Kenneth Waltz, who was for decades a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley and is widely acknowledged as one of the most important modern theorists of international relations, died last week. Neither of us ever studied at Berkeley, but anyone who studied international relations in the West (or in many non-Western venues) during the past half century was at least indirectly a student of Waltz.
There are a growing number of tributes to Waltz, by his students (see, for example, Steve Walt’s remembrance, here) and by others (see, for example, here). We want to focus on Waltz’s relatively recent role in the American/Western debate on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
Of course, the Islamic Republic denies that it is pursuing or wishes to obtain nuclear weapons, and even U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies acknowledge that the Islamic Republic is not currently trying to build them. Nevertheless, most Western discussion simply assumes that nuclear weapons are the ultimate goal of Iran’s nuclear program—and that Iran’s acquisition of such weapons would further “destabilize” the Middle East.
In “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” published last year in Foreign Affairs, Waltz stood this discussion on its head. Reviving an argument he first laid out over thirty years ago, Waltz posited that nuclear deterrence between competitive or even antagonistic states (think the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War) is uniquely stabilizing. In his view, power that is unbalanced by countervailing power is the ultimate source of instability in international affairs, and nuclear deterrence is a very effective form of balancing. Updating this assessment for the present-day Middle East, in his July/August 2012 Foreign Affairs article Waltz wrote that what is truly destabilizing for the region is unchecked Israeli power, especially Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly. From this perspective, he argued that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would actually enhance strategic stability in the Middle East.
Unlike Waltz, we do not assume that the Islamic Republic is trying to develop nuclear weapons—nor do we believe that Tehran should do so. In our book, Going to Tehran, and in other venues, we put forward an alternative reading of the purposes of Iran’s nuclear program—a reading much more congruent with the way in which the program has actually been conducted, with strategic and religious debate in the Islamic Republic, and with Iranian public opinion. We think, however, that Waltz’s argument highlights important aspects of what’s wrong with American and Western debate about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities.
Much of the negative reaction to Waltz’s Foreign Affairs article has focused on the Islamic Republic’s alleged “irrationality.” To work, deterrence requires instrumental, cost-benefit-calculating rationality. The “mad mullahs” who run the Islamic Republic, it is held, hardly meet this standard. No less than Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed this view, telling NBC’s Meet the Press in September 2012,
“I think Iran is very different. They put their zealotry above their survival. They have suicide bombers all over the place. I wouldn’t rely on their rationality…Since the advent of nuclear weapons, you had countries that had access to nuclear weapons who always made a careful calculation of cost and benefit. But Iran is guided by a leadership with an unbelievable fanaticism. It’s the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today.”
Building on this polemical characterization, Netanyahu in the same interview directly attacked Waltz and his argument:
“You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons? I mean, I’ve heard some people suggest, David, I actually I read this in the American press. They said, well, you know, if you take action, that’s a lot worse than having Iran with nuclear weapons. Some have even said that Iran with nuclear weapons would stabilize the Middle East—stabilize the Middle East. I think the people who say this have set a new standard for human stupidity.”
But even senior Israeli national security officials acknowledge that Netanyahu’s polemical characterization of Iranian decision-making is a caricature. As former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in 2010, “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, [would] drop it in the neighborhood. They fully understand what might follow. They are radical but not totally crazy. They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality.”
What, then, are the real reasons for the strongly negative reactions among American elites to Waltz’s argument? In his remarks at our event at MIT last week, Noam Chomsky goes to the heart of this question. Commenting on the regular briefings that U.S. intelligence agencies and the Pentagon provide to Congress, Prof. Chomsky noted,
“Of course, they talk about Iran as ‘the Iranian threat.’ And they point out that the threat is not military. Iran has very low military spending, even by the standards of the region (of course, miniscule as compared to the United States). It has a strategic doctrine, which is defensive, designed to deter invasion long enough for diplomacy to set in. And they say that, if Iran is developing nuclear weapons—for which they have no evidence, but if it is—it would be part of their deterrent strategy.
And that’s crucial. The U.S. cannot tolerate a deterrent strategy. Israel, incidentally, is exactly the same. You read a couple of weeks ago that Israel bombed military sites in Syria. And the reason that was presented was because they might help a deterrent to an Israeli attack on Lebanon—namely that they might go to the only force that deters an attack: Hizballah.
States—which are technically called ‘rogue states’—that believe they have the right to use force freely everywhere cannot tolerate deterrence, for obvious reasons. That’s what the threat is.”
Prof. Chomsky’s explanation why the United States and Israel cannot tolerate deterrent strategies on the part of other Middle Eastern players is critical. As we have written before, this is why the United States and Israel portray purely defensive prospective military preparations by the Islamic Republic—such as the acquisition of more sophisticated air defense systems—as somehow “threatening.” It also highlights the real reason for American and Israeli concern over Iran’s nuclear activities—that an Iran with even a latent, theoretical capacity to develop a nuclear deterrent would rein in the ability of the United States and Israel to use force freely anywhere they want in the Middle East.
Those realities should prompt everyone to reconsider just what are the real threats to strategic stability in the region.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett