Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Western sanctions on Iran and heated policy debate on Tehran’s nuclear programme go hand and hand, but the latest foray into the latter by Kenneth Waltz, a prominent international relations theorist, is emerging as one of the most controversial.

Turning conventional wisdom on its head, in a brief but weighty article in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine, Waltz defends Iranian nuclear proliferation as a stabilising factor in the turbulent Middle East, citing the regional imbalances and insecurities wrought by Israel’s nuclear monopoly and the rationality of Iranian regime.

Not only that, Waltz questions the wisdom of Western and Israeli pressure tactics against Iran, pointing out that tactics such as military threats and coercive sanctions only heighten Iran’s national security concerns, thus strengthening the country’s proliferation resolve. Featured prominently on the magazine’s cover with the eye-catching title “Why Iran should get the bomb”, the article is a timely jab at official Western justifications for targeting Iran with an arsenal of sanctions, threats, sabotage, assassinations and, of course, incessant propaganda and psychological warfare.

Waltz, who has written extensively on the nuclear arms race and is credited for the international relations school of thought known as structural (neo) realism, expresses his pessimism that these efforts can stop a country “bent on acquiring nuclear weapons”. He predicts that Iran will beat the odds and eventually get its bombs, but that this will contribute to - rather than threaten - regional peace and security.  It isn’t clear if Waltz’s theoretical contribution, which offers a different diagnosis of the Iran problem and recommends new directions, will have an impact on real policy. Irrespective of whether one subscribes to his assumptions and conclusions, the article offers a penetrating discussion with more insights into the complexities posed by the Iran nuclear standoff than whole books on the subject  In essence, Waltz’s theory of Iranian proliferation undermines the legitimacy of the current US-led strategy of preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and even the capability to build such weapons.

This is in sharp contrast to the recent past, when the US government publicly toyed with the notion of consenting to Iran’s low-grade enrichment programme. That diplomatic charade has apparently outlived its usefulness and the truth about the US’ real intentions from recent multilateral talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions is gradually becoming clear.  By expressing academic sympathy for Iran’s nuclear programme, Waltz appears to have single-handedly reinvigorated debate on Iran while supplying policy-makers with a theoretical framework they can use to make better sense of their options.

Three scenarios

Waltz picks and chooses between “three scenarios” on Iran. One is halting Iran’s nuclear weapons programme through sanctions and other means; a second involves Iran reaching the “breakout” threshold but falling short of assembling actual bombs (nuclear latency). Waltz dismisses the latter scenario as unlikely since “power begets to be balanced” and Iran is highly motivated to counterbalance Israel’s nuclear monopoly.

The third scenario is Iran joining the world’s nuclear weapons elite, at which point Waltz predicts Tehran would become more cautious and risk-averse.

This article highlights paradoxes in the Western and Israeli counter proliferation tool box. Firstly, that these tactics create a self-fulfilling prophecy, and secondly they will persuade Iran to continue with its proliferation activities rather than dissuading it from doing so.  Theoretically, Waltz forces the Western course of action towards Iran into the awkward position of having to justify itself. Still, this does not mean that Waltz’s approach is problem-free.

Israel-centric

approach

At the heart of Waltz’s argument lies the assumption that Iran is marching towards a nuclear balance with Israel in the region. This is why Waltz expresses surprise that it has taken so long before another Middle East state acted to address this problem, notwithstanding Israel’s past attacks on Iraq and Syria to stymie any rising nuclear competition.  This hypothesis that Iran is overly concerned about Israel’s proliferation and aims to counterbalance it does not match the reality.  Iran’s nuclear programme under the Islamic Republic was revived after a temporary halt at the outset of the 1979 Islamic revolution in response to the perceived threat of Iraq’s nuclear programme during the 1980s and 1990s. However, it acquired a non-military dimension with the demise of Saddam Hussein following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, as per the conclusion of the US’s intelligence finding of December 2007. (This national estimate remains valid and essentially unchanged today despite official Washington rhetoric).  The fact is that most Iran policy experts regarded Israel an “out of area” nuisance with respect to Tehran’s national security calculus, but it has been elevated to a primary threat solely due to Israel’s constant sabre-rattling against Iran.

Waltz is wrong to assume that Iran has been motivated to go fully nuclear as a result of the perceived threat of Israel’s arsenal. Contrary to what Waltz says, Iran’s leaders have repeatedly pointed to the “uselessness” and “futility” of Israel’s arsenal, reflected in the absence of its utility in the various Israeli wars with its Arab neighbours.

The idea of “nuclear blackmail” by Israel may be highly important to Arab leaders, but there is no evidence that it figures prominently among the Iranian leadership.

Waltz makes the error of lumping post-revolutionary Iran with the other (unit-level) states in the contemporary anarchic world and making undue generalisations about states’ behaviour that fails to distinguish revolutionary from status quo powers.

A better guide for understanding Iran’s uniqueness is provided by the late French philosopher Michel Foucault, who observed the revolution first-hand and wrote about its emancipatory mission, to lift the chain that weighs on the “entire world order”.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in a recent speech at the Rio+20 United Nations conference that there is a need for a new world order. This points at a historical understanding of the Islamic Republic as a distinct “quasi-state” that bears a trans-national sense of responsibility as a global revisionist state combating global inequities of power and injustice. 

By August, when Iran hosts a major summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and officially takes over the movement’s presidency for the next three years, Tehran’s determination to play an even more prominent role with respect to the disarmament and non-proliferation objectives of the NAM will grow considerably and, in turn, further weaken any opposite proliferation tendency.

For the moment, however, Iran is fairly content with its nuclear progress, which has brought it to the latent breakout capability, per the admission of Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator, and yet without any sign that Iran has any intention of turning that latent power into a nuclear-weapons regime.  One of the reasons Iran is uninterested in going fully nuclear, ignored by Waltz, is that this would trigger a reciprocal nuclearisation on the part of Saudi Arabia and thus introduce a costly and structural competition in the Persian Gulf, both draining the precious economic resources and institutionalising the Iran-Saudi rivalry.  Indeed, that is the nub of the problem in Waltz’s article, the fact that it is Israel-centric and overlooks the regional dynamic that at present exists in the Persian Gulf region, by simply making abstract generalizations about the broader Middle East.

–Asia Times Online