Arab Security Responses to a Nuclear Ready Iran
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The international revelations in 2003 about the scope and depth of Iran's nuclear weapons-related activities have brought to the public domain reports of Saudi contemplation of nuclear weapons with the assistance of Pakistan. The British newspaper, the Guardian, reported that Saudi officials have admitted that, in light of Iran's nuclear weapons program and the post-September 11 security environment, the Kingdom is considering a variety of national security policy options, one of which is the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Other press reports allege that then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz traveled to Pakistan in October 2003 and secured a secret agreement with President Pervez Musharraf, under which Pakistan will provide the Saudis with nuclear-weapons technology in exchange for cheap oil. Naturally, Pakistani and Saudi officials deny these reports, but both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have national interests consistent with such a course of actions. Pakistan needs money to support its military competition with India, while Saudi Arabia needs a deterrent to compete with Iran and Israel, and as a hedge against a distancing of security ties with the United States.
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The United States today―unlike its European allies―does not lack the conventional means to project power in the Gulf as demonstrated in the wars of 1991 and 2003 against Iraq. And the United States would be wise strategically to tap that reputation for power to reassure partners in the region―in order to dampen incentives for exploring the nuclear weapons option―with ballistic missile defenses and conventional military means. The United States, with its preponderance of conventional forces, could threaten to remove the regime in Iran should nuclear weapons be used against American forces and regional partners. The reliance on conventional deterrence will underscore internationally the lack of usability of nuclear weapons, a mindset that, in turn, would dampen regional interest and prestige linked to nuclear weapons acquisition. Conversely, the American threat of nuclear weapons response in kind would heighten the importance and prestige of nuclear weapons and contribute to incentive for nuclear weapons proliferation. In the event that nuclear deterrence fails, the United States would have to make good on its nuclear threat and retaliate with nuclear weapons to cause most likely the end of the regime in Tehran, but at the unacceptable moral cost of thousands to millions of innocent Iranian civilian lives. Massive and tightly targeted conventional force retaliation offers a profoundly more moral and strategically effective deterrent because the threat is more credible than nuclear weapons response in light of the American restraint in inflicting civilian casualties in numerous conflicts since the end of the Cold War.
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Saudi Arabia has worked to restore diplomatic ties with Tehran that were ruptured by the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, but Tehran's possession of nuclear weapons is likely to cause discomfort in the kingdom. While the restoration of normal diplomatic relations appears on the surface to ease tensions, neither the Saudis nor the Iranians have abandoned their traditional aspirations to be the most influential nation-state in the Gulf. The Saudis are likely to view Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons as a substantial Iranian effort toward politically and militarily dominating the Gulf. The Saudis probably would suffer a sense of political humiliation that the Iranians have the political prestige or reputation for power that accompanies nuclear weapons.
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Arab Gulf states will feel the Iranian threat most acutely. Iraq, for example, will continue to see Iran as the largest and most formidable national security threat in the region regardless what shape, form, or nature the post-Saddam government in Baghdad eventually takes. A relatively transparent, moderately disposed government in Baghdad probably would want American military reassurance to shore up its security vis-à-vis Iran. The Iraqis might be amenable to residual American and international ground and air forces hosted in Iraq. The Iraqis might want a profile small enough to minimize charges by political opposition that the Iraqis are subservient to the Americans, but large enough to serve as a "trip wire" to deter Iranian military ambitions against Iraq, particularly as Iraq's new armed forces are just taking root. The American presence in Iraq also would reassure Iraqis that the Iranians could not parlay their nuclear weapons for political coercion against Iraq.
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The Arab world has a begrudging respect for Israeli air power, in particular due to its prowess demonstrated in the Arab-Israeli wars, air battles with Syrian aircraft in struggles over Lebanon, the air strikes against Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Tunis, and the preventive air strikes against Iraq's nuclear reactor. The mystique of Israeli air power, however, probably is larger than reality in the case of Iran, which is located a far reach from Israeli airspace. Depending on the flight route, Israeli aircraft would have to violate Jordanian, Syrian, Iraqi, or Saudi airspaces to strike Iranian targets. While some speculate that Israel could gain basing support to launch aircraft from Turkish bases, Ankara's unease with working with the Americans vis-à-vis Iraq shows how squeamish the Turks are over relations with their southern neighbors. The Israeli air force's ability to generate sorties for a sustained air bombardment of Iranian nuclear weapons-related facilities, moreover, pales in comparison of that of the United States which enjoys wide access in the Persian Gulf, both in host countries and based on aircraft carriers.
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Arab states also will have to worry that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons will embolden Tehran to revert to a more aggressive foreign policy. The clerical regime might calculate, for example, that it could give more material assistance and lessen restrictions on Hezbollah to engage in operations against Israeli and American interests. The Iranians have supported Hezbollah operations against American forces as an appendage of Iranian foreign policy to push the Americans out of the Gulf, most notably in assisting Saudi Hezbollah attacks against the Khobar Towers. Tehran might calculate that it could support an even more ambitious unconventional terrorist campaign against American forces in the Gulf and the smaller Arab Gulf states that host American forces if it has a nuclear weapons arsenal. Tehran might assess that, even if its hand is exposed, the risks of American military retaliation would be minimal, given Iranian nuclear weapons. If push came to shove, Tehran could use nuclear weapons against American military assets or hosting countries in the region with Iranian ballistic missiles, or clandestinely insert them into the United States to directly target American cities and citizens.
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A Saudi nuclear weapons capability would work strategically to shore-up Saudi insecurities vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities, but also against potential hostile actions in the longer run from Israel, Iraq, and the United States. The Saudis have already taken several steps in this direction. In the 1980s, unknown to the United States, they secretly negotiated for and purchased intermediate range CSS-2 ballistic missiles from China. According to Anthony Cordesman, the Saudis purchased 50-60 CSS-2 missiles, 10-15 mobile launchers, and technical support from China. The missiles would be ideal for delivering nuclear weapons, but poorly suited for the delivery of conventional munitions because they are very inaccurate and too limited in numbers in the Saudi arsenal to be used in the massive missile barrages with the conventional weapons necessary to compensate for inaccuracies. The missiles, moreover, were sold from Chinese operational nuclear force inventories. Although Beijing and Riyadh claim that the missiles in Saudi Arabia are armed with conventional weapons, no American or international observers have been allowed by the Saudis to inspect and independently verify Chinese and Saudi claims.
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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.