10/01/2012 03:37 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Iran, Netanyahu and the Bomb

Benjamin Netanyahu recently dismissed an unnamed American writer as setting "a new standard for human stupidity" for suggesting that a nuclear-armed Iran would make the Middle East more stable. I'm not sure which writer he's referring to, but I am aware of an article by Ken Waltz in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, one of the most prestigious journals in the field. Waltz himself is one of the preeminent American thinkers on international relations who generally stays out of political debates. His book, I believe his first, has been in continuous publication since 1954. Waltz's stature does not mean he's right on this particular matter, but it does mean he can't easily be dismissed as stupid. Nor can Netanyahu be dismissed; he's a smart politician with an agenda. Rather than dismissing opposing views, there's a meaningful debate to be had.

It is typical for nuclear powers to declare as unacceptable a new country acquiring nuclear weapons. It's also typical for nuclear powers to acquiesce when the acquisition is complete. Economic sanctions typically punish the innocents without effect on decision-makers. Strikes have set back development programs, but there is little evidence in history suggesting that a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons can be stopped.

A strategy paper developed for Netanyahu by American neocons out of office during the Clinton administration recommended a "clean break" with past strategy by "removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq," forcefully rolling back Syria, and "reestablishing the principle of preemption, rather than retaliation alone." The same advisors returned to positions of influence in the Bush 43 administration, advocated preemptive war, and directed the joint staff to develop war plans to overthrow Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Sudan -- seven countries in five years. Reality in Afghanistan and Iraq sobered those ambitions. Knowing full well of the Clean Break recommendations holding sway in the administrations of Netanyahu (1996-1999) and Bush (2001-2009), and observing the overthrow of neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not difficult to imagine Iran seeing acquisition of a nuclear deterrent as a matter of survival.

Some clarification is necessary at this point. Preemptive war involves initiation of war because an adversary's attack -- using existing capability -- is believed to be imminent. International law affirms a country's right to defend itself without sustaining the first blow. Preventive war, in contrast, involves initiating a winnable war now to avoid risk of war later under less favorable conditions. History and international law generally views the preventive rationale as a mask for aggressive, discretionary war. Politicians who initiate preventive war typically call it preemptive to mask the distinction. The neocon argument requires reversing the established international norm and that depends on negating the efficacy of nuclear deterrence, and that hinges on establishing the irrationality of those who seek nuclear weapons. And the post-Cold War absence of a superpower competitor provides an opportunity to remake the region without fear of initiating a great power war.

There are a number of arguments made against allowing Iran to acquire the bomb. (a) Iranian leaders are irrational, cannot be trusted with the bomb, and will certainly attack Israel once they have it. (b) Iran's acquisition of the bomb will lead to a dangerous regional arms race. (c) And Iran will share the technology with terrorist organizations to attack Israel. Waltz counters those claims and argues that a nuclear-armed Iran would bring balance and greater stability to the region.

Preventive war has been recommended before based on the claim of irrational leadership. Preventive war was recommended to, and rejected by, both Truman and Eisenhower. Soviet and Chinese leaders were called irrational and untrustworthy, and it was recommended that they be attacked before they they acquired nuclear weapons. Khrushchev's alleged "shoe banging" speech in 1960 and "we will bury you" speech of 1963 were grossly misrepresented. Similarly, Iranian decision-makers are portrayed as irrational and not to be trusted with nuclear weapons. And their heated rhetoric buttresses that belief. Iran calls the U.S. the Great Satan, and the U.S. calls Iran part of the Axis of Evil. The "Israel must be wiped off the map" statement is an exaggeration in translation. Denying the Holocaust, while ignorant and insulting, poses a physical threat to no one. But Waltz argues that Iranian leaders "show no propensity for self-destruction" and that is assuredly what would happen if they chose to use a nuclear weapon.

Balance and stability. There's often a claim, with questionable supporting evidence, that there has never been a war between two democratic states and therefore we should be promoting democracy abroad even by force. Waltz notes, "There has never been a full-scale war between two nuclear-armed states." Waltz continues, saying that the Middle East is the only region without balancing nuclear powers. A nuclear-armed Iran would bring balance to the region, and balance brings caution and stability. The only use of the atomic bomb was when the U.S. had a monopoly in 1945. The Soviet's acquisition of a working bomb in 1949 introduced a great deal of caution in both parties. Major efforts were made to avoid direct confrontation that might escalate to nuclear warfare. China became more cautious after acquiring nuclear weapons in 1964. India and Pakistan, harboring historic animosity, became more cautious after they acquired nuclear weapons in 1974 and 1998, respectively.

Support to terrorists. If Iran has nuclear materials, it is likely to provide them to terrorist organizations for use in radiological bombs, say hardliners. Saudi, Yemini and Jordanian governments have been attacked by their own domestic terrorists. Given the internal political unrest in Iran, one should expect the same. Iran has long had low-grade uranium suitable for dirty bombs, but they have not materialized. Waltz says that Iranian leaders are unlikely to provide nuclear technology to terrorists that can't be managed or trusted.

Trigger an arms race? Israel acquired nuclear weapons in the 1960s when it was under attack by the massed conventional forces of its Arab neighbors. Israel's regional nuclear monopoly, a real threat to hostile Arab states, did not initiate an arms race. "If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now," says Waltz.

What then? There's much less public discussion of what follows the preventive attack. As we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's easy to underestimate the follow up. The Israeli public certainly fears what might follow from an attack on Iran. Will terrorist attacks on Israel and the U.S. increase or decrease? Will the region become more or less stable? Will the U.S. position as honest broker in the region be strengthened or weakened?

Israelis vigorously and intelligently debate their government's policies, including its nuclear policies and its policies toward Iran. That same debate is vigorously carried out in the Israeli Knesset. Judging from the response to the Netanyahu posting in the Huffington Post, the American public seems willing to engage in vigorous debate about U.S. support for Israeli government policies. Judging by the recently released party platforms, our two political parties are cowed into adopting an Israeli position that may or may not reflect U.S. best interests.

What will the candidates do? The only prudent thing for either to say is that "all options are on the table." But that's not helpful to the electorate. We'll have to guess, and the consequences are significant.