« Where’s the Coverage? Google Chairman Recommends Investment in Israel | Main | Ha'aretz, Lost in Translation, XV »

June 21, 2012

Kenneth Waltz Thinks Iranian Acquisition of Nukes is a Good Thing

Dr. Strangelove with caption.JPG
President to the Russian Ambassador: Now then Dimitri. You know how we've always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb. The bomb, Dimitri. The hydrogen bomb. Well now what happened is, one of our base commanders, he had a sort of, well he went a little funny in the head. You know. Just a little... funny. And uh, he went and did a silly thing. ... (listens) ... Well, I'll tell you what he did, he ordered his planes... to attack your country. (Excerpt from Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

USA Today published an Op-Ed on Monday, June 18 by Kenneth Waltz arguing that "a nuclear-armed Iran would probably be the best possible result of the standoff and the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East."

Some excerpts present Waltz's logic. He offers three possibilities for how the current Iranian nuclear crisis could end:
1) Diplomacy and sanctions convince Iran to give up pursuit of nuclear weapons.
2) Iran doesn't test a weapon, but develops the capacity to build one.
3) Iran builds a weapon and tests it.

Waltz likes option 3 and he tells us why.

First, Waltz dismisses U.S. and Israeli concerns about Iranian nuclear weapons as "typical of major powers, which have historically gotten riled up whenever another country begins to develop a nuclear weapon."

Second, he claims Israel's regional monopoly on nuclear weapons "has long fueled regional instability... It is Israel's nuclear arsenal, not Iran's desire for one, that has contributed most to the crisis." Waltz is mistaken, Israel's alleged nuclear capacity has not spurred its long-time adversaries, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to develop nuclear weapons. But the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons has.

Third, Waltz asserts, "the danger of a nuclear Iran has been grossly exaggerated due to fundamental misunderstandings of how states generally behave in the international system." Thanks. Feeling better? Waltz's analysis may hinge on the observation that the huge arsenals possessed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union dissuaded both powers from using their weapons against the other. Waltz apparently believes the same rational behavior can be expected from Iran.

A few commentators have already weighed in. Gary Schmitt, former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wonders "Maybe we could even begin handing out nukes on the street corner. By Waltz’s logic, it’s likely to reduce crime as well."

Ira Stoll at Commentary focuses in on Waltz's smug reliance on "probably" and "likely" when figuring the odds that Iran will act rationally and not launch a nuclear attack on Tel Aviv or New York. What if Waltz is wrong? What if the Iranians really mean it when they say they want to erase Israel from the map?

That is no big deal for Waltz, like betting on the wrong horse. But it is a serious problem for the residents of Tel Aviv. What odds can they tolerate?

While it may be tempting to parody Waltz's lack of concern over Iranian nuclear weapons, it is sobering to recognize that Waltz is a professor at Columbia University and that Foreign Affairs, a serious publication, has published an expanded version of the USA Today Op-Ed in its July-August 2012 issue.

As an analyst of the Iranian nuclear crisis, Waltz reveals himself to be a fantasist. He concludes with the assertion that "citizens worldwide should take comfort from the fact that where nuclear capabilities have emerged, so, too, has stability. When it comes to nuclear weapons, now as ever, more could be better."

Dr. Strangelove couldn't have said it better.

Posted by SS at June 21, 2012 04:03 PM


Kenneth Waltz is either terminally naive or totally illogical when he states that Iran having nuclear weapons would add to stability in the Middle East. The result would be the elimination of Israel and Iranian dominance in the region. Perhaps temporary stability but at the expense of the international community.

Posted by: Nelson Marans at June 21, 2012 05:01 PM

I am always amazed when people claim that the Cold War proves that nukes make relations more stable. The two sides nearly nuked each other at least 5 times during the 40 year period both had nuclear weapons.

Posted by: Danny Black at June 22, 2012 01:04 PM

As recently as 1995 the Russians came close to nuking the US when a rocket carrying scientific equipment was misinterpreted as a nuclear missile (the trajectory and radar appearance were extremely misleading). Boris Yeltsin had his nuclear suitcase activated and prepared for launching an attack, which neither side had ever even undertaken during the Cold War. Thankfully, Yeltsin held off and Russian observers were able to determine the rocket was not a threat.

It takes incredible judgement, restraint, and even technical prowess for a country with nuclear weapons to refrain from using them in situations such as this. Iran's leaders may appear to act with something approaching rationality, but they have also been prone to lashing out unpredictably when threatened. I am very doubtful that Iran's leadership will be able to resist launching a nuclear attack when facing such a threat, real or imagined.

Posted by: anon at June 22, 2012 10:12 PM

The writer here may be presenting a false choice. Waltz also references opinions by leading analysts indicating that a military strike on Iran would only set its nuclear program back a few years, in which case the U.S. and Israel would face only a more-hostile nuclear Iran. Additionally, the risk that the strikes do not work or that the strikes result in a broader conflict between the U.S. and Israel, on the one hand, and Iran on the other, may make the military strike option more risky than the diplomacy option.

Posted by: Ben at June 26, 2012 05:48 PM

I think that Waltz idea is correct but how will you solve problem of balance of power in the world and balance of power in the middle east. I think there is a contradictions among them.

Posted by: f.jafari at June 28, 2012 05:15 AM

Was the Cold War a "good thing" other than for not turning "hot?"

Posted by: Frank Adam at June 29, 2012 07:05 AM

Guidelines for posting

This is a moderated blog. We will not post comments that include racism, bigotry, threats, or factually inaccurate material.

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)