June 2, 2016
The nuclear deal with Iran is unlikely to trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, according to new analysis by Robert Einhorn, who served as the secretary of state’s special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, and Richard Nephew, who served as the principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the U.S. State Department and director for Iran at the National Security Council. The following are excerpts from the executive summary.
The global nuclear nonproliferation regime has been remarkably resilient, with no new entrants to the nuclear club in the last 25 years. But observers believe that could change and that we may be heading toward a “cascade of proliferation,” especially in the Middle East. The presumed trigger for a possible Middle East nuclear weapons competition is Iran, which has violated nonproliferation obligations, conducted activities relevant to the development of nuclear weapons, and pursued sensitive dual-use nuclear technologies without a persuasive peaceful justification. Tehran’s nuclear program—combined with provocative behavior widely believed to support a goal of establishing regional hegemony—has raised acute concerns among Iran’s neighbors and could prompt some of them to respond by seeking nuclear weapons capabilities of their own.
Will regional states seek to acquire nuclear weapons?
U.S. supporters of the JCPOA argue that the removal of the near-term risk of a nuclear-armed Iran will sharply reduce the incentive for regional states to acquire their own fissile material production capabilities or nuclear weapons. Opponents claim that, by legitimizing Iran’s enrichment program, permitting Iran to ramp up its nuclear infrastructure after 10-15 years, and facilitating an economic recovery that will enable Iran to greatly boost the resources devoted to its nuclear program, the JCPOA itself will be the catalyst for proliferation in the region.
Whether states in the region eventually opt for nuclear weapons will depend on a range of factors, some related to the JCPOA and some not. Among the key factors will be their perceptions of Iran’s future nuclear capabilities and intentions, their assessment of Iran’s regional behavior, their view of the evolving conventional military balance with Iran, their confidence in the United States as a security partner, their evaluation of how the United States and other countries would react to their pursuit of nuclear weapons or a latent nuclear weapons capability, and, not least, the feasibility—in terms of their technical expertise, physical infrastructure, and financial resources—of succeeding in the effort to acquire fuel cycle facilities or nuclear weapons.
In assessing the probability of proliferation in the Middle East, it is necessary to focus on how these various factors may affect nuclear decision-making in individual countries, especially in the countries often cited as the most likely to go for a latent or actual nuclear weapons capability: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Turkey.
Saudi Arabia is widely considered to be the most likely regional state to pursue the nuclear option, an impression reinforced by occasional remarks by prominent Saudis that the Kingdom will match whatever nuclear capability Iran attains. The Saudis regard Iran as an implacable foe, not just an external threat determined to achieve regional hegemony but also an existential threat intent on undermining the Saudi monarchy. Moreover, while their concerns about Iran have grown, their confidence in the U.S. commitment to the security of its regional partners has been shaken. They cite what they regard as evidence of Washington’s unreliability, such as not preventing former Egyptian President Mubarak’s ouster, failing to enforce the red line against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, giving lukewarm support to Syrian rebels, and accepting a greater Iranian regional role.
Animated by what they see as a waning U.S. commitment to Gulf security, the Saudis have beefed up their conventional defense capabilities, explored cooperation with Russia and other potential partners, and adopted a more assertive, independent role in regional conflicts, most dramatically in waging their aggressive military campaign in Yemen. Still, senior Saudis maintain that they have no choice but to rely heavily on the United States for their security.
While confident that they can handle the current conventional military threat from Iran, the Saudis worry about the military implications of a post-sanctions Iranian economic recovery, and they regard a future Iranian nuclear weapons capability as a game-changer. These concerns, together with their uncertainty about the future U.S. role, may motivate the Saudis to consider their own nuclear options.
But while the Saudis appear to be motivated to acquire nuclear weapons, their ability to do so is very much in doubt, at least for the foreseeable future. While they clearly have the necessary financial resources, the Saudis lack the human and physical infrastructure and have had to postpone their ambitious nuclear power plans for eight years while they train the required personnel. Although Riyadh is not willing to formally renounce the acquisition of an enrichment capability, Saudi nuclear energy officials state they have no plans for enrichment and do not anticipate pursuing an enrichment program for at least 25 years.
Given the Kingdom’s difficulty in developing an indigenous nuclear weapons capability, speculation has turned to the possibility of the Kingdom receiving support from a foreign power, usually Pakistan, which received generous financial support from Saudi Arabia in acquiring its own nuclear arsenal. But while rumors abound about a Pakistani commitment to help Saudi obtain nuclear weapons, the truth is hard to pin down. Senior Saudis and Pakistanis deny such an understanding exists. If it does exist, it was probably a vague, unwritten assurance long ago between a Pakistani leader and Saudi king, without operational details or the circumstances in which it would be activated. In any event, the Saudis would find it hard to rely on such an assurance now, especially in the wake of Islamabad’s rejection of the Saudi request to take part in the Yemen campaign. Pakistan is highly unlikely to become the Saudis’ nuclear accomplice.
So Saudi Arabia may be motivated to make a run at nuclear weapons, but its prospects for success are very limited.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Like the Saudis, the Emiratis believe Iran poses a severe threat to regional security, has increased its aggressiveness since the completion of the JCPOA, is still trying to export revolution, and will resume its quest for nuclear weapons when JCPOA restrictions expire. Also like Riyadh, Abu Dhabi has lost considerable confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security partner, has explored defense cooperation with other outside powers, and has played an increasingly assertive, independent military role in the region, especially in the Yemen campaign. But like Saudi Arabia, it knows it has no real choice but to rely heavily on the United States for its security.
Moreover, perhaps because of traditionally strong economic ties between the UAE and Iran, the Emiratis take a more pragmatic approach to Tehran than do the Saudis. While the Saudis tend to see the struggle with Iran as irreconcilable, the Emiratis tend to believe that if Iran’s regional designs can be countered and a regional balance established, a modus vivendi with Iran can eventually be achieved.
The ambitious UAE nuclear energy program—including a project well underway by a South Korea-led consortium to build four power reactors—is the best indication that Abu Dhabi has no current intention to pursue an independent nuclear path. In negotiations on a U.S.-UAE civil nuclear agreement required for the project, the Emiratis accepted a legally binding renunciation of enrichment and reprocessing ( the so-called “gold standard”), effectively precluding the pursuit of nuclear weapons. …
Although Egypt flirted with nuclear weapons development in the 1950s and 1960s and failed to report to the IAEA on some sensitive nuclear experiments it carried out between 1990 and 2003, Cairo today appears to lack both the inclination and the wherewithal to make a push for nuclear weapons.
Although Tehran and Cairo have occasionally sparred on regional issues and Iran is actively supporting causes that undermine the interests of Egypt’s main Arab allies and benefactors, Egypt does not see Iran as a direct military threat. Its principal security concern is the turbulent regional security environment—extremist ideology, the fragmentation of Syria and Iraq, and instability in Libya—and its adverse impact on internal security. Unlike the Gulf Arabs, the Egyptians are supportive of the JCPOA and believe a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement could have a positive effect on regional stability. …
Because of its emergence in the last decade as a rising power, its large and growing scientific and industrial base, and its ambition to be an influential regional player, Turkey is usually included on a short list of countries that may decide, in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, to pursue a latent or actual nuclear weapons capability. But its pursuit of nuclear weapons is highly improbable.
Turkey has maintained reasonably good relations with Iran, and it resisted efforts to restrict its engagement with Tehran even at the height of the global sanctions campaign. Although Turkey and Iran have taken opposing sides in the Syrian war, most Turks do not see Iran as a direct military threat. Instead, Ankara sees instability and terrorism emanating from that conflict and from within Turkey’s borders as their principal security threats, concerns that cannot be addressed by the possession of nuclear weapons. …
Although Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Turkey are most often mentioned as potential aspirants to the nuclear club, three other regional countries merit observation, given their past interest in nuclear weapons: Iraq, Syria, and Libya. But none of them are likely to revive their nuclear weapons ambitions in the foreseeable future.
Iraq’s nuclear infrastructure was decimated by two wars and a decade of sanctions, and it is severely constrained by its conflict with ISIS, its internal political and religious differences, and an economy struggling to grow in the face of low oil prices. Israeli’s destruction of Syria’s al-Kibar reactor in 2007 effectively ended Damascus’s nuclear weapons program. Moreover, consumed by civil war and its survival as a unitary state very much in question, Syria lacks the basic attributes needed to pursue a successful nuclear weapons program, including human and physical infrastructure, financial resources, and a disciplined leadership. With most of the sensitive equipment acquired through Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s black market network shipped out of the country in 2004, the absence of sufficient indigenous technical expertise, and the country in a state of disarray, the likelihood of Libya embarking on a renewed nuclear weapons effort in the foreseeable future is remote. …
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