How to Actually Prevent a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East
Preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by additional states and terrorist groups is one of America’s top national-security priorities. The outcome of the ongoing negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran will have a profound impact on whether the cause of nonproliferation will be strengthened or set back.
There is little evidence that new unilateral U.S. sanctions or airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would compel Iran to abandon enrichment. Sanctions have been useful in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, but they have not stopped Iran's program from advancing. According to a December 2013 U.S. intelligence community assessment, “new sanctions would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.”
While airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities might temporarily set back the program, the delay would be temporary and run a high risk of convincing Iran to dash to acquire nuclear weapons to prevent such strikes in the future. A ten-to-fifteen-year deal will keep Iran further away from the ability to make enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon for longer than the alternative of a military strike possibly could.
Even if Iran did agree or was forced to give up its enrichment program, it would still retain the know-how and capability to rebuild the program relatively quickly in the future. The knowledge it has acquired cannot be sanctioned or bombed away. Thus, the incentive Saudi Arabia and other regional adversaries of Iran might have for nuclear hedging behavior would exist under any scenario short of regime change.
Ultimately, insisting on zero enrichment and pursuing new sanctions or airstrikes in an attempt to compel such an outcome would likely be ruinous to both diplomacy and the international sanctions regime. This would increase the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran and the attendant security and proliferation cascade dangers that would come with it. And an Iran with a less constrained nuclear program and faced with a weakened international sanctions regime would be a greater threat to Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region.
Meanwhile, Riyadh’s nuclear-power program remains in its nascent stages. Saudi Arabia currently has no nuclear-power plants. Last month, a Saudi energy official announced that a key milestone to install 17 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2032 would be delayed by eight years to 2040 . Saudi Arabia’s official position is that it would choose not to enrich or reprocess, capabilities for which it has no near-term practical need. A May 2008 U.S.-Saudi memorandum  of understanding on nuclear energy cooperation declared: “Saudi Arabia has stated its intent to rely on international markets for nuclear fuel and to not pursue sensitive nuclear technologies.”
Going back on this pledge in response to a comprehensive deal with Iran would cause much consternation in Washington, including possibly making Riyadh the target of U.S. sanctions. Though Saudi Arabia has expressed concern about U.S. policy toward Iran and other regional-security challenges, such as the Syrian civil war, there is no other country—or technology—that Riyadh’s leaders can turn to that can provide the same level of proven support and protection. In addition, Saudi moves to develop an indigenous fuel-making capability could prompt Iran to reconsider its commitment to the deal. Were the deal to collapse under these circumstances, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reconstitute a sanctions regime to punish and isolate Iran.
To the extent Saudi Arabia engages in nuclear hedging in response to a nuclear deal, racing to develop an enrichment capability is unlikely to be its first choice. Instead, Riyadh is more likely to develop its civilian nuclear program, which has scarcely gotten of the ground.
Skeptics, though, argue that the P5+1’s negotiating position—which envisions a final deal that would allow for a limited Iranian uranium-enrichment program—would undermine nonproliferation by encouraging other states in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, to pursue an enrichment capability. While a deal is highly unlikely to prompt Iran’s regional adversaries to make a mad dash to actually acquire nuclear weapons, the concern is that unless Iran’s nuclear program is dismantled, regional states will build their own domestic enrichment facilities, thereby placing them closer to being able to build nuclear weapons in the future.
However, the concern that an agreement allowing some Iranian enrichment will encourage the practice elsewhere is overblown. The alternative is no comprehensive P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal, which would result in a less constrained—if not unconstrained—Iranian nuclear program with less monitoring. This poses more of a threat to regional security and would be more likely to increase the possibility of a cascade of regional fuel making.