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Nuclear-Armed Iran Would Bring ‘Stability’ But Risks

July 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
John Mearsheimer, political science professor at the University of Chicago, says a nuclear-armed Iran would bring stability to the region, but Dov Zakheim, former Pentagon official now with the Center for Naval Analyses, says it would trigger an arms race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: two views on whether a nuclear-armed Iran makes the Middle East a safer place.

John Mearsheimer is a professor at the University of Chicago. He’s a West Point graduate and former Air Force officer. And he’s written extensively on strategic issues. Dov Zakheim served in the Pentagon during the administrations of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. He’s now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And, gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

John Mearsheimer, I’m going to start with you.

This all did start with that article in “Foreign Affairs” magazine by Kenneth Waltz. You don’t go as far as he does in arguing that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a net positive. But you do agree with him that it would bring stability to the region. Why?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, University of Chicago: I think there’s no question that a nuclear-armed Iran would bring stability to the region, because nuclear weapons are weapons of peace. They’re weapons of deterrence.

They have hardly any offensive capability at all. And if Iran had a nuclear deterrent, there’s no way that the United States or Israel, for that matter, would be threatening to attack Iran now, in the same way that if Saddam had had nuclear weapons in 2003, the United States wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, and if Libya had nuclear weapons in 2011, the United States wouldn’t have gone to war against Libya.

So I think that if you had a Middle East where other states besides Israel — and this, of course, includes Iran — had a nuclear deterrent, it would be a more peaceful region. But the problem is that there is always some small possibility that there will be nuclear use.

And the most likely scenario is what’s oftentimes referred to as inadvertent escalation. And this is where you have a conventional war that starts off with no intention of turning into a nuclear war, but inadvertently escalates to the nuclear level.

And you can hypothesize all sorts of situations, for example, where a conventional war between India and Pakistan, which both have nuclear weapons, escalates from the conventional to the nuclear level. And, of course, the same logic applies to the Middle East.

There’s only a small, a very small possibility that that would happen. But that small possibility is enough to make me very wary of the idea of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. So you’re saying you buy the idea it adds stability. You do have the very serious caveat about the idea of conventional warfare getting out of control.

But let’s just focus on this idea that it would bring stability, Dov Zakheim. You heard John Mearsheimer say that they are inherently peaceful weapons. They are a deterrent, as they were during the Cold War. What about that argument?

DOV ZAKHEIM, former Pentagon official: Well, inherently peaceful is hard to imagine in terms of nuclear weapons. They ended World War II, after all.

But the problem is sort of magnified by what John Mearsheimer just said. If Iran acquires these weapons — that’s assuming that the Israelis don’t attack ahead of time or that someone else doesn’t attack ahead of time — if they get these weapons, that is definitely going to cause at least three or four more countries in the region to acquire those weapons as well, probably Saudi Arabia, probably the United Arab Emirates, possibly Turkey, possibly Egypt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean because they would want to. . .

DOV ZAKHEIM: Either because they will be afraid of Iranian nuclear blackmail, or they will be afraid that Iran could transfer technology to those who might attack them in some way.

I mean, after all, look at what Pakistan did with its nuclear technology. Look at what North Korea did with its nuclear technology.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying it would set off an arms race?

DOV ZAKHEIM: It will set off a chain of nuclear weapon states.

And what you will then have is essentially, from Europe’s borders with Russia, all the way to China, nuclear states cheek by jowl, and all it takes is one mistake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Mearsheimer, why wouldn’t that happen, which would clearly not be a more stable situation?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, it’s possible there will be some proliferation. It wouldn’t bet against the fact that maybe Turkey or Saudi Arabia would acquire nuclear weapons.

But people have been predicting widespread proliferation for decades now, and it’s never happened. But I think there are two reasons that it wouldn’t happen. One is that the Iranians wouldn’t be able to blackmail anybody in the neighborhood with their nuclear weapons.

We have created this myth in this country over the past few years in talking about Iran that any country that acquires nuclear weapons can blackmail other countries or use those nuclear weapons for offensive purposes. We have a lot of theory and a huge amount of empirical evidence, 67 years now, which show that no country with nuclear weapons can blackmail another country, as long as somebody is protecting that country or it has its own nuclear weapons.

And this leads to the second reason. The United States is going to extend its nuclear umbrella over Saudi Arabia and over Turkey, the way it extended it over Germany and Japan during the Cold War. And we will make it perfectly clear to the Iranians that they cannot blackmail anybody.

So there will be no great incentive for Turkey or for Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons. But even if they do acquire nuclear weapons, what are they going to do with them?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I will turn that back with you, and then I want to follow up with a question.


The problem is, of course, it’s not likely that anybody is going to use them. But if there’s any chance at all, any chance that somebody might, the more countries that have these weapons, the likelier it becomes that someone might use them.

And, in a crisis — most people think that nuclear weapons may well ultimately be used in an Indo-Pak war. And they did go to war after they tested nuclear weapons. So the whole idea — one of the things Waltz argues, by the way, is that countries with nuclear weapons don’t go to war with each other. In fact, they do.

Even China and the Soviet Union went to war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask about — Dov Zakheim, another fundamental point. . .


JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . just quickly, that Kenneth Waltz makes.

And that is that it is not Iran that would be creating instability, but it’s the existing instability created by Israel. You read what he wrote, that this longstanding — the fact that Israel alone has had nuclear weapons has created an imbalance, and that as long as that’s the case, there will be an imbalance in the region.

DOV ZAKHEIM: Yes. In fact, what he said is that it’s caused instability, Israel has, for the last 40 years.

So, therefore, Israel’s nuke already weapons caused the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It caused Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It’s caused the Arab spring and all the instability that has taken place there. Of course it’s the cause of the Syrian civil war as well. Look at all the things the Israeli nuclear weapons have caused.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quick response, Mr. Mearsheimer.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: But I don’t think that Israel has caused hardly any of those problems. There’s no debate with Dov on that particular point.

But the fact is that if Iran had nuclear weapons, it’s extremely unlikely that you would have another Iran-Iraq war. And if Iran had nuclear weapons, Israel and the United States wouldn’t be threatening Iran today. This is Waltz’s basic point, that because nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction and they would

lead to possible annihilation of any two countries that got into a nuclear war, it therefore makes war extremely unlikely, or is therefore unlikely when nuclear weapons are present.

DOV ZAKHEIM: And that’s not the case. India and Pakistan went to war after they both had nuclear weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both. Very, very. . .

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: I didn’t say it was impossible.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Very, very tough subject. We thank you both, John Mearsheimer, Dov Zakheim.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And, online, we have an interview with Kenneth Waltz, that scholar we spoke of whose foreign policy article argues that a nuclear Iran would offer more stability, not less.