Doomsday: Stopping a Middle East Nuclear Arms Race

March 31, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East

Doomsday: Stopping a Middle East Nuclear Arms Race

Can sanctions prevent Saudi Arabia from building the bomb?

Imagine the imposition of financial sanctions on the central bank of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—the only Arab member of the G20 group of major economies. To this, add biting multinational trade sanctions to stop the the majority of Saudi Arabia’s oil production from being sold on international markets. If these measures seem preposterous, it is because they are. Yet American counter-proliferation policy in the Middle East may be premised on implementing this bizarre, nightmarish scenario.

During recent testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that “the best way” to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is through “the model that’s being set” via the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran. Blinken elaborated, saying that “I doubt any country would want to follow” the model set by Iran of “a decade or more of isolation and sanctions.” In short, the “answer” for how to prevent a Middle Eastern nuclear cascade “is exactly what we’ve been doing.”

Yet virtually every Sunni power in the region is moving to develop its nuclear power infrastructure, in part due to burgeoning domestic demand for electricity, but also in response to Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, explained this month to the BBC that “whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same.” He noted that in particular, “if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that.”

In addition to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are all embarking on nuclear energy crash programs. Experts believe several of these states have concluded that nuclear energy offers opportunities not just for domestic energy production but also for military purposes, so that they can “pick up some capabilities along the way.” Amman just reached a $10 billion deal with Russia to build Jordan’s first nuclear power plant, and the Russians signed a similar agreement to construct the Egyptians’ first plant when Putin visited Cairo in February. No doubt the Emiratis are regretting signing a 2009 U.S. agreement offering to forego the right to enrich uranium in exchange for American nuclear cooperation ever since Iran has effectively been granted a de facto right to domestic enrichment.

But the country that most feels itself in Iranian crosshairs is Saudi Arabia. The late Saudi King Abdullah once urged America to launch military strikes on Iran’s nuclear program to “cut off the head of the snake” and warned the United States point blank that “if they get nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons.” Saudi King Salman is currently walking back his predecessor’s regional campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in order to press the Brotherhood’s regional supporters—Turkey, Qatar, Sudan, and Hamas—to assist with his more immediate priority of confronting Iranian depredations in the region. The new Saudi-led military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents in Yemen, code named Operation Decisive Storm, is the latest expression of the king’s resolve.

As I told members of Congress in testimony last year, the Saudis view Tehran’s nuclear intentions through the prism of its support for terrorism and other mischief-making throughout the region. King Salman’s designated heir, Crown Prince Muqrin, once memorably explained to U.S. officials that claims about a “Shi’ite crescent” extending through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon did not go far enough; rather, he characterized Iranian activities as a “full moon” encircling the Kingdom, affecting the Shi’ite population in its Eastern Province as well as Saudi neighbors in Bahrain, Yemen, and Kuwait. This deep skepticism of Iranian motives was only intensified when Iranian officials began to gloat about the recent success of their Houthi proxies at demolishing the Yemeni state.

While all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) formally welcomed the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) signed with Iran in November 2013, most of them privately opposed it. Saudi Arabia’s current ruler presided over a cabinet meeting that issued a vaguely positive yet skeptical declaration in response to the JPOA, but the editorial in a newspaper controlled by his son was closer to Riyadh’s genuine views on the agreement, treating it as a sign that Washington is abandoning the Gulf.

The Saudis worry that if sanctions are lifted under a nuclear deal, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will be flush with cash to intensify its agenda of regional subversion. By virtue of focusing solely on the nuclear in talks with Iran, the P5+1 is guaranteeing Gulf Arab opposition to such a deal.

In early March, when Secretary of State Kerry visited the Saudis to brief them on nuclear talks with Iran, Riyadh had some tough words for America’s top diplomat about their security concerns. “Nothing will be different the day after this agreement… with respect to all the other issues that challenge us in the region” including “Iran’s other destabilizing actions.” And wouldn’t you know it, those were Kerry’s words.

The Secretary of State presumably meant his remarks to reassure the Saudis—indicating that America would stand by its commitment to the GCC’s security in the face of Iranian paramilitary encroachments. Yet ever since President Obama decided in 2013 not to enforce his red line against the use of chemical weapons by Iran’s Syrian proxy, Bashar al-Assad, the Gulf monarchs have had additional reason to be skeptical. Indeed, during their press conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal took Kerry’s remarks to their logical conclusion, emphasizing that the GCC’s first concern is not the Iranian nuclear program per se but rather “everything else that Iran does,” since it is through these actions that the rest of the Gulf divines Iranian intentions. He has since warned that Iran should not receive a nuclear deal it does not “deserve” so long as Tehran is conducting “aggressive policies… and ongoing interventions” in the region.

Viewed in this context, it should come as little surprise that alumni of the Obama administration report “we’ve been pressing them [the Saudis] to agree not to pursue a civilian fuel cycle, but the Saudis refuse.” Perhaps the best that can be achieved in this regard is what Sigurd Neubauer of the Arab Gulf States Institute calls the “silver standard,” leveraging U.S. nuclear expertise in exchange for Riyadh committing to obtain any reactor fuel it requires on the international market instead of producing the material itself. Added inspection requirements with the International Atomic Energy Agency could also help some.

But observers worry that Saudi Arabia could bypass this hurdle altogether if Iran continues to make progress toward a nuclear weapon by purchasing a Saudi bomb off the shelf from Pakistan. The severe international consequences of such a scenario mean that this possibility simply cannot be taken lightly.

Thus, it is in America’s national interest to ensure that Iran faces new pressure to scale back the destructive regional actions of its IRGC, including on the diplomatic track. Further, there is no time at which America will have more leverage in this regard than before the conclusion of an agreement on the nuclear track—after a deal the Iranians will have little incentive to play ball.

While introducing such a requirement into the negotiating process now would no doubt complicate the task of reaching a nuclear deal, it would also make such an agreement more sustainable bilaterally, easier to sell to fence-sitters in Congress, and could even bolster Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s hand domestically. It would also be the most direct way America can convince its Gulf allies they are not in the process of being abandoned.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.