Paul Pillar

Waltz and Iranian Nukes

Sometimes someone with outlying views can usefully illuminate differences among those who appear closer to the mainstream. The very starkness of the outlier's thinking can clarify what is at stake in the mainstream debate, and what does and does not make sense in that debate, even if no one else in the debate adopts positions quite like his. Too often we fail to give a hearing to the insights such people offer, rejecting everything that comes from them simply because they are outliers. Kenneth Waltz, in addition to being one of the great names in modern international relations theory, has always been an outlier when it comes to nuclear proliferation. He tends to see more stability than instability coming from the spread of nuclear weapons. In the newest Foreign Affairs he applies his thinking on that subject to Iran. The advent of an Iranian nuclear weapon would mean more, not less, stability in the Middle East, argues Waltz.

No doubt there will be widespread rejection of what Waltz has to say on this subject because this conclusion is at odds with what the large majority of participants in current debate about Iran believe would be the net effect of an Iranian nuke, notwithstanding major differences among those participants about the best way to reduce the chance of an Iranian nuke ever being built. Such rejection would be a mistake. The issue at hand is not whether an Iranian nuclear weapon would be on balance good or bad, any more than the issue is whether Iranian leaders are nasty or nice. The important policy issues instead involve the relative costs, risks and efficacy of different possible postures and actions toward Iran. In this respect Waltz's insightful comments about the costs and risks—or lack of them—from Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon are important to heed even if one does not go as far as Waltz (and like most of the mainstream, I do not go that far) in arguing that an Iranian nuke would be a net positive. Paying attention to Waltz's analysis is all the more important because the topic of what effect an Iranian nuke would have on Iranian behavior and on security and stability in the Middle East is the aspect of this issue that is most often subjected to unquestioned conventional wisdom rather than any analysis at all (a gap I have endeavored to fill).

Waltz handily disposes of all the hoary, scary and familiar themes about irrational Iranian decision-making, shielding of aggressive Iranian behavior, giving weapons to terrorists, and setting off a surge in further nuclear proliferation. He also provides further nourishing food for thought in noting that “Israel's nuclear monopoly...has long fueled instability in the Middle East” and that “it is Israel's nuclear arsenal, not Iran's desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis,” given that “it is easy to understand why Israel wants to remain the sole nuclear power in the region and why it is willing to use force to secure that status.” Waltz certainly is right about the crisis being more a problem with Israel than with Iran; if a war results it will be Israel rather than Iran that starts it. I would disagree with the implications in his language that we can currently assume an Iranian “desire” for a nuclear weapon, or that Israeli use of military force would “secure” its nuclear monopoly (many knowledgeable Israelis realize it would not and would be more likely to stoke Iranian “desire” to build a weapon). I would also observe that the Middle Eastern instability to which Waltz refers owes less to Israel's regional nuclear monopoly than to its regional superiority in conventional armed force.

I disagree with Waltz on one other thing in his piece. He says that “the current sanctions on Iran can be dropped; they primarily harm ordinary Iranians, with little purpose.” As long as all those sanctions have been put in place, rather than just dropping them, let's use them for what ostensibly is their purpose: as leverage in reaching an agreement with Iran about limiting its nuclear program. The failure of the P5+1 to do exactly that is the main reason for the current negotiating impasse. Relief from sanctions is the main reason Tehran has to negotiate. The P5+1 probably could have had a deal by now that would have included the most important restrictions on Iran's program (including no more enrichment of uranium to 20 percent) if the P5+1 had been willing to offer significant (not total) sanctions relief. But instead the sanctions have become an end in themselves—or a way to show toughness toward Iran, or a hoped-for way to hasten regime change. None of those approaches toward sanctions provides any negotiating leverage at all. Anyone who, unlike Waltz, believes that a deal restricting Iran's nuclear program is still worth reaching ought to be sorely disappointed by the way the P5+1 has handled this subject.