False Prophets of Nuclear Proliferation

Fearmongering about nuclear-arms races has been wrong before, and it's wrong now on Iran.

Still, just because nuclear forbearance has been the norm thus far doesn’t necessarily mean this will continue into the future. In fact, according to Shavit, an Iranian bomb would “force Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt to acquire their own.” Similarly, President Barack Obama is “almost certain” that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, its neighbors will be “compelled” to do the same.

Once again, there’s not much evidence to support these assertions. Although a few countries have built nuclear weapons because a rival acquired them, these are the exceptions to the general rule. Of the quantitative studies done on reactive proliferation, none have found a nuclear-armed rival makes a state more likely to even initiate a nuclear-weapons program, much less succeed. Furthermore, as the political scientist Jacques Hymans documents in a forthcoming book, despite the diffusion of technology, nuclear aspirants have become increasingly inefficient and unsuccessful over time.

It’s therefore not surprising that in-depth case studies of Turkey’s, Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia's nuclear prospects have found no cause for concern. Turkey is the most capable of building nuclear weapons but already has a nuclear deterrent in the form of an estimated ninety nuclear warheads hosted on its territory for the United States. This is far more than what it is capable of producing indigenously. Additionally, it’s hard to square Turkey’s supposed nuclear ambitions with the recent removal of its entire stockpile of highly enriched uranium.

Egypt is far less capable of building a bomb than Turkey. Indeed, it already had a dysfunctional nuclear program during the 1960s that was abandoned despite Israel, its archenemy at the time, acquiring a nuclear capability. Even before the onset of the Arab Spring, proliferation analyst Jim Walsh argued it was “not likely that Egypt will seek, let alone acquire, nuclear weapons.” In the aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow, any government in Cairo will be preoccupied with improving the lot of its people, lest it too wind up on trial. Achieving economic growth will require sustained access to foreign capital, markets and financial assistance, none of which would be forthcoming if Cairo initiated a nuclear-weapons program.

Given its long-standing rivalry with Tehran, Saudi Arabia is certainly the most alarmed by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. Moreover, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of intelligence and ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, has repeatedly warned that if Iran is allowed to get nuclear weapons, the kingdom may well do the same. Of course, this might be what a nation would say if it wanted Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” in Tehran.

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