No, Iran Is Not Rushing To Build A Nuclear Weapon

John Mearsheimer is a political science scholar who adheres to the realist school of thought. He developed a theory of offensive realism that at times produces valid predictions of the behavior of some states. But his theory does not account for cultural factors and its predictions fail when these predominate in a state’s decisions.

His ridiculous op-ed in today’s New York Times is proof for that.

Mearsheimer may not be responsible for that fakenews headline. The NYT is generally anti-Iran and some of its editors are the worst warmongers.  But even as the claims made in the headline are false, they are not far from what Mearsheimer writes.

For the record: No, Iran is not rushing to build a nuclear weapon. And if it would do such Trump could stop it.

Mearsheimer starts:

President Trump says he wants to make sure Iran never acquires nuclear weapons. His policy, however, is having the opposite effect: It is giving Tehran a powerful incentive to go nuclear, while at the same time making it increasingly difficult for the United States to prevent that. On Monday the official Iranian news agency announced that the country had breached the limits for enriched uranium imposed on it by the 2015 international agreements.

Indeed, American policy toward Iran over the past year makes it clear that Iranian leaders were foolish not to develop a nuclear deterrent in the early 2000s.

The Iranians had good reason to acquire nuclear weapons long before the present crisis, and there is substantial evidence they were doing just that in the early 2000s. The case for going nuclear is much more compelling today. After all, Iran now faces an existential threat from the United States, and a nuclear arsenal will go a long way toward eliminating it.

The current “existential threat” against Iran, says Mearsheimer, is the economic war and blockade the U.S. wages against it.

But where is the evidence that nuclear weapons would prevent the economic war and blockade? North Korea, which has nuclear weapons and even the ability to strike the United States with them, is under similar measures. In sight of that how does this make the case to go nuclear more compelling for Iran?

Before 2003 Iran likely had a nuclear research program to find out what it would take to make a nuclear weapon. But the reason to pursue that was not the threat from the United States. The threat to Iran was a potentially nuclear Iraq, a country which had already used weapons of mass destruction against its cities. When the U.S. invaded Iraq that threat went away and Iran’s nuclear weapon research program was canceled.

Iran has a much better weapon than nuclear devices to deter the U.S. from threatening its existence. It can block the flow of oil from the Gulf to the global economy. It is a relatively cheap capability and nothing but a full fledged invasion of Iran can take it away.

Mearsheimer believes that Iran would need nukes to do that:

[I]f its survival was at stake, Iran could credibly threaten to use a few nuclear weapons to completely shut down the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf.

It might seem hard to imagine Iran using nuclear weapons first in a crisis, but history tells us that desperate states are sometimes willing to pursue exceedingly risky strategies […] The Trump administration would surely be aware of the dangers of provoking a nuclear-armed Iran. In short, nuclear weapons would profoundly alter Iran’s strategic situation for the better.

If Iran destroys the loading stations for oil along the western Persian Gulf coast with conventional ballistic missiles it would slow the flow of oil to a trickle. Additional attacks on tankers would bring it to effectively zero. There are no nukes needed to achieve either.

By not pursuing nuclear weapons and by adhering to the framework of the nuclear agreement, Iran has kept the Europeans on its site. If it goes nuclear Iran will bring the world into a united position against it. UN Security Council sanction would immediately be back. Other Persian Gulf states would soon try to also acquire nukes. Iran would be confronted by a large coalition of states whereas today only the U.S., Israel and some of their Gulf minions are hostile to it. Which is the better strategic situation for Iran?

There is absolutely no need for Iran to go nuclear and there would be no strategic advantage for it in possessing nukes.

Mearsheimer also believes that Trump has no way out of the situation:

Mr. Trump’s policy has backed the United States into a corner, leaving no clear diplomatic offramp in sight. […] If Mr. Trump tries to lower tensions by easing the sanctions, which Tehran insists he must do before it will even agree to talk, he will be savaged at home by the Iran hawks, who are an important part of his political base. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States will be equally critical.

Didn’t the North Korea hawks “savage” Trump for making nice with Kim Jong Un? Has Japan’s critic of the move influenced his decision? How much did it cost him with his base?

Trump has changed his opinion and actions so often that no one would be surprised if he would change his mind on Iran. He can rejoin the nuclear agreement and lift the sanctions, possibly in exchange for some minor promises from Iran. Iran would continue its anti nuclear weapon policy. Trump would sell that as a success just as he sells the ‘denuclearization’ of North Korea as a political victory. His base actually seems to like such grant moves.

Mearsheimer is reading the issue so wrong because his theory of offensive realism is misleading him:

John Mearsheimer’s offensive neorealism intends to fix the “status quo bias” of Kenneth Waltz’s defensive neorealism. While both neorealist variants argue that states are primarily concerned with maximising their security, they disagree over the amount of power required in the process. To the contrary of defensive neorealism according to which states are status quo powers seeking only to preserve their respective positions in the international system by maintaining the prevailing balance of power, offensive neorealism claims that states are in fact power-maximising revisionists harbouring aggressive intentions.

The theory that states inherently have aggressive intentions may hold for some states that Mearsheimer knows well, specifically the United States and Israel. But where is the evidence that Iran, and many other small to medium states, have any such tendency?

As Mearsheimer puts it: “[states] look for opportunities to alter the balance of power by acquiring additional increments of power at the expense of potential rivals”, since “the greater the military advantage one state has over other states, the more secure it is“. States seek to increase their military strength to the detriment of other states within the system with hegemony—being the only great power in the state system—as their ultimate goal.

Again, that may hold for some states, but does fit for all? The theory misses two points.

The first one is the spending that is necessary to build a military advantage over other states. What are the marginal returns for investing more money into military might? The population of a state may well prefer peaceful consumption over an increase of its hegemony.

The second point is even more cultural. States have characters. While some are aggressive others are not.

Iran is an Islamic Republic led by jurists of Shia believe. Its leader issued a religious verdict against making and possessing nukes. Under Shia doctrine outward Jihad, religiously justified war, is only legitimate in defense, not as aggression. During the last 300 years Iran behaved  non-aggressive. Despite having the financial means and population size to fight its smaller neighbors, it did not initiate any war. Its military posture and doctrine is defensive.

Mearsheimer ignores these facts. Most likely because they contradict his political theory.

Iran will not go nuclear and it will not start a war. It is Israel that is threatening to do that over Iran’s slightly increased stockpile of low enriched Uranium. Two days ago it launched an extensive air attack on Syria and hit several military and civilian sites. 16 people died, including kids, and over 60 were wounded. It might have been in preparation for an attack on Iran.

An hour or two ago U.S. Vice President Pence, on his way to some campaign event, was called back to the White House for some urgent meeting. Russia’s President Putin is in an urgent meeting with his Defense Minister Shoigu. Earlier today a Russian spy submarine had a fire on board that killed 14 of its crew. Has the U.S. something to do with the incident? Is something else up?

Posted by b on July 2, 2019 at 17:15 UTC

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