Stephen M. Walt

Is Iran the Next China?

Is Iran the Next China?

Thomas Friedman had a mostly sensible column in yesterday’s New York Times, in which he endorsed the crazy, dangerous, irrational, doesn’t-make-any-sense-at-all idea of seriously negotiating with Iran. Not only did he correctly note that Iran might see a nuclear capability (if not nuclear weapons) as insurance against regime change (i.e., the same reason that other nuclear-armed states got them), but he also made a useful comparison between Iran today and the People’s Republic of China. Here’s his big question:

But how much of their "nuclear insurance" [is Iran] ready to give up to be free of sanctions? Are they ready to sacrifice a single powerful weapon to become again a powerful country — to be more like a China, a half-friend, half-enemy, half-trading partner, half-geo-political rival to America, rather than a full-time opponent?

This analogy is even more illuminating than Friedman thinks, because back when China was first developing its own nuclear capability, it was described in virtually the same terms that hard-liners now apply to Iran. For example, here’s then Secretary of State Dean Rusk testifying to the Senate Subcommittee on Far Eastern Affairs in 1966:

[The Chinese communists] are now developing nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.… But such weapons need not serve a defensive role. They can be used directly by Peking to try to intimidate its neighbors, or in efforts to blackmail Asian countries into breaking defense alliances with the United States, or in an attempt to create a nuclear "balance" in Asia in which Peking’s potentially almost unlimited conventional forces might be used with increased effect. These weapons can ultimately be employed to attack Peking’s Asian neighbors and, in time, even the United States.

Rusk noted that such attacks would be "mad and suicidal," but then went on to say:

Peking’s present state of mind is a combination of aggressive arrogance and obsessions of its own making.… I would be inclined … to advance the view that a country whose behavior is as violent, irascible, unyielding, and hostile as that of communist China is led by leaders whose view of the world and of life itself is unreal.… They seem to be immune to agreement or persuasion by anyone, including their own allies.

Sound familiar? The language and arguments advanced by Rusk regarding Maoist China are strikingly similar to the way hawks have described Iran for years. Like China back then, Iran is said to want nuclear weapons for various offensive purposes. And like China back then, the fact that any use of such weapons would be suicidal can be of no comfort to us, because we are supposedly dealing with people who are irrational and whose view of life "itself is unreal." Remember when neoconservative historian Bernard Lewis warned of an imminent Iranian attack on Aug. 22, 2006, based on his belief that Iran was infused with a "culture of martyrdom" and that Aug. 22 corresponded to a supposedly significant date on the Islamic calendar? (I may have missed something, but I’m pretty sure that this date passed without incident.)

The second lesson, of course, is that Rusk was dead wrong. China tested nuclear weapons and eventually built a modest nuclear arsenal, but it didn’t try to blackmail, invade, or intimidate anyone. In fact, the acquisition of nuclear weapons did almost nothing to increase China’s international influence. What did increase China’s global stature were the post-Mao economic reforms (the "Four Modernizations"), which unleashed three decades of rapid economic growth.

And that’s the third lesson too. The nuclear issue has dominated U.S. policy toward Iran for more than a decade, and while it is not a trivial problem, it’s probably not the most important one either. Iran is not going to give up control over the full fuel cycle (meaning it will insist on keeping some enrichment and reprocessing capabilities), though it may agree to some limits and to intrusive inspections. If we demand more than that, there won’t be a deal. Put differently, any deal that Teheran will accept is still going to leave it with the ability to produce a bomb if it ever decides it needs to; we are mostly going to be negotiating over the length of time it would take them to do so and thus how much warning we are likely to get.

But over the long term, what really matters is Iran’s overall power potential and not whether it has a latent nuclear capability, a few weapons hidden away, or a fully developed arsenal akin to the ones that Israel, India, and Pakistan already possess. Iran has a large, relatively young population, considerable oil and gas, a lot of well-educated people, and considerable economic potential. As with communist China, sooner or later the leaders who have mismanaged Iran’s economy will lose their grip or change their policies, and the sanctions imposed by the West will be lifted. At that point, Iran is likely to take off rapidly. So the real question is whether a more powerful Iran will be eager to be a "half-friend" to the United States — which is how Friedman now describes China — or will it be angry and resentful and looking to push us out of the region entirely? That depends at least in part on us.