Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East

“If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, Saudi Arabia will follow suit, […because the Kingdom] will not live in a world where Iran has a nuclear weapon and […we do not].” —The Wall Street Journal, 22 June 2011

Now that the Iran nuclear deal is in effect, it is worth exploring whether this agreement will in fact: (a) constrain Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons and inhibit nuclear proliferation in the region; or (b) have unintended negative consequences that the United States and its negotiating partners did not or could not foresee.

As negotiations for the nuclear deal – officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – progressed, key Middle East nations waited while the United States, the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and Germany sought to reach agreement with Iran. Curtailing Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, though, comes at the price of releasing a broad pallet of sanctions imposed by the United States, the United Nations Security Council, and the European Union that had hurt Tehran’s faltering economy. 

View From Saudi Arabia  

With the promised JCPOA now in effect, pressure on the Saudis to gain a nuclear weapons capability has been reduced, but by no means eliminated. A still relevant analysis made by a congressional committee in February 2008, entitled “Chain Reaction: Avoiding a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East,” concluded that, “an Iranian nuclear weapon frightens the Saudis ‘to their core,’ and would compel the Saudis to seek nuclear weapons.” Even with constraints placed on Iran’s nuclear program, increased worries by Saudi leaders over Washington moving closer to Tehran are not only straining bilateral relationships, but also contributing to Riyadh’s nuclear weapons interests. Notwithstanding assurances that the United States is not weakening its security commitment, the Kingdom is considering a peaceful nuclear energy program that could provide a basis for developing nuclear weapons in 15 years, when Iran is free from the major JCPOA limits and could threaten the Saudis with nuclear arms.

The Kingdom does not currently have the technical knowhow, manufacturing infrastructure, or human expertise to develop a nuclear weapons capability – whether through a peaceful program that could provide the foundation for developing a bomb or a dedicated clandestine nuclear weapons effort, as assessed by David Albright in “Iran’s Nuclear Program,” originally published by the U.S. Institute of Peace in 2010 and updated in September 2015. In any event, seeking nuclear weapons through either of these routes would take many years and inevitably be discovered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as well as U.S. intelligence sources, and result in Saudi Arabia violating its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Private approaches could be made by Saudi leaders to their counterparts in Pakistan, China, or North Korea for assistance in making bombs or purchasing nuclear weapons. This extreme option was discussed by University of Southern California Professor Najmedin Meshkati, in “Atoms for Peace in the Persian Gulf: The Vital Byproduct of P5+1 Nuclear Agreement With Iran,” which was published in the Huffington Post on 7 January 2014. Any indications that this might happen, however, would surely cause the United States and many other Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty parties to press the Saudis not to go down this path. Such actions would result in the proud Kingdom being treated as a nuclear pariah in ways that would harm rather than help its security. 

View From Neighboring Countries 

Egypt did not favor the nuclear deal. Some believe Cairo might be pursuing its own nuclear option under the guise of a newly formed plan to increase peaceful nuclear energy programs if concerns continue to rise over the prospect of Iran repealing the JCPOA or Tehran being able to get out from under its constraints. However, most analysts believe this is unlikely due to financial problems, Egypt’s membership in the NPT, and Cairo’s position of leadership in the movement for a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone. If the Saudis were to show signs of wanting to obtain a nuclear weapons capability, however, this would certainly lead to Cairo reviewing its nuclear policy. In fact, with assistance from the USSR Egypt had an early interest in nuclear energy for peaceful and potentially weapons-related-purposes, but all such efforts were halted following the 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel.

While Turkey is situated in a notoriously “dangerous neighborhood,” as described by the Nuclear Threat Initiative on March, 2016, it has relied on the security guarantees provided by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for more than half a century. As a NATO member, Turkey would presumably evoke Article V of the Treaty if threatened by a future Iranian nuclear weapons capability, which should trigger actions by the three nuclear powers in the alliance – United States, United Kingdom, and France – to individually or collectively protect Turkey. With this option available, it would seem to be unnecessary for Ankara to acquire independent nuclear weapons.

Bahrain, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates are among the other Middle East nations that have set overly ambitious goals for developing peaceful nuclear energy programs, which TIME Magazine correspondent Karl Vick characterized as an “emerging atomic derby,” on 23 March 2015. If these programs come to fruition, which is problematic at best, they would provide a basis for some of these nations to breach their Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments and seek to acquire nuclear weapons – even though the near-term danger of a nuclear-armed Iran seems to have been averted. This explains why NCR Today on 22 February 2016 reported that, “Israeli sources are now raising the alarm that a nuclear arms race is beginning in the Arab world. The competition is fueled by fear of a resurgent and expansionist Iran and mistrust, especially on the part of the Saudis, of American policy in the region.” Meanwhile, Israel is struggling to come to terms with the fact that the nuclear deal, which Tel Aviv strongly opposed, has gone into effect.

View From Israel 

Reversing his extremely negative stance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the JCPOA’s comprehensive constraints on Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. Additionally, the former head of Israeli Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, no longer sees Iran as his nation’s foremost threat. On 20 July 2015, Yadlin stated that, “For at least the next ten years, the threat of nuclear armament in Iran has been reduced.” Following the signing of the nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions, and after Israel responded to a series of Iranian-executed rocket attacks launched from Syria late in the day on 20 August 2015, the Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon summarized the ambivalent feelings among Israeli leaders to this event, “What we’ve seen tonight is the prelude of things to come.”

Not surprisingly, negative views toward the nuclear deal still influence Israel’s domestic politics, driven by continued denouncements by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of the Jewish nation’s right to exist and threatening it with annihilation, as in the Slate on 9 November 2014. These may just be inflammatory words, but in the event Tehran reinstates its nuclear weapons program by abrogating the JCPOA or after the stringent restrictions and transparency measures expire, the undeclared Israeli nuclear weapons force has the capacity to dissuade and, if necessary, respond to Iranian nuclear threats. Tel Aviv also will be able to launch preemptive conventional actions to destroy the nuclear infrastructure of Iran or any other Middle East nation that shows signs of heading down a nuclear weapons path. Yet, Israel will need U.S. military aid more than ever, given the volatile sectarian battles consuming the region and the likelihood of Iran using at least some of the billions of dollars unfrozen by the nuclear deal to incite proxy wars and conduct terrorist activities that can cause even greater instability in the region.

The Next Step for the United States 

Praising the nuclear deal as a means of effectively curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons program for at least a decade, President Barack Obama should reassure the Saudi leadership that the United States has no intention of trying to build relations with Iran at the expense of its longstanding relationship with Riyadh. Further, Obama should reassure the Kingdom as well as its Gulf allies that the U.S. pledge to safeguard all members of the Gulf Corporation Council from threats by Iran or any other nuclear-armed adversary remains credible. Finally, Obama needs to reassure all allies in the Middle East that the United States will help them to acquire the conventional arms and anti-terrorist capabilities needed to deal with any dangerous moves from Iran, even if Tehran stays bound by the JCPOA.

With U.S. assistance, Israeli vigilance, and efforts among allies in the region keeping Iran at bay without their own nuclear weapons, hopefully, Iran will be able to lose what has been jokingly referred to as its “most evil nation” status. More pointedly, given the constraints in place preventing Tehran from crossing the nuclear threshold, Saudi Arabia will avoid being put in the uncomfortable – and dangerous – position of living “in a world where Iran has a nuclear weapon” and the Kingdom does not!

Jerome Kahan is an independent analyst with over 40 years of experience on national and homeland security issues, including senior positions in the Foreign Service, the Brookings Institution, and the Homeland Security Institute. In addition to his publications, he has been an adjunct professor in the graduate school at Georgetown University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, with BS and MS degrees from Columbia University.

Jerome H. Kahan

Jerome H. Kahan is an independent analyst with over 40 years of experience in national and homeland security, having held senior positions in the State Department, including the Policy Planning Staff and Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. He has also worked with various research organizations, including senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. He has written or contributed to books and articles, taught as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the International Institute of Strategic Studies. He has a master’s degree from Columbia University in electrical engineering.



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