The danger of nuclear deterrence

The idea that Iran should have nuclear weapons puts too much faith on the rationality and prudence of leaders.

Iran nuclear
Political Scientist Kenneth Waltz recently argued in favour of allowing Iran to acquire the bomb [GALLO/GETTY]

It seems surprising that the ultra-establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, would go to the extreme of publishing “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” by the noted political scientist, Kenneth Waltz, as a lead article in its current issue.

It is actually not the eye-catching title, but the reasoning of the article that flies in the face of the anti-proliferation ethos that has been the consensus lynchpin of nuclear weapons states. Waltz takes pains to avoid disavowing his mainstream political identity. He repeats the escalating assumption that Iran is currently seeking nuclear weapons without pausing, although he concedes it might be only trying to have a “breakout” capability – the capacity in a national emergency to assemble a few bombs in a matter of months – enjoyed by Japan and several other countries.

Nowhere does Waltz allude to the recently publicised agreement among the 14 American intelligence agencies, which concludes there is no evidence that Iran has decided to resume its abandoned 2003 military programme.

Coupled with some of the other arguments he puts forth, Waltz signals his general support for the American approach to Israeli security. Make no mistake: Waltz is neither a political dissenter nor a policy radical.

Waltz’s three scenarios

Waltz insists that aside from the breakout option, sanctions and coercive diplomacy are two plausible scenarios that might induce Iran “to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons”. However, he regards the scenario in which the country is unable to overcome a genuine appetite for the bomb, or that it defies the pressures and acquires nuclear weapons as the most desirable of the three options.

Option D is an anti-nuclear posture that implicitly acknowledges the moral abomination of the idea of basing security upon the threat of annihilating hundreds of thousand innocent people.”

It seems reasonable to wonder why. The answer: Waltz believes that experience and logic dictate that relations among states become more stable and less war-prone when a balance is maintained, and that there is no reason to think Iran would not comply with the deterrence regime in place since 1945 if it acquired nuclear weapons. Here, Waltz expresses a wildly exaggerated faith in the rationality and prudence of leaders who make decisions on matters of war and peace.

He does make one contextual argument that is correct: Israel alone possessing a regional nuclear monopoly is more dangerous and undesirable than Iran becoming a second nuclear weapons state in the region. If Israel is deterred, it would contribute to peace and security in region, reducing (but not eliminating) the prospect of any use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

But to say that A (Iran gets the bomb) is better than B (breakout capability but no bomb) and C (sanctions and diplomacy persuade Iran to forego bomb) is to forget about D, which is far better than A, B and C in relation to sustainable stability.

Why? Because Option D is an anti-nuclear posture that implicitly acknowledges the moral abomination of the idea of basing security upon the threat of annihilating hundreds of thousand innocent people. This anti-nuclear posture was substantially endorsed by a majority of judges in a ground-breaking Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on June 8 1996, but their implications for international law were – not surprisingly – cast aside by the nuclear weapons states.

The case for Option D

What exactly is Option D? Significantly, Waltz does not even mention it, even though he has undoubtedly thought of it. He must think the option is so inconsistent with the hard power realities of global diplomacy that it would be foolish and irrelevant even to discuss it. Option D would involve the negotiation and implementation of a nuclear weapons free zone throughout the Middle East, reinforced by non-aggression commitments, normalisation of economic and political relations, and ideally a just and sustainable Palestine/Israel Peace Treaty.

Needless to say, D is not in the Netanyahu playbook, and possibly no Israeli leader would be willing to give up the nuclear weapons arsenal that Israel has been developing over the last four decades. And it seems fair to guess that it is also not in Waltz’s playbook, which, if put forward, would put him at odds with the realist camp, and likely have resulted in his piece being rejected by the vigilant editors of Foreign Affairs.

Waltz’s preference for A – favouring an Iranian bomb – is an extension of his long-standing advocacy of proliferation as desirable, carrying confidence in the logic of deterrence to absurd degrees. At least, Waltz sensibly equates the Middle East with the rest of the world, and not engaging in the widespread practice of ethno-religious profiling: Israel’s bomb is okay because it is a rational and “Western”, while Iran’s bomb would be a world class disaster as it is governed by implacable Islamic zealots.

If such distinctions should ever be made, it is Israel that has been threatening war while Iran has peacefully tolerated a variety of severe provocations, like the assassination of several nuclear scientists, the infection of its enrichment centrifuges with the Stuxnet virus, and verified violent covert acts designed to destabilise the regime in Tehran. Had such incidents been reversed, it is more than 100 per cent likely that Israel would have immediately gone to war against Iran, quite likely setting the entire region on fire.

Objections to Option A

My basic objection to the Waltz position is a disagreement with two of his guiding assumptions. First, he assumes that other countries in the region would not follow Iran across the nuclear threshold, an assessment he bases largely on their failure to acquire nuclear weapons. But surely Saudi Arabia and Turkey would not, for reasons of status and security, want to be non-nuclear states in a region where both Israel and Iran have the bomb.

Such an expansion of the regional nuclear club would become more prone to accident, miscalculation, and the sort of social and political pathology that makes nuclear weaponry generally unfit for human use, whatever the occasion. In this respect, the more governments possess the bomb, the more likely it seems that one of these “irrational” scenarios will become history with catastrophic consequences.

We now know that even beyond the devastation and radiation, the smoke released by the use of as few as 50 nuclear bombs would generate so much smoke as to block sunlight from the earth for as long as a decade.”

And secondly, Waltz does not single out nuclear weapons for condemnation on either ethical or prudential grounds, despite the fact that building the bomb and using it against the Japanese at the end of World War II was certainly one of the worst episodes in human history. Leaders have acknowledged this moral truth from time to time; Barack Obama’s 2009 Prague speech recently called for a world without nuclear weapons, but politicians seem unable and unwilling to take the heat that following through would certainly entail.

In the end, anti-nuclearism for leaders seems to be mainly an exercise in rhetoric, apparently persuasive in Norway where the Nobel Prize committee annually ponders the credentials of candidates, but without any behavioural reality. In this regard, favouring the acquisition of the bomb by any government or political organisation is to embrace the nuclearist fallacy relating to security and the absurd hubris of presupposing an impeccable rationality.

It is also the case that the secrecy surrounding policy bearing on nuclear weapons – especially the occasions of their possible use – injects an absolutist virus into the vital organs of a democratic body politic. There is no participation by the people or even their representatives in relation to such an ultimate political decision. Instead, in a single person is vested, and perhaps his most intimate advisers, a demonic capability to inflict ultimate tragedy. We now know that even beyond the devastation and radiation, the smoke released by the use of as few as 50 nuclear bombs would generate so much smoke as to block sunlight from the earth for as long as a decade, dooming much of the agriculture throughout the world in what has been termed “a nuclear famine”.

For these reasons, Kenneth Waltz is dangerous – but not crazy. It is his brand of instrumental rationality, dominant in many influential venues, which helps to explain the development and retention of nuclear weapons despite the risks and immorality of the undertaking. If human society is ever to be again relatively safe, secure and morally coherent, a first step is to renounce nuclear weapons unconditionally and proceed with urgency by way of an agreed, phased, monitored and verified international treaty to ensure their elimination. Deterrence is not just an unrealistic expectation, but a continuing crime against humanity of unprecedented magnitude and clarity.

Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.