What's the biggest problem facing the world today? Most people would probably say the downward spiral of the global economy. Over at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Steve Schwartzman, chairman of the Blackstone private equity group, said "Forty percent of the world's wealth was destroyed in last five quarters. It is an almost incomprehensible number." NewsCorp chief Rupert Murdoch warned "the crisis is getting worse” and said that fixing it "will take a long time."
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- whose Likud Party is leading the current polls in Israel -- begs to differ. According to the Associated Press, Netanyahu told the Davos crowd that Iran's nuclear program "ranks far above the global economy as a challenge facing world leaders."
Why? According to Netanyahu, it's because the financial meltdown is reversible if governments and business make the right decisions. But "what is not reversible is the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a fanatical radical regime," he said, adding that "we have never had, since the dawn of the nuclear age, nuclear weapons in hands of such a fanatical regime."
There are plenty of good reasons to try to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and it is easy to understand why Israelis are especially concerned about Iran's nuclear program. But Netanyahu's assessment of the relative importance of these two problems is just plain wrong, for at least five reasons.
First, let's be clear about the current state of play. Iran has no nuclear weapons today, and we still don't know for sure if they will ever get them. By contrast, the economic crisis is a reality now. Iran cannot build a bomb today because it has no plutonium or highly-enriched uranium (HEU). Its centrifuges are producing low-enriched uranium (LEU), but you can’t build a bomb with that. In theory it could enrich its LEU to weapons grade, but its LEU stockpile is under IAEA surveillance and the diversion would be detected (this turns out to be something the IAEA is very good at doing). As William Luers, Thomas Pickering, and Jim Walsh note in a sensible article in the latest New York Review of Books, if Iran wants a bomb, its choices "are to cheat and get caught or to kick the inspectors out." Unless Iran has a secret clandestine enrichment program up and running somewhere (which we’ve found no sign of up till now), it’s hard to see the current situation as anywhere near as serious as our economic problems today.
Second, Netayanhu is wrong to say that the world have never seen such a "fanatical regime" with nuclear weapons. Iran's government has many unsavoury qualities, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said some stupid and offensive things about the Holocaust and about Israel. But "fanatical?" By historic standards Iran's government isn't even in the top rank, and its foreign policy behavior is hardly irrational. Joseph Stalin was an even greater mass murderer than Adolf Hitler, and his successors were ruthless, ideologically-driven men with scant regard for human life. They had a large nuclear arsenal, and yet we managed to wage and win the Cold War against them anyway. Similarly, Mao Zedong was directly responsible for millions of deaths, and he also made a number of shockingly cavalier remarks about nuclear war. Indeed, Secretary of State Dean Rusk once told a Congressional committee that "a country whose behavior is as violent, irascible, unyielding and hostile as that of Communist China is led by leaders whose view of the world and of life itself is unreal." Yet Mao had the bomb and never used it; indeed, Chinese nuclear weapons policy has been quite circumspect for over forty years.
Third, it is remarkably self-centered for Netanyahu to declare Iran's program to be a greater challenge than the global recession. The economic crisis is already harming many millions of people around the world, and it is likely to have an enduring impact on how millions of people -- even billions -- live their lives. It will lower life expectancy, alter life-opportunities, change demographic patterns, and affect the tenor of politics in many places, probably for the worse. Just look at all the social and political ills spawned by the Great Depression and you get some idea what a protracted global recession might do today. Even if Iran did get nuclear weapons someday, that is mostly a regional problem rather than a global one. Iran's neighbors would have legitimate concerns, but does Netanyahu really think that this is a bigger issue than the world economy for the leaders of Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Norway, Japan, China, Chile, South Africa, or New Zealand?
Fourth, let's not forget that Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons of its own, and Israel's American ally has several thousand of them. If Iran were to acquire a few nuclear weapons someday, it could not use them without triggering its own destruction. Iran's government may support terrorist groups like Islamic Jihad that employ suicide bombers, but Iran's leaders show no signs of being suicidal themselves.
Finally, the more panicked people sound about the prospect of an Iranian arsenal, the more that Iranians might falsely conclude that getting a few bombs might actually give them a lot of leverage. This sort of overheated rhetoric may also convince some Israelis that an Iranian bomb would be an existential threat and convince them to leave, which in turn might give some Iranians an additional reason to pursue that option. Ironically, by portraying a legitimate security concern as an imminent peril, Netanyahu and others of his ilk may in fact be undermining Israel's long-term future.
Netanyahu's remarks may help him win more votes back in Israel, but my guess is that didn't win him much sympathy in Davos. To a sophisticated crowd with a global perspective, I'll bet it sounded like special pleading, which is precisely what it was.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.