On July 9, PBS Newshour‘s Judy Woodruff moderated a discussion between University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and former Defense Department official Dov Zakheim. The two men debated the controversial proposition by Kenneth Waltz, formerly a professor at Columbia University, that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a positive development for stability in the Middle East.
Mearsheimer extolled the virtues of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, asserting, “I think there’s no question that a nuclear-armed Iran would bring stability to the region, because nuclear weapons are weapons of peace.” He claimed, “They have hardly any offensive capability at all.”
American servicemen who anxiously waited aboard the ships preparing for the invasion of Japan in 1945 would likely disagree with Mearsheimer’s characterization of nuclear weapons as lacking offensive capability.
Mearsheimer and Waltz use the Soviet-American nuclear standoff as an example of stability through nuclear deterence. But missing from Mearsheimer’s and Waltz’s theorizing is serious consideration of the difference between Soviet ideology and the messianic mindset of the Iranian regime.
Influential Iranian cleric Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani probably didn’t get the Mearsheimer-Waltz memo. The Iran Press service reported in 2001:
“If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave any thing in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world”, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told the crowd at the traditional Friday prayers in Tehran.
Analysts said not only Mr. Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s speech was the strongest against Israel, but also this is the first time that a prominent leader of the Islamic Republic openly suggests the use of nuclear weapon against the Jewish State.
The current President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a religious fanatic, has frequently advocated the destruction of Israel. For example, on Oct. 26, 2005, in a speech to a “World Without Zionism” conference in Tehran, he vowed that “Israel must be wiped off the map.”
Woodruff’s interview appeared simultaneous to a PBS interview with Waltz published on the PBS Web site. This follows the publication by Foreign Affairs and USA Today (in excerpt form) of an article by Waltz titled, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.”
While one’s first inclination might be to ridicule such opinions — and many of the on-line commenters to both the PBS Newshour segment and the on-line piece did so — there is a method behind Waltz’s and Mearsheimer’s seeming madness:
The argument over how to avert an Iranian nuclear bomb currently pits Israel against much of the rest of the world. Since Iran’s leadership has explicitly threatened to erase Israel from the map, it is logical to see Israel as a favored target of an Iranian attack. For that reason, Israel advocates a more aggressive and unyielding approach to halting the Iranian program. Those who have little sympathy for Israel and who might share or discount the belief that Israel is a favored target, would have less concern about Iranian possession of a nuclear bomb. That would make them more inclined to dabble with hypothetical positions potentially risky for Israel and eventually America. Mearsheimer concedes, “there is always some small possibility that there will be nuclear use.” But if he and Waltz miscalculate Iranian behavior, it is the residents of Tel Aviv who would most likely be incinerated, not them.
Mearsheimer has achieved visibility over what he claims is the excessive influence of Israel’s supporters in American politics. The book he co-authored, The Israel Lobby, promotes a modern version of a classic anti-Jewish canard, that Israel’s supporters put that country’s interests ahead of the America’s, to the detriment of U.S. self-interest. Despite its many factual errors, The Israel Lobby has been cited as a seminal work by many who seek to rend the close American-Israeli relationship.
Mearsheimer denies any intrinsic hostility to Jews or Israel. But exposure of negative comments he made about Jews in a speech to an Arab group and his endorsement of a book by fringe anti-Jewish writer Gilad Atzmon, casts doubt on Mearsheimer’s supposed dispassionate analysis.
A concealed hostility towards Israel is made clearer by the emphasis both Waltz and Mearsheimer give to the charge that Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons are the real source of instability in the region. Dov Zakheim effectively countered this argument. To Mearsheimer’s claim that an Iranian nuclear bomb would enhance stability, Zakheim countered that widespread proliferation would likely follow. In fact, Saudi Arabia and others in the region have already hinted at this. The Saudis, in particular, have expressed extreme concern with the Iranian nuclear project. It is notable that Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons did not motivate the surrounding Arab states to successfully procure or produce their own nuclear weapons. Iraq had a program that was effectively ended by an Israeli air attack. The Iraqi program could have been motivated by enmity with Iran as well as seeking parity with Israel. Other unsuccessful efforts include Iranian-allied Syria and an abandoned Libyan project under Moammar Qaddafi. But the Iranian nuclear threat seems to have raised the stakes in the region, something Mearsheimer concedes.
Zakheim also refuted Mearsheimer’s argument about Israel’s weapons as the main source of regional instability. Any serious recounting of major wars erupting in the greater Middle East over the last half-century provides irrefutable evidence that such conflicts have little or nothing to do with Israel. The Iran-Iraq war, wars in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkish suppression of the Kurds and intractable civil wars in Yemen, Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Libya have caused far in excess of a million fatalities. None of these wars are connected to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The fatuousness of Mearsheimer’s and Waltz’s claim that Israeli nuclear weapons are a principle source of Middle Eastern instability prompted a sarcastic rebuke from Zakheim:
Yes. In fact, what he said is that it’s caused instability, Israel has, for the last 40 years. So, therefore, Israel’s nuke  weapons caused the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It caused Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It’s caused the Arab spring and all the instability that has taken place there. Of course it’s the cause of the Syrian civil war as well. Look at all the things the Israeli nuclear weapons have caused.
But Zakheim’s sarcasm may have been shortsighted. The fact that Mearsheimer’s argument is easily refuted should be cause for some caution. On a purely factual level, Mearsheimer’s argument is weak, but as part of a public relations scheme to persuade Americans to go soft on the Iran’s nuclear weapons drive and isolate Israel it is more plausible.
Woodruff’s summation of the discussion was that it was “a very tough subject.” An on-line commenter named John Hay disagreed:
It’s not a “very tough subject” at all. Iran has been screaming, “Death to America!” for forty years, and apologists have denied they mean it. We cannot allow a nation that’s threatened to kill us all to have the means to do it. If someone threatened to murder Judy, you can bet she’d be on the phone screaming to the cops, for example, and that person would never be allowed to own a firearm… If you think a nation that sends out suicide bombers and walks children into mine fields to clear them will be deterred by the threat of death, you’re 100 percent wrong.
PBS’s Mearsheimer-Zakheim exchange was worthwhile only to the extent of exposing the unreliable and unrealistic views of Mearsheimer and Waltz. But to the extent that moderator Woodruff’s summing up the issue of Iranian and Israeli nuclear weapons capabilities as “a very tough subject” reflects thinking in the network news operation, it was disturbing.