COUNCILLOR’S COLUMN: The idea that Iran might get the bomb is fairly commonplace, but the claim that this would be a good thing is less widely canvassed. However the latter is precisely what is being argued by Kenneth Waltz one of America’s most prominent and influential strategic thinkers. In the latest (July/August 2012) issue of Foreign Affairs, Professor Waltz argues that an Iranian bomb, because it would balance Israel’s nuclear capability, would “restore stability in the Middle East”. He further asserts that the acquisition of nuclear weapons induces states to be cautious and that consequently Iran’s leaders are not likely to lash out with nuclear weapons against Israel. Finally, he questions the belief that an Iranian bomb would be a catalyst to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East: if Israel’s acquisition of the bomb in the 1960s did not trigger an arms race then, why, he asks, should similar action by Iran do so now?
Waltz is right to remind us of some of the reasons why Iran is likely to go nuclear, in particular, that sanctions probably won’t work and that there is little enthusiasm for a military strike to stop Teheran. It is timely to be reminded that we might have to live with an Iranian bomb. But there is nevertheless much that we might question in Professor Waltz’ reasoning. The idea that Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly has been the major cause of instability in the Middle East is surely drawing a long bow. Moreover, the fact that other states in the region did not follow Israel down the nuclear road surely had a lot to do with their inability, up till now, to do so. Proliferation beyond Iran – to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Egypt – remains a real possibility in the event of an Iranian bomb. But the biggest worry about Waltz’ position is his unflinching faith in deterrence. In the early years of the Cold War another famous American strategist, Albert Wohlstetter, described the Soviet–US nuclear stand-off as a “delicate balance of terror”. Among the established nuclear states today the nuclear balance may not be as “delicate” as it was in the late 1950s, though even among this elite group the possibility of miscalculation or misperception remains. But among minor or emerging nuclear states the risks of a catastrophic exchange are much greater, not necessarily because of irrationality or deliberate intent, but rather, because of technical or managerial deficiencies. It is difficult to share Waltz’ confidence that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East would end peacefully.
Waltz is a great theorizer. He makes predictions about state behavior on the basis of broad generalizations about international relations. But others like to remind us that “all politics is local” and that if we want a better understanding of this situation we should look more at the domestic politics of Israel and Iran. In predicting what Iran might do, is it sufficient to rely on broad generalizations about interstate behavior and on precedents like the nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan? As well, we should be mindful that in the final analysis Israelis might not be comforted by assurances that balancing is inevitable and stabilizing, or that Iran is likely to be a responsible nuclear player.