Weak Position Undermines Iran Nuclear Threat

Barry Posen, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaks with Renee Montagne about fears that Iran would be a reckless nuclear power. He argues that Iran is weak politically and militarily, making it containable.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Negotiations with Iran to end its nuclear weapons ambitions have continued on and off since January. Members of the U.N. Security Council meet in London on Friday to discuss what's next. Much of this diplomacy stems from the view that Iran would be a careless and dangerous nuclear power. One analyst has been exploring if that's true. Barry Posen teaches political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says Iran doesn't compare to nuclear powers that were successfully contained during the Cold War.

Professor BARRY POSEN (Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Iran is a powerful state by Persian Gulf standards, but it's not a particularly strong state by measures against the United States. The United States managed to contain and deter the Soviet Union, which was a country with equal population or greater, and half of America's GDP, and the defense budget at least as large as America's.

Now, Iran is a country of only 70 million people. Iran's defense budget is about 1 percent of the U.S. defense budget. Iran does not have an ideology that travels easily to its neighbors. Most of them are Sunni Arab states. Iran is a Persian Shiite state. So when we look at the power relationships and we look at the political relationships containing Iran and deterring any adventures that it might consider, looks to me to be imminently doable.

MONTAGNE: Imminently doable because Iran is so much weaker in certain ways. But might Iran's very weakness make it more difficult to control?

Prof. POSEN: Well, I mean, there's a widespread and valid concern that nuclear materials would fall into the wrong hands in the world, and we've been dealing with the former Soviet Union for many years now. In the case of Iran, a concern that people seem to have is that Iran is going to somehow give a finished nuclear weapon away to some evildoers or terrorist group. And this is a very risky proposition for the Iranians.

If your hands are on this kind of an exercise, and others figure out where the weapon originated, it's almost surely true that a retaliation of some kind, probably a very destructive one, is going to be leveled at the country that provided the weapon. And then the second thing is that Iran is giving the means of its own destruction to a group that it doesn't control. This would be a very peculiar thing, even for a state like Iran to do.

MONTAGNE: Take a different scenario. What if Iran is able to use the fact that it possessed nuclear weapons to exert power over its neighbors?

Prof. POSEN: Well, I mean, an Iran with a nuclear deterrent is going to be viewed even more warily by its neighbors than it already is. But the Iranians also have new risks that they're running once they're a nuclear power, because to have nuclear weapons is to be a nuclear target. The United States is an extremely capable nuclear power with thousands of nuclear weapons, and you have to be a much more cautious player when you're a nuclear state, particularly when you're a weak nuclear state confronting the only nuclear superpower left on the planet.

MONTAGNE: There, though, is a risk that's talked about, that if Iran were to get nuclear weapons, it would start something of a nuclear arms race there in the Middle East, in its neighborhood.

Prof. POSEN: Yes, the risk that other states in the region will look at a nuclear Iran and feel uncomfortable relying upon America as their protector is there. But it looks like there's essentially four states in the region that could get into this game, and that's Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. And Israel, I think we all know, is already a nuclear state. Now, Turkey is an odd case, because Turkey is already in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a nuclear alliance. The Turks would face a lot of pressure from NATO, from the European Union, not to go nuclear.

So I don't think Turkey is the main problem. Saudi Arabia is going to be interested in nuclear weapons, but the Americans will probably make it clear to the Saudis that we don't want this to happen. And the final case is the Egyptians, and the Egyptians at one time had a pretty energetic nuclear research program. That said, Egypt is not a very rich country, and it depends a lot on outsiders for both economic and military assistance.

Now, none of these are sure things. With that said, we have a lot of cards to play, and I don't think you're going to have one of these rapidly falling chains of dominoes that people are so concerned about.

MONTAGNE: Are we having this conversation, if you will, too soon? That is to say, all the means to stop Iran from going nuclear haven't been exhausted yet?

Prof. POSEN: No. I don't think that we're having this conversation too early. I analyze security problems, and in the interest of having a full discussion, I decided to analyze what many people consider to be the worst case. I am not advocating a nuclear Iran as a happier, better world for us. I would like to see a non-nuclear Iran as well. What we have to move towards in this country is a public consideration of all the options that people have discussed. My point is that, you know, in the last crisis of this kind with Iraq, we didn't really have a discussion like this, and we didn't have it early enough. It seems to me that we're not having his conversation too early. We're having it at exactly the right time.

MONTAGNE: Barry Posen is Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Thank you for joining us.

Prof. POSEN: It's my pleasure.

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