Nuclear Disarmament is Still a Good Idea

I took out a subscription to Foreign Affairs on a whim last week. My July/August issue came yesterday, and my first experience with the magazine was a little disappointing. The cover story is the provocatively named “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” by Kenneth Waltz, an adjunct professor at Columbia. Now, I’m fairly progressive with regards to how Iran should be treated: I think that the United States made its bed in Persia over half a century ago when we chose oil and a dictatorship over democracy for the country. I think that today we’ve forced Iran between a rock and a hard place with our incessant sanctions. I also think that, in the future, we should work on partnering with Iran, rather than antagonizing it — theocratic Islamic Republic or not. And, yes, I’ve entertained the idea that maybe — maybe — a nuclear Iran wouldn’t be that bad.

I repeat: maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. However, Waltz pushes the bounds of this argument to their breaking point and then some. All in one breath, within the first couple paragraphs of his bold four-pager, Waltz says that a nuclear Iran “would probably be the best possible result: the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.”

Nope, that wasn’t a typo. The crux of Waltz’s argument is that “power begs to be balanced.” He suggests that “Israel’s nuclear monopoly has long fueled instability in the Middle East; in no other region does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist.” I’m no fan of Israeli nukes, but I don’t think the warheads are the primary source of Israeli unpopularity. Waltz notes that Israel was acting to preserve its nuclear monopoly when it bombed Iraqi and Syrian reactors in 1981 and 2007, respectively. Fair enough, but Waltz brushes over a bit of history here – in 1981, had Iraqi nuclear aspirations come to fruition, their missiles probably would have been primed on Iran, with whom they were at war. Sadaam’s gaze was fixed firmly to the east at the time: the need to counterbalance Israel did not prompt Iraq’s nuclear gamble.

My point is that Middle Eastern countries do have agendas independent of Israel. But Waltz seems to forget this: “once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold … no other country in the region will have an incentive to acquire its own nuclear capability.” Iran does not speak for the Middle East. Far from it. The notion that the Saudis (and friends) will rest easier knowing that a nuclear Iran is just around the corner is ludicrous. Indeed, the Gulf Cooperation Council was created partially to counter growing Iranian influence. Does Waltz really think that the existence of an Iranian nuclear arsenal wouldn’t motivate the Saudis or others to develop their own? Sounds like an arms race waiting to happen.

But an arms race, according to Waltz, is okay, or at least one between Israel and Iran. It would, he claims, cause Israel and Iran to “… deter each other, as nuclear powers always have.” Nuclear weapons have existed for fewer than seventy years — Waltz has no place talking about “always.” What I remember from high school history, though, is that nuclear deterrence leads to run-away defense budgets and paranoia that distracts from other political issues. It also once came dangerously, excruciatingly close to failing (the Cuban Missile Crisis). I also remember that the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union spawned dozens of smaller proxy wars. Waltz loves citing history (he lauds India and Pakistan’s nuclear tango), but how could he forget the Cold War?

Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the zeitgeist has been one of disarmament. I think that the process has advanced too slowly, but at least it’s on the record. That Waltz wants to buck the trend is beyond me. He even ignores another piece of history: Israel is not the only country to have had a regional nuclear monopoly. In the 1960s, South Africa began a nuclear weapons program that ultimately left it with six bombs. And, in the ‘90s, it was the first country to voluntarily disarm. Rather than calling for a nuclear Iran, maybe Waltz could put Israel’s (still officially undeclared) weapons program in the spotlight. Obviously this is easier said than done.

Waltz’s argument has plenty of other holes (for example, downplaying the risk of increased proliferation, seemingly forgetting his own examples of Iraq and Syria), but the fact that such a weak article made its way to the cover of Foreign Affairs isn’t the problem.

The problem is that Waltz’s argument is dangerous. Sure, he’d be hard-pressed to find sympathetic ears in Western circles when advocating a nuclear Iran. But his “power begs to be balanced” argument could easily be extended to the Korean Peninsula and picked up by particularly hawkish North Korea opponents. Should South Korea and/or Japan go nuclear in response to their autocratic neighbor to the north? Waltz is advocating Cold War politics in a day when nuclear brinkmanship has (at least officially) been discarded as dangerous and foolhardy. The United States and Russia recently signed the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) to advance nuclear arms reduction. There are currently nine nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, China, England, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea), and that’s nine too many, as far as I’m concerned. Rather than listening to Waltz, countries ought to follow South Africa’s lead.