A nuclear Iran could create a Middle East nightmare

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If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries will do everything possible not to be left behind.

Much ink has been spilled over how much of a threat a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel and her allies. Most scholars and practitioners agree that allowing an aggressive, expansionist regime that has described Israel as a “one-bomb country” to acquire the most terrifying weapon ever invented would be reckless and suicidal. However, recent efforts to rekindle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have led to a string of pundits and politicians describing how to live with a nuclear-armed Iran.  

Before accepting such a fatalistic position, it is important to review all the potential repercussions of such a tectonic change. One rarely explored impact is the potential for further proliferation within the Middle East. If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold — which White House officials worry could happen in weeks — Saudi Arabia will do everything possible not to be left behind.  

In the intelligence world, assessing a threat is often based on two elements: capability and intent. Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program has both. In terms of capabilities, Saudi Arabia began building a 30-kilowatt research reactor in 2018, a curious decision given that producing energy through nuclear reactors is exponentially more expensive than burning fossil fuels, of which they have an abundance. More telling is that the Saudis have not agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s nuclear safety and proliferation watchdog. Saudi Arabia has approximately 90,000 tons of unmined uranium, likely enough fuel for that reactor as well as a weapons program, especially if reports are correct that China helped construct a facility to process the raw ore.  

Even if Saudi Arabia decides not to obtain the materials necessary for a weapons program, such as centrifuges or plutonium reprocessing facilities, there is credible evidence that they have an agreement with Pakistan to provide nuclear weapons in the event of a crisis such as Iran becoming a nuclear power. Saudi Arabia is long believed to have financed Pakistan’s weapons program, which is assessed to have approximately 160 warheads. Several U.S. and NATO officials indicated that a small subset of those weapons is earmarked for such a crisis. Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli Military Intelligence, observed that if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, “The Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb; they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring.” Those warheads could be fitted to an arsenal of intermediate-range ballistic missiles that originally were provided by China but now are produced domestically.  

In terms of indicators, there is extremely strong evidence that the kingdom has every intent to join the “smallest club on earth,” as the group of states possessing nuclear weapons has been described. One needs only to explore the official statements of its leaders to understand how clearly they have communicated their objectives. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, bluntly noted in 2018, “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” 

Such overt displays of Saudi nuclear intent are not new. As Prince Turki al-Faisal, who served as chief of intelligence and ambassador to the U.S., told a conference in 2011, “We must, as a duty to our country and people, look into all options we are given, including obtaining these weapons ourselves.” Further communicating Saudi Arabia’s stance is what it has not said: It has refused to sign nonproliferation agreements and has not agreed to bans on enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel — the two ways to produce weapons-grade material.  

The kingdom’s intent to acquire nuclear weapons is driven, in part, by the fact that Saudi Arabia and Iran have engaged in a series of proxy wars since Iran’s 1979 revolution. While a component of the conflict is sectarian, dating to the Sunni-Shi’a schism, the core of the struggle is for dominance and power in the Middle East. Saudi support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, combined with Iranian expansionism as part of its plan for a “Shi’a crescent,” has led to conflict between surrogates in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. The conflict has escalated so much that even Saudi Arabia itself is not off-limits to attacks. 

In some ways, the two states parallel the nuclear pathways of similar arch-rivals Pakistan and India. Each views the other as an existential threat and if one stands poised to acquire nuclear weapons, the other will seek the same to maintain the balance of power.

Recent changes in the kingdom’s geostrategic position increase the odds of proliferation. In the past, Saudi Arabia benefitted from a warm relationship with the United States. Like Japan and South Korea, having America as a powerful friend ensured that other regional powers could not become existential threats. But that calculus has changed. Following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia became an international pariah. President Biden publicly threatened to make the Kingdom “pay the price” and described its government as having “little social redeeming value.” Saudi Arabia is somewhat on its own now, and with the possibility of its nemesis acquiring nuclear weapons, it faces little choice but to do the same. The painful lesson of Ukraine and Libya — which gave up their nuclear weapons — is that the survival of states that don’t have nuclear weapons is at the whim of states that do.

If a Saudi acquisition of the bomb is not enough to generate concern, it should be noted that they are not the only country that stands on the precipice of proliferation. There are indications that Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are considering developing similar programs with the hope of establishing a deterrence as well as earning the prestige that accompanies possessing a weapon that is “the destroyer of worlds.” 

Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would not be the end; it would be just the beginning. Any thinking about how the world could live with it should include the almost certain impact of further proliferation in an unstable region that is rife with systems of government that could change violently overnight. We must consider such future nightmares while we debate what must be done now with Iran.  

Frank Sobchak, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a publishing contributor at The MirYam Institute. During his 26-year Army career, he served in various Special Forces assignments including leading teams and companies in 5th Special Forces Group. He has taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Tufts University, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Follow him on Twitter @AbuJeshua.

Tags Iran nuclear agreement Middle East nuclear warheads Saudi Arabia

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