Blogger’s note: love contrarian views…but, not so sure I agree…but its got me thinking..
June 18, 2012
Proliferation would actually increase stability in Middle East
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.
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.
Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, which has proved remarkably durable for more than four decades, has long fueled instability in the Middle East. In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist. It is Israel’s nuclear arsenal, not Iran’s desire for one, that has contributed most to the crisis. Power, after all, begs to be balanced.
The danger of a nuclear Iran has been grossly exaggerated due to fundamental misunderstandings of how states generally behave in the international system.
One prominent concern is that the Iranian regime is inherently irrational. Portraying Iran that way has allowed U.S. and Israeli officials to argue that the logic of nuclear deterrence does not apply. If Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, they warn, it would not hesitate to launch a first strike against Israel, though it would risk an overwhelming response destroying everything the Islamic Republic holds dear.
Although it is impossible to be certain of Iranian intentions, it is far more likely that if Iran desires nuclear weapons, it is for the purpose of enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities. Iran could be intransigent when negotiating and defiant in the face of sanctions, but it still acts to secure its own preservation.
Nevertheless, even some observers and policymakers who accept that the Iranian regime is rational still worry that a nuclear weapon would embolden it, providing Tehran with a shield that would allow it to act more aggressively and increase its support for terrorism. The problem with these concerns is that they contradict the record of almost every other nuclear weapons state dating to 1945. History shows that when countries acquire the bomb, they feel increasingly vulnerable and become acutely aware that their nuclear weapons make them a potential target in the eyes of major powers. This awareness discourages nuclear states from bold and aggressive action. Maoist China, for example, became much less bellicose after acquiring nuclear weapons in 1964, and India and Pakistan have both become more cautious since going nuclear.
Drop the sanctions
Another oft-touted worry is that if Iran obtains the bomb, other states in the region will follow suit, leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. But the nuclear age is now almost 70 years old, and fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded. When Israel acquired the bomb in the 1960s, it was at war with many of its neighbors. If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.
For these reasons, the U.S. and its allies need not take such pains to prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon. Diplomacy should continue because open lines of communication will make the Western countries feel better able to live with a nuclear Iran. But the sanctions on Iran can be dropped: They primarily harm ordinary Iranians, with little purpose.
Most important, policymakers and citizens worldwide should take comfort from the fact that where nuclear capabilities have emerged, so, too, has stability. When it comes to nuclear weapons, now as ever, more could be better.
Kenneth Waltz is senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. This is a condensed version of an article that will appear in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs.