Misreading Iran At Our Peril
by Ilan Berman
July 16, 2012
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When it comes to the financial markets, it is a rule of thumb that past success is a poor indicator of future performance. Sadly, it turns out, that’s also the case with political science.
Take the latest offering from one of the field’s best and brightest. Kenneth N. Waltz, a decorated professor at Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley, is dean of the “neorealism” school in international relations theory — a deep thinker whose 1965 book “Man, the State, and War” revolutionized our understanding of how nation-states behave.
Of late, however, Mr. Waltz has turned his attention to a more contemporary international security dilemma, with considerably less satisfactory results. In an article in the latest issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, Mr. Waltz makes the case that the current hubbub over the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program is overblown. In his view, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a neutral — indeed, even a beneficial — development for regional security, spurring “balancing” by other nations and generally leading to a more stable Middle East.
I wish that were so, but Mr. Waltz’s argument falls flat on at least two fronts.
The first has to do with the Iranian regime’s rationality. At the heart of Mr. Waltz’s contention that Iran should be allowed to get the bomb is the assumption that, at the end of the day, its leaders are “perfectly sane ayatollahs.”
That issue has been debated hotly for years. Skeptics allude to the fact that parts of the Iranian government — most notably Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ideological fellow-travelers — espouse a millenarian worldview to argue that the Iranian regime writ large is both irrational and apocalyptic. Others, however, point to the conduct of Iran’s “realist” camp, headed by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as proof that Iran’s leaders are supremely pragmatic in nature.
To some extent, both are right. Iran is anything but a political monolith, and its official ideological spectrum stretches from the messianic conservatism of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, the Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, on the far right to the more progressive “reformist” ideas of former president Mohammad Khatami, now a leader of the “Green” movement. (Informally, Iran’s political scene is wider still and includes dissidents seeking the outright abandonment of the Islamic republic in favor of a more representative, post-theocratic polity.)
The question, rather, is whether the political faction currently in power in Tehran is capable of being deterred in the way Mr. Waltz envisions. There still is considerable uncertainty on that score, and, given the notorious opaqueness of Iran’s internal power politics, world leaders simply cannot afford to be sanguine about the how the Iranian regime — which is still officially radical and revolutionary — might behave once it possesses a nuclear weapon.
Mr. Waltz’s second spurious contention is that Iran’s nuclearization will have a beneficial and stabilizing effect on the Middle East. He identifies Israel’s long-running “regional nuclear monopoly” as the root of the current crisis — and Iran’s will to atomic power as the logical (if belated) response to it. But Israel’s 4-decade-old nuclear hegemony in the Middle East has proved so remarkably durable precisely because other regional states, whatever their public animus toward the Jewish state, have tended to view it as a mature nuclear possessor. Israel’s “Samson option,” in other words, is seen regionally as much more shield than sword.
Iran’s nuclear program, by contrast, is viewed as just the opposite. One need only look at the recent frenzied nuclear plans of Iran’s neighbors — from the wealthy petro-states of the Gulf to impoverished Yemen — to grasp the depths of their unease over Iran’s potential emergence as a nuclear power. The activism of those countries, moreover, speaks volumes about how they think Iran is likely to behave once it crosses the nuclear threshold.
In the context of the Middle East, then, balancing isn’t likely to be the panacea Mr. Waltz suggests. It is, however, a sure-fire recipe for a new nuclear arms race — and a nightmare for U.S. and allied nonproliferation efforts.
None of this is accounted for in Mr. Waltz’s piece, which brushes away concerns about Iranian intentions and the destabilizing effect an atomic Iran is bound to have on the Greater Middle East in favor of easy allusions to nuclear balance-of-power politics.
All of this must be music to the ears of the ayatollahs. Iran’s leaders have long sought to convince the world that their nuclear ambitions are both legitimate and benign. Indeed, last summer, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards went so far as to publicly make the case that “the day after Iran’s first nuclear test is a normal day” — in other words, that the world should not fear the coming Iranian nuclear age. Now, it seems, one of the bastions of the American political science establishment is intent on making their argument for them.
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