The Bush Era
We can all remember when Bush made that epic speech about the “axis of evil”. In effect, he did something really crucial with this speech: he took Iran and placed it outside the realm of rational politics. International relations theory makes the somewhat erroneous assumption that all actors are rational, and make well-considered decisions before acting. With this speech, and his rhetoric towards Iran later, he painted Iran as completely irrational. It was like saying “The Ayatollahs will attempt to attack us with nukes even though it would mean certain suicide for the government of Tehran and the people of Iran.”
Why is that important? When you paint actors as irrational, you are saying that irrespective of size, might and actual strength, they are a threat because they are willing to kill themselves just to hurt you. The other unchanging assumption in international relations is that ALL STATES DESIRE SECURITY AND/OR POWER IN ORDER TO ENSURE SURVIVAL. As such, a state that decides that it doesn’t CARE about its own survival throws the entire system in a loop and makes everyone go crazy. It is unfathomable to many IR realists, but such regimes do exist. Iran, however, is simply not among those rare cases.
The Obama Shift?
Obama has been making an effort to re-rationalize Iran.
Kenneth Waltz, a world-famous IR thinker, writes in “A nuclear Iran: promoting security or courting disaster?” that Iran wants nuclear arms NOT because it’s a crazy regime bent on world destruction, but because it’s a rational regime that desires only security. Think about the threats that face Iran:
1) Though Iran benefited from the destruction of Iraq in the 2003 war, A US-led Iraq is no better than a Saddam-led Iraq, especially with rogue state/axis of evil rhetoric.
2) Israel, as Iran’s number one enemy in the entire region, has nuclear capability.
3) Pakistan and Russia, neighbours and “frenemies” all have nuclear capabilities, giving them an upper hand in their regional relationship.
Waltz’s point is this: for a rational actor, having nuclear bombs actually makes the world safer. He says “the spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than feared”. Why? Because if you and I are mortal enemies, either we both have guns, or neither of us do. This is the only way we can balance each other out. If you have a gun and you’re not afraid to use it, I might just go bonkers trying to make myself safe. In the same way, Iran needs that gun or it just might go bonkers.
Essentially, the nukes work as a deterrent. They say: “I know that if you attack me with a nuke, I cannot defend myself. But I can attack back with such a vengeance that you’ll regret having hit me in the first place.” Deterrence is supposed to be such a powerful force that it keeps both sides at bay. It’s an interesting and compelling theory, if you think about it. Especially if you note that nobody really wants to start a nuclear World War III, anyway.
However, there are some concerns that jump out at us. First, though nuclear bombs will balance Israel and Iran out, it doesn’t mean that the two enemies will start to trust each other. During the Cold War, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets and the United States opened up channels of communication. If Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev perceived that an attack was coming, he could call the Whitehouse through a special direct-line “red phone” and clarify. (“Hey dude, is there a missile coming my way, or is that just a ketchup stain on my radar screen?”)
Without these channels of communication, there is a chance for huge misunderstandings. A test run could be taken as the real deal, setting off an attack. And Israel or Iran do not appear anywhere close to having this sit-down-and-talk kind of relationship. Scholar Shiping Tang outlines the problem here: both Israel and Iran are operating under the “worst case scenario” offensive realist assumption. Both assume that the other guy is not just selfish, but aggressive; and capable of the worst. As such, they will be quick to read any sign as a threat. This could further destabilize the entire region.
The second issue is this: even if Tehran is not a threat, nuclear arms spreading to state-sponsored or technologically savvy Islamic neo-fundamentalist group is another problem all together. Perhaps we all remember the infamous AQ Khan drama: he was the Pakistani government scientist who was caught selling nuclear technology and nuclear information in an illicit underground network to Iran, Libya, North Korea and even terrorist groups. (He was eventually pardoned by General Musharraf...)
However, knowing how to make a nuclear device is one thing; actually building it is an another. Rare terrorist groups can afford it, and those who can will never be able to amass enough uranium or plutonium to actually be a real threat. It's not as near a possibility as we may have been lead to believe by "War on Terror" advocates.
So, on the Iran issue, I think Waltz’ position has merit. Iran has never once invaded another country nor shown evidence of being an aggressive power. Though Ahmedinejad is somewhat troubled and possibly mentally unsound, the regime itself is not suicidal. It wants nukes for safety, not world domination. Yes, there is a chance that having nukes might make Iran trigger happy in the region; it might start to act like a bully with the smaller states because it has so much leverage over them. (This is Robert Jervis' classic "instability-stability paradox" theory.) However, in the Iran-Israel-US death triangle, it may actually put things at ease.
Look at the evidence: though Iran is most obviously trying to build a nuclear weapon, it is trying desperately to convince the world it is not. Tehran is actually making an effort to appear like a team player by making concessions here and there to the International Atomic Energy Agency (the world's nuclear proliferation watchdog). If it wanted, it could have backed out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Years ago and simply said: “Yeah, we’re building a bomb. So what?” Instead, it tries desperately to stay within the system. It wants to be taken seriously; it doesn’t want to be a threatened rogue state.
1) “The Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic.” Ayatollah Khamenei’s claim then, that America is “fomenting terrorism” inside Iran is actually real.
2) The US has employed Dennis Ross as the State Department point person for Iran, a crucial mistake. He was the Iran guy under Bush, and seriously advocated military strikes against Iran.
3) The US may be acquiescing to Israel and setting a timeline for negotiations. If Iran fails to meet the deadline, then what? Bombs over Tehran? Sanctions? This will worsen the entire situation, it will fail to kill support for the Iranian regime, and further damage US interests and US reputation in the Middle East.
Essentially, the Leveretts' underlying point is clear. Iran is FIRST a rational actor, and THEN a regime run by crazy Shias bent on Islamic takeover of the world. Not the other way around.
“On its present course, the White House’s approach will not stop Tehran’s development of a nuclear fuel program — or, as Iran’s successful test of a medium-range, solid-fuel missile last week underscored, military capacities of other sorts.... Under these circumstances, the Iranian government...will continue to suspect that American intentions toward the Islamic Republic remain, ultimately, hostile.”