Adel Al Toraifi
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on : Wednesday, 22 Aug, 2012
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Kenneth Waltz and Iran: The bomb is not the solution

Political scientist Kenneth Waltz recently published an article entitled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine (July/August 2012). To those who don’t know Waltz, he is one of the most prominent founders of the neorealism school in international relations, and his books “Man, the State and War” (1959) and “Theory of International Politics” (1979) are used as text books in most universities around the world. It is interesting that Waltz, who is now over 90 years old, has chosen to write about a subject far outside his area of expertise, for he is a professor of political theory, not a Middle East specialist. Nevertheless Waltz’s take on the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear project can enrich the debate, for it is an opportunity to look at the crisis from outside the box. To summarize Waltz’s article, it contends that over the past decades Western countries have tried to discourage Iran from pursuing its nuclear program to no avail. The West has fought countless rounds of negotiations to entice the Iranian regime with a basket of promises and concessions in the form of economic incentives and nuclear energy cooperation. It has also experimented with sanctions and economic embargos, which reached record levels last month when the European Union (EU) took the decision to boycott Iranian oil. America and Europe have imposed sanctions directly on Iran’s central bank, but still Tehran has not backed down. This is not to mention the cyber warfare, and the intelligence operations targeting Iranian nuclear scientists.

Waltz says: “History shows that when countries acquire the bomb, they feel increasingly vulnerable and become acutely aware that their nuclear weapons make them a potential target in the eyes of major powers. This awareness discourages nuclear states from bold and aggressive action.” Waltz goes on to argue that “policymakers and citizens in the Arab world, Europe, Israel and the United States should take comfort from the fact that history has shown that where nuclear capabilities emerge, so, too, does stability.”

In my opinion, Waltz may have enriched the debate about the Iranian nuclear issue, but – despite my great admiration for him – his thesis is disastrous, because it is inconsistent with his books and articles about the objective conditions and reasons regarding the application and analysis of international politics. Perhaps we should start with Waltz’s principle argument, which is that the Iranian regime is “not suicidal” and not led by “mad Mullahs”. This is true, but on the other hand, the Iranian regime is the only ideological, messianic regime that remains in the region, following the collapse of the Taliban state.

Tehran’s policies seem “rational” and “calculated” according to Waltz, but at the same time they are confrontational and violent, and are indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent victims around the world.

Waltz cites historical examples to support his point of view, but none of these resemble the case of Iran; take for example his basic comparison that Iran today is like North Korea in the early 1990s. I have studied Iranian politics for more than a decade, and I have gotten to know personalities who were, until recently, considered to be symbols of the ruling regime in Tehran. Hence I am able to say impartially – and on a personal level I have a keen interest in Persian history and civilization – that the ideas which Waltz is basing his opinions on are invalid. It cannot be said that Iran obtaining nuclear weaponry would achieve stability, or that the Iranian regime is only seeking nuclear weapons because it wants to preserve and protect itself from external threats.

The conservatives in Tehran chose to adopt an overt uranium enrichment policy (in 2005) only after they had removed all their competitors on the domestic scene through intimidation and force, at a time when Tehran was enjoying positive regional and international relations thanks to the efforts exerted by the reformist movement since the mid-1990s. It might be said that Tehran was afraid of Washington after US marines were stationed along the Iran-Iraqi border, but Iranian commentators themselves have asserted that Tehran has benefited from the US overthrowing two of its most prominent opponents, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are even American and Iranian testimonies and documents indicating that Tehran secretly contributed and collaborated with the US in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When Waltz compares Iran to North Korea he has strayed from reality, particularly as the latter is a model of totalitarian hereditary governance, and its policies are confined to the two Koreas and the American-Chinese conflict in that part of the world. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime is pursuing a regional, geopolitical/religious project that goes beyond the US-Chinese or US-Russian conflicts. Iran has had longstanding rivalries – in terms of political practice – with Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and an uneasy relationship with regional powers such as Egypt, which goes beyond a traditional dispute. You could even say, as noted by political science professor Anoush Ehteshami in 2002, that the dispute between the four countries: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Iran – acting as regional “powerbrokers” – has been ongoing since the emergence of the post-World War I regional system. All these countries have competed with one another or allied among themselves to prevent any one country from dominating the rest. At the time of the Nasserite nationalist tide, Saudi-Iranian relations improved to confront the unity agreement between Syria and Egypt. Saudi relations with Syria and Iraq improved when relations with Egypt and Iran deteriorated following the Camp David Accords and the Iranian revolution, whilst during the Iran-Iraq war Saudi-Syrian relations converged, as did relations between Egypt and Iraq. However, following the second Gulf War (1990-1991), Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria entered into a regional consensus against Iraq, embodied by the Damascus Declaration, which remained in effect until it was breached by President Bashar al-Assad in 2002, reaching the point of no return with the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.

On the other hand, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran improved gradually since the Islamic Conference in Dakar in 1991, but they did not reach the desired level until after a meeting in Islamabad between King Abdullah – who was Crown Prince at the time – and the outgoing Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani in 1997. The relationship grew closer during the era of President Mohammed Khatami, with the blessing of the Supreme Leader, Imam Ali Khamenei. Even during the beginning of the era of President Ahmadinejad – who has visited Saudi Arabia more than any other Iranian official in the history of modern Iran – Riyadh tried to accommodate the Iranian regime. Indeed even following the repeated clashes that have occurred over the past seven years, King Abdullah has tried to contain President Ahmadinejad. We saw this recently when President Ahmadinejad sat next to the Saudi monarch to discuss interests at the Islamic Solidarity Summit held in Mecca.

Returning to Kenneth Waltz’s article, we cannot recommend that the Iranian regime be given the bomb – or the technology to achieve this – as Waltz calls for. It is a regime that still suffers from a weak internal consensus, whilst some – particularly leaders within the Revolutionary Guard – are still involved in the regional expansion project represented by the Syrian-Iranian axis in Lebanon, not to mention Syria and Gazan cooperation – unfortunately – with Hezbollah and Hamas.

Iran acquiring nuclear arms will not create balance, because the real conflict is not between Iran and Israel, but between Iran and its neighbors.

The premise adopted by Waltz – namely that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are motivated by Israel’s nuclear superiority – is incorrect. Here he has been influenced by the propaganda and justifications of the hardliners within the Iranian regime. Iran’s nuclear project and its axis of resistance are primarily used to justify seizing the sovereignty of other states and the lives of citizens in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, not to mention others in the Gulf States. What is happening in Syria with regards to the bloody alliance between Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime and Hezbollah, fighting against the Syrian uprising with its Sunni majority, is evidence that the conflict is not about Israel’s possession of nuclear arms. Rather Iran is seeking to justify the rule of minorities and their exclusive dominance over other social components through the force of arms, as is evident in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and this is what Waltz has failed to pay attention to.

Finally, Waltz is right to argue that diplomacy to avoid a war against Iran is the safest option. Stability will not be achieved by providing a group of radicals with the bomb, but rather by preventing them from obtaining it.

In the 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, the late comedian Peter Sellers says: “Your Commie has no regard for human life, not even of his own”.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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