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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Another oft-touted worry is that if Iran obtains the bomb, other states in the region will follow suit, leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. But the nuclear age is now almost 70 years old, and so far, fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded. Properly defined, the term “proliferation” means a rapid and uncontrolled spread. Nothing like that has occurred; in fact, since 1970, there has been a marked slowdown in the emergence of nuclear states. There is no reason to expect that this pattern will change now. Should Iran become the second Middle Eastern nuclear power since 1945, it would hardly signal the start of a landslide. When Israel acquired the bomb in the 1960s, it was at war with many of its neighbors. Its nuclear arms were a much bigger threat to the Arab world than Iran’s program is today. If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.
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Assumption # 1: A nuclear-armed Iran will lead to regional proliferation.
While it is possible that a nuclear-armed Iran could spur other regional countries to acquire nuclear weapons of their own, policymakers should not simply assume this will be the case. Recent analysis by the Center for New American Security challenges “conventional wisdom that Iranian nuclearization will spark region-wide proliferation,” observes that historical cases of reactive proliferation are “exceedingly rare,” and ultimately concludes that “neither Egypt nor Turkey, [nor Saudi Arabia] is likely to respond . . . by pursuing the bomb.”22 A recent study from the War Studies Department of King’s College London draws similar conclusions noting Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia “have little to gain and much to lose by embarking down such a route.”23 Moreover, there is ample historical evidence both inside and outside the Middle East that one nation’s possession of nuclear weapons does not necessarily lead to further proliferation among presumed competitors. For instance, China conducted its first nuclear weapons tests in 1964 and neither Japan nor South Korea have yet opted to “go-nuclear” although both countries certainly have long possessed the technical capability to do so. Ironically, the most powerful incentive for nuclear proliferation among Arab nations has been Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons capability since the late 1960s. Nevertheless, despite several Arab-Israeli wars, neither Iran nor any Arab state has developed nuclear weapons in the subsequent 50 years. Finally, there are any number of deliberate actions US policymakers could take to minimize prospects for further regional proliferation including providing friendly militaries with capable defen- sive missile systems and perhaps even extending America’s nuclear umbrella to threatened allies.
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Fears of a tipping point were especially acute in the aftermath of China’s 1964 detonation of an atomic bomb: it was predicted that India, Indonesia, and Japan might follow, with consequences worldwide, as “Israel, Sweden, Germany, and other potential nuclear countries far from China and India would be affected by proliferation in Asia.”40 A U.S. government document identiaed “at least eleven nations (India, Japan, Israel, Sweden, West Germany, Italy, Canada, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Rumania, and Yugoslavia)” with the capacity to go nuclear, a number that would soon “grow substantially” to include “South Africa, the United Arab Republic, Spain, Brazil and Mexico.”41 A top-secret, blue-ribbon committee established to craft the U.S. response con- tended that “the  Chinese nuclear explosion has increased the urgency and complexity of this problem by creating strong pressures to develop inde- pendent nuclear forces, which, in turn, could strongly inouence the plans of other potential nuclear powers.”42
These predictions were largely wrong. In 1985 the National Intelligence Council noted that for “almost thirty years the Intelligence Community has been writing about which nations might next get the bomb.” All of these esti- mates based their largely pessimistic and ultimately incorrect estimates on fac- tors such as the increased “access to assile materials,” improved technical capabilities in countries, the likelihood of “chain reactions,” or a “scramble” to proliferation when “even one additional state demonstrates a nuclear capa- bility.” The 1985 report goes on, “The most striking characteristic of the present-day nuclear proliferation scene is that, despite the alarms rung by past Estimates, no additional overt proliferation of nuclear weapons has actually occurred since China tested its bomb in 1964.” Although “some proliferation of nuclear explosive capabilities and other major proliferation-related develop- ments have taken place in the past two decades,” they did not have “the damaging, systemwide impacts that the Intelligence community generally an- ticipated they would.”43
"Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War
." International Security
. Vol. 34, No. 3 (Winter 2009/10): 7-37. [ More (6 quotes) ]
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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.
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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