In the article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs that Ira Stoll and Jonathan Neumann discussed, Professor Kenneth Waltz asserts that “if” Iran desires nuclear weapons, the purpose is likely “enhancing its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities.” He is apparently uncertain whether Iran has such a desire but relatively sure about Iran’s intentions if it does. He thinks we have (to use the headings in his article) “Unfounded Fears” and can “Rest Assured” an Iranian bomb will be purely defensive.

Ira called the article “the latest proof that some ideas are so far out there that only Columbia professors believe them.” Only Columbia professors — and perhaps a former University of Chicago lecturer in constitutional law. In 2007, two months into his presidential candidacy, Barack Obama told David Brooks an Iranian bomb would be deterrable: “I think Iran is like North Korea. They see nuclear arms in defensive terms, as a way to prevent regime change.” Several months later, Israel bombed a nuclear plant in Syria for which North Korea had provided plans and personnel, in an area not previously considered part of the North Korean defense perimeter.

Earlier this year, President Obama told AIPAC “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” It sounds resolute, but days before the speech White House aides told the New York Times Secretary Clinton erred when she assured the House Foreign Affairs Committee the policy was to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The administration reiterated to the Washington Post that its red line is not capability but production of a nuclear weapon – what John Bolton has derisively called “just in time” deterrence.

In that connection, we should note what Prof. Waltz considers the three possible outcomes of the current crisis: (1) diplomacy and sanctions convincing Iran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon – an outcome he thinks unlikely; (2) Iran stopping after developing a breakout capability, allowing it to produce a nuclear weapon in the future on short notice – an outcome he thinks the U.S. and its European allies might accept but that Iran may deem an insufficient deterrent; and (3) Iran continuing its current course and getting a weapon – an outcome repeatedly declared “unacceptable” but which, he notes, has a history:

“Such language is typical of major powers, which have historically gotten riled up whenever another country has begun to develop a nuclear weapon of its own. Yet so far, every time another country has managed to shoulder its way into the nuclear club, the other members have always changed tack and decided to live with it.”

The current negotiations with Iran have the hallmarks of a process too big to fail, no one daring to call it a final failure lest action be required. Iran has seen what the U.S. didn’t do regarding North Korea (under both the Bush and Obama administrations), and may believe President Obama will eventually reinstate his 2007 view, after his “policy” is overtaken by a fait accompli. An election-year AIPAC speech may suffice for American Jews, but Iran is more likely to pay attention to articles such as Professor Waltz’s in Foreign Affairs and bank on post-election flexibility if Obama is re-elected.

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