Nuclear Iran would spark a proliferation cascade in the Middle East
If Iran became a nuclear power, it would spark an arms race throughout the Middle East as its neighbors (ex. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Algeria) struggle to counter-balance against it by developing their own arsenals or building up their conventional forces.
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What should we expect when, in the next 12 to 48 months, Iran secures such a breakout option? If the U.S. and its allies do no more than they have already done, two things are likely. First, many of its neighbors will do their best to follow Iran's "peaceful" example. Egypt, Algeria, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will all claim that they too need to pursue nuclear research and development to the point of having nuclear weapons options and, as a further slap in Washington's face (and Jerusalem's), will point to Iran's "peaceful" nuclear program and Israel's undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal to help justify their own "civil" nuclear activities. Second, an ever more nuclear-ready Iran will try to lead the revolutionary vanguard throughout the Islamic world by becoming the main support for terrorist organizations aimed against the U.S. and Washington's key regional ally, Israel; America's key energy source, Saudi Arabia; and Washington's prospective democratic ally, Iraq. Senior Saudi officials announced in 2004 that they were studying the possibility of acquiring or "leasing" nuclear weapons from China or Pakistan (this would be legal under the NPT so long as the weapons were kept under Chinese or Pakistani "control"). Egypt, too, announced plans to develop a large nuclear desalinization plant and is reported recently to have received sensitive nuclear technology from Libya. Syria, meanwhile, is now interested in uranium enrichment; some intelligence sources believe Damascus may already be experimenting with centrifuges. And Algeria is in the midst of upgrading its second large research reactor facility (which is still ringed with air defense units).
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Egyptian and Syrian pursuit of the "poor man's nuclear option" might prove in the end to be only stopgap measures. The Egyptians and Syrians, drawing lessons from the 1991 and 2003 wars against Iraq, might conclude that nuclear weapons are inherently greater sources of deterrence than chemical and biological weapons. The Iraqis had robust chemical and biological weapons inventories in 1991, and the United States believed that Baghdad had retained some of these capabilities in the run-up to the 2003 war. The American campaign against Saddam probably has shaken Egyptian and Syrian confidence in the deterrence value of chemical and biological weapons because the U.S. perception of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons stores was insufficient to deter the United States from waging a war against Baghdad. Israeli, American, and Iranian possession of nuclear weapons might pressure Syria and Egypt to pursue nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of their securities.
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Another danger of Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal is that many of its neighbors in the Middle East would feel compelled to follow suit. The fear that an Iranian nuclear arsenal will unleash a cascade of proliferation across the Middle East was heightened by the disclosure in November 2006 that six Arab states have recently begun to accelerate efforts to acquire nuclear technology. An editorial in the Egyptian government daily newspaper Al-Ahram put it as follows: "Iran's nuclear capability ... will spur many powers in the region to develop a nuclear program." Such a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East would likely lead to the worldwide collapse of the already tottering nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) regime. In addition, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East tinderbox, with its existing border disputes, religious fanaticism, ethnic hatreds, unstable governments, terrorist groups, and tendency for conflicts to spiral out of control, seems likely to result in nuclear war.
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If Iran were to cross the nuclear threshold by testing or with a declaratory policy, other difficult questions arise. Can Israel maintain its nuclear ambiguity if Iran is a declared nuclear power? Can a country have a credible second-strike capability without testing a nuclear warhead? The more liberal Israeli historian assumed that once Iran tests, Israel would have to test as well, and the meaning of deterrence as a strategy would change. If Hizballah comes under the umbrella of an Iranian nuclear capability, how does Israel deter it from becoming more dangerous?How to create a stable deterrent balance would be the major worry. If one subscribes to the theory, as do most Israelis, that the acquisition of nuclear weapons leads a country to become more aggressive, then clearly Israelis have cause for concern. Many, however, do not believe that the main worry is "a bomb out of the blue." Rather, they fear a crisis that is not inherently nuclear in nature acquiring a nuclear dimension. What might cause Iranian decisionmakers to miscalculate during a nuclear crisis? The Israeli scholars worry that Israel cannot develop a secure deterrent relationship if it cannot communicate with Iran. For Israel, the longterm alternative of having nuclear weapons in the region possessed by a country that does not recognize its legitimacy and urges its destruction is not an option. In the end, the Israeli scholars agreed that Israel's decision to act would depend on American commitments to Israel's security and determination not to allow Iran to become a nuclear weapons state. From an Israeli perspective, much depends upon the timing and circumstances surrounding possible action and the stance taken by the United States.
But geopolitics is not the only reason Sunni Arab leaders are rattled by the prospect of a nuclear Iran. They also seem to be worried that the Iranians might actually use nuclear weapons if they get them. A nuclear attack on Israel would engulf the whole region. But that is not the only danger: Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere fear that the Iranians might just use a nuclear bomb against them. Even as Iran’s defiance of the United States and Israel wins support among some Sunnis, extremist Sunnis have been engaging in the act of takfir, condemning all Shiites as infidels. On the ground in Iraq, Sunni takfiris are putting this theory into practice, aiming at Shiite civilians and killing them indiscriminately. Shiite militias have been responding in kind, and massacres of Sunni civilians are no longer isolated events.Adding the nuclear ingredient to this volatile mix will certainly produce an arms race. If Iran is going to get the bomb, its neighbors will have no choice but to keep up. North Korea, now protected by its own bomb, has threatened proliferation — and in the Middle East it would find a number of willing buyers. Small principalities with huge U.S. Air Force bases, like Qatar, might choose to rely on an American protective umbrella. But Saudi Arabia, which has always seen Iran as a threatening competitor, will not be willing to place its nuclear security entirely in American hands. Once the Saudis are in the hunt, Egypt will need nuclear weapons to keep it from becoming irrelevant to the regional power balance — and sure enough, last month Gamal Mubarak, President Mubarak’s son and Egypt’s heir apparent, very publicly announced that Egypt should pursue a nuclear program.
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A Saudi nuclear weapon might also spur a regional nuclear arms race. Iran would likely respond by increasing the number of nuclear weapons in their arsenal, the accuracy of their delivery sys- tems, and the variety of their launch platforms. If Israel took either of these steps—especially in an overt and explicit manner—it would place tremendous political pressure on Egypt to respond. The Egyptian response could consist of a renunciation of its peace treaty with Israel, a repudiation of its relations with the United States, or the initiation of an Egyptian nuclear weapons program. The Egyptian people would undoubtedly demand the government take some forceful and substantial action. This interaction between Israel and Egypt would also be exacerbated by the existence of a Saudi nuclear weapon.Even if Israel didn't react in this overt way to a Saudi move, a Saudi nuclear weapon would put great pressure on the Egyptians to follow suit. Egypt views itself as the leader of the Arab world and a Saudi nuclear weapon would directly challenge this self conception. Moreover, a Middle East that includes a nuclear-armed Iran and Saudi Arabia would also place significant pressure on the Turks to respond in kind. While this 'nuclear cascade' or chain reaction may represent the worst case scenario, it is not outside the realm of possibility if Saudi Arabia responds to Iran by pursuing a nuclear weapon. While it is unlikely that such a nuclear cascade would unfold exactly in this manner, the odds that some of these developments may occur requires that the United States assess the likelihood that Saudi Arabia would pursue a nuclear weapon and take steps to decrease this likelihood.
Little wonder, then, that the Arab states are taking a keen interest in acquiring nuclear capabilities of their own. The latest is the United Arab Emirates, which hopes to sign a nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. before the Bush Administration leaves office. Saudi Arabia is seeking a similar deal, while Egypt, Algeria, Turkey and even Yemen are also in the market for reactors.
The ostensible rationale for these reactors varies from place to place, from energy-intensive water desalination schemes to reliable electricity supply. Under the terms of the agreement being proposed for the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, neither country would enrich its own uranium and both would put their facilities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Still, it's difficult to see what use oil giants like the Saudis or Algerians would have for nuclear power except as a hedge against an Iranian bomb. IAEA safeguards or not, possession of "civilian" nuclear technology served India and Israel as the crucial first step to getting a bomb. It gave local scientists first-hand experience with the technologies and allowed opportunities for the covert diversion of key nuclear materials. Reports have circulated for years that the Saudis have pursued a secret nuclear program with help from Pakistan, though the Saudis deny this. Egypt has also been cited by the IAEA for undeclared nuclear work.
All this is a useful reminder that the threat of Iran's nuclear programs lies not only in whether it will acquire a bomb. It's also a question of how Iran's neighbors will react. The Israelis have said publicly that a nuclear Iran is an intolerable threat, a view many Arab states share privately. If neither Israel nor the U.S. act, they will be tempted to seek their security by acquiring their own nuclear deterrents. A Middle East in which Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt have the bomb -- in addition to Israel and Pakistan -- is possible within a decade.
Maybe there's someone at the Council on Foreign Relations who can explain why this isn't such a terrible scenario, what with everyone pointing a gun at everyone else's head. Our view is that this is a recipe for global instability, if not catastrophe, and a reminder of why no one should be complacent at the looming prospect of an Iranian bomb.
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Were Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons, the Middle East would count three nuclear-armed states, and perhaps more before long. It is unclear how such an n-player competition would unfold because most analyses of nuclear deterrence are based on the U.S.-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War. It seems likely, however, that the interaction among three or more nuclear-armed powers would be more prone to miscalculation and escalation than a bipolar competition. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union only needed to concern themselves with an attack from the other. Multipolar systems are generally considered to be less stable than bipolar systems because coalitions can shift quickly, upsetting the balance of power and creating incentives for an attack.
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Iran’s development of a nuclear-weapons capability could lead other states in the region to pursue their own nuclear arsenals—i.e., Iran could trigger the falling of nuclear “dominoes.” There are several states in the region that could—should they have sufficient resolve, time, and foreign assistance—mount a successful nuclear weapons program. Members of the Saudi leadership, for example, have already suggested that they would pursue a nuclear capability should Iran acquire weapons.5
Israel has picked up signs of the beginning of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East as Arab states seek nuclear weapons to counter Iran, the Israeli defence minister has warned.
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Saudi Arabia and many of the smaller Arab states are now vowing to match whatever nuclear enrichment capability Iran is permitted to retain.
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The nuclear deal that the U.S. and other world powers hope to reach with Iran would put a 10-year curb on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. For some of Iran’s regional rivals, that is also becoming a deadline for developing nuclear arms of their own. In Saudi Arabia, there are widespread public calls to match Iran’s nuclear quest. The two other Middle East heavyweights, Turkey and Egypt, could also feel compelled to follow suit, senior Western and Arab officials warn.
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