How to Actually Prevent a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East

March 2, 2015 Topic: Diplomacy

How to Actually Prevent a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East

Hint: It's not by attacking Iran.

Preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by additional states and terrorist groups is one of America’s top national-security priorities. The outcome of the ongoing negotiations between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) and Iran will have a profound impact on whether the cause of nonproliferation will be strengthened or set back.

Last November, the P5+1 and Iran extended for a second time the interim agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action. The extension ensures that for now the brakes on Iran’s most sensitive nuclear activities remain firmly in place, but neither side believes this arrangement is acceptable in the long term.

Though gaps remain in their positions, the P5+1 and Iran are working hard to reach agreement on a long-term, comprehensive deal. A good deal would verifiably block Iran’s potential paths to becoming the tenth country armed with nuclear weapons. The key is to stringently and verifiably limit Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium, a process that can be used to make reactor fuel or bomb material, and its capacity to amass plutonium for weapons. In return, the P5+1 would take steps to suspend and eventually remove certain nuclear-related sanctions so long as Iran’s nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful.

Skeptics, though, argue that the P5+1’s negotiating position—which envisions a final deal that would allow for a limited Iranian uranium-enrichment program—would undermine nonproliferation by encouraging other states in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, to pursue an enrichment capability. While a deal is highly unlikely to prompt Iran’s regional adversaries to make a mad dash to actually acquire nuclear weapons, the concern is that unless Iran’s nuclear program is dismantled, regional states will build their own domestic enrichment facilities, thereby placing them closer to being able to build nuclear weapons in the future.

However, the concern that an agreement allowing some Iranian enrichment will encourage the practice elsewhere is overblown. The alternative is no comprehensive P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal, which would result in a less constrained—if not unconstrained—Iranian nuclear program with less monitoring. This poses more of a threat to regional security and would be more likely to increase the possibility of a cascade of regional fuel making.

Saudi Nuclear Considerations

Prior to the November 2013 interim agreement, Iran had been expanding its capacity to enrich uranium for more than a decade. However, no state in the region responded by developing enrichment or plutonium reprocessing capabilities—though states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan announced their desire to pursue nuclear-energy programs. Logic would thus suggest that a comprehensive deal that not only stops Iran’s nuclear progress, but puts Tehran further away from a nuclear weapon, shouldn’t make other states want to pursue nuclear fuel making any more than they would if the Iranian program was left unchecked.

In addition, as Iran has no doubt learned, developing the capability to produce nuclear fuel is time consuming, technically challenging, expensive and, in a region as volatile as the Middle East, potentially threatening to one’s neighbors.

Take the case of Saudi Arabia, the poster child for concerns about falling enrichment dominoes in the Middle East. Riyadh, a regional rival of Iran, has ambitious plans for nuclear power and long expressed concern about Iran’s illicit nuclear program. Some current and former Saudi officials and royal-family members have warned of matching Tehran’s nuclear-weapons potential and voiced misgivings about the trajectory of the nuclear negotiations.

However, Saudi Arabia’s official position on the November 2013 interim agreement was that it “could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program.” This suggests that Riyadh sees benefits to negotiated limits on Iran’s nuclear program relative to the pre–interim agreement status quo, when Iran’s program was unconstrained.

Meanwhile, Riyadh’s nuclear-power program remains in its nascent stages. Saudi Arabia currently has no nuclear-power plants. Last month, a Saudi energy official announced that a key milestone to install 17 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2032 would be delayed by eight years to 2040 . Saudi Arabia’s official position is that it would choose not to enrich or reprocess, capabilities for which it has no near-term practical need. A May 2008 U.S.-Saudi memorandum of understanding on nuclear energy cooperation declared: “Saudi Arabia has stated its intent to rely on international markets for nuclear fuel and to not pursue sensitive nuclear technologies.”

Going back on this pledge in response to a comprehensive deal with Iran would cause much consternation in Washington, including possibly making Riyadh the target of U.S. sanctions. Though Saudi Arabia has expressed concern about U.S. policy toward Iran and other regional-security challenges, such as the Syrian civil war, there is no other country—or technology—that Riyadh’s leaders can turn to that can provide the same level of proven support and protection. In addition, Saudi moves to develop an indigenous fuel-making capability could prompt Iran to reconsider its commitment to the deal. Were the deal to collapse under these circumstances, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reconstitute a sanctions regime to punish and isolate Iran.