Friday, March 30, 2007

A Nuclear Waltz

Iran's Nuclear Ambitions and the Views of Kenneth Waltz

We are looking down here through the lens of Google Earth at Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, located in the desert 129 air miles south of Tehran and 37 miles from the ancient oasis city of Kashan, heretofore more famous for carpets than bombs. The facility is like the ocean -- smooth on the surface, but everything interesting lies underneath. Here is a what some western experts think is underneath:

Iran is here assembling the centrifuges that enable the enrichment of weapons-grade uranium. No one knows quite how many they have assembled and linked to date, but it is probably not more than 500 of the 3000 they need in the first stage. But just because we do not know, the International Atomic Energy Agency wishes to install additional cameras underground at Natanz in order to monitor activity at the plant and has made a demand on Iran to permit the installation of such cameras. Iran has predictably refused. The crisis continues. Iran is demonized. The angst of the West rises and the US pitches for a nuclear shield in Europe.


This brings us to the inimitable Kenneth N. Waltz, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley, now Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, and one of the world's most influential international relations scholars, whose views on nuclear arms are provocative, interesting and far out of the Bush-Cheney mainstream. According to Waltz, we can sleep well even if Iran acquires the bomb.


Waltz's perspective can be best heard in his recent debate with Scott Sagan of Stanford University. The debate is available on Princeton University's excellent University Channel, which makes a collection of public affairs lectures, panels and events from academic institutions all over the world available online to view, listen to, stream or download. The easiest way to access this superb resource is to subscribe to it (without cost) in the iTunes Music Store (select Podcasts and search University Channel). It will then download to your iPod when you next synchronize it with your computer. This gives you a continuing stream of lectures, debates and discussions to listen to in your car or on the plane when you are underway. You can pick and choose, of course, and accept those of interest to you and delete the others. It is best to keep an open mind, however, and listen to what is offered, whether or not you thought you were interested.

Here is Waltz's view, as I understand it:

First, in the 50+ years of the nuclear era we have not in fact experienced nuclear proliferation. There are today just nine nations with nuclear weapons: the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Iran would be the tenth. Waltz calls this "glacial creep, not proliferation."

The countries with nuclear weapons have, to date, for over fifty years, uniformly behaved with moderation with their weapons. We can even say "responsibly." And bear in mind, not all of the nuclear powers are nations that generally get high marks for stable, responsible, non-aggressive behavior. One can think about a rogue Red China in an earlier era, the Stalinist Soviet Union with its mad generals in the depths of the Cold War, and a wild, islamic and unstable Pakistan today. These were and are nuclear powers, after all. Some might add the Bush-Cheney United States to the list of dangerous rogue nations. Consider also that Pakistan and India fought a war and neither used nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons in the hands of states can only serve one purpose according to Waltz -- deterrence. They have almost no offensive value. Take the case of Iran and Israel. Many in the west seem to assume that once Iran has the bomb Israel will be its first target. But that is nonsense. Israel, we understand, possesses at least 200 nuclear weapons. Iran could not possibly knock them all out in a first strike, and if it did not Iran could count on certain obliteration in the Israeli counter-attack. What is in that for Iran? Annilihation, pure and simple.

Even less is it plausible that Iran would initiate a nuclear war with the US. The Iranians might just as well drop their bomb on themselves and end the suspense. The "nuclear shield" the US is presently trying to impose on Europe would constitute a colossal, unnecessary waste of money.

If an Iranian bomb would serve no offensive purpose, then we might ask does Iran have a legitimate need for deterrence? Of course it does. As Waltz points out, in 2002 Bush declared the Axis of Evil, naming three states, and then proceeded to invade one of them. Might Iranian planners not be thinking, "maybe we're next?" Iran has a US-occupied Iraq on one border and a nuclear Pakistan on the other. And 980 miles down the road from Tehran sits Israel, an aggressive nuclear opponent of Iran.

We in the west may think Israel is a benign neighbor who poses no nuclear threat to Iran, but then again maybe we are wrong. Perhaps Bibi Netanyahu has a covert team of first-strikers sitting in a war-room deep underground in the desert. Do we know? Israel has shown before that it is prepared to make pre-emptive strikes in its national self-interest, in the Six Day War in 1967 and with its bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osiraq in 1981. Leaders in Iran might well think Israel is a threat.

And even if Israel is not a threat to Iran the US plainly is. Hardly a week goes by that the Bush-Cheney team does not issue a threat or send a carrier to the waters off Iran. Putting the lunatic Ahmadinejad aside, Iran has legitimate cause for concern. Waltz asserts that it would in fact be strange if Iran did not want to develop nuclear weapons.

So, accepting that Iran is en route to becoming a nuclear power whether we like it or not, and recognizing that there is some merit in Iran's position, we can take on board Waltz's contention that, realistically, it does not matter.

Cheer up my brothers,
Live in the sunshine.
We'll understand it,
All by and by.

("Farther Along," - traditional American hymn)

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