Bill Keller’s piece in the New York Times examines the options that the international community has available when dealing with the Iranian nuclear question. His subtle belief in a deterrent MAD in the Middle East is howver, both misplaced and anachronistic. This is not the cold war; and there will be a no green phone between the White House and Keller’s ‘nuclear mullahs’.
Keller naively brushes off the genuine threat of a nuclear arms race by noting:
“A second worry is that a Persian Bomb would set off a regional nuclear arms race. This is probably an exaggerated fear. A nuclear program is not cheap or easy.”
This is a terribly weak argument. Pakistan and India are hardly the richest countries in the world. North Korea is in fact one of the poorest. Yet they still managed to develop nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia (a country not short of cash!) and the Egyptians have already indicated that they would consider “going nuclear” in the face of a nuclear Perisan Shia state in the East. Likewise, the neo-Ottomanism of today’s Turkey, suggests that this Sunni state, vying for greater geo-political influence, would also initiate its own nuclear program.
Keller’s piece comes in the wake of Kenneth Waltz’ treatise on the subject:
“One reason the danger of a nuclear Iran has been grossly exaggerated is that the debate surrounding it has been distorted by misplaced worries and fundamental misunderstandings of how states generally behave in the international system. The first prominent concern, which undergirds many others, is that the Iranian regime is innately irrational. Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, Iranian policy is made not by “mad mullahs” but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders. Although Iran’s leaders indulge in inflammatory and hateful rhetoric, they show no propensity for self-destruction.”
Kenneth N. Waltz ignores the fundamentals of Shi’a Islam and some clear historical precedents of the Islamic Republic of Iran showing a distinct propensity for self-destruction (at least on a mass human level – if not as a regime). With martyrdom a core tenet of Shi’a Islam, Iran has sponsored suicide terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Thailand, Bulgaria etc. Every year during their Ashura celebrations, Iranian zealots march through the streets, beating themselves and whipping themselves until they bleed. During the Iran-Iraq war of the early ‘80s, Khomeini sent thousands upon thousands of young Iranians to their deaths in “human wave” attacks. Iranian leaders have also hinted that losing a few million Iranians would surely be worth it, if indeed it meant wiping out Israel, the country they repeatedly call a “cancer”
To his credit, even Stephen Walt – a disciple of Waltz and the realists club – has the intellectual honesty to flag the faults of this proposition:
I think it would be better for us and for the region if Iran did not get the bomb. After all, taken to its logical conclusion, Waltz’s argument implies that the United States ought to simply give Iran a few nuclear weapons (along with appropriate safeguards against unauthorized use), as a way of making the region more stable. Pretty hard to imagine that happening.
Robert Manning’s response to Waltz is well worth a read in its entirety.
Manning employs regional nuance and focuses on the contemporary geo-political (and religious) reality of the Middle East:
“Differences in geography, history, and culture between the contemporary Middle East and the bipolar realities of the Cold war–not to mention an entire region engulfed in turmoil of historic proportions– raise questions about how much the balance-of-terror logic would apply to the region. The risks of miscalculation in a volatile region are enough to raise doubts.”
He goes on to note:
“One need look no further than the antagonism between the Saudi/GCC backing of anti-Assad forces and Iran’s full-blown support for Damascus for evidence of volatile passions bumping up against each other. A Sunni-Shia quasi-proxy war is playing out not just in Syria but in varying degrees, across the region from Lebanon to Yemen.
Waltz argues that since, “an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race…there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.” He claims that once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, deterrence will apply: “No other country in the region will have an incentive to acquire its own nuclear capability.”
Has he talked to the Saudis, Egyptians or Turks lately?”
Manning highlights just why Iran would be a particularly dangerous nuclear power:
“In its quest for regional dominance, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and elite Qods force have allegedly been mucking around from Afghanistan to Yemen so extensively that it is difficult to imagine that a nuclear Iran would sow much additional mischief.
In fact, it is this Iranian imperialism — with a Shia missionary overlay — that makes Iran’s nuclear ambitions particularly troubling. Iran’s actions suggest that it is still a revolutionary state, not a status quo power seeking acceptance in the global order.”
Manning has hit the nail on the head. MAD doesn’t work in the Middle East – and certainly not with Iran. Bill Keller in the meantime, continues to search for an answer. He rounds off his piece with a “third” way:
“What statesmen do when faced with bad options is create new ones. The third choice in this case is to negotiate a deal that lets Iran enrich uranium for civilian use (as it is entitled to do under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty), that applies rigorous safeguards (because Iran cheats), that gradually relaxes sanctions and brings this wayward country into the community of more-or-less civilized nations.”
Negotiations have been tried. Unfortunately they have thus far failed to stop Iran’s march toward the bomb. As Keller shrewdly notes; Iran cheats. It lies, defies and dupes. The IAEA has discovered this (over and over again), and slowly the rest of the world are following suit.