How the West could learn to stop worrying and love a nuclear Iran


No issue looms larger in Iran’s foreign relations than its nuclear program and global fears that Iran’s nuclear energy program could quickly transform into a nuclear weapons program.Iran Flag Icon

So it was with some sadness last month that one of the pioneers of international relations theory, Kenneth Waltz died just days  before the Iranian election, which the entire world is watching in large part for its implications for Iran’s nuclear program.

Waltz, a founder of the realist school of international relations, may perhaps have been most well-known in recent years for his argument that we should welcome nuclear proliferation because nation-states act more responsibly with nuclear arms than without them.  So even assuming the worst intentions of Iran’s nuclear program — that it’s not only pursuing nuclear energy, but it’s also clandestinely developing a breakout capability to build a nuclear weapon — the West should not be so concerned with Iran’s nuclear machinations.  Moreover, it should embrace Iran’s entry into the nuclear club, as Waltz himself argued in Foreign Affairs last summer:

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. There is little reason to believe Iran would break this mold.

As you might realize, this is a controversial position, and others have argued that Waltz’s views are irresponsible and short-sighted, though I’ve always found that Waltz’s reasoning on nuclear weapons makes a lot of sense.  For many reasons, however, no one should expect that the United States will follow Waltz’s advice anytime soon.

Moreover, it’s worth noting very clearly that Iran is not necessarily seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but rather simply an alternative energy program.  That would enable the Islamic Republic to export more of its copious fossil fuels, and it’s a goal that U.S. policymakers actually nurtured in the 1950s, 1960 and 1970s during the rule of Iran’s shah, who was deposed in the 1979 revolution that led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic.  As Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett note in their new book on U.S.-Iranian relations, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran (which is a very compelling read, even if Roger Cohen and much of the official Washington commentariat have written it off as apology for the Iranian regime), a nuclear weapons program is unlawful under Islamic law, a constraint that the Leveretts argue is ‘more substantial than most Western analysts appreciate’:

Ahmadinejad has described nuclear weapons as a ‘fire against humanity,’ charging that ‘to have a nuclear bomb is not only a dishonor; it’s obscene and shameful.  Threatening to use it and using it is even more shameful.’… As recently as 2012, [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei reiterated his stance that, from an ideological and fiqhi [Islamic jurisprudence] perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful.  We consider using such weapons as a big sin.’

Even if you aren’t as sanguine as the Leveretts that Iran’s leaders are not pursuing nuclear weapons, that doesn’t matter under Waltz’s analysis, because he’s argued that it’s in Iran’s national interest to pursue at least the capability of nuclear weaponry in light of Israel’s longstanding (though unofficial) nuclear capability:

Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, which has proved remarkably durable for the past 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 current crisis. Power, after all, begs to be balanced. What is surprising about the Israeli case is that it has taken so long for a potential balancer to emerge.

Waltz, like the Leveretts, have argued that the West, generally, and the United States, specifically, have systemically assumed that Iran’s Islamic leadership means it will not respond to the typical deterrents that constrain nuclear-armed nation-states and that Iran will not act rationally in its national interest if it acquires a nuclear weapon.  But despite Iranian support for Hezbollah and other groups that have at times wreaked major havoc throughout the Middle East, there’s really no tangible support for that view of Iran, which has conducted a foreign policy over the past 30 years that’s been more defensive than offensive.  It was an U.S.-backed Iraq, after all, that launched an invasion of Iran shortly after the revolution.  Even in light of often heated and inappropriate rhetoric against Israel’s right to exist, Iran has never launched a full-frontal military attack on Israel, despite some evidence that Israel has helped assassinate several of Iran’s top nuclear scientists and its demonstrated willingness in the past 30 years to launch preemptive strikes against other Middle Eastern states, including Iraq and Syria.

As Waltz wrote:

Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, Iranian policy is made not by “mad mullahs” but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders. Although Iran’s leaders indulge in inflammatory and hateful rhetoric, they show no propensity for self-destruction. It would be a grave error for policymakers in the United States and Israel to assume otherwise.

Yet that is precisely what many U.S. and Israeli officials and analysts have done. Portraying Iran as irrational has allowed them to argue that the logic of nuclear deterrence does not apply to the Islamic Republic. If Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, they warn, it would not hesitate to use it in a first strike against Israel, even though doing so would invite massive retaliation and risk destroying everything the Iranian regime holds dear.

The biggest criticism against Waltz is that he too breezily dismisses otherwise valid concerns that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of more radical terrorist groups or other non-state actors.  But it seems unlikely that Iran would hand over nukes to Hezbollah or Hamas or anyone other related groups because any such nuclear attack would invariably be linked to Iran, even if Iran didn’t turn out to be the ultimate source.  (Let’s keep in mind that U.S. intelligence couldn’t tell the difference in 2002 the difference between a genuine nuclear program in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s bluffing to make Iran think he had weapons of mass destruction).  Furthermore, the risk of ‘loose nukes’ seems even greater in the context of the former Soviet Union or, more forebodingly, Pakistan, whose civilian government and military do not even exert territorial dominance throughout the entire country.

No one seriously believes that U.S. negotiators are simply going to relent to Iran’s nuclear energy program so long as it could facilitate the building of an Iranian nuclear weapon, though.  Talks have stalled throughout Ahmadinejad’s second term over the issue of whether Iran will allow its uranium to be enriched abroad, and while the chance of a military encounter between Iran and the United States remains relatively low, it’s not wholly out of the realm of possibility, and an Israeli strike against Iran could quickly escalate.

But Iran’s presidential election could provide a way for the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other hand, to mark a pivot point from the current impasse in two regards.  First, the next Iranian president could be much more open to conciliation than Ahmadinejad ever was.  Second, with the election firmly in the past, the occasion of a new president could be an opportunity for renewal of negotiations, regardless of the election’s winner. 

The nuclear issue has loomed large over the campaign, despite the fact that each of the campaign’s eight (now seven) candidates support the push for Iran’s nuclear program ad have urged no compromise with the West over what Iranians widely believe is a matter of Iran’s sovereignty.  Even the main issue in the election — Iran’s weak economy — touches and concerns the nuclear issue because the United States has worked to expand the range of sanctions against Iran that it originally effected in the aftermath of the initial 1979 revolution.  Those sanctions have magnified in scope since 2006, when the U.N. Security Council voted to impose sanctions on nuclear materials and technology.  The sanctions have intensified further under U.S. sanctions that have become increasingly robust, under both U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  The European Union last year brought into effect a boycott of all Iranian oil products.  Taken together, the sanctions slowed the Islamic Republic’s growth from around 6% in 2010 to 2% in 2011, caused a 1% contraction in 2012, and have reduced the value of Iran’s currency by 80%.

Two candidates have served as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator with the United States and other P5+1 negotiators — i.e., the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations, plus Germany.  Hassan Rowhani, who took a relatively more conciliatory approach in the early 2000s under reformist president Mohammed Khatami, is emerging as the consensus candidate of the reformist and moderate camps.  Saeed Jalili, who has taken a more confrontational approach in line with president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s views, has emerged as one of several frontrunners among the ‘principlist’ candidates as a candidate who could unite both populist conservatives loyal to Ahmadinejad and more traditional conservatives loyal to Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader.  Sparks flew between the two candidates in the third and final presidential debate last Friday, with Jalili accusing Rowhani of giving in to the West by agreeing to a temporary shutdown of Iran’s nuclear program and Rowhani accusing Jalili of bringing about such harsh international isolation, both politically and economically.

Steve LeVine argued in Quartz on Monday that Iran will be well-placed to return to the negotiating table with a new freedom after the election, which could well defuse the international crisis:

In his campaign speeches, Khamenei has said that the election winner should never suggest compromising with the West on the country’s nuclear program. But once the election is over, he can stop show-boating…. As sanctions steadily escalate, Khamenei is likely to plot a course to a nuclear settlement.

In broad terms, I think that’s right — the Iranian regime is likely to be at its most conciliatory point in years in the aftermath of the presidential election, especially if Rowhani wins, who’s about as moderate a president as can emerge in Iran under the current constraints.  But that will only prove useful if the United States and its allies demonstrate their willingness to take a fresh approach as well.

Despite Iran’s assistance with respect to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, its willingness to suspend uranium enrichment under Khatami and Rowhani in the mid-2000s, and its reticence and restraint in the post-occupation Iraq, there’s virtually no chance that Iran will back down after its presidential election without meaningful overtures from the global community.  So no matter the winner, the United States and its allies must realize that Iran will develop a nuclear energy industry with or without a permission slip from the P5+1.

Whether Jalili, Rowhani or another candidate, such as Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, wins the Iranian presidency, the United States must come to terms with the fact that it cannot demand Iranian negotiators give in without providing a real path toward progress for Iran’s nuclear energy program and an end to the economic sanctions that have crippled the country.

3 thoughts on “How the West could learn to stop worrying and love a nuclear Iran”

  1. Complete nuttery.

    It’s like saying that because normal people and responsible gun owners tend to be more careful around firearms once they’ve acquired them, there’s no reason to think that criminals, pariahs, and the mentally ill won’t rein in their bellicosity when they acquire their own.

    Ergo: viva poliferation!


    1. That comparison is inapposite. Individuals aren’t nation-states. We have sociology and international relations to study nation-states, not just psychology.

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