The more the better? Iran and the nuclear peace

Kenneth Waltz, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, makes the case for the ‘most compelling realist argument of all’,[1] suggesting that an Iran possessing nuclear weapons capabilities would lead to a more stable Middle East.[2] John Mearsheimer recently cautiously supported Waltz’ argument on PBS News Hour, going so far as to suggest that nuclear weapons are ‘weapons of peace’.

If, as Waltz had suggested earlier, “peace has become the privilege of states having nuclear weapons, while wars are fought by those who lack them”,[3] shouldn’t all states be allowed to have nuclear weapons? Ultimately, a nuclear world would have to be a world without wars, if we go by his logic.

He might have a point, though, in arguing that sanctions are not necessarily effective in dissuading Iran – see North Korea – and might in effect be counter-productive, moreover as they entail ramifications far beyond their intended target.

But his argument makes me wonder how serious he actually is, and how big or small a realist community actually believes in the tenets of the nuclear peace!?

As the authors of the 2009/10 Human Security Report suggest, major powers still were engaged in wars despite their nuclear capabilities, though not directly with other nuclear powers, but in proxy wars. Dov Zakheim on the PBS News Hour disagrees, pointing out that India and Pakistan went to war even after they acquired nuclear weapons. Still, if Iran had the bomb, could we see the Mullahs engage in proxy wars elsewhere in the region? Or would the Ayatollahs prevail?

As Mack et al. suggest the nuclear deterrent is not only effective against potential adversaries, but equally against those possessing nuclear arsenals. No state would want to be singled out for having started a nuclear war, even against an adversary that neither possesses nuclear weapons nor has allies that do – the nuclear taboo.[4]

But how about the possibility of a limited Iranian nuclear programme? Would Teheran be less inclined to pursue its nuclear weapons programme if the P5 +1 lift the sanctions and recognise Iran’s right for a peaceful nuclear programme, as suggested by Loren White?[5] Would this dissuade Teheran from further pursuing nuclear weaponization? Would Kenneth Waltz consider this sufficiently conducive to peace in the Middle East?

The impression that lingers from the current debate is that (neo-) realists are alive and kickin’, and aspiring nuclear powers should love them for that!

[1] Andrew  Mack et al., “Human Security Report 2009/10: The Causes of Peace and the Shrinking Costs of War and Peace in the 21st Century,” ed. Human Security Report Project/Simon Fraser University (Vancouver 2010).

[2] Kenneth Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 4 (2012).

[3] Kenneth Waltz, “Peace, Stability, and Nuclear Weapons,” in Policy Papers (Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, UC Berkeley, 1995).

[4] Mack et al., “Human Security Report 2009/10: The Causes of Peace and the Shrinking Costs of War and Peace in the 21st Century.”

[5] Loren White, “The case for recognising a limited Iranian nuke programme ” Al Jazeera, 13 July 2012.


7 comments on “The more the better? Iran and the nuclear peace

  1. Waltz’s latest piece is beautiful in its simplicity, but that’s about it.

    Firstly, as Henning already noted, he ignores the proxy wars waged by nuclear states—just look at the Cold War record.

    Secondly, Waltz curiously fails to acknowledge the very real threat of Israel bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel has an ominous track record: Syria in 2007 and Iraq in 1981. The Jewish state is bent on preserving its nuclear monopoly in the region. Equally, Iran is bent on destroying Israel and would find it difficult to not respond to pre-emptive Israeli strike. Waltz ignores these identity factors of the Israeli and Iranian states.

    Thirdly, he labels as an “unfounded fear” the argument that other states in the region would get the bomb. Saudi Arabia has already gone on record saying a nuclear Tehran would spur it to develop a nuclear program, apparently “within weeks”.1 Pakistan would sell warheads and technology in recognition of Saudi financing of Islamabad’s nuclear programme.

    Fourthly, Waltz sidesteps North Korea and the instability that country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has had on the region. On a number of occasions, senior Japanese politicians have called for Tokyo to amend the ‘peace’ constitution and join the nuclear club to put it on an “equal footing” with North Korea.2 This happened most recently in 2009 following North Korea’s missile testing which saw rockets fall in the Sea of Japan. A nuclear-armed Japan could well lead to a nuclearized South Korea and Beijing would be even more distrustful of Tokyo.

    Fifthly, he doesn’t think Tehran would be emboldened with nuclear capabilities. The Iranian military has already held naval manoeuvres and fired torpedoes in the Straits of Hormuz to demonstrate how readily the Straits could be blocked.3 They are ready to block the strait and quite capable of doing so. What holds them back now is American retaliation. Equipped with nuclear weapons, however, the calculus changes entirely. Washington would be very hesitant to engage in conflict with a nuclear Iran and Tehran knows this. Should Tehran end up controlling the straits, it may stop energy flows from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq. This would wreak havoc on global energy markets to the point that Washington may be forced to intervene militarily.

    Finally, if nuclear weapons really are the weapons for peace, why is Waltz not calling for an end to the NPT? How does he explain the fact that South Africa developed nuclear weapons and then dismantled them?


  2. henning says:

    Yes, Israel has already suggested it would strike against Iran preemptively. But how real is the risk of conflict between Israel and Iran? Until the first Gulf War the two countries maintained close ties, trading oil and military equipment, as they shared concerns about the threat from Arab states.1 Sure, hardline rhetoric emanating from Teheran hardly suggest any warming of ties in the near future, but adversaries can turn into allies surprisingly quickly (and vice versa), moreover as no one can foresee further political shifts in the region. Israel is cautiously eying developments in Egypt as the new leadership there might revisit the context of the 1978 peace treaty.2 A weakened Teheran might be in Saudi Arabia’s interest, but necessarily also in Israel’s?


  3. henning says:

    In February 2012 Micah Zenko published an interesting blog entry,1 which summarises responses of several IR and security studies scholars to following question:

    “If the international community believed—through testing or intelligence estimates—that Iran possessed a nuclear weapon, what impact would the bomb have on Iranian foreign policy?”

    Most agreed that it would not change Iran’s FP outlook, nor would it be a risk to the region’s stability, quite to the contrary. Kyle Beardsley argued that proliferators are sources of instability prior to attaining weapons. Once proliferated, Teheran would be more concerned about regime security, but it would be more at ease. Similarly, Todd Sechser stated that “nuclear weapons are not very useful for coercion [because] nuclear threats lack credibility”.

    Ron Paul, Republican presidential candidate and Congressman from Texas, would not see a problem with a nuclear Iran either, as he pointed out last year.2 If we believe in deterrence as the way forward, there seems little argument against a nuclear Iran.

    To me, the most convincing argument against an Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is that, ideally, no one should. A nuclear peace is a negative peace, there’s nothing peaceful about nuclear weapons. But 42 years after the NPT came into force nothing seems to indicate that the nuclear-free label goes global. So…let them have it? What do others think? Any (partial) realists in the closet?


  4. ryankf says:

    Oddly i think i fall into the Chinese respect-for-sovereignty camp on this one. Telling Iran they can’t have the nuke is a bit like telling a child they can’t have that toy they want. I say that only with a bit of glibness. I don’t think there’s any illusion on the part of Tehran as to what the consequences would be for using nuclear weapons, but the consequences of trying to force Iran’s play on this matter is much more ambiguous.
    As you say Henning, there is nothing peaceful about nukes. A nuclear peace is an oxymoron. In reality a nuclear capable world is just a tense standoff. If we’re not going to use them let’s get busy getting rid of them. If the idea is to posses the threat then we haven’t grown as an international community one iota in the past three decades, and that leaves us with men walking around with codes and buttons inside briefcases shackled to their wrists.
    NPT is useful in as much as less of a bad thing is better, but when we can wipe the face of the earth of living creatures 100 times over it’s really just semantics. A nuclear Iran is no more threatening than a nuclear North Korea, and in some respects no less than a nuclear Japan or the nuclear US.
    If we as an international community are okay with major powers pointing nukes at one another with restraint in their hearts then we must concede to our new friend Steven Pinker and his new age of reason which allows for Iran et al to harbour that same peace loving nuclear capable spirit.

    If Russia got rid of all their nukes would France, Britain and the US bomb them into oblivion? As a permanent resident of the reigning hegemon i think i can confidently say if the US got rid of its nuclear capabilities probably more than 51% of my compatriots would fear the reaper: Forget political will to accomplish it – is any state actually in danger after disarmament?

    • clintonwatson says:

      Ryan, just wondering in what ways you think a nuclear Iran would be no less threatening than a nuclear Japan or nuclear US? Do you not put any store in the NPT? To be a constructivist (for a change), isn’t the issue around following norms? North Korea is threatening because it pulled out of the NPT and doesn’t follow international norms. Pakistan and India are not very threatening at all as they are building up their arsenals at a snail pace and seem to be following international norms, even though they’re not part of the NPT. The US is respecting international norms in this area and is decreasing its nuclear stockpile in coordination with Russia. The UK’s stockpile has been steadily tracking down and Downing Street has spoken out in favour of going to zero. Paris is more coy, perhaps because of French dependence on nuclear energy or simply power projection for the gloire. Iran’s “cooperation” with the IAEA doesn’t exactly send strong signals about its willingness to abide by international norms.

      On your Russian quip, given so much nuclear waste from the West is sitting somewhere in Siberia, I highly doubt the US, UK and France would bomb Russian territory!

  5. rpgordon says:

    Obama has set forth his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. As idealistic as this is, it would certainly result in an increase in interstate conflicts and battle deaths. Nuclear deterrence is a significant reason why world war three did not eventuate during the Cold War – the threat of mutual destruction was too great to allow this to happen. Of course, nuclear weapons are not the only cause of the decline of interstate wars – luckily we learn from our mistakes – but they are certainly an important factor.

    I whole-heartedly disagree with the claim that a nuclear equipped Iran or N. Korea is no more a threat than a US or Japan with nuclear weapons. It would certainly spark a new arms race and the escalation in conflict. So far we have been lucky that man’s ego has not overcome his sense of reason, and we have not seen a full blown nuclear conflict. With the greater proliferation of weapons the likelihood of this occurring only increases. Just as there are strict controls on the ownership and proliferation of firearms in society, so too should the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons be strictly controlled. And just as I don’t want the unstable ex-con living next door (in the Hutt it’s probably true) so too do I not want a state like N. Korea possessing nuclear weapons. A nuclear war could be initiated accidently, pre-emptively or aggressively – either way it is the same result, which is utterly unacceptable.

    Nuclear weapons have helped to create a long peace – they are not the sole reason but they are certainly a significant one. Of course, there is a big risk in so closely tying strategic peace to the threat of the destruction of modern civilisation, and allowing such a small membership into the “Nuclear Club” allows members to act unilaterally with little fear of retribution. Of course, this may all be a moot point, as super powers continues to develop ever more advanced weapons and defences, (nano-bots, powerful cyber-attacks and “Star Wars” missile defence programs) and we approach a world where nuclear weapons may become out-dated or even obsolete. Maybe then we can allow every nation have access to nuclear weapons, for what does it matter when they can be knocked out of the sky before they have ever left their own borders or detonated in their own launch tubes? Now that is the ultimate nuclear deterrent.and as close to a guarantee as we are going to get that these nations nuclear development programs are truly limited to peaceful applications.

  6. adslater says:

    I find it interesting that it has taken this long for Waltz and other realists to (tentatively) extend the prevailing notion of a ‘balanced’ world underpinned by military capabilities, to nuclear arms. While the destructive capabilities of nuclear fission are undeniable and alarming, and stand out as a dire development in modern warfare, the same can surely be said of the development and use of gunpowder against the longbow or sword. I certainly wouldn’t want to be wielding a neo-paleolithic tomohawk at my foe, who resplendant in full military regalia, is patiently reloading and taking aim with his weapon of choice. When two armies stand opposed in equal strength, their exists an uneasy, yet undeniably higher likelihood of a peace. Nuclear waeapons must merely be considered as the latest in the evolution of methods designed to increase destructive capabilities and relative strength, and the desire for more ‘intelligent’ warfare.

    As mentioned above, at some point we may see nuclear threat superceded by some new and even more dire threat to our peace. Yet for now, unless those in the nuclear club are willing to dismantle their capabilities (!!), it seems that the unequal playing field at present allows a hegemonic bloc to asert its own agenda and jostle the international community accordingly. I do agree, however, that what is relied upon is a community of rational players – the threat derives not from Japan gaining greater (nuclear) military might, but from the possibility of a Kim Jong-il or an Assad deciding that their use is warranted. And this fear has pervaded international relations throughout history, and remains the basis of our discipline’s attempts to understand the causes of peace and war.

    I wonder the extent to which the public horror and ignorance that surrounds the so-called ‘nuclear threat’ has been created and utilised by players such as the US to thwart attempts at nuclear proliferation, in order to ensure their continued domination of the international community. Indeed, while anarchy is what you make of it, millitary capabilities are what you claim them to be – and for as long as the key NPT nuclear hegemons including US, UK, France and China are able to ensure their ongoing elitist status, we will be unable to realise a global peace – at least according to the realists…

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