Regular readers here know that I think a military attack on Iran would be a huge mistake, and I was sharply critical of a recent NYT op-ed by Alan Kuperman that advocated this course. This morning, the Times's pendulum swung nearly as far the other way, offering up an equally unconvincing op-ed suggesting that there might be hidden strategic benefits for the United States if Iran did in fact cross the threshold to a nuclear weapons capability.
To be specific, the author of the piece, a defense analyst named Adam B. Lawther, suggests that Iran's acquisition of a bomb would 1) encourage threatened Arab governments to get serious about the al Qaeda threat, 2) allow the United States to "break OPEC," 3) cause Israelis and Palestinians to get serious about peace and bury the hatchet, 4) boost the U.S. defense industry (thereby enabling us to get ready for a rising China), and 5) enable the U.S. to "stem the flow of dollars" to Arab petro-states, get them to ante up for the war on terror, and allow us to save the money we are now spending on counterinsurgency operations.
Well, gee, if an Iranian bomb would produce all these benefits, maybe we ought to just skip the whole dispute over enrichment and just give them a few warheads from our own arsenal. But the more you look at these arguments, the less convincing they are. Arab governments like Saudi Arabia are already serious about al Qaeda, because it is a direct threat to their rule. Iran's bomb won't help us "break OPEC," because oil exporters need the revenue. It's not going to lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace, both because the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel have been overblown and because the obstacles to a workable piece have little to do with Iran. The U.S. defense budget doesn't need a further boost right now, and we are already spending at least five times more than China anyway. Finally, the way to stem the flow of money to Arab petrostates and to get out of the counterinsurgency business is to consume less oil and gas and wean ourselves from our futile efforts at social engineering in societies we do not understand. The answer is not to encourage an Iranian bomb.
More generally, this piece makes the same sort of error that advocates of preventive war routinely make, but in the opposite direction. In particular, it assumes that acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran (or anybody else) will have enormous, far-reaching, and maybe even revolutionary effects on that state's global position and international influence. Hawks claim that an Iranian bomb would lead to all sorts of horrible bad things; now Lawther is suggesting that it will actually produce an equally impressive number of pretty good results.
In fact, history suggests that an Iranian bomb would have a far more modest impact than either side of this debate is now suggesting. Getting the bomb didn't transform Red China or North Korea into great world powers overnight; it was economic modernization that did the trick for Beijing, while North Korea remains a basket case with virtually no global influence. The mighty Soviet Union couldn't blackmail anyone despite having tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and having a few hundred nuclear weapons doesn't enable Israel to simply dictate to its neighbors either. You may have also noticed that America's own nuclear arsenal hasn't given Washington the capacity to compel everyone to do its bidding either.
As Kenneth Waltz once put, if a state like Iran does get the bomb someday, it will "cramp our style." In other words, it would make a direct military attacks on Iran a riskier proposition, though it would hardly prevent us from resisting Iranian aggression against vital U.S. interests. Contrary to Lawther's pollyannish views, an Iranian bomb would not be a good thing and the United States and its allies are correct in trying to discourage Tehran from developing one. (Of course, by continuing to threaten Iran, the United States and its allies are merely increasing Iran's incentive to get an actual deterrent.) But it's not going to be the end of the world if Iran does get a weapon one day, and I expect Iran's neighbors (including Israel) would get used to it rather quickly. (Note: Lawther eventually makes this point too and here he is on firmer ground, except that it undercuts all of his other claims.)
Bottom line: silly arguments in favor of proliferation are not a good response to silly arguments in favor of preventive war.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.