Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?
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Conventional wisdom holds that the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran would spark an inevitable proliferation cascade across the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia the prime candidate to follow Iran into the nuclear club. It is widely believed that the Kingdom would be hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons; if Saudi Arabia proved unable to build the bomb itself, it would acquire nuclear weapons or a nuclear umbrella from Pakistan.
On all these counts, the conventional wisdom is probably wrong. Throughout the nuclear age, nuclear restraint has been the norm not the excep- tion, and the Kingdom is not likely to buck this historical pattern. The Saudis would be highly motivated to acquire some form of nuclear deterrent to counter an Iranian bomb, but significant disincentives would weigh against a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. In any case, they lack the technological and bureaucratic wherewithal to do so any time in the foreseeable future. Nor is Saudi Arabia likely to illicitly acquire operational nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Despite rumors of a clandestine nuclear deal, there are profound disincentives for Riyadh to acquire a bomb from Islamabad – and considerable, though typically ignored, reasons for Pakistan to avoid an illicit transfer. Instead, Saudi Arabia would likely pursue a more aggressive version of its current conventional defense and civilian nuclear hedg- ing strategy while seeking out an external nuclear security guarantee from either Pakistan or the United States. And ultimately, a potential U.S. nuclear guarantee would likely prove more fea- sible and attractive to the Saudis than a Pakistani alternative.
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The conservative Saudi leadership strongly prefers stability – both at home and abroad – and there is no doubt that Saudi rulers fear that a nuclear- empowered Iran would threaten the Kingdom and the wider Middle East. But Saudi Arabia acquiring its own nuclear weapons could, on net, make the threat to stability worse, not better.70 Domestically, the Saudis would have to consider the prospect that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of violent jihadist extremists opposed to the regime.71 Regionally, the Kingdom would face the pos- sibility that Israel would strike Saudi facilities to prevent the emergence of another nuclear state in the region, just as Israel did in Iraq in 1981 and in Syria in 2007. (Indeed, the concern over triggering an Israeli attack may have been the primary reason the Kingdom did not respond in kind to Israel’s nuclear program.72) Even if Saudi Arabia could avoid being the target of a preventive strike, Riyadh would have to consider the risks associated with engaging in a nuclear arms race with Jerusalem and Tehran, including the possibility of nuclear crises that could pose a direct and immediate existential threat to the regime.
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Despite these military upgrades, Saudi lead- ers fear that nuclear weapons would provide Iran with cover for conventional – or, even more likely, unconventional – aggression against the Kingdom.55 The primary Saudi concern is not a direct Iranian assault but rather the possibil- ity that nuclear weapons would provide a shield behind which Iran’s revolutionary leadership could promote Shia subversion and militancy in the Kingdom and across the region with impunity.56 Riyadh views the growing political restlessness of Shia populations in the country’s Eastern Province, as well as in surrounding Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon, as a threat that could eventually metastasize into an existential challenge to the House of Saud.57 The political turmoil associated with the Arab Spring has heightened these con- cerns. Indeed, in the current environment, Saudi leaders have tended to exaggerate Tehran’s hidden hand, ascribing any and all forms of instability and Shia activism in the Middle East to a conscious Iranian strategy to destabilize the Kingdom and other Gulf monarchies.58 But even if Saudi concerns sometimes border on paranoia, history suggests that new nuclear-armed states tend to be emboldened, at least for a time, to pursue more aggressive foreign policies by the belief that nuclear weapons protect them from devastating retalia- tion. It is therefore not completely unreasonable for Saudi leaders to fear that Iranian adventurism would be empowered by nuclear weapons.59
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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
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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.
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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
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The Kingdom is also much less likely to illic- itly acquire operational nuclear weapons from Pakistan than is commonly assumed. Despite longstanding rumors suggesting the existence of a clandestine Saudi-Pakistani nuclear deal, there are profound security and economic disincentives cutting against Riyadh’s motivation to seek a bomb from Islamabad – as well as considerable, though typically ignored, strategic and economic reasons for Pakistan to avoid an illicit transfer. Pakistan also faces significant, seldom-recognized imperatives to avoid diverting its strategic attention from India by providing a nuclear guarantee to the Kingdom. Furthermore, even if Islamabad proved willing to extend its nuclear umbrella, a potential U.S. nuclear guarantee would likely “out compete” a Pakistani alternative.
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It is widely assumed that Saudi Arabia would respond to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by embarking on a crash program to develop their own bomb or by illicitly receiving nuclear weap- ons from its close ally Pakistan. If these options were not available, most analysts believe that the Saudis would be successful in securing a nuclear umbrella from Islamabad, including the possible deployment of Pakistani nuclear weapons on Saudi soil. These scenarios have been repeated so often in Washington and elsewhere that they have assumed a taken-for-granted quality.
Yet none of these outcomes represent the most likely Saudi response to a nuclear-armed Iran. The Saudis would be highly motivated to acquire some form of nuclear deterrent to counter an Iranian bomb. However, significant disincentives – including the prospect of worsening Saudi Arabia’s security environment, rupturing strategic ties with the United States, damaging the country’s international reputation and making the Kingdom the target of sanctions – would discourage a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. And, in any case, Saudi Arabia lacks the technological and bureaucratic wherewithal to do so any time in the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia is more likely to respond to Iranian nuclearization by continuing to bolster its conventional defenses against Iranian aggression while engaging in a long-term hedging strategy designed to improve civilian nuclear capabilities.