Drawing a Bright Redline: Forestalling Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East
Ideally, the entire Middle East would be a zone free of enrichment and reprocessing. The WMD Commission headed by former UN weapons inspector and IAEA Director-General Hans Blix recommended that all states in the region commit themselves for a prolonged period of time not to have any enrichment or reprocessing activities. This would mean that Iran's uranium enrichment at Natanz and Israel's production of plutonium at Dimona would halt. If estimates are correct that Israel has produced enough fissile material for some 200 weapons, it might be argued that this is sufficient to meet its deterrence needs. Unfortunately, prospects for a regional agreement at the moment are not bright given the compliance problems with existing nonproliferation norms, the challenges of verification, and the need for an accompanying peace process if any country is to unilaterally reduce its security posture. These must all be addressed, including by more meaningful enforcement of the existing nonproliferation rules and obligations. In the meantime, a Middle East enrichment- and reprocessing-free zone is still a useful goal to which to aspire.
Deterrence is one of the most important tools. Not just deterring Iran's use of nuclear weapons but also deterring any production of them is a reasonable policy objective. Iran must be convinced that crossing the redline of weaponization would result in dire and certain consequences. The problem is that today the line between latent capability and weaponization is almost invisible. If Iran were to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), expel inspectors, and reconfigure its enrichment facilities at Natanz in an overt breakout, it would not be difficult to calculate the small number of weeks before one weapon's worth of highly enriched uranium (HEU) could be produced using declared facilities. In the more likely case of Iran continuing ostensibly to adhere to the NPT, it would not be possible to know if it were operating clandestine facilities. Some things would be clear indicators of a weapons decision, however, including the discovery of clandestine enrichment facilities, HEU production, new or ongoing weaponization work, a declaration by Iran that it indeed possessed nuclear weapons or the unveiling by intelligence of such a status, and a nuclear test explosion. Meanwhile, the line between a latent capability and weaponization can be made wider and more visible in various ways.
This goal was given a boost in November 2007 when Saudi Arabia, on behalf of the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC), publicly announced an offer to launch a regional joint enrichment consortium to establish an enrichment facility under the supervision of the IAEA in a neutral country, such as Switzerland, for all users of enriched uranium in the Middle East. The GCC suggestion would offer a face-saving way for Iran to forgo enrichment as part of a voluntary regional arrangement. By doing so, Iran would at the same time meet its obligation to respect UN mandates and provide the best means of assuring the world that its nuclear program is not intended for weapons purposes. The GCC plan also would be a practical step toward a zone in the wider Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, Iran is more interested in the technology than the fuel, which is why it dismisses the idea of obtaining its reactor fuel from Russia's international enrichment center at Angarsk or through proposals such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative project for a fuel bank under IAEA auspices, for which the UAE has pledged $10 million.
As a vital component to the mix of strategies necessary to forestall a regional proliferation cascade, the United States must also pursue robust deterrence and reassurance policies in the Middle East. It should be made clear to Iran that the major powers would take whatever action was necessary to stop it from crossing the line to weapons acquisition.
Such action should not include providing an extended nuclear deterrence to Middle Eastern states, as has sometimes been proposed as a measure to contain Iran and to pre-empt any felt need to seek nuclear options themselves. Under current circumstances, the idea is problematic and without credibility. Would the United States really want to tie its nuclear policies to the volatile politics of the Middle East? The potential recipients of the nuclear umbrella are not formal U.S. allies, and after the war in Iraq, the U.S. public is unlikely to want to take on new defense obligations in the Middle East, especially with countries seen as not sharing the same values of democracy and civil rights. Meanwhile, public opinion in most Arab states is strongly opposed to the U.S. nuclear posture, and a nuclear assurance could damage rather than bolster such states' security by sparking domestic upheaval and possibly terrorist attacks.
Instead, reassurance should include the reaffirmation of security commitments to Israel, Turkey, and the Gulf states; the deployment of theater ballistic missile defense systems; and the continuation of Bush administration policies regarding enhancement of other in-theater capabilities and strengthening the defensive capabilities of Iran's neighbors through joint training and other measures. By addressing their security concerns, the United States can reduce the motivations that states in the region might otherwise have to seek a nuclear hedge.