an exercise in rhetoric, apparently persuasive in Norway where the Nobel Prize committee annually ponders the credentials of candidates, but without any behavioral consequences relating to the weaponry itself. To be sure nuclear policies are challenged from time to time by a surge of anti-nuclear populism. In this regard, to favor the acquisition of the bomb by any government or political organization is to embrace the nuclearist fallacy relating to security and the absurd hubris of presupposing an impeccable rationality over long stretches of time, which has never been the case in human affairs.
The secrecy surrounding policy bearing on nuclear weapons, especially the occasions of their possible use, also injects an absolutist virus into the vital organs of a democratic body politic. There is no participation by the people or even their representatives in relation to this most ultimate of political decisions, vesting in a single person, and perhaps including his most intimate advisors, a demonic capability to unleash such a catastrophic capability. We now know that even beyond the devastation and radiation, the smoke released by the use of as few as fifty nuclear bombs would block sunlight from the earth for as long as a decade, dooming much of the agriculture throughout the world, a dynamic that has been called ‘a nuclear famine.’ As disturbing as such a possibility should be to those responsible for the security of society, there is little evidence that such a realization of the secondary effects of nuclear explosions is even present in political consciousness. And certainly the citizenry is largely ignorant of such a dark eventuality bound up with the retention of nuclear weapons.
It is for these reasons that I would call Kenneth Waltz dangerous, not crazy. Indeed, it is his extreme kind of instrumental rationality that is dominant in many influential venues, and helps explain the development, possession, and apparent readiness to use nuclear weapons under certain conditions despite the risks and the immorality of the undertaking. If human society is ever to be again relatively safe, secure, and morally coherent, a first step is to renounce nuclear weapons unconditionally and proceed with urgency by way of an agreed, phased, monitored, and verified international agreement to ensure their elimination from the face of the earth. It is not only that deterrence depends on perfect rationality over time and across space, it is also that the doctrine and practices of deterrence amounts to a continuing crime against humanity of unprecedented magnitude and clarity!
Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.