A Nuclear Iran--Nothing to Fear?

Apr 13, 2012

By Eli Jacobs

A cottage industry of anti-alarmism has sprung up in response to what has frequently been an excessively paranoid debate about the potential for a nuclear Iran. Although these authors’ hearts are in the right place – countering doomsday concerns of Israel’s destruction and nuclear threats against the U.S. homeland – their polemical bent causes them to overstate their case. My colleague recently identified such a case, arguing that Fareed Zakaria is overly optimistic about the probability of successfully deterring a nuclear Iran.
Stephen Cook makes a similar mistake in his argument that Iranian nuclearization would not prompt regional competitors Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt to follow suit. By focusing shortsightedly on these states’ lack of scientific and technical capability, Cook understates the extent of their security-driven motivation—a factor that history shows to be decisive in states’ acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Cook identifies countless practical barriers to a proliferation cascade in the Middle East. Turkey has neither a peaceful nuclear program nor the means to deliver the nuclear weapons the U.S. forward deploys there; Egypt has an outdated nuclear program and lacks the infrastructure and economic capacity to develop a nuclear weapon; and Saudi Arabia has limited nuclear infrastructure, no scientific base to speak of, and does not trust Pakistan to sell it a functioning nuclear device.
However, history shows that, with nuclear weapons, where there’s a will there’s a way. One could make similarly compelling counterfactual cases for the technical barriers to a Pakistani or North Korean nuclear weapon. These countries both had extremely weak economies and inefficient political systems, yet both achieved nuclear capability by devoting a large portion of their limited resources to a nuclear program—a choice that Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia could make much less painfully if the security situation demanded.
In addition, nuclear knowledge is no longer terribly difficult to come by. Experienced scientists from North Korea and Pakistan have proved more than willing to sell their expertise. Targeted investments to hone any of these nation’s top-level scientific and technical skills could, when combined with the informed guidance of outsiders, provide a plausible path towards a nuclear capability.
Would these countries, confronted by a nuclear Iran, feel compelled to travel this path? I think the answer is yes. Cook’s argument differentiating the contemporary Middle East from relations between India and Pakistan is as follows:
This logic was undoubtedly at work when Pakistan embarked on a nuclear program in 1972 to match India's nuclear development program. Yet for all its tribulations, the present-day Middle East is not the tinderbox that South Asia was in the middle of the 20th century. Pakistan's perception of the threat posed by India — a state with which it has fought four wars since 1947 — is far more acute than how either Egypt or Turkey perceive the Iranian challenge. And while Iran is closer to home for the Saudis, the security situation in the Persian Gulf is not as severe as the one along the 1,800-mile Indo-Pakistani border.
Although they have not fought wars against one another, the interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran diverge as fundamentally as those between late-20th century India and Pakistan. This conflict occurs mostly via proxy, a dynamic that proceeds from Sunni / Shia divisions and has been enflamed by the Arab Spring – with Iran supporting the Shia opposition in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia supporting the Sunni opposition in Syria. The unsuccessful plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. raised tensions further, causing some to speculate about the prospect of war between the two countries.
These proxy strategies are beneficial because they allow both Saudi Arabia and Iran to threaten the interests of their adversaries while avoiding the risk of escalation. For example, Iranian support of a Shia opposition in Bahrain may destabilize the country or prompt a shift towards a more heavily Shia government – developments that would both complicate the United States’ and Saudis’ ability to use Bahrain as a staging ground for achieving their interests in the Persian Gulf. However, if Saudi Arabia decides to escalate the conflict, Iran has the option of backing down, because the dispute is peripheral to their interests.
A nuclear Iran changes these dynamics significantly. The shared belief that escalation will result in victory for Iran and defeat for Saudi Arabia significantly increases Iran’s freedom of action at lower levels of conflict. It can both support its proxies and intervene against the Saudis’ with greater aggression, conscious of the reality that Saudi Arabia could not realistically choose escalation. This severely complicates Saudi Arabia’s primary strategy for securing its defense interests in the Gulf and national interests in the broader Middle East.
It’s unlikely that a U.S. security guarantee could compensate for this loss of strategic depth. The current U.S. stance is that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. If we fail to deliver on that statement, the Saudis would with good reason feel quite dubious about our willingness to trade DC for Riyadh, especially given the strong cultural differences between the two countries.
Thus, a nuclear Iran stands a good chance of motivating Saudi Arabia to channel their resources towards the goal of following suit. The case for Egypt and Turkey is a bit weaker, but still quite plausible. Despite its attempts to maintain amicable ties with its neighbors, Turkey, also a Sunni power, resolutely opposes Iran on the current instability in Syria. One can easily imagine that situation developing into the same proxy dynamics that may motivate Saudi proliferation. In that scenario, Turkey, which aspires to regional leadership, may not be content to rely on NATO’s nuclear backing. An Egyptian government that emerges from recent political uncertainty controlled by the country’s majority Sunni population may find itself facing a similar predicament – and unsure of U.S. backing should an Islamist group such as the Muslim Brotherhood hold significant sway. This pressure may be magnified if Israel’s response to a nuclear Iran is to declare an overt nuclear capability.
It is by no means certain that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt will match an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. However, it is equally uncertain that they won’t. Resolving this question decisively on the basis of status quo capabilities is a mistake if it discourages policymakers from planning to manage dilemmas created by a nuclear Iran—and making decisions in light of the difficulty of those dilemmas.
Eli Jacobs is a research assistant for the Defense and National Security Group. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.