The Upside of a Nuclear-Armed Iran: A Chat With Kenneth Waltz

BY P.J. Tobia  July 6, 2012 at 11:33 AM EST


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (center) visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facilities in 2008. Photo by the Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images.

Among a certain group of international relations and foreign affairs wonks, Kenneth Waltz is an iconic figure.

“He’s the most important international relations theorist of the past 50 years,” says John Mearsheimer, an international relations theorist at the University of Chicago and a Waltz devotee.

That’s why foreign policy cognoscenti were all atwitter when they picked up the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine and saw a cover story by Waltz with the headline: “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.”

Waltz has long argued that when it comes to nuclear weapons more may be better. But given the recent escalation of tensions and threats between Iran and, well, everyone not named Syria, Waltz’s position could best be described as a lonely one.

We recently caught up with the 89-year-old Waltz at his home on Maine’s central coast. Our conversation was edited for clarity and length:

How is it possible that a nuclear-armed Iran makes the Mideast a safer place?

“The region is severely unbalanced. Israel has long been the most powerful and dominating state and the result is an imbalance. … So long as power is unbalanced, the situation in that area will be unstable. It’s unusual for one state to dominate its region for a long period of time, though it’s not unprecedented. We can think of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and look what the result was. Only when the Soviet Union and United States came into balance was stability obtained.

“Never has there been an instance in almost 70 years now of the nuclear era in which a nuclear capable country has attacked the obvious vital interest of another nuclear state. It’s very unusual to be able to use the word ‘never’ in international politics. Countries do not attack based on nuclear weapons. In other words, they are peacemaking weapons. It is absolutely unprecedented to have (this) long an era without major wars between the major powers.

“Nevertheless, people do not seem to appreciate that nuclear weapons bring peace.” (laughs)

The prevailing wisdom among many here in Washington is that nuclear weapons would embolden Iran, especially their support for non-state actors like Hezbollah. Wouldn’t a nuclear Iran be able to act with impunity against Israel?

“I guess it’s a characteristic of people in the Washington (D.C.) area that they don’t ever think in historical terms. … We now have nine or 10 nuclear states and in each case the effect of their getting nuclear weapons has been to calm things down. (Chinese ruler) Mao Zedong was making statements that frightened everybody … yet despite the horror of the Cultural Revolution, and 10 years of chaos, China calmed down once it became a possessor of nuclear weapons.

“Obtaining nuclear weapons is a sobering event.”

But how about those non-state actors?

“No country is going to risk being detected passing nuclear weapons to somebody else. One thing we know about the United States, is that our detection capabilities are awesome. Any state would have to be crazy (to do that), and maybe there are some members of the Iranian leadership that are reckless, but most of them are not.”

Wouldn’t a nuclear-armed Iran spark a Mideast arms race?

“The fact is that nuclear weapons stop arms races. You could say that there was an arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union, both of them piling up nuclear weapons beyond all possible use and reason. … Indian and Pakistani leaders have made statements saying, ‘We’re not going to make the same mistakes that the U.S. and Soviet Union made.’ Once you get a very small number of nuclear weapons you have enough … you can only use them for deterrence.

“Everybody thinks that once another country, especially if it seems to some to be the wrong country, the dam is going to break. But if that were the case we would now have lots and lots of nuclear armed states, yet nuclear weapons have spread so excruciatingly slowly. So what is the warrant to think — where up to now everything has moved at a very stately pace — that all of a sudden, things would speed up frantically.”

After India got the bomb, Pakistan followed with their own display of nuclear weaponry within a month. That’s awfully speedy, no?

“Nuclear weapon states tend to come in hostile pairs. But look how long it took this hostile pair to form. Israel got nuclear weapons long ago and no other state (in the region) has them. Now Iran might get them. That’s hardly what you would call a rapid pace.”

So you really think the Saudis would just sit there and let their greatest rival have a nuclear weapon without responding in kind?

“Yes, I really do. The Saudis are much better off relying on us (the U.S.) than getting their own nuclear weapons. … It would in fact solidify their reliance on the United States.”

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