We can tolerate a nuclear Iran because the argument that we cannot is based on the faulty assumption that Iran’s government is messianic and irrational, ready to destroy Israel and the world. That is a caricature view, not based on fact. The Iranian regime has been in power for 30 years exactly because it’s top priority is survival, not its self destruction. It has strategic objectives, which run counter to America and Israel’s goals, but are very much within the realm of Realpolitik we are readily familiar with.
Far from the caricature of an apocalyptic mad dash to nuclear Armageddon, Iran, like the Soviet Union and communist China during the Cold War or Pakistan today, dreams of power and hegemony. And in this, Iran seeks to dominate the Arab world, not Israel. The West should resist Iran’s dreams of hegemony, but this is something we can do. Given the alternative, we can manage nuclear Iran.
Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born American, is dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He will argue against the resolution be it resolved the world cannot tolerate and Iran with nuclear weapons capability at tonight’s Munk Debate in Toronto.
Before we start cowering in fear, here are some facts. Iran is not a powerful country. Its GDP is one 40th the size of America’s – in fact its GDP is much smaller than America's defence budget – its economy is in ruins, and the regime faces popular discontent. The country has alienated most of its neighbours , it is desperately trying to shore up its Syrian ally at great cost, and its notorious president is on his way out. Most importantly, international efforts to delay Iran's nuclear program are working. Even if they manage to build some form of crude bomb, we can tolerate the consequences through robust containment and deterrence
We will be told that a nuclear Iran would set off an arms race in the Middle East. But when North Korea went nuclear, South Korea and Japan didn't follow and while Israel has developed their nuclear program, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have made few moves in this direction – even though they regard Israel as their main enemy. So why, with security guarantees from the United States, would these countries do so now in response to Iran?
It will be explained that a nuclear Iran will lead to an escalation with Israel. But India and Pakistan went to war three times in the 30 years before they had nuclear capability, and have not again in the 40 year since. Deterrence works.
Since none of the usual arguments hold up, we hear that Iran is irrational, a mad, messianic power. But this is precisely what was said about both China and the Soviet Union. And North Korea's behaviour has been far more bizarre than Iran’s, which has generally pursued its interest in a cool, calculating way. If deterrence worked with madmen like Mao and Kim Il Sung, and thugs like Stalin, then it will work with the autocrats of Tehran.
A rational actor need not have the same goals we do. He may not be reasonable. A rational actor need only be concerned about its own survival. As former senior U.S. intelligence official Paul Pillar writes, Iran's rulers "are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power – in this life, not some future one."
Let me end with a simple question: If Israel does not believe in deterrence, why did it build a nuclear arsenal at great cost, if not to deter its neighbour from attacking it?
Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN’s flagship global affairs program, Fareed Zakaria GPS. He is also a Washington Post columnist and editor-at-large of TIME magazine. He will argue against the motion be it resolved the world cannot tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons capability at tonight’s Munk Debate in Toronto.