Foreign Affairs Focus: Robert Jervis on Nuclear Diplomacy

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Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, interviews Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University. Jervis discusses ongoing nuclear talks with Iran, the prospects for an agreement, how scholarship on nuclear weapons has evolved, and the possibility of an Iranian-Israeli nuclear standoff. A transcript is available below:

ROSE: Hi there, and welcome to another edition of "Foreign Affairs Focus." I'm Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, and I have the great pleasure of being here today with Bob Jervis, the Adlai Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University and one of the deans of the field, one of the grand old men and distinguished scholars of international relations who has written for Foreign Affairs both in the magazine and online, most recently about Iran's nuclear program and what the West can do to contain it.

So, Bob, let me just start right with the talks that are going on right now. What is your take? Do you see this as an opportunity for coercive diplomacy actually to work?

JERVIS: Yes. And so far, I mean, it's worked better than I would have expected. The interim deal really was very good, in the sense not only it was a good deal for us and the Europeans, it pushed the Iranian program back some, but it's a, you know, good deal for the Iranians, that they got a little relief and a little confidence-building on both sides, so we're almost in as good a position as one could imagine for this stage.

ROSE: Why did you think that coercive diplomacy was not likely to work?

JERVIS: Well, you know, there are real barriers on both sides -- and, of course, the ones that still exist -- it's not entirely clear Iran really is willing to step back. It's clear it's not willing to give up all the nuclear capability; that was always a fantasy.

But it wasn't clear how much they were willing to give up. It wasn't clear until six, eight months ago how much bite the recent round of sanctions had. And I think it was a combination that the recent sanctions really did bite more deeply than the previous ones, especially the exclusion from the international financial situation.

And also, I think the patient diplomacy, the background work that the Obama administration did -- and we don't know the details -- but we know for something like a year before it became public, you know, there were these meetings that slowly established some degree of trust on each side. And I think you did need both the pressure and the sense that there was a decent chance of a reasonable agreement at the end.

ROSE: One thing you've written that I found quite interesting was that your view of the interim agreement should depend not just on your view of the actual agreement, but on your view of the alternatives to it.

JERVIS: Yes.

ROSE: Can you explain that point?

JERVIS: Yeah, because when -- and this is true both for the interim and -- well, it wouldn't be a permanent, but the semi-permanent, let's call it -- is -- because on the Iranian side, I think for a while they thought they could break the sanctions regime, split the U.S. and Europeans, so -- not unreasonable to expect that.

I think now they think that chance is much less likely, and I think they fear, with good reason, even greater sanctions. And whether you think that -- I don't think it'll bring the regime down, but, you know, it will do real harm. And I think they see that as that's what's looming in front of them, unless they can get some sort of semi-lasting agreement.

On the U.S. and European side, the alternative also isn't very good. If the Iranians keep building, then it looks like either Israel bomb or the U.S. would or both. And now maybe that wouldn't have major consequences, but no one can count on that. And even if that doesn't happen, the alternative is a continued stalemate with a lot of tension and a lot of chances for all sorts of accidents to lead to something going wrong.

I mean, without an agreement, the tension will be very high, and you don't have to be awfully imaginative to think of things in the Persian Gulf that could happen. You know, an IRGC navy guy who decides to play a cowboy, to change the metaphor, American plane that goes off-course, right, we know all the sorts of the things. So there are a lot of ways without an agreement this can go bad for both sides.

ROSE: So the agreement should be judged not just on its own merits, but as a sort of least bad alternative?

JERVIS: Yeah. I mean, it isn't going to be -- nothing foreseeable is great, but you really have to think the old joke, compared to what? Now, the people I think who don't want to go this route, as -- you know, what do they think in our country and Europe and Israel? What do they think's going to happen?

Some of them -- you know, I think what they really think is that increased sanctions will overthrow the regime. I think that's the real alternative. You know, can I say with all my expertise -- and being old, quite right, studied, leafed through all this, can I say definitely that won't happen? No, of course not. Stranger things have happened. But not many. I mean, I would be very, very surprised if that were to happen.

And if that isn't going to happen, right, then something that keeps Iran even six months from a nuclear weapon, I think, is better than where we are now, but it -- but, you know, it is, as usual, best of not terribly good worlds.

ROSE: Your late colleague, Ken Waltz, actually favored Iran getting a nuke on the ground, that a stable nuclear dyad would be the least bad alternative entirely.

JERVIS: Yeah. Yeah.

ROSE: What's your take on that theory?

JERVIS: Yeah, you know, Ken was a dear friend and someone I learned an enormous amount. Ken, though, got to remember two things. First, he's a contrarian. He loves being in the minority. And he has a good sense of humor, and I think both were at play there. In fact, in my discussions with Ken, he said -- before he wrote the article, he said, you know, I really don't want Iran to get a nuclear weapon. I just don't think it's the end of the world, a more reasonable position than he took in print.

I think as that -- it's unlikely. First, we're not going to -- I don't think we're going to get a nuclear Iran. Maybe Netanyahu is bluffing. I have no expertise there. We're seen stranger things. But I doubt it.

I think -- I think we could live with an Iranian bomb. I think Ken is quite right. It's not the end of the world. I would personally prefer having Iran get a bomb than to see the U.S. and Israel do the preventive strike, which would be the first of many, because it doesn't stop them. You know it just sets them back and legitimates their program.

So I agree with Ken that we shouldn't strike, but what I think -- and my preference is totally irrelevant -- I think the U.S. is committed to seeing Iran doesn't get bomb, and I believe Netanyahu is. So Ken's world I don't think we're going to see.

If we saw it, you know, he might be right, but, you know, it's not at all like the Soviet American relation we grew up over years, that stabilized over time, that we did have a prevention window, but the -- the danger to the U.S. was less than I think Israel feels the danger from Iran is, the geographic distance is less, which matters both for sense of threat and for the hair-trigger.

So I think that we're not -- that we're not going to get there, and if we got there -- and the reason we're not going to get there is if we got there it wouldn't be stable. And I think it's overreaching and an overgeneralization, and I don't want to take the chance.

ROSE: Looking back, we've studied nuclear questions for nearly seven decades now. As I look back, I think that delicate balance of terror looks a little less delicate than I might have assumed earlier on. And I'm a lot more favorable to existential deterrence or to the notion that minimal deterrence actually can work, because almost every dyad does seem to be somewhat stable. Do you think differently about nuclear questions now than you did in decades past?

JERVIS: Well, actually, you know, I've got back and forth on that general question, and I remember being in college when the Wohlstetter article came out, on the delicate balance, and it was the crucial question, and it remains so. And I both studied a little with Albert when he taught a class at Berkeley, and then it was a colleague of Bernard Brodie's who wrote the most vehement critiques of Wohlstetter and said it isn't delicate at all.

And in retrospect, Albert was clearly wrong about what he was writing about. Partly he didn't understand actually a lot of the technical details, a lot of American intelligence. The period he was writing, it was not delicate.

But how much this generalizes and how much each pair is different, I'd feel more comfortable if we had -- in the sense, if we had the story of 10 pairs. You know, we don't. We have, of course, India and Pakistan, and we are argue a lot about how dangerous that has been at various points and how -- how stable that is now.

I do think an Iranian-Israeli pair is more dangerous than the others. First, of course, it could set off pressures for others getting weapons. I think the simple cascade argument is overdone. I don't think Saudi Arabia is going to immediately buy them from Pakistan. I'm not sure Pakistan would be willing to sell those, but, you know, not out of the question. Turkey and Egypt are not in any condition tomorrow to embark on a major program, and neither are the gulf states, but over some time, they are, and that injects a dangerous element in the degree of hostility between Iran and Israel, I think, is greater, even than India and Pakistan.

And, you know, I don't want to be dogmatic. It could certainly -- if we ran the experiment, it might be stabilizing. I doubt it. And I -- because partly, I think Iran's motives are largely defensive, but not again Israel. I mean, after all, we have invaded two of their neighbors and overthrown them, and we did play a large role in the coup that overthrew Mossadegh, much smaller role than most Iranians believe. It was much more internal. We and the Brits were the icing on the cake. We weren't the cake. But the Iranians believed we were.

And, of course, we've done all sorts of covert actions since and all sorts of things, so if we were Iranian, we'd see a real threat from the U.S. and the -- either the weapon or the option to get a weapon, I think, is defensive largely against us and Britain, but not so much defensive against Israel, and I don't think they would use it directly, but we don't understand Iran very well. And it isn't because they're particularly inscrutable. Most countries are inscrutable. Would you care to explain American politics and why no one can compromise? So, you know, countries are -- just have their own odd ways.

And when we look at what we've learned about Iraq, thanks to the invasion, the one good thing that came out of the invasion was, of course, the interrogations and the documents. We know that Saddam did want nuclear weapons, and he did want to use them against Israel. He didn't -- he wasn't going to bomb Israel, but he thought he could use this as a backup to an Arab-led or Iraqi-led Arab coalition that would, essentially, conquer Israel.

You know, at the time, if you'd said, does Saddam really expect something like that, I would have said no. If had asked me at the time, does Saddam believe the protocols of the elders of Zion? I'd say, you know, he didn't go to Columbia or Harvard, but he isn't that unsophisticated. Well, he was. He believed it.

It's a cautionary tale about at least of the possibilities, so, you know, it just seems -- there are too many ways for that pair of countries to go wrong to make one really comfortable with a Waltz's scenario.

ROSE: You know, I feel like this is a little bit like Annie Hall and a Marshall McLuhan moment. Here I am discussing...

JERVIS: Yes. Yes.

ROSE: ... you know, deterrence theory with Bob Jervis, and...

JERVIS: And pulling out of...

ROSE: ... you know, and pull out -- pull out Bob Jervis and say, you know, here, this is what we've been -- you know nothing of my work. Here's what we're teaching. So...

JERVIS: But it shows, I mean, Ken -- I disagreed with some of Ken's analysis of Cold War deterrence. That's -- but, you know, the -- the people who -- who, quote, "are experts" because our experience is limited certainly have legitimate disagreements, and not disagreements that are motivated in sort of general ideological views. One of us is a neocon or sees the world wildly different from another, but it is interesting that people who share a lot of the basic intellectual framework can -- can differ a lot in how worrisome they would find Israel -- I mean, Iran getting the bomb.

ROSE: Hopefully these discussions will continue to play out in Foreign Affairs and on our website.

JERVIS: Yes.

ROSE: And we look forward to your participation in the future.

JERVIS: Yes.

ROSE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

JERVIS: Thank you.

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