Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Day After Iran Gets the Bomb

| May 14, 2024

Scholars and policymakers are still trying to understand what would happen after Tehran acquires a nuclear weapon.

Will Iran ever acquire nuclear weapons? What would happen if it did? The answer to the first question seems increasingly to be yes. The second question, however, is as unclear as ever.

The Islamic Republic has been at odds with the United States and many of its neighbors for 45 years, ever since the revolution that toppled the shah in 1979. The United States backed Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (even though Baghdad had started the conflict), and then-U.S. President George W. Bush included Tehran in his infamous "axis of evil." The Obama administration eventually signed a nuclear deal with Iran, but it also collaborated with Israel to conduct a major cyberattack on Iran's enrichment infrastructure. Not to be outdone, then-President Donald Trump eventually authorized a drone strike that killed Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, and tried to weaken the regime through a program of "maximum pressure."

Iran has responded to these various activities and others by supporting the Assad regime in Syria, moving closer to Russia and China, and arming and training militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Gaza. And as Raphael S. Cohen recently outlined here at FP, the covert war between Israel and Iran is likely to continue for a long time to come and could easily get worse.

The potential for trouble here is manifest, but one prominent international relations theorist thought there was an obvious way to reduce it. According to the late Kenneth Waltz's last published article, the most straightforward way to stabilize the region would be for Iran to acquire a nuclear deterrent of its own. He argued that possession of a nuclear arsenal would reduce Iran's security fears, give it less reason to make trouble for others, and force its regional rivals to refrain from using force against it in ways that might inadvertently lead to a nuclear exchange. As Winston Churchill put it in the early years of the Cold War, stability would become "the sturdy child of terror."

Waltz had laid out the central logic of this argument in a controversial 1981 monograph, drawing on basic nuclear deterrence theory. He began with the familiar realist assumption that states in anarchy are primarily concerned with security. In a world without nuclear weapons, such fears often lead to miscalculation, risky behavior, and war. Nuclear weapons altered this situation by threatening a level of destructive power that even the most ambitious or aggressive leaders had to respect. He saw a nuclear deterrent as the ultimate security guarantee: No sensible leader would try to conquer or overthrow a nuclear-armed rival because to do so would inevitably risk a nuclear attack....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Day After Iran Gets the Bomb.” Foreign Policy, May 14, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt