Interview with Stephen M. Walt on Iran

August 17, 2012

By Bilal Y. Saab – I was reading Kerry M. Kartchner’s 1992 book Negotiating START on the plane from Washington to Birmingham, and a topic for an interview came to mind. Kartchner discusses how the United States and the Soviet Union had different understandings of strategic stability, which resulted in different approaches to arms control. American nuclear strategists traditionally viewed overall stability as a combination of first-strike stability (first-strike incentives were removed) and arms race stability (no introduction of destabilizing weapons to the superpower military balance). The Soviets viewed stability in terms of their own ability to predict and control military operations with a higher degree of certainty.

 

 

If arms control was supposed to uphold this condition of strategic stability during the Cold War, what does strategic stability mean in the Middle East and can all regional parties agree on a common definition? Perhaps we can substitute strategic stability with regional security in the Middle East, but that still does not take us very far because the definition of regional security is also elusive. You had a bilateral affair during the Cold War and strategic stability was mostly about the prevention of a US-Soviet thermo-nuclear exchange, it was not about the resolution of territorial disputes, or political conflicts, or sectarian regional tensions etc…as it is the case in the Middle East. Would regional security in the Middle East include human security and economic security?

 

I talk to Harvard Professor Stephen M. Walt about this subject and other Middle East security-related items in this interview. Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professsor of International Affairs.  He is on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and Journal of Cold War Studies, and he also serves as Co-Editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. He is the author of The Origins of Alliances (1987), which received the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award. He is also the author of Revolution and War (1996), Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (2005), and, with co-author J.J. Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby (2007).

 

1- Strategic stability during the Cold War was relatively easy to define even though the Soviets and the Americans understood it differently at first, but they eventually reached some sort of consensus. In the Middle East, strategic stability is obviously a much more difficult term to define because of its multi-dimensional nature, so where should we start?

 

Stability at the nuclear level is pretty easy to define: it means a situation where there are no incentives for a nuclear first strike, including the “preventive war” incentives that can result from intense arms racing. This definition also applies to the Middle East: ideally, regional states would want to establish a political-military environment where no one ever had an incentives to use a nuclear weapon. “Stability” in the broader sense—to include low risks of conventional war, terrorism, sabotage, and other forms of violence—has been much more elusive in the Middle East, for a whole constellation of reasons. And that’s what creates a certain tension between these two forms of stability: Middle Eastern states are tempted to acquire nuclear weapons in order to possess the ultimate deterrent against existential attack. That’s why Israel got the bomb, and it is also why states such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria have gone part-way down that road as well. The more unstable the regional environment, the harder it is to conduct meaningful arms control of any kind.

 

2- Asymmetries in defense postures and armaments can pose a huge challenge to arms control. Such asymmetries (nuclear vs. conventional is only one example) exist in the Middle East. Are they reason enough, aside from political conflicts, that arms control has no chance in the region or can intelligent and nuanced arms control policies work around such challenges?

 

Asymmetries in capability can be an obstacle, but they don’t preclude meaningful agreements that make all the parties more secure. There was an enormous gap between the United States and Soviet Union and the rest of the world on nuclear weapons, but that did not prevent the negotiation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other important arms control agreements.
3- Does offense or defense have an advantage in the Middle East and why?

 

Overall, I would say defense. There have been short wars of conquest in the past—in 1956, 1967, and 1982, for example—and Egypt launched a “limited aims” war in October 1973. But none of these wars were strategically decisive, in the sense that they did not eliminate any of the actors or end regional rivalries. Similarly, wars like the Iran-Iraq war were long, bloody, and ultimately inconclusive, which is further evidence of the power of the defense. Even the 1991 and 2003 wars against Iraq revealed the limits of military power: the United States won smashing victories on the battlefield, but could not impose its will on Iraqi society. Ditto Israel in Lebanon after 1982 and during war against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. I conclude that Middle Eastern states can do a lot of damage to each other, but it is presently impossible for any of these states to achieve quick, cheap, and decisive victories over the others.

 

4- Given its military alliances and still considerable political influence in the Middle East, what role, if any, should the United States play to promote regional security and arms control in the Middle East? Or is this an enterprise that can only be led by regional parties themselves?

 

 

The United States has enormous potential leverage, but it is unable to use it very effectively. For example, the past three U.S. Administrations have all said they were in favor of a two-state solution, but none of them ever used U.S. leverage to force Israel and the Palestinians to cut a deal and a two-state solution is farther away than ever. Security guarantees from the United States might help dissuade some of its Arab allies from seeking WMD, and we may still get a diplomatic deal that helps keep Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, but that’s a long way from achieving genuine regional arms control. In particular, Israel isn’t going to give up its own arsenal anytime soon, and U.S. Leaders aren’t going to put any pressure on them to do so, for fear of provoking the ire of AIPAC and the other organizations in the Israel lobby.

 

5- Which is worse for the Middle East, a nuclear-armed Iran or a war with Iran today with all its risks and consequences?

 

 

Neither outcome is desirable, but a war would be worse. A nuclear-armed Iran would not suddenly become a superpower and could not use that capability to blackmail or coerce its neighbors. Remember that the mighty Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear bombs and lots of missiles, and they couldn’t blackmail anyone either. The only thing Iran would gain from “going nuclear” would be a deterrent against a direct attack by the United States or by one of Iran’s neighbors; it would not alter the regional balance of power in any other way. Moreover, a war with Iran would bolster the clerical regime, guarantee another generation of enmity between Iran and the West, and convince Iran’s leaders that they had no choice but to go all-out for a weapons capability. Most importantly, an attack cannot destroy Iran’s program, it can only delay it and probably not for very long. In short, a war with Iran would be costly and bring few benefits, while the dangers of a nuclear Iran are often exaggerated.

 

The best way to convince Iran not to get a nuclear weapon, by the way, is to take the threat of military force and regime change off the table, and negotiate a deal whereby Iran is permitted low levels of nuclear enrichment under full scope IAEA safeguards. I find it both remarkable and depressing that the United States and its allies are still pursuing an inherently confrontational approach, even though that strategy has been a consistent failure for over a decade.

 

 

 

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