The specter of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East
The Biden administration will soon issue its annual National Security Strategy. But it is already clear that the world isn’t waiting on us. Think Russia-Ukraine tensions or North Korean missile tests. But also think the brazen drone attacks on Abu Dhabi last month, which killed three people — rumored to be only part of a broader attack which included Dubai airport and landmarks there. The perpetrators were the Houthi insurgents in Yemen, probably using Iranian-provided weaponized drones and missiles. Horrifying, but it could become even worse.
Criticisms of the reckless and possibly criminal behavior of the Trump administration are piling up. But no doubt its most damaging foreign policy mistake was its withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, which was designed to contain Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration oversold the deal as transformational, as Wilson Center scholar Robert Litwak has pointed out. But as a transactional deal, it was very effective. It only addressed Iran’s nuclear program — not its missile development and use of proxies to attack Israel and generate mischief across the Middle East and beyond. A recent example is the connection between Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) contractors and cyber espionage in the U.S. 2020 election. But it did the former very well, including capping Iran’s plutonium production and permitting frequent inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
But by pulling out, the Trump administration abandoned a framework that was supported by both Russia and China, in addition to Europe, and unleashed Iran to pursue breakout — uranium enrichment at a level that enables it to produce a nuclear weapon. Breakout is now weeks away, and should Iran go down that path it will spur a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and surely provoke additional attacks by Israel which views (correctly) a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. While Israel lacks bunker-buster bombs to take out Iran’s program by conventional means, it is common knowledge that it has an undisclosed nuclear program. The Biden administration has also made clear it will not let Iran get a nuclear weapon.
Surely, the view of key officials in the former administration (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo among others) — that Iran would not abandon the JCPOA even if the US pulled out —were naive. But worse, Iran has since elected a more hardline regime and has acquired the know-how which, even if the deal is resurrected, cannot be erased.
So now what? The Biden administration faces a hard choice. If it goes back into the deal — with support from the nations that helped to negotiate it — it will surely have to repeal the additional unilateral sanctions put in place by the Trump administration. That will no doubt bring scathing criticism from the right. But not restoring the JCPOA risks something worse: a race in which Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and perhaps others, buy or develop nuclear weapons.
The rumors have been out there for years that Saudi Arabia has purchased nuclear weapons from Pakistan — just as Libya did and subsequently surrendered years ago. Perhaps Turkey has too. Maybe North Korea is also proliferating nuclear-grade material and technology, something that is very hard to detect. Or perhaps either country has some homegrown clandestine effort underway. Terrifying.
So what is the least bad option? To me, it is re-entering the Iran deal, which I personally supported in the first place. The irony is that once it was in place — and not disapproved by Congress — it gained support. On the day Trump disavowed it, I testified before a nearly unanimous panel (in favor) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that we should keep it. The old adage goes that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Now we confront catastrophic consequences as the alternative to the least bad. The better path is clear and there is no time to lose.
Former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) is president emerita of the Wilson Center and author of “Insanity Defense: Why our failure to solve hard national security problems makes us less safe.”