Avoiding a nuclear arms race in the Middle East

Gen. Kevin Chilton (ret.), Harry Hoshovsky

U.S. President Donald Trump recently remarked that his foremost priority regarding Iran is preventing its regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Refocusing attention on Tehran’s nuclear program is critical given its announcement that it will exceed the limits on how many centrifuges it can operate for uranium enrichment. This decision not only renders the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as increasingly obsolete, but it will also accelerate Iran’s breakout timetable, which some experts now believe is only four to five months.

This raises two immediate concerns. First, should Iran race for the bomb, it is almost inevitable that the United States and/or Israel will take preventative military action to stop it from crossing that fateful threshold. This could easily spiral into a regional war as Iran activates its various proxy forces against the United States and its allies.

Second, an Iranian nuclear breakout attempt could spur a proliferation cascade throughout the Middle East, beginning with Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, openly stated in 2018 that if Iran developed nuclear weapons, Riyadh would quickly “follow suit.” One suggested approach would see Saudi Arabia purchase a nuclear power reactor from a major supplier like South Korea and then build a reprocessing plant that would yield enough weapons-grade plutonium in five years.

A half-decade delay isn’t optimal, however, when the goal is achieving nuclear deterrence quickly. Thus, there is the so-called Islamabad option.

This refers to Riyadh’s role in financing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and an alleged commitment from Islamabad that it would repay the favor. While Pakistani and Saudi officials have denied any such understanding, there is the possibility that the two could work out an arrangement where Islamabad could deploy some of its nuclear arsenal on Saudi soil following a successful Iranian breakout.

Although this maneuver would draw sharp, international criticism, in theory, it would allow Riyadh to remain in good standing vis-a-vis the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Nevertheless, Pakistan might not be willing to play spoiler against a nuclearized Iran. If it is, Middle Eastern geopolitics would become extremely unstable.

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If Saudi Arabia acquires nuclear weapons, many believe Turkey would follow suit. Last September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that he “cannot accept” the argument from Western nations that Turkey should not be allowed to attain nuclear weapons. In 1958, Charles de Gaulle proclaimed that a nation without nuclear weapons “does not command its own destiny”; two years later, France tested its first bomb. Erdogan’s comments echo those earlier remarks and raise the possibility that Ankara could become the second NATO member to leave the alliance’s nuclear umbrella in favor of its own independent arsenal.

On the plus side, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates will probably refrain from joining the proliferation cascade. After initially flirting with a nuclear weapons program under Gamal Abdel Nasser, subsequent Egyptian presidents made nuclear disarmament a core pillar of their foreign policy objectives. For the UAE, it signed a “123 Agreement” with the United States in 2009 that contained what is now termed the “gold standard” addendum whereby Abu Dhabi forswore enrichment and reprocessing.

While the Emirates were understandably unhappy with Washington’s subsequent signing of the far less restrictive JCPOA, reneging on their own nuclear commitments would only damage relations with Washington at this point.

Of course, concerns about a nuclear cascade can be avoided if Iran is prevented from going nuclear in the first place.

A possible solution to Riyadh’s dilemma would see the U.S. commit to extending its nuclear umbrella over Saudi Arabia should Iran declare itself a nuclear weapons power. This could help repair American credibility in the kingdom’s eyes, which has slowly eroded over the last decade as Riyadh increasingly doubts Washington’s strategic commitment to the region.

Earlier this month, national security adviser Robert O’Brien told President Trump that continued sanctions and burgeoning civil unrest “will force [Iran] to negotiate.” This process can be accelerated if Washington rallies its European allies to reimpose the so-called snapback sanctions. This refers to the fact that any JCPOA participant can officially complain about a possible Iranian violation of the accord. This launches the bureaucratic process that can conclude with the reimposition of U.N. sanctions if the complaint remains unresolved.

On this point, Germany, France and the United Kingdom announced that they would trigger the snapback dispute mechanism after rejecting Iran’s argument that it was justified in violating the JCPOA because the United States had withdrawn from the deal.

Unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean the return of multilateral sanctions, as the Europeans are still focused on bringing Tehran back into compliance with the nuclear accord. China and Russia have similarly called for diplomacy to save the JCPOA; however, their motivations are primarily self-serving. Beijing is Iran’s largest trading partner, and bilateral trade has suffered because of U.S. sanctions; and Moscow views Tehran as a lucrative future market for its weapons, and is actively fighting attempts to extend the U.N. arms embargo that expires later this year.

For its European partners, Washington could argue that while its unilateral sanctions have put Tehran on the ropes, reinstating multilateral snapback sanctions can deliver the final knockout blow to a regime that has once again turned its guns on its citizens who seek its removal. While that argument may not appeal much to Russia and China, neither wants a nuclear proliferation cascade that undermines their various interests throughout the region.

Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton led U.S. Strategic Command and has participated in the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Generals and Admirals Program. Harry Hoshovsky is a policy analyst at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.