Nuclear Peace: Confronting the Assumptions about a Nuclear Iran
by Benjamin Studebaker
Many people around the world consider a nuclear Iran a terrible, terrifying prospect, one that is worth going to war over in order to avoid. Today I’d like to question this belief and the assumptions underlying it.
The key assumption about Iran is that it wants nuclear weapons in order to use them against some other country, probably Israel. They are thought to be for offensive, not defensive purposes. This is the thinking that we have as citizens of the West because our nations are in positions of power–we do not worry about being unable to repel a superior invasion force. The Iranians do have that worry, because they are the enemies of nations that vastly exceed their military power. We assume that the Iranians have no legitimate reason to be afraid of the West because we think of ourselves as benevolent and friendly, but this is not the image that Iran has. For Iran, much of the last decade has looked like this:
This is not a very hospitable world, if you’re Iran. It’s certainly not a world you would have any hope of conquering, subjugating, or otherwise resolving through aggression. It is a world that you’re terribly afraid of, and one that you want protection from. Of the world’s nuclear powers (USA, Russia, UK, France, Israel, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea), not a single one has experienced a full scale invasion or foreign military intervention since acquiring nuclear weapons. It appears, from the Iranian perspective, that this is the only way to avoid military invasion. The Gaddafi and Hussein regimes both turned away from developing nuclear weapons, and were eventually done away with by the West as a result. In the case of the Hussein regime, it was done away with on the pretext that it was developing nuclear weapons even though it was not doing so, so Iran believes that whether it develops nuclear weapons or not at this point, it will be assumed by the West that it is doing so. The only logical course of action in such a scenario is to develop the nuclear weapons as quickly as possible before the West invades or intervenes, knowing that once the nuclear weapons are acquired, Iran is safe and no longer has to worry about invasion or intervention from the West. Logic strongly implies that the nuclear weapons are for defensive, not offensive purposes. What all of this seems to imply is that Iran is behaving rationally, that it is not crazy or aggressive in its nuclear ambitions, and this makes a big difference.
But don’t nuclear weapons lead to instability and danger? There are compelling arguments to the contrary, the most famous of which come from neorealist international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz. Waltz is no dewy eyed romantic. As a neorealist, Waltz believes that the structure of the international system (the absence of a world government to keep states friendly and cooperative) causes it to be rational that states look out for their own interests and pursue relative comparative advantages over one another, even sometimes to the point of war. He nonetheless believes that nuclear weapons keep the peace and make our world safer by making full scale war too dangerous to engage in–if you are at risk of having entire cities destroyed in a few minutes in the event of war, war becomes far less attractive, even if you have superior conventional forces. Waltz cites nuclear weapons as the reason the USA and the USSR never engaged in full scale war during the Cold War, and as the reason India and Pakistan have avoided full scale war in recent years. He has this to say about Iran:
One reason the danger of a nuclear Iran has been grossly exaggerated is that the debate surrounding it has been distorted by misplaced worries and fundamental misunderstandings of how states generally behave in the international system. The first prominent concern, which undergirds many others, is that the Iranian regime is innately irrational. 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.
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 providing for its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities (or destroy itself). Iran may be intransigent at the negotiating table and defiant in the face of sanctions, but it still acts to secure its own preservation.
A nuclear Iran, by providing a counterbalance to the nuclear Israel, may very well lead to more diplomacy and more carefulness in Israeli-Islamic relations. It would make conventional war in the Middle East difficult, if not impossible, by vastly increasing the risks involved in such a war. Israel, with its present advantage in both conventional and nuclear weapons, understandably does not wish to see its power counterbalanced, but the region as a whole may prove more stable with a nuclear Iran than it has been without it. A nuclear Iran may not merely be something we can live with, it might be desirable, it might even be an essential step to peace in the region. Until Iran and Israel are made to meet at the same table as equals with conventional war off the table, they will continue to fight with each other through proxies. Nuclear weapons made the difference for the USA and USSR, for the USA and China, for India and Pakistan, and they can do the same for Iran and Israel, if given the chance. The Iranians are people, no more crazy than the North Koreans, the Maoists, or the Stalinists, and can be brought to bay through the same mechanisms that have worked in the past. The threat of a nuclear Iran is a mirage.
For those still doubting the pacifying nature of nuclear weapons, consider this: there has not been a full scale war among the major powers in this world since the advent of the nuclear bomb. All the wars that have been fought have been fought either between one country that has the bomb and one that doesn’t, two countries both without the bomb, or internally within a country. Nuclear weapons have provided a unique era of global peace, the like of which has never previously been seen in man’s history. They are what prevent World War III, not what initiate it.
Kenneth Waltz on Iran:
Originally published here:
His Magnum Opus, Man, The State, and War: