By Daniela Porat

“It was much easier to convince a Soviet that your way of life was better. You could take them to Kmart in the United States, or to Wal-Mart, because they were driven by many of the same things that we’re driven by: success and taking care of our families,” Robert Dannenberg, a former CIA agent, once mused to reporter Peter Bergen. “When you’re dealing with a man who has religious or extremist views, it’s completely different.”

In other words, if a theocratic state got the bomb, would it act rationally like a state or like some feverishly religious, “irrational” non-state actor, such as a terrorist group? Basking in the yellow glow of Roy Thompson Hall’s grand theatre, Toronto’s patricians, intellectual glitterati, and foreign policy wonks hoped to find out. They were all gathered to listen to experts make their case for why the world could, or could not, tolerate a nuclear armed Iran.

The theatre hummed with chipper greetings and discrete whispers of celebrity sightings. (There’s Michael Ignatieff!) But this fall’s Munk Debate was no light matter. Only Rudyard Griffiths’s pink tie and bright teal-stripped socks provided some levity. The Munk Debates, organized by Griffiths and Patrick Luciani, are always lively: A recurring debate on critical challenges confronting Canada and the international community. The resolution up for debate on November 26, 2012, was this: Be it resolved the world cannot tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons capability.

In the admittedly unscientific, pre-debate poll, the team arguing for this motion held court with 60 % to 24 % of polled attendees voting in favour of the resolution, with 16 % undecided. The evening, though, left the audience with two different but equally ominous sketches of the future: Either accept a nuclear capable Iran, maintaining faith in nuclear stability and the powers of containment and deterrence; or attack its facilities to avert the proliferation of nuclear weapons and implosion of the Middle East.

Both teams agreed that a nuclear Iran would be terribly inconvenient, but where the pro-con divide emerged, respectively, was on whether a nuclear Iran was preventable or inevitable. It is one of the western world’s most defining foreign policy questions today.

In opposition to the resolution, Fareed Zakaria, host of the CNN show GPS and Vali Nasr, a distinguished Middle East expert and policy advisor, championed the development of a robust containment strategy.

Charles Krauthammer, named by The Financial Times as one of the most influential commentators in the U.S., and General Amos Yadlin, a former head of Military Intelligence for the Israeli Defence Forces and an Israeli national security advisor, had gloomier prognoses for the world order should Iran be allowed to go nuclear.

On a technical note, a state has nuclear weapons capability once it has developed the infrastructure and amassed the resources required to make a bomb relatively easily and on short notice. While it has been reported that Iran has around 139 kilograms of 20 % enriched uranium, and has come closer to completing the Fordo enrichment plant deep in the mountains near the city of Qom, Iran has yet to make the political decision to make a weapon. (About 240 kg of 20 % enriched uranium is enough to make a bomb if enriched further.)

Those less perturbed by a nuclear Iran rely on a firm belief in basic realist conceptions of state behavior in the international system: That states are self-interested actors seeking to secure their own survival and power relative to other states. Zakaria and Nasr echoed Kenneth Waltz’s theory of nuclear stability, which holds that nuclear geopolitical rivals would not dare escalate conflict to nuclear war out of self-interest. This is because, as Waltz says, nuclear states are “locked in death’s embrace.” Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is the concept at the core of stable nuclear deterrence between two nuclear adversaries. Nasr and Zakaria argued that no state, especially one with only basic nuclear capability, would ever use nuclear weapons for fear of nuclear annihilation in return.

Of course, believing that nuclear stability and MAD apply to Iran requires that one have faith in the Iranian regime’s rationality as a state actor. “The fact that people are willing to die for a cause is not unique to Muslims,” Nasr said, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd in Toronto. “The Iranian leaders are old men. They didn’t get to that age by actually believing in suicide bombing…Yes, of course, General Yadlin is right in the fact that the morality and ethics of this regime are abhorrent, and they use obviously poor, uneducated, fanatical kids to achieve their strategic objectives, but there is no evidence that Iranian rulers actually make their calculations on the basis of wishing to expedite their departure into the next world.”

Both Zakaria and Nasr fought hard to defend the Iranian regime’s rational character, striking back against assertions by the opposing team that the Islamic Republic itself is motivated by martyrdom. Zakaria argued the Iranian regime is well aware that “power does not flow from crude bombs,” but from innovation and a strong GDP, two sources of power currently being eroded by tough sanctions on Iran’s financial, energy and business sectors. Iran, according to Nasr and Zakaria, is like all other states in the international system: A rational, self-interested actor that responds to incentives. And if history can foretell the behavior of Iran’s supposedly irrational regime, Zakaria’s and Nasr’s side can take comfort in the fact that during the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini agreed to covert dealings with Israel and the United States – its ostensibly existential enemies – to obtain advanced weapons. Iran bypassed its anti-Zionist and anti-American ideology, currently the source of the hawks’ anxiety, to satisfy its strategic interests.

In his opening statement, Zakaria spoke about how the Soviets during the Cold War were also derided as crazy and irrational, and how China’s Mao Zedong was considered to be “truly crazy.” He continued: “Mao openly talked about the need for nuclear war. He said it would cause sacrifices, but it would be educational. And he said half the world would be destroyed, but the other half would be socialist.” So while Iran speaks of annihilating Israel, the international community should take Iran’s rhetoric with a grain of salt. Zakaria says that despite ideological differences and diabolical pronouncements, every state is a rational actor – and that it’s ultimately about survival, a standard interest in the system of nation states.

Zakaria and Nasr argued that Iran is not fixated on nuclear weapons capability in order to actually use these weapons but in order to cement Iran’s status as the regional hegemon. And what of Iran’s public goal of annihilating Israel? As Nasr and Zakaria argued, Iran has historically sought to alter the balance of power in the Middle East in its favour – to accomplish that, the Shi’ite Persian regime has had to champion the Arab Street’s essential cause: an independent Palestinian state. A symptom of that mission is the need to spout vitriol against Israel.

The Iran-Israel relationship acts as a microcosm for testing the opposing hypothesis regarding a nuclear capable Iran. The debate on Israel’s concerns about an Iranian bomb were, unsurprisingly, more emotional – evident in the audience’s attempt to applaud remarks onward to victory.

On Israel’s capabilities and potential vulnerability to an Iranian attack, the two teams were inhabiting separate realities. Despite Netanyahu’s evocation of a second Holocaust should Iran go nuclear, Israel, as pointed out in the debate, has second-strike capability and can therefore deter other states in the system. Nuclear stability pessimists, like Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan, argue that MAD only works when both nuclear actors have second-strike capability and deterrence only works when retaliation is the guaranteed response to an initial nuclear strike. Dmitry Adamsky, author of The Culture of Military Innovation, has argued that Israel must change the way it thinks about its nuclear arsenal: Israel currently only feels secure if it is the sole nuclear power in the Middle East, but it must recognize that its nuclear arsenal will gird it against a nuclear Iran – the weapons will act as a deterrent. Israel links its survival, and that of the Jewish nation, to its superior conventional military and nuclear capability. According to the laws of MAD, those capabilities should act as deterrents

Krauthammer and Yadlin, though, implied that an attack against Iran, with all other options having failed, is necessary to preserve Israel, as well as peace and stability in the Middle East. Zakaria and Nasr align with Adamsky’s arguments, seeing Israel as a power more than adequately equipped to contain and deter a nuclear capable Iran.

To Krauthammer and Yadlin, a nuclear capable Iran is not inevitable. They do not see Iran as a typical variable in a nuclear deterrence equation; instead, Iran is the anomaly in a theory that cannot be tested safely. Iran, once armed, would catalyze nuclear proliferation across the region, adopt more aggressive policies toward Israel and give these weapons to terrorists – as Iran is currently assumed to do with conventional weaponry. They maintained that nuclear deterrence would not succeed as it has in other cases, such as between India and Pakistan or during the Cold War, because the actors and contexts are wholly different.

The volatility of the Middle East is a unique backdrop for a nuclear arms race, and feeds the fear of nuclear pessimists that a nuclear Iran would force Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia, to balance Iran’s new nuclear power by acquiring nuclear weapons of their own – or else be left at the mercy of an Iranian security umbrella. Critics of this vision, including Zakaria, argue that Israel’s procurement of nuclear arms in the 1960s did not spark a nuclear arms race. The distinction here, as Krauthammer and Yadlin were quick to point out, is that Israel did not publicly express any intent to attack states in the region, and viewed its nuclear capability as a deterrent. Krauthammer insisted that proliferation did not occur once Israel developed nuclear capability because “Israel has no intention to annihilate a neighboring country.” He continued, “Do you think Egypt [or] Saudi Arabia live in terror that one day out of the blue Israel is going to destroy Cairo or Riyad? … Everybody understands in the region Israel is not going to start nuclear aggression. It’s simply inconceivable. Whereas Iran is intervening in Gaza, arming Hezbollah, intervening in Syria and elsewhere…[Iran] is a nation that when it threatens to annihilate another, people take it seriously.”

Krauthammer and Yadlin said repeatedly that the Iranian regime would not adhere to the principles of MAD because it is not a rational actor. They argued that Iran is motivated by fundamentalist Islamic principles. Moreover, they argued, Iran’s irrationality is illustrated by Iran’s intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime, and by the fact that it has allowed its currency to radically depreciate. As a result of this, Iran will not hesitate to follow through on its stated mission of blowing Israel off the map without regard for its nation’s survival, or regional stability. (Whereas Zakaria and Nasr argued that Iran’s bellicose rhetoric against Israel was more to garner support across the Arab world, rather than serve as a call to war.)

A new part of this nuclear equation is that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. Using non-state actors as proxies for its interests is part of Iran’s strategic depth policy. (Strategic depth is defined as a policy of developing diplomatic or military relationships with states or non-state actors as a way of balancing against regional threats to a state’s national interest.) The threat of terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons material is a grave concern that dovetailed with the debate’s resolution: That a nuclear Iran cannot be tolerated. The danger according to Yadlin and Krauthammer is that terrorists will certainly not hold back.

Does MAD apply to professional martyrs armed by a rogue state? The debaters didn’t get a chance to hash this out. But quite obviously Hamas and Hezbollah would derive great strategic benefit from having their premier patron state develop nuclear capability; no doubt that would change the dynamic of future conflicts between Israel and groups that use military might to advance the Palestinian cause.

Waltz has argued that a rational state like Iran, if it became a nuclear power, would not take the risk of providing nuclear weapons material to terrorist groups because such groups can neither be controlled nor trusted. The stability equation may not apply, however, to terrorists who feel emboldened by a nuclear cushion and who are then willing to engage in more frequent low-intensity conflict.

One thing Zakaria and Nasr cannot intellectually abide is a preventative attack on Iran, which they feel would embolden the Iranian regime and unleash catastrophic instability across the region – not to mention the obvious loss of life. Whenever the debate veered towards the question of whether or not to attack Iran, Yadlin reminded everyone that the resolution was not on the merits or risks of an attack, but whether a nuclear Iran would be tolerable. He defended the need to exhaust all other options – diplomacy, sanctions and covert operations – before attacking.

Like history before it, the debate swung to the side of nuclear stability with 18 % of the vote shifting to the team against the motion, leaving the end tally at 58 % in favour of the resolution and 42% against it. A state, as Zakaria put it, cannot be bombed into compliance or democracy. If any negotiated solution is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability, or if the end point of a containment or deterrent strategy is to nudge Iran into relinquishing its weapons, egos must be managed and stoked. The regime has framed its nuclear ambitions as a nationalist necessity and a right of the Iranian people, which is a tactic the Iranian leadership must now live with, for its legitimacy hangs in the balance. It seems as though the only way to prevent a nuclear capable Iran, and avoid catastrophe, is to will the Iranians into conceding  without losing face – a delicate diplomatic dance.

Photos by Tom Sandler Photography