Commentary Magazine


Iranian Nukes? Don’t Worry, Says Prof

An op-ed piece in USA Today appears under the almost satirical headline “Iranian nukes? No worries.”

It advises, “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.” A nuclear Iran, the author of the piece writes, would counter “Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly,” which “has long fueled instability in the Middle East.”

I’m all for counterintuitive op-ed pieces that re-examine widely held assumptions, and it’s tempting to dismiss this one as so silly as to be unworthy of a serious response. But USA Today says the article is a condensed version of a longer piece that will appear in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. Its author, Kenneth Waltz, is an adjunct professor in the department of political science at Columbia University. His biography says he has also taught at Brandeis and at the United States Air Force Academy.

So it’s worth taking a moment or two to point out the problems with Professor Waltz’s argument. First, there’s that word “probably.” Waltz writes, “It is impossible to be certain of Iranian intentions, it is far more likely that if Iran desires nuclear weapons, it is for the purpose of enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities.”

“Probably” and “likely” aren’t all that reassuring. If Waltz is wrong and the Iranians do launch a nuclear attack aimed at Tel Aviv, Washington, or New York, the consequences would be catastrophic.

Second, there’s a double standard when it comes to the Israeli A-bomb and an Iranian one. Waltz writes that “by reducing imbalances in military power, new nuclear states generally produce more regional and international stability, not less.” But he blames Israel’s nukes for fueling instability. (Never mind the question of whether “stability” is something that should be desired in the case of some of the Middle East’s more tyrannical or otherwise backward regimes.)

Third, Waltz writes:

Another oft-touted worry is that if Iran obtains the bomb, other states in the region will follow suit, leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. But the nuclear age is now almost 70 years old, and fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded. When Israel acquired the bomb in the 1960s, it was at war with many of its neighbors. If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.

The lack of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East hasn’t been for lack of trying by Israel’s neighbors. Rather, Iraq’s Osirak reactor was bombed by Israel in 1981, and a Syrian nuclear site was flattened in 2007 in an action that is widely attributed to Israel.

Anyway, consider the USA Today article the latest proof that some ideas are so far out there that only Columbia professors believe them. Let’s hope it stays that way, because if Europe or the United Nations or the Obama administration are looking for an argument to justify standing by while Iran gets the bomb, the Waltz argument may prove too readily available to resist.