Iran and the Bomb

Would a Nuclear Iran Make the Middle East More Secure?

Colin H. Kahl

Kenneth Waltz is probably right that a nuclear-armed Iran could be deterred from deliberately using nuclear weapons or transferring a nuclear device to terrorists ("Why Iran Should Get the Bomb," July/August 2012). But he is dead wrong that the Islamic Republic would likely become a more responsible international actor if it crossed the nuclear threshold. In making that argument, Waltz mischaracterizes Iranian motivations and badly misreads history. And despite the fact that Waltz is one of the world's most respected international relations theorists, he ignores important political science research into the effects of nuclear weapons, including recent findings that suggest that new nuclear states are often more reckless and aggressive at lower levels of conflict.


Waltz correctly notes that Iran's leaders, despite their fanatical rhetoric, are fundamentally rational. Because Iran's leadership is not suicidal, it is highly unlikely that a nuclear-armed Iran would deliberately use a nuclear device or transfer one to terrorists. Yet even though the Islamic Republic is rational, it is still dangerous, and it is likely to become even more so if it develops nuclear weapons.

Iran's government currently sponsors terrorist groups and supports militants throughout the Middle East, in part to demonstrate a capability to retaliate against the United States, Israel, and other states should they attack Iran or undermine its interests. If the Iranian leadership's sole concern was its own survival and it believed that a nuclear deterrent alone could give it enough protection, then as a nuclear state, it might curtail its support for proxies in order to avoid needless disputes with other nuclear powers.

But Iran is not a status quo state, and its support for terrorists and militants is intended to be for more than just defense and retaliation. Such support is an offensive tool, designed to pressure and intimidate other states, indirectly expand Iran's influence, and advance its revisionist agenda, which seeks to make Iran the preeminent power in the Middle East, champion resistance to Israel and "arrogant powers" in the West, promote its brand of revolutionary Islamist ideology, and assert its leadership in the wider Islamic world.

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