WASHINGTON The West worries too much about the prospect of Iran going nuclear. If it did get the bomb, the Middle East would probably become a more stable region. So says Kenneth Waltz, a veteran scholar, in an essay in one of America's most influential magazines.
"Why Iran Should get the Bomb," says the headline in Foreign Affairs, the house organ of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York think tank. "Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability."
The author is a senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. His contrarian essay coincides with yet another unsuccessful round of negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of countries who insist the government in Tehran must do more to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful, as it claims, rather than intended to build weapons.
The talks this week in Moscow brought Iranian negotiators together with officials from the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany. The negotiations produced no breakthrough and no sign of compromise. New U.S. and European sanctions, including a ban on Iranian oil imports, are coming into force next month. Whether they will be more likely to make Iran bow to Western demands than previous turns of the sanctions screw is open to doubt. What next?
"Most U.S., European, and Israeli commentators and policymakers warn that a nuclear-armed Iran would be the worst possible outcome of the current standoff," Waltz writes. "In fact, it would probably be the best possible result: the one most likely to restore stability in the Middle East."
He dismisses U.S. and Israeli warnings that a nuclear Iran would be a uniquely terrifying prospect. "Such language is typical of major powers, which have historically gotten riled up whenever another country has begun to develop a nuclear weapon of its own. Yet so far, every time another country has managed to shoulder its way into the nuclear club, the other members...decided to live with it."
What's more, "by reducing imbalances in military power, new nuclear states generally produce more regional and international stability, not less." Cases in point: China, which became less bellicose after becoming a nuclear power in 1964; Pakistan and India, which signed a treaty agreeing not to target each other's nuclear facilities and have kept the peace since then.
In the Middle East, according to this view, Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal has produced an imbalance in power that is "unsustainable in the long term What is surprising in the Israeli case is that it has taken so long for a potential balancer to emerge."
If Iran eventually went nuclear, the argument goes, Israel and Iran would deter each other the same way nuclear powers elsewhere have deterred each other - viz the United States and the Soviet Union or India and Pakistan.
Since 1945, when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, no country with nuclear weapons has used them.
NUCLEAR IRAN INEVITABLE?
It's not difficult to find officials in Washington who think that a nuclear Iran is inevitable but decline to say so on the record because President Barack Obama has declared, repeatedly, that an Iranian bomb would be unacceptable and that containment of a nuclear Iran was not an option for his administration.
While views such as Waltz's are not often aired in public in the U.S., experts both inside and outside the government have long pondered what would happen "the day after." That could mean the day after Iran reached nuclear "breakout" - the ability to make a bomb at short notice - or the day after it tested a bomb.
All this is based on an unproven assumption: that Iran's theocratic rulers have decided to build nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence agencies admit they don't know.
Think tanks both in the United States and Israel have run "day after" simulations that assumed what both countries have pledged to prevent - Iran succeeding in making a bomb despite ever tighter sanctions, sabotage of nuclear installations and assassinations of scientists. One of the questions addressed in such war games is the extent to which nuclear weapons would shield Iran from attack.
A recent simulation run by Israel's Institute for National Security Studies had the following scenario: Iran conducts an underground nuclear test in January 2013, after expelling inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency and after a series of provocative maneouvres by Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval vessels and aircraft against forces of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
"In our assessment," wrote the authors of the report on the exercise, Yoel Guzanski and Yonathan Lerner, " the actual likelihood of an attack on Iran once Iran is in possession of proven nuclear capability decreases dramatically, although (it is) not entirely eliminated."
That sounds in synch with Waltz's thesis that Israel and Iran would deter each other. Whether that would bring stability to the perpetually unstable Middle East is another matter.
(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)