Chain Reaction: Avoiding a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East
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A global nuclear energy 'renaissance' appears to be underway due in large part to concerns over greenhouse gas emissions that accompany fossil fuel consumption and the inability of oil and nat- ural gas supplies to meet the burgeoning global demand for energy. In the Middle East, these energy dynamics, as well as a desire to match Iran's nuclear progress, have ignited and renewed wide- spread interest in nuclear energy. In addition to Iran, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and Yemen, have all expressed interest in nuclear energy. While some of these states appear more committed to pursuing nu- clear power than others, the growing demand for energy, combined with strategic calculations related to Iran, virtually guarantee that the Middle East of 2025 will be popengaging in nuclear power generation.
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Since the advent of nuclear weapons in the last months of World War II, 29 states have pursued nuclear weapons. However, 18 of these states willingly abandoned their programs—a decision often called nuclear 'rollback.' These 18 case studies provide ample evi- dence that states can be dissuaded from pursuing nuclear weapons when the international community—and often the United States in particular—addresses the state's motivations behind its quest for nuclear weapons. The history of nonproliferation does not teach that states eyeing nuclear weapons inevitably get them. Rather, the history teaches that nonproliferation efforts succeed when the United States and the international community help satisfy what- ever concerns drove a state to want nuclear weapons in the first place. In other words, if the United States can accurately identify and address the motivations—or ''nuclear drivers''—that compel or encourage Middle Eastern states to pursue nuclear weapons, it may be possible in the region.
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Such a study may seem unnecessary to some in light of the December 2007 NIE, but Iran's nuclear program remains one of the most serious threats to U.S. interests and Middle East peace. Iran continues to enrich uranium-the most difficult component of a nu- clear weapons program-and continues to conduct work that could contribute to nuclear weapons development. As the NIE states, Iran now possesses the ''scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.'' Consequently, the NIE judges ''with moderate confidence'' that Iran will have enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to produce a nuclear weapon by 2010--2015. Furthermore, because the motivations inspiring the Iranian drive for nuclear weapons remain unaddressed, Iran remains unlikely to fully abandon its long-term drive to obtain a nuclear weapon capability. If in fact Iran halted the other aspects of its nuclear weapons program in 2003, this action almost certainly represents a tactical pause rather than a strategic change of course. In short, Iran now possesses the means as well as the motivation to develop nuclear weapons. Consequently, based on Iran's acquired capabilities and Iran's continued motivations, it is entirely possible that the United States could confront a nuclear-armed or nuclear weapons capable Iran in the next decade.
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Of any Middle Eastern state, Saudi Arabia is the state most likely to pursue nuclear weapons in response to the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon. While acknowledging the difficulty inherent in accurately predicting the ramifications of a Saudi nuclear weapon, one can envision a host of likely or possible outcomes that would dramatically undermine peace and stability in the Middle East and severely endanger U.S. interests and security. At some point in the Saudi process of developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon capability, Israel would likely detect the Saudi nuclear activity. Israel might strike a small number of Saudi targets in order to eliminate the program in its infancy. Even if the Saudis could obtain a nuclear weapon without Israeli knowledge, it is difficult to imagine a passive Israeli acceptance of a Saudi nuclear weapon, which the Israelis would likely view as an existential threat. If the Israeli response to a Saudi nuclear weapons program took the form of a military attack it would be seen in the Arab World in the context of an attack from the Jewish state against the Islamic holy land and home of the ''two holy mosques.'' Such an Israeli attack on Saudi Arabia would represent one of the greatest offenses to Muslims in history and would incite an unprecedented level of radicalization directed against Israel and the United States, possibly resulting in a regionwide conflict between Arab States and Israel.
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A Saudi nuclear weapon might also spur a regional nuclear arms race. Iran would likely respond by increasing the number of nuclear weapons in their arsenal, the accuracy of their delivery sys- tems, and the variety of their launch platforms. If Israel took either of these steps—especially in an overt and explicit manner—it would place tremendous political pressure on Egypt to respond. The Egyptian response could consist of a renunciation of its peace treaty with Israel, a repudiation of its relations with the United States, or the initiation of an Egyptian nuclear weapons program. The Egyptian people would undoubtedly demand the government take some forceful and substantial action. This interaction between Israel and Egypt would also be exacerbated by the existence of a Saudi nuclear weapon.Even if Israel didn't react in this overt way to a Saudi move, a Saudi nuclear weapon would put great pressure on the Egyptians to follow suit. Egypt views itself as the leader of the Arab world and a Saudi nuclear weapon would directly challenge this self conception. Moreover, a Middle East that includes a nuclear-armed Iran and Saudi Arabia would also place significant pressure on the Turks to respond in kind. While this 'nuclear cascade' or chain reaction may represent the worst case scenario, it is not outside the realm of possibility if Saudi Arabia responds to Iran by pursuing a nuclear weapon. While it is unlikely that such a nuclear cascade would unfold exactly in this manner, the odds that some of these developments may occur requires that the United States assess the likelihood that Saudi Arabia would pursue a nuclear weapon and take steps to decrease this likelihood.
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If Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, the United States would be wise to immediately focus on the Saudi reaction. If Saudi Arabia demonstrates restraint and does not pursue nuclear weapons, it might be possible to forestall a regional nuclear arms cascade, thereby allowing the United States to focus on containing and potentially rolling back Iranian nuclear forces. Conversely, if Saudi Arabia does respond by pursuing nuclear weapons, this could well ignite a regional nuclear arms chain reaction as described above. This would also significantly reduce the likelihood that the international community could convince Iran to relinquish its nuclear weapons. Staff interviews confirm the findings of Rand researchers Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic Wehrey that 'Saudi Arabia's reaction is a leading concern among all regional states,' and the 'Saudi reaction is likely to be the pivot around which inter-Arab debates resolve.' Therefore, the United States must take note of what the Saudis say and what may influence their decision.
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Saudi officials believe Iran wants a nuclear weapon in order to come a regional superpower, to alleviate a sense of marginalization, to serve as a deterrent, and to be a more dominant force in the Gulf. While senior Saudi officials describe a nuclear-armed Iran as 'an existential threat,' most Saudi officials do not believe Iran would actually use nuclear weapons against Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia worries that Iranian nuclear weapons would encourage and enable the Iranians to pursue a more aggressive, hegemonic foreign policy in the region. However, it would be inaccurate to completely characterize SAG anxiety regarding Iranian nuclear weapons as purely a 'balance of power concern.' Based largely on Iran's subversive activities directed against the Saudi regime in the 1980s, some senior Saudi leaders find a nuclear-armed Iran especially disconcerting. Such past Iranian subversion efforts has imbued the senior Saudi leadership with an intense distrust of Tehran. Saudi Arabia currently fears Iranian influence, and finds the notion of a nuclear-armed Iran all the more disconcerting.
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The third argument often cited to suggest that Saudi Arabia would not pursue nuclear weapons relates to Saudi Arabia's nuclear technology capabilities. There exists a relatively strong consensus regarding the immature state of Saudi Arabia's nuclear technology infrastructure. Saudi Arabia lacks the human expertise and the technical knowledge necessary to develop a nuclear weapons program on its own. Experts consistently describe Saudi Arabia's nuclear infrastructure and know how as far inferior to Egypt and Turkey. Notwithstanding these apparent facts, observers should not underestimate Saudi Arabia's ability to obtain the technology required. Many scholars and U.S. diplomats believe Saudi Arabia may have some sort of formal or informal understanding with Pakistan regarding nuclear weapons. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have common interests and complementary assets. Pakistan has a nuclear capability and limited money, while Saudi Arabia has no nuclear capability and virtually unlimited money. While no solid evidence exists to confirm the formalization of such an agreement, some circumstantial evidence suggests an agreement or ''understanding'' may exist. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both primarily Sunni countries, both have a history of tense relations with Iran. Also, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enjoy a long history of military cooperation. In fact, Pakistani deployed troops to Saudi soil from 1979 to 1987, and the two countries cooperated extensively in the 1980s to fight the Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan. Furthermore, then-Crown Prince Abdullah visited Pakistan a few months after Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests, raising some eyebrows. None of this proves the existence of a nuclear understanding between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but if such an agreement exists, the transfer could manifest itself in four different forms. First, in the eventuality of an Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, the Pakistanis could transfer nuclear technology or materials to the Saudis. This transfer could jump-start the Saudi nuclear program and would dramatically reduce the time between a Saudi political decision to move forward on nuclear weapons and the Saudi development of a nuclear weapons capability. This transfer could take place at the official government to government level or at the subnational level, reminiscent of the A.Q. Kahn network. Pakistan could also deploy Pakistani nuclear forces to Saudi Arabia. This scenario may not incur the same international condemnation of the other two options and arguably would not violate the NPT.
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The second argument frequently cited as to why the Saudis would not pursue nuclear weapons relates to the character of the regime. Some argue the Saudi regime is too conservative, too timid to take such a bold and controversial step. However, the Saudi regime's undoubtedly conservative and occasionally timid approach to foreign relations has not kept Saudi Arabia from taking covert and controversial measures in the past in order to protect its interests. The Saudi acquisition of 50--60 CSS--2 missiles, 10--15 mobile launchers, and technical support from China at a cost of about $3 to $3.5 billion in the late 1980s provides a preeminent example. These missiles, which represent some of the longest-range missiles in the world, were acquired by the Saudis after the U.S. decision not to sell the Saudis surface to surface missiles. This Saudi move apparently reflected anything but a conservative or timid approach. Apparently conducted without the knowledge of Israel or the United States, General Khaled bin Sultan, who served as commander of Arab forces during Desert Shield and Desert Storm and who oversaw the Saudi acquisition of the Chinese missiles, visited China four times to close the deal. Detailing his responsibilities, he said:
"My task was to negotiate the deal, devise an appropriate deception plan, choose a team of Saudi officers and men and arrange for their training in both Saudi Arabia and China, build and defend operation bases and storage facilities in different parts of the Kingdom, arrange for the shipment of the missiles from China and, at every stage, be ready to defend the project against sabotage or any other form of attack."
The Saudis have denied U.S. requests for an onsite inspection of the missiles. Responding to such a request, Saudi Defense Minister Prince and now Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud said, 'Many people think that we're dependent on the United States for arms, and even say we're subservient to American policy. The acquisition of Chinese missiles proves the opposite.' In short, the Saudi acquisition of the Chinese CSS--2 missiles in the late 1980s strongly suggests that the Saudis are willing to bypass or risk alienating the United States in order to protect Saudi interests.
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Those who believe Saudi Arabia would not respond to an Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons by pursuing a weapon of its own usually emphasize one of three arguments. The first argument suggests the value the Saudis place on their relationship with the United States would dissuade them from taking a nuclear decision that would severely damage their most important bilateral relationship. Undoubtedly, Saudi Arabia values its relationship with the United States. The United States has served as Saudi Arabia's most important security guarantor since 1945. However, Saudi Arabia values its relationship with the United States because the United States has served Saudi Arabia's interests. If Saudi Arabia comes to believe the United States can not or will not protect the Kingdom and its core interests, the Saudi regime will not hesitate to develop the independent means to deter its enemies. The fact that no state can fully replace the United States as Saudi Arabia's security guarantor for the next two decades will shape Saudi decisionmaking. If the United States does not take assertive steps now to restore Saudi faith in the U.S. security guarantee, this fact will increase the likelihood that the Saudis will respond to a perceived decline in the reliability of U.S. security guarantees and the emergence of an Iranian nuclear threat by pursuing an independent nuclear deterrent.