One of the biggest and potentially most dangerous misconceptions prevalent among policy circles, pundit rounds and election campaigns today is that the United States should do everything in its power to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The laundry list of calamities that would supposedly occur in the event Iran acquired nuclear weapons is quite extensive; it includes the belief that nuclear weapons would inevitably fall into the hands of terrorists who would use it against American or Israeli targets, that the entire Middle East and beyond would turn into an unstable nuclear multipolarity in which the threat of nuclear war could escalate beyond acceptable management, and so on.
So far, the United States has been engaged in an extensive regimen of economic sanctions and coordinated diplomatic engagements with a host of other nations to compel Iran to abandon its nuclear program, which it claims is meant strictly for peaceful, energy-related purposes.
Kenneth Waltz has written a splendid piece for Foreign Affairs entitled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability” in which he argues that, far from introducing instability to the region, a nuclear Iran would actually balance its various competing actors. Israel has long enjoyed the Middle East’s only uncontested nuclear monopoly, the fear of which in Iran and various Arab states has resulted in tension, mutual insecurity and the desire on Iran’s part particularly to hedge itself from the constant perception of mortal threat and strategic constraint.
History attests to the tendency for regions to produce balancing offsets to regional hegemonic powers; it isn’t difficult, therefore, to understand why Iran considers the attainment of nuclear weapons to be a strategic necessity since its neighborhood is already a nuclear multipolarity.
Besides Israel to the west, Iran has to contend with the nuclear stalemate between India and Pakistan, a nuclear Russia to the north, a nuclear and increasingly ambitious China to the east and the presence of American military power in the Persian Gulf as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s clear that a nuclear Iran wouldn’t produce a new multipolarity, since that is a term that already accurately describes the entire region. But what the most ardent hawks here, in Israel and elsewhere emphasize most is that Iran couldn’t be trusted with nuclear weapons because of a perceived fear of its regime’s supposedly inherent irrationality, an irrationality that would compel it to initiate a nuclear war with Israel or the United States without regard for its own safety or the retaliation it would inevitably experience. That is a nonsensical argument that ought to be dismissed outright. Regardless of the ideological and religious sloganeering it projects, the regime in Iran is as much of a rational actor pursuing its strategic interests as any other. Spreading nuclear technology to terrorists would make Iran itself the target of retaliatory action, and it knows full well it could never survive a massive blow from the United States, Israel and other states acting in concert.
What is far more dangerous to the Middle East and beyond today is the irrational fear of a nuclear Iran and the kinds of policies that could be pursued in the event American and Israeli policymakers ever decided to eliminate its nuclear program by force. An Israeli strike on Iran could quickly escalate into an all-out war in which it would be nearly impossible for the United States to avoid involving itself. The projected effect on oil prices, economic output, and the safety of Americans abroad is chilling.
What the United States needs now is a total recalibration of its policy on this issue and a new policy of containment and deterrence to replace the irrational sword-rattling that consumes far too much time and attention in our national conversations.