ARE YOU CONCERNED about Tehran's drive for nuclear weapons? Political scientist Kenneth Waltz isn't. A senior research scholar at Columbia University and former president of the American Political Science Association, Waltz writes in the new issue of Foreign Affairs that it's time we learned to stop worrying and love the Iranian bomb.
Waltz's piece -- prominently featured on the cover of the Council on Foreign Relations' flagship journal -- is headlined "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb." The US government and its allies in Europe, Israel, and the Arab world may regard the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as the gravest security threat the world currently faces. But Waltz, a leader of the neo-realist school of international relations, urges all of them to take a chill pill. Nukes in the hands of the mullahs would not be the worst outcome of the present crisis, he argues. "In fact, it would probably be the best possible result: the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East."
In a nutshell, Waltz's view is that what makes the Middle East dangerously unstable is that while Israel has nuclear weapons, its most fanatical enemies don't. "It is Israel's nuclear arsenal, not Iran's desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis," he writes. "Power, after all, begs to be balanced."
But wouldn't a violent and extremist regime like Iran's -- a key patron of international terrorism, a brutal suppressor of human rights, an exporter of jihad, and an open exponent of wiping Israel "off the map" -- be even more dangerous if its ballistic missiles were topped with nuclear warheads? On the contrary, says Waltz: "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."
Nor does Waltz lie awake at night worrying about a nuclear proliferation spiral should Tehran get the bomb. "Once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, deterrence will apply," he assures his readers. "No other country in the region will have an incentive to acquire its own nuclear capability, and the current crisis will finally dissipate."
If Waltz's breezy nonchalance (a condensed version was published under the headline "Iranian nukes? No worries") strikes you as outlandish, you aren't alone. Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum calls it "the single most preposterous analysis by an allegedly serious strategist of the Iranian quest for a nuclear weapon." To the American Enterprise Institute's Gary Schmitt, a former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it recalls Alfred E. Neuman's mantra: "What, me worry?" The notion that Israel's nuclear capability destabilizes the Middle East is almost self-refuting: Would a non-nuclear Israel be less vulnerable to attack -- or more so?
As for the calming effect of an Iranian bomb, that's hard to square with the Arab world's alarm at the prospect: "If Iran develops a nuclear weapon," Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal has warned, "we will have to follow suit."
Nuclear weapons will make Tehran more reasonable? Really?
Yet the appeal of Waltz's view should not be underestimated, especially as the West approaches the ultimate red line -- the moment when Iran's nuclear facilities will be too far advanced to be taken out in a pre-emptive strike. Faced with the prospect of military action to stop an evil regime, there will always be those hungry for reassurance that everything will work out as long as we do nothing.
Waltz has been preaching his more-nukes-are-safer-nukes sermon for quite some time. "It's been proven without exception," he insisted in 2007, "that whoever gets nuclear weapons behaves with caution and moderation." As far back as 1981 he was arguing that "the measured spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than feared."
But Iran is not like Russia, India, China, or the other existing members of the nuclear club. Time and again Iran has called explicitly for the extermination of Israel, while making clear that it sees nuclear weapons as a practical means to that end. "The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything," Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani baldly explained in 2001. "However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality." Tehran still contemplates it. Just weeks ago, a news release from Iran's FARS News Agency was headlined: "Top Commander Reiterates Iran's Commitment to Full Annihilation of Israel."
Let a regime that hungers for apocalypse and genocide get the bomb? Welcome it? Even Dr. Strangelove wouldn't go that far.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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