Nuclear Iran would not spark a Middle East arms race
Fears that Iranian development of a nuclear weapon would spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East are not supported by the historical record or a careful examination of the motivations and strategic interests of potential proliferants (ex. Saudia Arabia, Turkey).
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One can also argue that an Iranian bomb could unravel the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The causes of a Saudi or Turkish bomb and the impact of this on the nuclear nonproliferation regime are separate questions that I cannot fully address here. However, the literature on the causes of nuclear proliferation suggests that whether an Iranian bomb would cause regional proliferation is far from clear. Policy makers have worried about this ever since Pres. Kennedy worried about 40 nuclear powers in the 1960s, but well into the twenty-first century, the number of nuclear powers remains below 10.54 For example, while Saudi policy makers have often said they would develop nuclear weapons if Iran did so, much of this is designed to pressure the United States to prevent Iran from developing the bomb.55 The United States has effectively used a combination of carrots and sticks to prevent many states from developing nuclear weapons, and it is not clear that an Iranian bomb would stop this trend.56 Finally, one can argue that an Iranian bomb would undermine the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Again, I cannot fully address that issue here, but the effect of the nuclear nonproliferation regime on states’ decisions to develop nuclear weapons is contested.57 Moreover, it is a stretch to assume that an Iranian bomb would have much effect on distant states’ nuclear decisions. An Iranian bomb may well pose challenges to the global nuclear nonproliferation regime that are as similar and surmountable as those posed by the other nuclear powers.
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Turkey also will be concerned, for security and prestige reasons, about a nuclear weapons capability in neighboring Iran. Turkey's economic, scientific, and engineering capabilities probably make it more capable of going nuclear than either Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Turkey's calculation will be affected by other political interests, however. Turkey is a member of NATO, a nuclear alliance, and thus already enjoys a nuclear guarantee by the United States. Dozens of tactical nuclear weapons are based in Turkey, and some of Turkey's aircraft are wired to deliver these weapons, which could be turned over to them under circumstances determined by the United States, and based on long-standing procedures agreed within NATO. This relationship would be jeopardized were Turkey to embark on its own independent nuclear weapons program. Turkey also aspires to membership in the European Union. Though the Europeans have been only moderately encouraging, it seems likely that the EU would discourage an independent Turkish nuclear effort. Conversely, it seems possible that the EU might become more accommodating of Turkey's effort to join the EU if that helped discourage a Turkish nuclear program.
The conventional wisdom is wrong. Conventional wisdom holds that a nuclear Iran will lead to a nuclear weapon proliferation cascade in the highly volatile Middle East, making an already rough neighborhood even more unstable and insecure. After all, a combination of fragile and failed states, terrorist organizations, and nuclear weapons could well constitute a horror story.
Nuclear history shows us that nuclear arms races are the exception rather than the rule. A final agreement between six world powers and Iran to limit the Iranian nuclear program would aim to keep Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But if an agreement is not reached or Iran cheats and acquires nuclear weapons, a nuclear weapons race is still unlikely to unfold in the Middle East. A number of political and technical challenges are likely to prevent it. No country in the region currently has the technical ability to develop a nuclear weapon by itself. Most regional candidates to become nuclear weapons states—especially ones most vocal in claiming they’ll go nuclear, if Tehran does—depend heavily on the United States and other Western states for their security, providing the West with significant leverage over them.
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Whether additional proliferation would reach epidemic proportions and create the nightmare scenarios forecast by some analysts is uncertain. It is important to recall that pundits and even international relations experts have tended to overestimate both the probability and the extent of proliferation in the past. The conventional wisdom in the 1960s was that there would be as many as two dozen nuclear-weapons powers within a generation. Similar predictions were made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Moreover, it is not an established fact that nuclear weapons in the hands of a larger number of nations would necessarily be a bad development. Indeed, a few respected international relations scholars have argued that nuclear proliferation might be stabilizing rather than destabilizing. Given its volatile political makeup, though, the Middle East is probably not the best region to test that thesis.
Jordan: A nonproliferation advocate that lacks resources for a nuclear weapons program. Jordan too has ambitious plans for a civilian nuclear program, which it developed in response to growing energy needs and its over-reliance on foreign energy supply; some 97 percent of its energy was imported in 2011. With the help of a South Korean consortium, Jordan is building a 5 megawatt research and training reactor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology. It also wants to build a nuclear plant with two 1,000-megawatt reactors; the plant aims to provide 30 percent of Jordan’s electricity by 2030. In February 2015, Jordan signed an agreement with Russia’s Rosatom, which will build and operate both nuclear units.
But Jordan’s nuclear program stops there. The country lacks the technology, human resources, experience, or infrastructure necessary for a nuclear weapons program.
There is one cause for concern: Amman’s refusal to sign a 123 nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. Jordan has significant uranium reserves and wants to preserve the option of domestic enrichment. Among countries in the Middle East who want to preserve the “right to enrich,”Jordan’s claims may make the most sense economically and practically. To this end, Amman pursued mining and milling options with foreign companies. To date none has panned out.
Jordan’s plans for nuclear power are grounded in long-standing energy concerns that emerged long before the start of nuclear talks with Iran and that are unlikely to be affected by Iranian nuclear plans. Jordan has been an upstanding non-proliferation advocate and party to the NPT. The country has an Additional Protocol and a series of other non-proliferation commitments in place. It has a sterling track record: It was not found in violation of any of its non-proliferation commitments. What’s more, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, its security depends on its alliance with the United States—an alliance Amman will not lightly jeopardize.
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Egypt would be concerned for reasons of both prestige and security if Iran was to become a nuclear weapons state, and Israel was to become an open nuclear power. Egypt at one time had an active nuclear energy research program, and there was concern that it could become a nuclear weapons program. It has the technological and scientific expertise and has recently announced a new civilian nuclear energy program. Absent active U.S. diplomacy, and strategic guarantees, Egypt probably would follow suit in developing nuclear weapons. Egypt faces a number of barriers, however. First, it is highly dependent on the United States for conventional weaponry. The United States surely would suspend this relationship if Egypt decided to pursue nuclear weapons. This would be quite unsettling to Egypt's internal politics. Second, Egypt is a poor country; foreign economic assistance would also dry up if Egypt decided to go nuclear. Third, given that Israel is already a nuclear weapons state, and Iran is well ahead of Egypt, Egypt would go through a period of both conventional and nuclear vulnerability as it attempted to produce nuclear weapons. Egypt could choose to accept all these risks and costs, but it seems more plausible that the United States and the European Union could find a package of assurances and incentives that would be acceptable to Egypt.
Those who argue that Egypt is likely to weaponize if Iran is allowed a civilian nuclear program are ignoring the Israeli factor. Egypt shares a border and has fought wars with Israel, which has a nuclear arsenal. Egypt's effort to establish a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East is focused on Israeli disarmament. If a nuclear-armed Israel didn’t cause Egypt to pursue the bomb, why would a final agreement that limited the Iranian nuclear program to civilian concerns? Some argue that Cairo’s nuclear ambitions aren’t security-focused but are based on the country’s quest for regional leadership. Right now, however, the Egyptian establishment doesn’t seem to believe nuclear weapons to be in its interest.
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In effect, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the main countries likely to have an important reason for joining the nuclear arms race. Saudi Arabia may be particularly sensitive to Iranian aggression, owing to concern about the stability of its regime and the future of its oil reserves. At present, Saudi Arabia lacks a suitable technological infrastructure for nuclear weapons and it is likely to prefer relying on American backing. However, Saudi Arabia may exploit its financial capabilities to try to obtain nuclear capability at a later stage. Iran does not directly threaten Egypt, but as a leading country in the region, Egypt will find it difficult to stand aloof while Iran and Israel are on the nuclear track. Syria too might embrace a nuclear route as the preferred method of deterrence against Israel; it might improve its military capabilities and regional posture, and thereby aim for Iranian nuclear assistance. In short, Iranian nuclear capability will not necessarily constitute a direct motive for most affected countries in the region to enter the nuclear race, and they will face heavy international pressure to refrain from doing so. If, however, an Arab country such as Egypt decides to do so, it is liable to prompt other countries to follow the same route. The fact that several Arab governments announced in the fall of 2006 that they intend to develop a nuclear capability - albeit for peaceful needs - might be a first indication of such a scenario.
Turkey: Unlikely to weaponize for strategic and political reasons. Like most of the region, Turkey's stated goal for developing a nuclear program is to meet its energy needs. But Turkey's nuclear journey has been a long and difficult one so far.
Ankara has faced a number of regulatory challenges in the development of its nuclear program. As is the case for most of the region's nuclear newcomers, Turkey's leading nuclear partner is Russia's Rosatom. The two countries concluded a so-called "BOO" [build, own, and operate] agreement. At the current pace, Turkey’s first nuclear power plant won’t be ready before 2022. The severe impact of sanctions on the Russian economy may further slow progress. In addition to Russia, Turkey is also working with a Franco-Japanese consortium that would build a second plant in the Black Sea town of Sinop by 2023.
To date, Turkey denies any plans to develop an enrichment or reprocessing capability. In addition, Turkey has entered a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and has agreed to the Additional Protocol, putting Ankara’s program under strict IAEA monitoring and making it difficult to divert fissile material for use in a weapons program.
Aside from the technical limitations, there are strategic and political reasons why Turkey isn't likely to weaponize. As a member of NATO and a US ally, Turkey benefits from Washington's nuclear umbrella. Its defense needs are met without it having to go through the trouble of developing its own nuclear capability—a resource-heavy endeavor for a country struggling to build a nuclear energy program. A military nuclear program would most likely result in a loss of the US as a strategic ally and the NATO nuclear umbrella.
These are major accomplishments in preventing proliferation in the Middle East, and they contradict the worst-case scenarios about a nuclear Iran. Yet they have done little to reassure those who expect a chain reaction of proliferating states.
Such mistaken beliefs are due in part to the West's poor understanding of Iran. After more than 30 years of severed diplomatic, cultural, and educational relations with the country, the West knows little about Iran's leadership, national aspirations, and culture. Because of this, policymakers have a difficult time thinking about the implications of a nuclear Iran and resort to simplistic grandstanding, reprising outdated political fears that lack historical nuance or modern perspective. The exaggerated fears have been useful, too: had the United States not presented Iran's nuclear aspirations in the darkest of lights, it may not have been able to gain support for four rounds of UN sanctions against the Islamic Republic in the last few years.
Another reason for the persistence of worst-case thinking is that the domino analogy is often discussed interchangeably with bilateral arms races, such as those between the United States and the former Soviet Union, and between India and Pakistan. These are two distinct concepts, however. The Cold War and South Asian cases represent dyadic arms buildups -- a scenario that cannot be ruled out in the Middle East. Even though this hypothetical should be of great concern, it is far from the nightmare nuclear domino effect, which by definition requires many more countries to speedily develop nuclear weapons. In the Middle East, this type of rapid development is just not technologically feasible.
The author dismisses the argument that a nuclear Iran would lead to a proliferation cascade in the Middle East, arguing that "[t]his argument overlooks the international and domestic factors that point to the fact that the nuclear domino rarely falls."
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The author dismisses recent threats from Gulf states that they would pursue nuclear weapons if the Iran deal passes, arguing that "one thing we do not need to worry about is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. There is scant evidence that proliferation begets proliferation."
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The authors review the rationales and disincentives for each state that might pursue a nuclear weapon if Iran develops one, and conclude that "a close analysis of probable scenarios suggests that a final Iranian nuclear agreement is unlikely to trigger a regional nuclear weapons cascade."
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The authors challenge the conventional wisdom that an Iranian nuclear capability would compel Turkey to follow suit.
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