Iran and the Middle East Nuclear Arms Race

I noticed that Stephen Walt’s post questioning the risk of a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran setting off a regional nuclear arms race in the Middle East was long on nonproliferation theory and non-regional historical examples. But there wasn’t much discussion of the political dynamics specific to the Middle East that would certainly play a role in such a scenario.

For that I recommend this U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report (.pdf) examining the factors driving Saudi, Egyptian and Turkish policy on this very question. Although it expresses no certainty, the report’s outlook is a bit less sanguine than Walt’s discussion. Specifically, it emphasizes the role played by concerns over regional status perceptions and the need for power balances to maintain them.

Of the three, it identifies Saudi Arabia as the most likely to respond to a perceived Iranian nuclear capacity with an arms program of its own. It also points out that because of close ties with Pakistan, the Saudis could come up with various outsourcing solutions to the problem. (p. 20).

The discussion of Egypt is particularly interesting, because it suggests the ways in which Israel plays a role in Egypt’s calculus (pp. 30-31). Specifically, because Egypt’s main concern is the risk of being marginalized as a regional power, a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict could serve as a face-saving measure to balance the asymmetry that resulted from an Iranian nuclear capacity. The report mentions Israel’s response to an Iranian bomb as a potential “wild card” factor, in that if Israel explicitly declares its own presently “ambiguous” nuclear status, it could put enormous domestic pressure on the Egyptian regime to respond. The response would not necessarily be a nuclear bomb of its own, but would in all likelihood not advance U.S. interests in the region.

Turkey’s calculus is enlightening as well, especially given the expanded regional role Ankara hopes to play. Turkey’s generally cordial relations with Iran currently depend on a balance of power between the two. So in the event that Iran achieves a nuclear weapon, Turkish observers believe that Ankara would likely follow suit. The mitigating factors would be the tenor of Turkey-U.S. bilateral relations and the level of trust Ankara places in NATO to provide a security umbrella. (P. 41) Both of these have seen their better days, although the Obama administration seems to be determined to restoring at least the former..

For more on Turkey’s nuclear calculus, I also recommend the article by Henri Barkey in this Stimson Center report (.pdf, via Yigal Schleifer), which discusses the reasons Turkey might feel compelled to follow suit as well as the logic behind a regional race (pp.73), and the reasons Turkey might resist the temptation. (p. 72; Hint: score one for the EU’s much-derided soft power.) Schleifer’s post here is also very informative as to the nature of Turkish-Iranian relations, in the context of the new U.S. BMD configuration.

Walt also raises the question of whether nuclear deterrence would work in a nuclearized Middle East, that is, what the chances would be of a nuclear war actually breaking out even if all the regional powers had bombs. Here, too, I find his analysis a bit rosy. All of the historical examples of deterrence he cites are by and large bipolar. But in the Middle East, there would not only be multiple nuclear poles, there would be multiple configurations of those poles depending on various conflict scenarios.

Given what we know about how close the Cold War came on several occasions to getting very, very hot, and how badly and on how many counts we miscalculated the Russian deterrence calculus, there seems to be a compelling case here in favor of avoiding this slippery slope altogether. Walt is right to say the argument should not be accepted without scrutiny. But that scrutiny should be based not just on theory, but on the relevant political dynamics as well.