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Opinion | A World beyond Waltz: Neither Iran nor Israel Should Have the Bomb


25 Sep 2012 20:26Comments

In today's Middle East, advocating a nuclear-armed "balance of power" is folly.

Jacek Kugler is a scholar of international relations and former chair of the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. He is the former editor of International Interactions and past president of the International Studies Association and the Peace Science Society. He founded Sentia Group Inc., dedicated to the formal study of decision making, policy analysis, and advice. He has been a consultant to the IMF, the World Bank, and the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, among others.
[ opinion ] Nuclear proliferation is one of the most pressing manmade challenges to human existence. In the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, the much respected Kenneth Waltz, a monumental figure in the realist school of international relations, made the case that Iran should develop a nuclear weapon. As unpopular as this conclusion is in the current Washington political environment, there are those who concur with Waltz's provocative argument. As someone who has dedicated more than four decades to the formal study of deterrence, I believe it is imperative to reject any such advocacy of what is popularly referred to as balance of power, effectively synonymous with realism. The only variable that matters to most realists is power, a dangerously oversimplified and dated perception of global affairs that is anything but realistic.

Realists such as Waltz argue that since there is no nuclear balance of power in the region, the Middle East is unstable. They contend that Israel's monopoly on nuclear weapons is a destabilizing factor that dissuades its neighbors from negotiating with them in fear of strengthening the already strong Israeli position in the region. These advocates conclude that a nuclear-armed Iran would bring stability to the Middle East by achieving a balance of power. In spite of what appears to be a reasonable argument, the conclusion overlooks and reverses two decades of empirically and formally derived findings regarding nuclear stability.

There are substantive differences between the realist view and the latest empirical assessments of the consequences of nuclear proliferation. Realists contend that a nuclear-armed Iran would not proliferate such technology any more than have other nations. Indeed, experience shows that North Korea and Pakistan transferred technology and nuclear know-how, but so did Russia, the United States, France, and Israel, as did other nations that possess nonlethal nuclear technology. The issue is to whom Iran might plausibly transfer technology in circumstances like those at present. The Iranian government does not hide the fact that it already trains and equips groups, in particular Hamas and Hezbollah, that are fundamentally opposed to the United States and their Israeli neighbors. The simple fear that nuclear arms technology might proliferate to these groups would be enough to further destabilize the Middle East.

This brings us to the fundamental question: Would the Middle East be stable if nations reached similar capabilities, in essence balanced against one another as Waltz proposes? Contrary to popular belief, empirical and formal evidence indicates that a balance of nuclear capabilities does not lead to peace. As nice as it sounds, the notion that balance of power leads to stability is a myth. Before nuclear weapons, the most severe wars in the last three centuries -- the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II -- with their long durations and enormous casualties were all waged when contenders achieved a balance of power. There is extensive evidence that increasing the cost of war reduces the likelihood of war, but a balance of power sets the preconditions for massive war. If there are grievances among competing states, a balance of capabilities is more likely to prompt war. Balance of power is stable only if contenders have at least a minimal level of trust while at the same time they accept the role of great powers in the international system.

Such was the case during the Cold War. Although the Soviet Union and the United States were at odds, both participated in the international system to some level of satisfaction. In spite of their rivalries, each maintained an embassy in the opposing country that could communicate messages between leaders. This is not the case with Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to undermine the international system, sometimes rejecting it outright. In addition, it has no formal diplomatic relations with the United States or Israel, making communication difficult and more uncertain. Under these circumstances, balance of power in the Middle East sets the necessary preconditions for more conflict. Advocating a balance of power so that Iran and Israel coexist in an environment characterized by deep animosity is folly.

Adding nuclear weapons to Iran's arsenal would increase the cost of war but would not increase stability. Iran or any other country in the Middle East does not require a large or sophisticated arsenal to achieve a "nuclear balance" that assures mutual assured destruction (MAD). The region's populations are so are highly concentrated that even the largest countries such as Egypt and Iran would be devastated by three to five relatively small nuclear strikes. Given Israel's small size and dense population centers, it could not survive several small nuclear strikes equivalent to those endured by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Adding to the danger of a nuclear strike in this region is the geographic proximity that reduces warning time to minutes, limiting the effectiveness of any anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense scheme. Furthermore, nontraditional means of weapon delivery such as the smuggling of a bomb into the heart of one of an adversaries' few major cities challenges the prospect of an effective defense. In the highly charged environment of the Middle East, advocating that Iran acquire nuclear capabilities to balance those of Israel is a call to disaster.

Founded fears

Deterrence is more complex than simply nuclear parity. It requires a minimal level of acceptance of the international order, as evidenced by the Cold War. The only way to unconditionally deter a hostile state, contrary to Waltz, is through nuclear preponderance. U.S. nuclear preponderance secured peace between 1945 to 1956 because the United States was generally satisfied with the international system it established. The United States chose not to use its nuclear weapons in Korea or during the Berlin crisis because the international status quo was favorable to it. Waltz tacitly admits that Israel's nuclear monopoly has contributed to stability, though he concurrently claims that nuclear asymmetry is the cause of the current instability. From my perspective, Israel's nuclear preponderance prevents large-scale wars in the region from breaking out, constraining the spread of civil and small proxy wars. Preserving nuclear and military preponderance is, however, unlikely.

From about 1965 through 1999, the USSR and the United States did not engage in a large-scale war because NATO was far larger and better armed than the Warsaw Pact. The USSR led a coalition that could choose only between a conventional defeat or a nuclear exchange that would have destroyed both them and the West. The absence of a direct conflict between the USSR and the United States was not because of nuclear weapons but in spite of it. To this day, the Cuban missile crisis is the one direct confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers that explicitly involved threats of a nuclear war. The USSR backed off because its inferior military position in the Caribbean sphere dictated retreat. Had the Cold War extended beyond 1999, had the USSR expanded its military capabilities to match those of the West, the likelihood of a global nuclear war would hardly be lower than it is now. This is precisely what Waltz advocates to stabilize the Middle East and it is imperative to reject this argument.

Waltz also turns to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and India to buttress his argument. In fact, their relationship echoes the early Cold War situation. India's military capabilities are massively superior, sufficient to destroy every urban areas in Pakistan. Further, Pakistan and India, despite their nuclear status, have not yet resolved long-held grievances. The Pakistan-India dispute will decline not because nuclear weapons are present but because military disparity will increase in favor of India. Waltz proposes to add a nuclear balance to a volatile Middle East that will face several military transitions in the next half century. Such advice is dangerous.

A nuclear balance between Iran and Israel would be unstable because not only do they have long-held grievances, they are drifting toward further antagonism as political decisions are guided by increasingly rigid and antagonistic religious stances, precisely when Israel's conventional military preponderance is declining. Nuclear preponderance would help stability but were Israel to successfully destroy Iran's current nuclear facilities, Iran's determination to acquire nuclear capabilities would no doubt increase along with a desire to transfer primitive devices to terrorists. Further, Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons could prompt Turkey and Egypt to seek them as well. In summary, a nuclear balance in the Middle East would tremendously increase the likelihood of a regional nuclear holocaust.

What can be done?

In the Middle East, the path to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war is to eliminate nuclear weapons. Before signing the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco, which prohibits nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, Argentina and Brazil were racing to develop nuclear weapons. Since the treaty was signed, Latin Americans' economic cooperation and political coordination have improved and confrontations have diminished. There is no reason to believe as Waltz claims that enhancing the ability of Iran and Israel to terrorize each other will settle long-term grievances. The Middle East with two or even three or more nuclear nations will likely be less stable, less secure, and less able to resolve disputes. Prohibiting nuclear weapons in the Middle East points to a way forward.

Today it seems inconceivable that Israel would give up its nuclear capability even if Iran agreed to do likewise. But the inconceivable is possible. Germany and France cooperated in the creation of the European Union. South Africa gave up nuclear weapons during its final years under white minority rule. The logical way to persuade Iran to give up nuclear capabilities is to persuade Israel to do the same. I propose a new institution, a Nuclear Security Council in which major nuclear powers have no veto power but each and all provide an ironclad nuclear umbrella that ensures nuclear retaliation against any nuclear attack on any Middle Eastern nation. Such guarantees may move Israel, Iran, and other Middle Eastern nations to establish a regional nuclear-free zone. During this difficult transition period, the survival of all Middle Eastern nations should be a global priority. A nuclear-balanced terror is counterproductive -- it is up to the regional and global communities to find a path to permanent peace.

All opinions expressed are the author's own. Photo: Reenactment of "Operation Ramazan" during the Iran-Iraq War. This week marked the 32nd anniversary of the start of the war.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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