Brandishing the American Sword in the Gulf

The tough task of reassuring Persian Gulf allies as Iran advances.

The Islamic Republic of Iran first began to explore uranium enrichment in 1985. The program limped along for close to fifteen years, before Iranian scientists successfully introduced uranium hexafluoride into IR-1 centrifuges sometime in 1999. Iran began enrichment at Natanz in 2007. And now, Iran has some 20,000 IR-1’s under vacuum, with close to 10,000 actually enriching uranium to 3.5%.

As part of the recently concluded Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic agreed that “a comprehensive solution would involve a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.” The two sides are now haggling over the number of centrifuges, as part of a concerted American effort to decrease Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium, so as to lengthen the time in which Iran could reenrich its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium to weapons grade in a so-called “breakout” scenario. (Iran would then have to fashion that weapons-grade uranium into a usable weapon.)

The Gulf States—like Israel—have expressed deep reservations about Iran retaining its enrichment program, but appear to have acquiesced to a formula whereby the time in which Iran can “break out” is more than a year. The GCC appears to have accepted that the International Atomic Energy Agency can detect the diversion of any Iranian fissile material within that time period, and that the United States would then use military force to destroy the program.

Thus, regardless of whether the current negotiations are successful or not, Iran will continue to retain elements of its current enrichment infrastructure. The issue for American policymakers, therefore, isn’t whether Iran will be able to enrich, but rather how U.S. policy will be affected once Iran’s enrichment program is legitimized.

American policymakers fear that Iran’s nuclear program will prompt other states in the region to pursue dual-use technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. Those fears are misplaced. Turkey and Jordan have both opted for unique financing models for their nuclear-power stations, which all but rules out the possibility of clandestine nuclear-weapons development. The United Arab Emirates has foresworn enrichment and reprocessing. Egypt has hinted that it may relaunch its nuclear program, but there is absolutely no evidence that it has taken steps to rectify the issues that have prevented its procurement of reactors in the past. Saudi Arabia has indicated that it might acquire a nuclear weapon, but its nuclear power plans remain on the drawing board, and there are serious questions about whether or not the Kingdom has the capacity to indigenously design, develop, and then deploy nuclear weapons.

Barring any radical shift from the current status quo, the United States will continue to have to provide its regional allies with nuclear assurances. Yet, the dynamics in the region present a unique challenge to security planners that may be tempted to replicate American practice in South Korea. In the Korean context, the Obama Administration has paired the continued deployment of ground troops, with a “playbook” of scripted military responses designed to demonstrate American resolve to use whatever means necessary to defend Seoul. The plan hinges on publicizing U.S. military deployments to the region, including the round-the-world flight of B-2 bombers outfitted with dummy bombs that were dropped on a South Korean test range.

While the United States does station air and naval assets in the Middle East—most notably in Bahrain—it is forced to keep the presence of its military assets under wraps, or otherwise risk inflaming anti-American sentiment. In the Middle East, the United States does not and will not have the luxury of resorting to high-profile military exercises and simulated nuclear-strike missions to reassure the Arab states. A different approach is needed.

In the past, the United States has sought to reassure its allies with massive arms sales, designed to ensure that the Arab states retain a technological military advantage vis-à-vis the more numerous Iranian military. The United States has also emphasized that the GCC purchase missile-defense systems, which are designed to be interoperable with U.S. missile-defense systems based in the region. The missile defense architecture is intended to defend against Iranian ballistic missiles, while also reassuring the Gulf allies of the viability of the U.S. commitment to come to their defense. This strategy has some notable drawbacks.

The pairing of precision-strike cruise missiles with capable missile defenses incentivizes Iran to build more ballistic missiles, so as to negate the GCC states’ technological military edge. This, in turn, creates the need for enhanced missile defenses and greater precision strike. Thus, the two sides could find themselves locked in a conventional-arms race that only helps further destabilize the region. Absent a credible nuclear guarantee, the United States may be faced with an escalating conventional arms build-up, fueled by concerns that Iran’s small enrichment program could still be used as the basis for a nuclear weapons program.