Stephen M. Walt

The mother of all worst-case assumptions about Iran

The debate on Iran and its nuclear program does little credit to the U.S. foreign policy community, because much of it rests on dubious assumptions that do not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Lots of ink, pixels, and air-time has been devoted to discussing whether Iran truly wants a bomb, how close it might ...

The debate on Iran and its nuclear program does little credit to the U.S. foreign policy community, because much of it rests on dubious assumptions that do not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Lots of ink, pixels, and air-time has been devoted to discussing whether Iran truly wants a bomb, how close it might be to getting one, how well sanctions are working, whether the mullahs in charge are "rational," and whether a new diplomatic initiative is advisable. Similarly, journalists, politicians and policy wonks spend endless hours asking if and when Israel might attack and whether the United States should help. But we hardly ever ask ourselves if this issue is being blown wildly out of proportion.

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.

Yet this "mother of all assumptions" is simply asserted and rarely examined. The obvious question to ask is this: did prior acts of nuclear proliferation have the same fearsome consequences that Iran hawks now forecast? The answer is no. In fact, the spread of nuclear weapons has had remarkably little impact on the basic nature of world politics and the ranking of major powers.  The main effect of the nuclear revolution has been to induce greater caution in the behavior of both those who possessed the bomb and anyone who had to deal with a nuclear-armed adversary. Proliferation has not transformed weak states into influential global actors, has not given nuclear-armed states the ability to blackmail their neighbors or force them to kowtow, and it has not triggered far-reaching regional arms races. In short, fears that an Iranian bomb would transform regional or global politics have been greatly exaggerated; one might even say that they are just a lot of hooey.

Consider the historical record.

Did the world turn on its axis when the mighty Soviet Union tested its first bomb in 1949?  Although alarmist documents like NSC-68 warned of a vast increase in Soviet influence and aggressiveness, Soviet nuclear development simply reinforced the caution that both superpowers were already displaying towards each other.  The United States already saw the USSR as an enemy, and the basic principles of containment were already in place.  NATO was being formed before the Soviet test and Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe was already a fait accompli.  Having sole possession of the bomb hadn’t enabled Truman to simply dictate to Stalin, and getting the bomb didn’t enable Stalin or his successors to blackmail any of their neighbors or key U.S. allies. It certainly didn’t lead any countries to "reorient their political alignment toward Moscow." Nikita Khrushchev’s subsequent missile rattling merely strengthened the cohesion of NATO and other U.S.-led alliances, and we now know that much of his bluster was intended to conceal Soviet strategic inferiority. Having a large nuclear arsenal didn’t stop the anti-commnist uprisings in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland, and didn’t allow the Soviet Union to win in Afghanistan. Nor did it prevent the USSR from eventually collapsing entirely.

Did British and French acquisition of nuclear weapons slow their decline as great powers? Not in the slightest. Having the force de frappe may have made De Gaulle feel better about French prestige and having their own deterrent made both states less dependent on America’s security umbrella, but it didn’t give either state a louder voice in world affairs or win them new influence anywhere.  And you might recall that Britain couldn’t get Argentina to give back the Falklands by issuing nuclear threats — even though Argentina had no bomb of its own and no nuclear guarantee — they had to go retake the islands with conventional forces.  

Did China’s detonation of a bomb in 1964 suddenly make them a superpower? Hardly. China remained a minor actor on the world stage until it adopted market principles, and its rising global influence is due to three decades of economic growth, not a pile of nukes. And by the way, did getting a bomb enable Mao Zedong–a cruel megalomaniac who launched the disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1957 and the destructive Cultural Revolution in the 1960s — to start threatening and blackmailing his neighbors? Nope. In fact, China’s foreign policy behavior after 1964 was generally quite restrained.

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.   

For some strange reason, however, the U.S. national security community seems to think that both logic and all this prior history does not apply to Iran. They forget that similarly dire warnings were uttered before many of these others states got the bomb, yet none of these fearsome forecasts took place.  Ironically, by repeatedly offering doom-and-gloom scenarios about the vast geopolitical consequences of an Iranian bomb, they may be strengthening the hands of Iranian hardliners who might be interested in actually obtaining a working weapon.   After all, if getting a bomb would give Iran all the influence that Kissinger and others fear, why wouldn’t Tehran want one?

In fact, the smart way to discourage Iran from going nuclear is both to take the threat of force off the table (thereby reducing Iran’s perceived need for a deterrent) and to make it clear that getting a bomb won’t bring Iran big strategic benefits and won’t affect global or regional politics very much if at all.   And in this case, the smart strategy has the additional merit of being true. 

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

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