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Preventing a Middle-East Nuclear Arms Race

Tags: Nuclear Energy , Middle East , Iran , Deterrence , Nuclear Weapons

Saunders, Paul J.

February 26, 2015

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Negotiators are working on the details of a nuclear deal that would restrict Iran’s ability to enrich uranium in return for relief from economic sanctions. Paul Saunders comments on the consequences if the talks break down, and the challenges that lie ahead even if an agreement is reached.

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With the March deadline for a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany) approaching rapidly, debate is intensifying over what terms are necessary for an “acceptable” deal. This discussion has largely centered around how many and what types of centrifuges—necessary to enrich uranium—Iran could keep as part of an agreement, as well as the broader question of Iran’s capability for “breakout,” meaning how quickly Tehran could build a nuclear weapon if it violated the agreement in the future.

Unfortunately, the Middle East’s security environment may already be changing fundamentally. And a nuclear deal with Iran might not be enough to stop it.

For the United States, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon has always been one of the two goals of the ongoing negotiations and other pressure that preceded them, including sanctions. Stopping the Iranian nuclear program has understandably received considerable attention because of Iran’s hostility to the United States and its allies in the region, including Israel, whose leaders believe that Tehran might actually use a nuclear weapon.

Many also argue that even if Iran did not use nuclear weapons, its possession of a plausible nuclear deterrent could substantially embolden its hawkish conservatives and thereby produce a more aggressive and dangerous foreign policy even as it limits America’s and others’ options in responding.

Though it is no less important, Washington’s second goal—limiting nuclear proliferation in the Middle East—is at times less visible outside the community of diplomats and experts participating in and studying the nuclear negotiations. Officials in Washington, regional capitals, and beyond have long been concerned that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would lead other governments in the Middle East to seek nuclear arms as well, beginning a costly and dangerous arms race. Yet almost regardless of the outcome of the P5+1 negotiating process, this worrisome prospect appears increasingly likely.

A Persisting Challenge from Iran

Most obvious, and most troubling, is what happens if the negotiations fail, whether because of Iran’s or US Congressional recalcitrance. That would force the Barack Obama administration to make a profound choice—whether or not to follow through on decades of threats, including from George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, to attack Iran’s nuclear sites and set back its efforts. Israel would confront a similar decision, though few military experts believe the Israeli military has the ability to launch the sustained air campaign that would be necessary to make a real difference. If neither acted, Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors may see their own nuclear deterrent forces as the only reliable option.

But even if Israel or the United States did strike, few see military action as a permanent solution, for it would only delay Iran’s nuclear program and might make the country’s leaders and people more determined and hostile. Worse, strikes on Iran could collapse international political support for the sanctions regime—especially in Beijing and Moscow. The Iran challenge would not go away.

Fully successful negotiations might not solve the proliferation problem either. As matters stand, Iran’s top leaders have made clear that they will not accept any agreement requiring Tehran to forswear uranium enrichment. Moreover, notwithstanding some perspectives in the US Congress, where sentiment is growing behind the idea of additional sanctions if there is no agreement by the end of March, it is not clear that additional US pressure can compel Iran to accept tougher terms. Thus, press reports suggest that US officials are aiming for a six-month to one-year “breakout” period as the only realistic basis for an agreement.

Will this satisfy Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, among others, all of which see Iran as a serious danger? Only time will tell, but the chances are not good. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are already working to develop nuclear energy, which is the first step along the path to a nuclear weapons capability. To the extent that Saudi leaders see Iran as a serious threat, an Iran with a six-month or one-year breakout period is even more dangerous. This in turn creates pressure on Saudi Arabia in particular to have an equal or shorter breakout period of its own. Its military budget is already the fourth largest in the world, after the United States, China, and Russia.

A Saudi Nuclear Weapons Program?

Some have suggested that Saudi Arabia could clandestinely purchase nuclear material, nuclear technology, or even nuclear weapons from Pakistan to ensure a quick breakout if it faced an imminent threat from Iran. This may well be a possibility, but would Saudi leaders bet their national security on Pakistan’s willingness to accelerate its nuclear program? If Saudi Arabia and Iran entered a serious confrontation, Tehran could well see such a move as one step short of a declaration of war by Pakistan. Would Islamabad take that risk?

Others might argue that the United States could short-circuit an independent Saudi nuclear deterrent by publicly committing to provide its own nuclear umbrella. However, this policy could likewise succeed only if top Saudi leaders believed that the US commitment would be reliable in a crisis—and if they believed that Iran’s government thought so too. Given the rather mixed attitudes toward Saudi Arabia in Congress and among the American public, the debate inside the United States before and after an announcement like this would likely do little to reassure Saudi officials.

With this in mind, it is entirely possible that processes already underway will lead to a Saudi nuclear weapons program whether or not the Iran talks succeed. Of course, we will not know this unless and until it happens. Nevertheless, because so much of international affairs depends on human psychology—perception, credibility, fear, and the desire for a sense of security in a dangerous world—it may ultimately be that the fact of Iran’s long-standing nuclear weapons program is far more important to regional nuclear proliferation than whether or not Tehran actually builds a bomb. Once the possibility exists, responsible leaders need a policy to address it.

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