Kenneth Waltz argues that an Iranian nuclear weapon is likely to stabilize the Middle East as a counterbalance to Israeli nuclear power. His Foreign Affairs article is behind a paywall, but USA Today published a summary.
Waltz sees the world in terms of power balances. In the Middle East, Israel has long had the lion’s share of military power – both conventional and nuclear. Iranian nuclear weapons, Waltz argues, would balance Israel’s power and stabilize the Middle East. This is part of his more general argument that possession of nuclear weapons usually is a stabilizing factor.
Waltz’s views are a product of the Cold War. He believes that we have had no great-power wars since the end of World War II because of nuclear weapons.
So if you can only fight nuclear wars, and if it is very difficult to keep wars limited, because they tend to escalate, the question becomes: why fight wars at all? And, again, countries with nuclear weapons would behave according to that thought. If you do not have nuclear weapons, you can fight wars just as in the old days. But once a country has nuclear weapons, these weapons strongly deter other states. In fact, one cannot make “never-statements” when thinking historically, but one can with nuclear weapons. Never, in 65-plus years, have countries having nuclear weapons or enjoying their protection, fought each other. That is an astonishing statement, and it is true. So in sum, my work, in a way, has been an attempt to theoretically deal with the implications of the invention and application of nuclear weapons. (source)
He ignores the building of the European Union and the network of treaties and agreements, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), that have contributed to the peace. The only factor he considers is the existence of nuclear weapons. In the 1981 paper in which he first laid out his views on the stabilizing influence of the spread of nuclear weapons, the NPT is mentioned only in connection with India’s unwillingness to sign it, and it is not mentioned at all in the Foreign Affairs article.
In that paper Waltz states, “States coexist in a condition of anarchy.” The network of treaties and agreements undermines this contention. Anarchy allows states to act purely in their self-interest; treaties and agreements bind them to actions of mutual interest, which may deviate from a pure self-interest. The deviation must not be large, of course, or states will repudiate treaties. But pure self-interest is muted unless pure anarchy prevails.
He also partly attributes the post-WWII stability to the presence of two, and only two, superpowers, the United States and Russia. He recognizes that a multipolar world will be messier.
…in a multipolar world there are too many powers to permit any of them to draw clear and fixed lines between allies and adversaries and too few to keep the effects of defection low. With three or more powers, flexibility of alliances keeps relations of friendship and enmity fluid and makes everyone's estimate of the present and future relation of forces uncertain….in the great-power politics of a multipolar world, who is a danger to whom, and who can be expected to deal with threats and problems, are matters of uncertainty. Dangers are diffused, responsibilities blurred, and definitions of vital interest easily obscured. Because who is a danger to whom is often unclear, the incentive to regard all disequilibrating changes with concern and respond to them with whatever effort may be required is weakened. To respond rapidly to fine changes is at once more difficult, because of blurred responsibilities, and more important, because states live on narrow margins.
A reworking of that essay appears in the 2003 book, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed,” by Scott D. Sagan and Waltz. The statement on anarchy and the discussion of the stability conferred by an international duopoly have been removed, although in a 2011 interview he confirms his earlier viewpoint: “I certainly believe that, as long as the world continues to be anarchic, the theory that I developed will maintain its direct relevance. One cannot expect the world to change unless the structure of the world changes.” In that interview, he views the world as unipolar, the United States being that single pole.
Waltz considers nations two at a time, perhaps a continuation of the Cold War model. So an Iranian nuclear arsenal would balance the Israeli nuclear arsenal and “restore stability to the Middle East.” India and Pakistan have their nuclear standoff.
The Middle East is indeed unstable, but is Israel’s heavily unbalanced power the only reason? The meddling of great powers, the persistence of autocratic rule, the social systems that exclude women and other groups from power all would seem to contribute. How would an Iranian nuclear capability stabilize those factors?
Additionally, regimes and alliances change. Saudi Arabia, not previously an ally of Israel, has made it known that it would not object to Israeli overflights to bomb Iran to prevent its getting nuclear weapons. Iran’s 1979 coup turned its alliances on their heads. Egypt’s recent changes have brought its treaty with Israel into question.
Could a Shia Iran with nuclear weapons ally with Israel against the Sunni Arabs? That would unbalance the power structure of the Middle East once again, by Waltz’s argument making nuclear weapons likely for, say, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Is this a multipolar or unipolar situation? Certainly the United States has limited power over the actions of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other countries of the Middle East, as is vividly illustrated by large numbers of daily news reports.
Waltz argues that the consequences of nuclear war are so horrific that they force governments away from using them in fear of self-destruction and that no mistakes will ever be made relative to their use. This seems to require the assumption that states are rational actors and able to preserve their integrity so as to retain control of their nuclear forces. Although herejects the rational actor assumption, he uses a significant fraction of the ForeignAffairs article to argue that the rationality of Iran’s rulers precludes their first use of a nuclear weapon.
He also argues that the probability of proliferation would be small upon Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
When Israel acquired the bomb in the 1960s, it was at war with many of its neighbors. Its nuclear arms were a much bigger threat to the Arab world than Iran's program is today. If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.
But Iraq and the United Arab Republic (now Egypt and Syria) did indeed want nuclear weapons to balance Israel’s and took some steps in that direction. What stopped the UAE was that the it was a client of the Soviet Union, which did not want the UAR to become nuclear. Thus did the duopoly of the Cold War limiting other nations’ options. Iraq went further toward nuclear weapons and might have succeeded, had not the 1991 Gulf War ended Saddam Hussein’s reign.
There are more holes in Waltz’s argument that I won’t go into in detail in this post. If there’s interest, I’ll write more on them.
For one set of examples, in the Foreign Affairs article, he recognizes that a treaty between India and Pakistan on nuclear targeting may be useful, while otherwise ignoring the post-WWII treaty structure. The India-Pakistan relationship provides many questions about Waltz’s theory. He predicts no arms race between proliferant states, but new reactor construction in Pakistan suggests otherwise. Pakistan’s instability also seems to contradict some of his statements about strong governments in nuclear weapons states.
I’ve seen others wondering when Scott Sagan, Waltz’s customary interlocutor, will weigh in. He did, in 2007. In this video, Waltz says nothing significantly different than what is in the Foreign Affairs article, and Sagan responds. Obviously, I can't speak for Sagan, but his responses in the video seem reasonable and consistent with other things he's written.