What Would A Middle East Nuclear Arms Race Look Like?
As nuclear talks with Iran hang in the balance, Saudi Arabia has hinted that it may start building a nuclear arsenal of its own.
Analysts have since pointed out that negotiations with Iran have become proxy negotiations with all the Arab nations, who will want similar if not stronger programs outlined in any deal. Their ambitions threaten to spark a race in a Middle East that, as one expert puts it, lacks “adult supervision.”
Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Adel al-Jubeir told CNN last week that “Saudi Arabia will take whatever measures are necessary in order to protect its security,” and refused to rule out the option that the kingdom would try to build a nuclear bomb in the future. (RELATED: American Officials Will Push Iran Talks Past Midnight Deadline)
The statement came after several weeks of suggestions by high-ranking Saudi officials, including former head of intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal, that the country was alarmed by the prospect of the United States legitimizing a covert Iranian path to a nuclear weapon.
But it has gained potency since Saudi Arabia began military strikes last week on targets in Yemen, whose government has fallen to a rebel group that Saudi Arabia and its allies perceive as aligned with Iran. (RELATED: What Does The Arab Alliance Want From Its New War In Yemen?)
James Jeffrey, a former U.S. diplomat and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that a loss of American credibility is partly to blame. “Maintaining an alliance system is like maintaining a series of close friendships — almost like love affairs,” he said. “With American military commitments, you get the ability to control events.”
But with President Barack Obama’s continued withdrawal from direct military involvement in the Middle East, Jeffrey continued, “these countries get involved in death spirals.” Without America fighting to maintain stable alliances, “once they start feeling like you don’t have their back, they’ll do stupid things.”
Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed. “It’s a given that Obama’s deal is going to unleash a cascade of proliferation,” he wrote in an email to TheDCNF. “If Iran gets a nuke (or nuclear capability), then Saudi Arabia will buy one. If Saudi has a nuke, Turkey and Egypt will want one.”
The Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin, meanwhile, pointed out to TheDCNF that Saudi Arabia has been moving to acquire a nuclear bomb for years. “Iran has a program that goes back to the 1950s, and an infrastructure that can’t be wished or bombed away,” she said. “Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has zero. You can buy expertise, but simply to set up the infrastructure would take a long time.”
The kingdom, however, recently made an initial nuclear cooperation agreement with South Korea. And Pakistan, a close Saudi ally, has had nuclear weapons since at least 1998.
David Andrew Weinberg, a scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote Tuesday that Saudi Arabia’s most drastic and chaotic choice would be to acquire a “bomb off the shelf from Pakistan,” which may take place if the United States isolates Saudi security interests or is seen as giving Iran preferential treatment. Other neighboring countries, including Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, have made preliminary steps toward domestic nuclear power as well.
Slavin also suggested to TheDCNF that “a nuclear deal, particularly one that has very sound verification measures and a long duration, should actually act to inhibit the proliferation concerns of the Arab countries. And what’s the alternative to an agreement? An Iran that goes back to enriching beyond 5 percent and reduces transparency?”
One of the key areas for dispute in the ongoing Western negotiations with Iran has been the duration of outside supervision of Iran’s civil nuclear program. While some estimates have put it at around 10 years, U.S. ally France has insisted on up to 25 years of oversight. (RELATED: Leaked Details May Describe A Near-Final Iran Deal)
While it may be tempting to compare nuclear escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran to the perversely stable “mutually assured destruction” of the Cold War, experts resisted the analogy.
In the Cold War, Jeffrey pointed out, “only 4 times in those 40 years did we provoke the other sides, and we had adult supervision.” In other words, the United States and Soviet Union had careful protocols to avoid triggering their nuclear weapons in case of provocation, and had the rest of the world in which to conduct comparatively marginal proxy conflicts, from the Vietnam War to the 1980s’ Soviet incursion in Afghanistan.
But “these guys aren’t adults,” he said. “There’s neither the adult supervision to manage the real tough crises, nor are there these kinds of unimportant places in the greater Middle East where they can slug it out.” Instead, he suggested, Yemen may become a new model for bloody, messy wars waged in the major Middle Eastern powers’ back yards — only next time, with unbelievably potent nuclear weapons.
AEI’s Rubin agreed about the potentially devastating consequences of proliferation: frankly, he wrote, “the only question is whether [the deaths] will be counted in the tens of thousands or millions.”
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