Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nuclear Optimist: Iran

Kenneth Waltz is a prominent supporter of the nuclear optimist concept. I recently read the debate between Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth Waltz about the need for nuclear weapons. So I wanted use Waltz’s arguments for nuclear weapons in relation to the situation in Iran.

Waltz’s central point in the concept of nuclear optimism is that deterrence works and will always work. Evidence of such claims would be that no two nations have used nuclear weapons during war. We have never had a nuclear war. Deterrence works because both countries have second-strike capabilities, which ensures Mutually Assured Destruction. Waltz uses the case of the Kargil war, where Pakistan troops infiltrated into Indian controlled Kashmir, but the reason the war didn’t escalate was because both nations had nuclear weapons. Indian tested their first nuclear bomb in 1974 and Pakistan in 1998.

There are a couple things I did not understand, If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, It’s only going to have enriched enough uranium for one or two bombs. The deliver device used to strike might only be able to strike Israel or Turkey. In that case is there deterrence between the United States and Iran? There is obviously deterrence between Israel and Iran. But can you have deterrence without MAD? If the United States extended it’s nuclear defense umbrella over the Arabian Peninsula then the United States and Iran would have deterrence, because in the case that Iran fired a nuclear weapon at Riyadh then the United States has the ability to strike back at Iran with nuclear weapons.

Deterrence requires both nations to be rational actors. From what we see in the media President Ahmadinejad looks like a nut case, from his speeches’ at the UN to his denial of the holocaust. Most people claim that the Soviet Union was a rational actor but this is just a historical revisionist conception of history. We don’t have to look too far back to think of Kruschev and his shoe-banging incident. Kruschev also said, “we will bury you” (you referring the United States) in 1956. Mao also said something to the extent, of “Nuclear war with the United States wouldn’t be so bad, at lest the rest of the world would become socialist.” Now if we think about it, these comments and actions are not too different from Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez. Bottom line is that those nations who acquire nuclear weapons always function with causation. The USSR was no more rational then current day Iran.

Non-State actors, one of the fears of all nations is that Iran might give nuclear weapons to Hezbollah. But why? Iran just invested so much time and money to create this weapon, why would they limit their control of the weapon by giving it to an organization. As waltz says why would any nation give away the “crown jewel?” The reason behind Iran’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons comes from its insecurities and the fear of United States. The United States attacked Afghanistan and then took over Iraq after calling it a part of the axis of evil. Iran feels insecure and wants some kind of assured deterrence against the United States. So it’s kind of strange to think that Iran might give away nuclear weapons. And in the case of theft or the possibility of theft the United States should really reach out and say “you can have the weapons” but we are going to help you secure all your sites so there is no theft.

The world can never reach a point where there is zero nuclear weapons or materials. After the USSR collapsed a lot of nuclear material was lost from Eastern Europe. We have no idea where this material is or who has it. As Waltz says “this is the most dangerous of situations,” if all nations disarm and we latter realize that one nation was lying or was hiding their nuclear arsenal, then there would be a sudden rush to rearm again.

What should the United States do in terms of Iran and nuclear weapons? The United States should do nothing because deterrence always works, and will work. If anything the United States should extend their deference umbrella to include Saudi Arabia.


  1. I understand and see your argument, that if states had access to nuclear weapons, deterrence of global destruction would stop them from using them. I have to respectfully disagree. Giving more states access to the most powerful weapon in history is a huge risk. With this huge risk, I don't think Earth or the the human race can take that big of a risk which could involve total destruction. You do mention that states have had some heavy rhetoric, but never acted on it. This is true. however, in a new globalized and interconnected age with technology, I don't think we can rely on people being reasonable actors all the time. There may be an individual willing to take the risk to satisfy his own policies or personal views. One hopes that the other won't launch a warhead, but if they do, its all over. Especially with Iran and other powers who refuse to operate with the most of the international community, I think its a path to madness.

  2. I probably should have mentioned this in the blog but I don't advocate or believe in nuclear proliferation I agree with you that human error is such a large factor in this, and one press of a button could kill millions of people. A great example of a person acting on behalf of his own benefit is AQ Khan who sold a lot of nuclear information to North Korea and Iran. So, I totally agree with you that we should move towards a world without nuclear weapons, but its fun arguing the other side.