If there’s one thing that is a matter of absolute consensus among elected officials of both parties, it is that we cannot, must not, ever allow Iran to develop the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. Romney and Obama both agreed that we must do everything in our power, including going to war if necessary, to prevent that from happening. I don’t buy it. Never have. Stephen Walt, a Harvard international relations professor, provides a strong argument against that consensus:
At bottom, the whole debate on Iran rests on the assumption that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon would be an event of shattering geopolitical significance: On a par with Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, the fall of France in 1940, the Sino-Soviet split, or the breakup of the former Soviet Union. In this spirit, Henry Kissinger recently argued that a latent Iranian capability (that is, the capacity to obtain a bomb fairly quickly) would have fearsome consequences all by itself. Even if Iran stopped short of some red line, Kissinger claims this would: 1) cause “uncontrollable military nuclear proliferation throughout [the] region,” 2) “lead many of Iran’s neighbors to reorient their political alignment toward Tehran” 3) “submerge the reformist tendencies in the Arab Spring,” and 4) deliver a “potentially fatal blow” to hopes for reducing global nuclear arsenals. Wow. And that’s just if Iran has nuclear potential and not even an actual weapon! It follows that the United States must either persuade them to give up most of their enrichment capacity or go to war to destroy it.
He points out that the history of nuclear proliferation over the last 70 years suggests the contrary, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union, China, England and France. But the best comparisons are to nations that were not major powers, militarily or politically, prior to getting the bomb, including some that were considered international pariahs.
What about Israel? Does Israel’s nuclear arsenal allow it to coerce its neighbors or impose its will on Hezbollah or the Palestinians? No. Israel uses its conventional military superiority to try to do these things, not its nuclear arsenal. Indeed, Israel’s bomb didn’t even prevent Egypt and Syria from attacking it in October 1973, although it did help convince them to limit their aims to regaining the territory they had lost in 1967. It is also worth noting that Israel’s nuclear program did not trigger a rapid arms race either. Although states like Iraq and Libya did establish their own WMD programs after Israel got the bomb, none of their nuclear efforts moved very rapidly or made it across the finish line.
But wait, there’s more. The white government in South Africa eventually produced a handful of bombs, but nobody noticed and apartheid ended anyway. Then the new government gave up its nuclear arsenal to much acclaim. If anything, South Africa was more secure without an arsenal than it was before.
What about India and Pakistan? India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 didn’t turn it into a global superpower, and its only real effect was to spur Pakistan — which was already an avowed rival — to get one too. And it’s worth noting that there hasn’t been a large-scale war between the two countries since, despite considerable grievances on both sides and occasional skirmishes and other provocations.
Finally, North Korea is as annoying and weird as it has always been, but getting nuclear weapons didn’t transform it from an economic basket case into a mighty regional power and didn’t make it more inclined to misbehave. In fact, what is most remarkable about North Korea’s nuclear program is how little impact it has had on its neighbors. States like Japan and South Korea could go nuclear very quickly if they wanted to, but neither has done so in the six years since North Korea’s first nuclear test.
In short, both theory and history teach us that getting a nuclear weapon has less impact on a country’s power and influence than many believe, and the slow spread of nuclear weapons has only modest effects on global and regional politics. Nuclear weapons are good for deterring direct attacks on one’s homeland, and they induce greater caution in the minds of national leaders of all kinds. What they don’t do is turn weak states into great powers, they are useless as tools of blackmail, and they cost a lot of money. They also lead other states to worry more about one’s intentions and to band together for self-protection. For these reasons, most potential nuclear states have concluded that getting the bomb isn’t worth it.
But a few states-and usually those who are worried about being attacked-decide to go ahead. The good news is that when they do, it has remarkably little impact on world affairs.
Despite that history, the hawks offer us lurid nightmare scenarios of the mullahs in Iran nuking Jerusalem, which has never seemed remotely plausible to me. Doing so would not only cause serious death and mayhem in Jordan and Syria, it would also provoke a massive backlash. The United States and Israel would bomb them back to the stone age. And they know it. And don’t tell me that the leaders of Iran are just madmen who can’t be deterred; that’s nonsense. They have acted quite rationally, at least in regard to their own survival, up to this point.
A nuclear Iran isn’t entirely without problems, of course. It would make things more complicated and require us to focus on the safety and security of those weapons in the event of any sort of military conflagration involving that country, as we must do with Pakistan already. But those complications are manageable and little different from the considerations we already have to make for many other nations. A nuclear Iran is not a nightmare scenario, it’s a minor change to reality that is entirely within our ability to manage and contain.