Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned the world against a nuclear capable Iran this week in his address to the United Nations, according to Foreign Policy Journal. Netanyahu, like many in the international community, believe that Iran would use a nuclear weapon against Israel because the country views Israel as an illegitimate Jewish state in a predominantly Arab region.
Nuclear weapons are undoubtedly dangerous. Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling wrote in his 1966 book, Arms and Influence, “Nuclear weapons make it possible to do monstrous violence to the enemy without first achieving victory […] Victory is no longer a prerequisite for hurting the enemy […] One need not wait until he has won the war before inflicting ‘unendurable’ damages on his enemy.”
The late Kenneth Waltz wrote extensively on the subject of Iran, the bomb and structural stability. In an article for the Foreign Affairs Journal titled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” Waltz argued that the Islamic republic wants to get the nuclear weapons not for nefarious attacks on neighbors of different faiths, but to ensure its own survival in the increasingly militarized and westernized Middle East. As John Mearsheimer writes in his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, a nuclear bomb is a deterrent, a last resort weapon that ensures that one country will not attempt to wipe out the other for fear of nuclear reprisal. In effect, the bomb acts as insurance against a Western attack. And with the history of American involvement in the region over the past decade, Iran’s fear of Western invasion is legitimate.
Iran needs their weapons at this point because they have been isolated from the international community and cannot ensure a place for itself in the Middle East through other means. The West has imposed sanctions on Iran, but not to the point where Iran would give up its nuclear ambition.
According to the Brookings Institution, the sanctions hurt Iran and disconnect Iranian oil from parts of the world, but they cannot do enough damage to stop Iran from developing a bomb. In Foreign Affairs, Waltz writes,“If Tehran determines that its security depends on possessing nuclear weapons, sanctions are unlikely to change its mind. In fact, adding still more sanctions now could make Iran feel even more vulnerable, giving it still more reason to seek the protection of the ultimate deterrent.” Indeed, the sanctions have prevented Iran from developing serious economic ties to the rest of the world. Leslie Gelb, the President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in his 2010 article “GDP Now Matters More Than Force,” that connections to the global marketplace matter more to countries than the ability to defend themselves. Iran has the ability to become a significant oil exporter, given that it has the fourth largest reserves of crude oil in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. There would be little reason for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon if it had the ability to sell its oil on a world stage, bring foreign entrepreneurs into the country and become economically connected to the Middle East and the world. Financially, it would make no sense for the West to attack Iran if the country made up a significant portion of regional or world trade. Since this path is not open to Iran under current sanctions, Iran must fall back on trying to create a nuclear weapon.
Instead of looking to squash Iranian nuclear ambitions through an economic deterrent, the world should transition the focus from nuclear security to economic security. By lifting sanctions and giving the Iranian people the ability to buy and sell products on the world market, the resulting wealth through integration into world markets would give Iran an economic disincentive to jeopardize its ties to the world. If the Iranian people see their country become more open and integrated into the world, than the emphasis in Iran might shift from nuclear proliferation to economic prosperity because the benefits of growth and economic security outweigh nuclear security.
Israel has the right to be scared of a nuclear Iran, just as Iran has the right to be afraid of Western attack. Alleviating both of these fears, however, will require a new approach that transitions Iran from reliance on physical security to economic interdependence.
Dan Morgan-Russell is a sophomore majoring in international relations (global business). His column “Going Global” runs Mondays.
Follow Dan on Twitter @ginger_breaddan