A new analysis questions the assumption that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, its neighbours would follow suit
Much of 2012 has seen a steady rise in tensions with regard to Iran‘s nuclear programme and its possible military dimensions. Iran has continued to increase its stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium, moving closer to Israel’s red line for military action.
Successive rounds of negotiations between Tehran, the P5+1 and the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) have failed to yield tangible results and economic sanctions are now crippling the Iranian economy. Yet the country’s nuclear programme marches on, stoking fears that Iran may indeed be seeking to cross the nuclear weapons threshold.
The regime in Tehran has consistently stressed Iran’s opposition to the acquisition of nuclear weapons, primarily on religious grounds – Supreme Leader Khamenei’s fatwa prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons is held up as evidence of this position. However, there is widespread agreement that Iran’s nuclear activities extend well beyond what is necessary to meet their civil nuclear needs.
Inevitably, Iran’s nuclear defiance has provided ammunition for the war-mongerers advocating a pre-emptive attack on Iran. Prominent commentators such as Matthew Kroenig, claim that, at the very least, a nuclear-armed Iran would prompt a ‘proliferation cascade’ in the Middle East. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons – whatever form that scenario may take – its regional rivals will follow suit. The argument here is seductive; it is easier to assume the worst than to hope for the best. The problem is, we find that the counter-argument is more compelling.
The idea that ‘proliferation begets proliferation’ is not new. Dire forecasts on the seemingly inevitable increase in the number of nuclear weapon states have been made since the dawn of the nuclear age. In 1963, for example, US President JF Kennedy predicted that there might be up to twenty-five nuclear weapons powers within the next decade. However, proliferation has proven to be historically rare, with the number of nuclear weapons states expanding only slightly from five in 1964 to nine in 2006 following North Korea’s nuclear test.
The flawed logic of ‘proliferation begets proliferation’ is clearly demonstrated in North East Asia where North Korea’s nuclear weapons have not provoked Japan or South Korea, countries with advanced civil nuclear programmes, to follow suit despite a long history of regional conflict and volatile relations. In this case, strong security alliances with the United States incorporating extended nuclear deterrence have played an important role in dissuading these countries from going nuclear.
Ironically, the Middle East itself offers further evidence that nuclear proliferation is not inevitable. Noted for its policy of nuclear opacity (neither confirming nor denying its nuclear arsenal), Israel acquired nuclear weapons in the late 1960s and over four decades later still remains the only nuclear power in the region.
Now the threat posed by Iran to its neighbours is arguably greater given Tehran’s aggressive posturing and regional ambitions. However our research finds that those states deemed most likely to go nuclear due to their proximity to Iran and their suspected past interest in acquiring nuclear weapons (namely Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia), would have little to gain and much to lose by embarking down such a route.
Take Saudi Arabia, for example. Iran has long been at political and ideological odds with the kingdom across the Gulf. And at first sight, it seems likely that Saudi Arabia would follow Iran down the nuclear path. In February, Saudi officials were reported as claiming that Riyadh would launch a “twin-track nuclear weapons programme” in the event of a successful Iranian nuclear test. An article published in the London Times in February [£] described a scenario whereby Saudi Arabia would attempt to purchase warheads from abroad while also adding a military dimension to its planned civil nuclear programme at home.
Look more closely, however, and there is a much stronger case to be made against Saudi nuclearisation. Beyond the Kingdom’s primitive nuclear infrastructure – the country lacks sufficient experience and expertise in practically all areas of the nuclear fuel cycle – Saudi Arabia’s political and strategic context does not favour the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
From a security perspective, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States has held firm since the 1940s, despite a number of challenges – most notably the participation of a number of Saudi nationals in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The relationship barters Saudi oil for US conventional arms and an implicit commitment to Saudi’s defence.
In recent years, the role of Washington as the silent guarantor of Riyadh’s security has grown apace with the structural changes in the Middle East. The fall of the pro-Saudi Mubarak regime in Egypt; protests and instability in Bahrain and Yemen; the collapse of the pro-Saudi government in Lebanon; and civil war in Syria have upended the established regional order and made Riyadh’s position less secure.
In this context, and given the determination of the United States to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region, a move by Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons holds few positives for Riyadh’s security calculus.
From and economic perspective, Saudi Arabia’s policy outlook exemplifies Etel Solingen’s seminal theory on the relationship between economic liberalism and nuclear restraint. Solingen argues that political coalitions favouring the reduction of state control over markets and increased privatisation and foreign investment – are less likely to adopt a nuclear posture that would endanger their economic interests.
In this regard, Saudi Arabia’s emphasis on facilitating the growth of foreign investment is significant. Riyadh has cultivated extensive trade relations with most international powers, keen to attract foreign investment as a means of reducing over-reliance on oil and gas, increasing employment opportunities for the local population (population growth of almost two percent equates to a need for some 200,000 new jobs per year), and reinvigorating the Saudi private sector.
The acquisition of nuclear weapons would have far-reaching consequences, stalling progress and bringing progressive economic isolation, thus drastically changing the nature of the kingdom’s international trade relations. Saudi’s interests are best served by nuclear restraint.
In an article published in the latest issue of The International Spectator, we argue that there are strong arguments for nuclear restraint in the cases of other regional players as well. From security guarantees and the provision of advanced conventional weapons – in December 2011, following the United States agreed a $1.7 billion deal to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s Patriot missile defence system, for example – to facilitating increased integration into the international economy, there are a range of measures that can persuade a state to forgo nuclear weapons.
Ultimately, many see a domino-effect as the logical response to Iranian nuclearisation. But when the stakes are this high, it is important to look at all sides of the debate. From another perspective, there is substantial evidence to suggest that regional proliferation is not a very likely outcome at all.
By Christopher Hobbs and Matthew Moran, from the Department of War Studies, Kings College, London
Dr Christopher Hobbs is a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies within the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
Matthew Moran is a Research Associate at the Centre for Science and Security Studies within the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He is currently working on a MacArthur-funded postdoctoral project that explores the relationship between nuclear, nationalism and identity and how these issues impact on policy-making.