Stephen M. Walt

On Iran, democracy, and nuclear weapons

Like many of you, I’m sure, I remain preoccupied with the events in Iran. It’s impossible to know exactly how events will evolve or what the medium-term significance will be, but the turmoil is as gripping as it was unexpected. In terms of Iran’s people having a government that is more responsive to their wishes ...

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Like many of you, I’m sure, I remain preoccupied with the events in Iran. It’s impossible to know exactly how events will evolve or what the medium-term significance will be, but the turmoil is as gripping as it was unexpected. In terms of Iran’s people having a government that is more responsive to their wishes — and in particular, one that is open to the sort of relaxation of tensions that the Obama administration has sought — my hopes are with the anti-Ahmadinejad forces.   

But we shouldn’t succumb to the illusion that Ahmadinejad’s defeat and Mousavi’s triumph (or more broadly, the triumph of the anti-government demonstrators) would produce a dramatic shift in Iran’s foreign policy, and especially its nuclear energy program (and any nuclear weapons ambitions it may have).  

For one thing, Moussavi himself has been a supporter of the nuclear program for many years, and the Times reported today that it was he who authorized the purchase of Iran’s first centrifuges back in the 1980s. For another, public opinion surveys in Iran have shown that the vast majority of Iranians support the nuclear program. This means that a lot of the people wearing green and marching in the streets are not going to subsequently demand that Iran abandon its efforts to master the full fuel cycle.

Even if Iran were to become a full-fledged liberal democracy, it would not necessarily abandon its nuclear ambitions, including the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. Right now, five of the world’s nine nuclear weapons states are democracies (the United States, France, Great Britain, India and Israel), so being democratic hardly precludes wanting a nuclear arsenal.   

The good news is that the history of the nuclear age demonstrates that nuclear weapons do not enable their possessors to conquer or threaten others with impunity, and thus don’t provide much in the way of an offensive or coercive capability. Having tens of thousands of nukes didn’t permit the United States or Soviet Union to blackmail other countries during the Cold War, having a handful of nukes hasn’t enabled Kim Jong Il to dictate to anybody, and having a sizeable nuclear arsenal doesn’t allow Israel to tell Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, or its various other adversaries what to do.  

In fact, nuclear weapons are good for only one or two things: 1) protecting your own territory (and maybe the territory of especially close allies) against conquest and occupation, and 2) making it hard for others to coerce you. As IAEA head Mohammed El-Baradei said of Iran yesterday, “They want to send a message to their neighbors, to the rest of the world, ‘Don’t mess with us,'” adding that “it is also an insurance policy against what they have heard in the past about regime change.”

So while I continue to hope that the reformist forces triumph, we shouldn’t be under any illusions about the short-to-medium term impact of the “revolution” on the major issues that currently divide us.

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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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