In Praise of Proliferation?

A prominent realist gets real on Iran

by , June 29, 2012

Kenneth N. Waltz, senior research analyst at the Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies, is a prominent "realist" in the field of international relations, and he’s in favor of nuclear proliferation – the bogeyman of both the peace movement and government agencies engaged in our endless "war on terrorism."

The former abhor nukes per se: it’s no accident the anti-nuclear energy movement and the antiwar movements have historically been aligned. The same people turn out at their demonstrations. The latter are on the trail of "loose" nukes, which may have gotten out of the hands of some of the Soviet republics when the Kremlin’s power imploded – and non-state actors who might be about to get their hands on nuclear materials.

Waltz’s recent scintillating piece in Foreign Affairs magazine is a sharp challenge to the conventional wisdom, not only on the question of "proliferation," but also on the present rush to war against Iran, which he takes on with disarming bluntness:

"Most U.S., European, and Israeli commentators and policymakers warn that a nuclear-armed Iran would be the worst possible outcome of the current standoff. In fact, it would probably be the best possible result: the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East."

Even opponents of war with Iran always append their remarks with the proviso that of course it wouldn’t be a good thing if Tehran joined the nuclear club, it would be "destabilizing," etc. etc. Not Waltz. Instead, after considering two possible scenarios he considers unlikely – Iranian capitulation and Western acceptance of "breakout" capacity – he challenges the War Party’s central premise:

"The third possible outcome of the standoff is that Iran continues its current 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 a uniquely terrifying prospect, even an existential threat. Such language is typical of major powers, which have historically gotten riled up whenever another country has begun to develop a nuclear weapon of its own. Yet so far, 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."

At the core of Waltz’s argument is that power imbalances cause conflict, because the less powerful are perpetually engaged in trying to tip the scales the other way. Iranian behavior is perfectly understandable in terms of where the real source of the current imbalance lies:

"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."

No Western politician dares mention the actual cause of instability in the Middle East, for fear of enraging the powerful Israel lobby. (The only head of state to broach the subject, in the context of a proposal for a nuclear-free Middle East made some years ago, was Bashar al-Assad – and look where he is today!) In the world of Washington’s foreign policy analysts, too, mention of Israel’s formidable nuclear arsenal is guarded, when it is alluded to at all.

Waltz demolishes the shibboleths of the War Party one after another. The image of the mad ayatollahs in their black turbans hurling nuclear lightning bolts at Israel – and even at Prague (!) – was never all that credible, and Waltz dispels it with a blast of realist common sense. The idea that the Iranian regime is inherently irrational, and bent on self-destruction, betrays a "fundamental misunderstandings of how states generally behave in the international system."

Here is where "realism" in IR theory intersects with the libertarian understanding of how states operate in all arenas: self-preservation trumps all. Every state is ruled by an elite which constantly acts to protect and extend its power, and the Iranians are no exception. The overriding imperative of the Iranian elites is to stay in power, and provoking an attack that would turn their country into radioactive dust by launching a nuclear first strike on Israel would destroy "everything the Iranian regime holds dear," as Waltz puts it. What they hold most dear, of course, is themselves.

The War Party is trying to sell the idea that the Iranians, as a nation, are intent on committing mass suicide: it’s a story line not even Hollywood would push, yet the Israel lobby isn’t above even this.

Waltz takes on the scaremongering of those who say Iranian nukes would incentivize aggressive behavior on Tehran’s part, and possibly even motivate them to nuclearize, say, Hezbollah, by pointing out that precisely the opposite is the case:

"The problem with these concerns is that they contradict the record of every other nuclear weapons state going back 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. There is little reason to believe Iran would break this mold."

Perfectly logical, but logic has nothing to do with war propaganda, which aims at the guts. The War Party’s not-so-secret weapon is what Garet Garrett, the Old Right pamphleteer and prophet, called "a complex of vaunting and fear." When this hot wind of emotion runs headlong into the cold dry logic of Waltz’s recounting of facts, I’m betting the former will triumph.

It seems almost self-evident that nuclear weapons are indeed a curse, and the less of them there are the better, yet no one can deny the essential truth of Waltz’s argument: that the present nuclear monopoly enjoyed by Israel is unsustainable. This is the root cause of the current "crisis" in the Middle East over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program – a program, by the way, Waltz assumes is in existence, even though there is zero credible evidence to that effect.

The present Israeli political leadership is heavily invested in the idea that Iran is run by vicious anti-Semites whose one goal in life is to unleash a second Holocaust – and they have the nuclear firepower to wipe this alleged "threat" off the map. If you were the Iranians, wouldn’t you want to create a nuclear deterrent – especially given the rhetorical record of Israel’s present Minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, who longs to bomb the Aswan Dam?

Until and unless the Israelis agree to open their nuclear installations to international inspectors, and negotiate a nuclear-free zone with the Iranians directly, there will be no peace in the region. The problem is that Israel won’t even admit it has nukes, never mind agree to give them up.

This brings us to the great irony of this "crisis," which is that only the development of nuclear weapons by the Iranians is likely to bring any real lasting stability to the Middle East. Yet at the first sign of this, the US and its allies, including Israel, will strike: indeed, the likelihood is that they’ll strike without any real signs of Iranian nukes in the pipeline. Which means: no matter what happens, war is almost inevitable.

As we stumble into a major war that will have horrendous economic and political consequences on a world scale, we’ll look back on this moment and wonder why we didn’t wake up in time. And when the American empire breathes its last, after the whole world has united against it, perhaps someone will recall Waltz’s aphorism: Power, after all, begs to be balanced.

Read more by Justin Raimondo