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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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.
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Yet throughout the nuclear age, many states with potential security incentives to develop nuclear weapons have nevertheless abstained from doing so.34 Moreover, contrary to common expectations, recent statistical research shows that states with an enduring rival that possesses or is pursuing nuclear weapons are not more likely than other states to launch nuclear weapons programs or go all the way to acquiring the bomb, although they do seem more likely to explore nuclear weapons options.35 This suggests that a rival’s acquisition of nuclear weapons does not inevitably drive proliferation decisions.
One reason that reactive proliferation is not an automatic response to a rival’s acquisition of nuclear arms is the fact that security calculations can cut in both directions. Nuclear weapons might deter outside threats, but leaders have to weigh these potential gains against the possibility that seeking nuclear weapons would make the country or regime less secure by triggering a regional arms race or a preventive attack by outside powers. Countries also have to consider the possibility that pursuing nuclear weapons will produce strains in strategic relationships with key allies and security patrons. If a state’s leaders conclude that their over- all security would decrease by building a bomb, they are not likely to do so.36
But there's one problem with this "nuclear domino" scenario: the historical record does not support it. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, many have feared rapid and widespread nuclear proliferation; 65 years later, only nine countries have developed nuclear weapons. Nearly 20 years elapsed between the emergence of the first nuclear state, the United States, in 1945, and the fifth, China, in 1964.
The next 40 years gave birth to only five additional nuclear countries: India, Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, and North Korea. South Africa voluntarily disarmed in the 1990s, as did Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After Israel developed a nuclear weapons capability in the late 1960s, no regional nuclear chain reaction followed, even though the country is surrounded by rivals. Nor was there even a two-country nuclear arms race in the region.
Similarly, it has now been four years since North Korea became a nuclear weapons state, yet South Korea and Japan have not followed suit, despite the fact that they have a latent nuclear weapons capability -- access to the fissile material necessary for nuclear weapons. These countries' decisions to not go nuclear are largely thanks to extensive U.S. efforts to dissuade them. Both South Korea and Japan enjoy firm and long-standing security assurances from Washington, including protection under the U.S. strategic nuclear umbrella, obviating the need for their own deterrents. Following North Korea's 2006 nuclear test, U.S. President George W. Bush immediately assured South Korea and Japan that the United States was unequivocally committed to protecting them.
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Nevertheless, predictions of inevitable proliferation cascades have historically proven false. In the six decades since atomic weapons were first developed, nuclear restraint has proven far more common than nuclear proliferation, and cases of reactive proliferation have been exceedingly rare. Moreover, most countries that have started down the nuclear path have found the road more difficult than imagined, both technologically and bureaucratically, leading the majority of nuclear-weapons aspirants to reverse course. Thus, despite frequent warnings of an unstoppable “nuclear express,”17 William Potter and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova astutely note that the “train to date has been slow to pick up steam, has made fewer stops than anticipated, and usually has arrived much later than expected.”18
None of this means that additional proliferation in response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions is inconceivable, but the empirical record does suggest that regional chain reactions are not inevitable. Instead, only certain countries are candidates for reactive proliferation. Determining the risk that any given country in the Middle East will proliferate in response to Iranian nuclearization requires an assessment of the incentives and disincentives for acquiring a nuclear deterrent, the technical and bureaucratic constraints and the available strategic alternatives.
Predictions of catastrophic consequences resulting from a nuclear Iran are not only wrong but counterproductive. The assertion that the widespread proliferation is unavoidable could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The myth of a nuclear domino effect creates an excuse for other Middle Eastern countries -- expecting that their neighbors will be nuclear powers -- to acquire nuclear weapons themselves. Nightmare scenarios are dangerous for yet another reason: the expected consequences of a nuclear Iran, real or imagined, will determine the policies pursued to prevent Tehran from developing the bomb. If the consequences are out of sync with reality, the methods applied will be disproportional to the threat. Seven years ago, the United States walked into Iraq based on worst-case-scenario predictions about its nuclear program that were far from beyond a reasonable doubt. Washington cannot afford to wage another war on false pretenses.
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Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom that Iranian nuclearization will inevitably spark region-wide proliferation deserves closer scrutiny. Historically, “reactive proliferation” has been exceedingly rare. And in the current context, neither Egypt nor Turkey is likely to respond to a nuclear-armed Iran by pursuing the bomb. Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government views Iran as a regional rival, but Cairo does not see Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an existential threat. Moreover, Egypt’s aging nuclear infrastructure is in poor shape, and the country’s leaders will be consumed for the foreseeable future with completing a rocky democratic transition and addressing almost insurmountable economic challenges. As a result, the Egyptian government is highly unlikely to divert scarce financial resources, put its peace agreement with Israel at risk and invite the ire of the international community by pursuing nuclear weapons.7
Ankara may have more anxiety regarding Iranian nuclearization, seeing it as a threat to Middle East stability and Turkey’s growing regional influence. Turkey also has considerably more financial resources than Egypt does to devote toward a nuclear program and has ambitious plans to expand its civilian nuclear sector. However, it would likely take many years for Turkey to fully develop the nuclear or technical infrastructure needed to sup- port an advanced nuclear weapons program. And, crucially, Turkey already possesses a credible nuclear deterrent in the form of its longstanding NATO security guarantee. If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, Ankara is thus likely to aggressively pursue a Middle East nuclear-free zone while sitting comfortably under the American nuclear umbrella.8
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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