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Questioning the Conventional Wisdom on a Middle East Nuclear Arms Race

SOURCE: AP/Vahid Salemi

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks in a ceremony marking Iran's National Day of Nuclear Technology in Tehran, Iran on April 9, 2010. An Iranian bomb may not necessarily unleash a wave of nuclear proliferation in the region, but the United States should examine different scenarios for why Iran's neighbors might seek weapons.

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One slice of conventional wisdom that needs to be challenged in the debate over the proper U.S. response to Iran’s nuclear program is the notion that an Iranian bomb will inevitably lead to a nuclear arms race in the region. The last thing the world needs is more nuclear weapons, so the Obama administration is correct to make stopping Iran from getting a weapon a top priority after years of passive appeasement by the Bush administration. But the regional nuclear domino theory is simplistic and needs more debate.

For instance, would an Iranian bomb in fact unleash a wave of nuclear proliferation in the region, or would states prefer to hedge, acquiring nuclear technology and expertise without building a bomb? Thinking through these hypothetical questions—while acting to ensure they remain hypothetical questions—is essential for having a comprehensive national security strategy to keep Americans secure.

Dealing with Iran’s nuclear program is a top priority on America’s crowded national security agenda, which includes thwarting continued terror plots, bringing the war in Afghanistan to an end in sight, and restoring relations with other powers such as Europe, Russia, and China. And the Obama administration has taken important steps to strengthen America’s hand in addressing Iran’s nuclear program—as we argued here and here—after the Bush administration largely stood flaccidly on the sidelines as Iran moved forward with its program.

Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and National Security Advisor James Jones have used the regional nuclear domino theory to make the case for the Obama administration’s dual track policy on Iran, while conservatives such as John Bolton have argued that an arms race is a greater evil than a military strike against Iran. At its core, however, the widely held policy assumption that an Iranian nuclear weapon would cause a regional nuclear arms race is itself based on assumptions on why states might seek nuclear weapons.

The arms race model presumes states seek nuclear weapons for security reasons, something Secretary of State Clinton made clear in a February town hall meeting with students at a Jeddah, Saudi Arabia women’s college. “If Iran gets a nuclear weapon,” Clinton said, “that hope [of a nuclear-free world] disappears, because then other countries which feel threatened by Iran will say to themselves, ‘If Iran has a nuclear weapon, I better get one too in order to protect my people.’ Then you have a nuclear arms race in the region.”

The arms race model is also seductive because it relies on the historical experience of the Cold War. It presumes that Iran’s neighbors will follow the same path the United States and Soviet Union did in acquiring their atomic arsenals. The United States began to develop the atomic bomb out of the fear that Nazi Germany might build it first, and the Soviet Union then developed its first bomb as a result of the United States’ possession of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union testing its first bomb in turn led the United States to make the hydrogen bomb.

But there is no real reason to assume that Iran’s neighbors will automatically build their own nuclear weapons for the same security reasons that drove the United States and the Soviet Union to do so during and after World War II. Israel, after all, has possessed nuclear weapons since the late 1960s, and none of its neighbors—all of whom were at war with Israel at the time it developed nuclear weapons—acquired their own bombs.

Israel’s neighbors, however, do not view its nuclear weapons as a threat the same way they might view nuclear weapons in the hands of the regime in Tehran—a regime that has sought to undermine stability in the Middle East in its support for terrorist groups and insurgencies. As Secretary Clinton noted, regional states might “feel threatened” more by a nuclear-armed Iran than by a nuclear-armed Israel.

Interestingly, there has been a test case over the last decade of the arms race model in Northeast Asia. North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and subsequent nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 have not set off a wave of proliferation in the region. Japan and South Korea, both technically capable of building nuclear weapons and having legitimate security concerns vis-à-vis North Korea, have not begun their own weapons programs. Their failure to do so calls into question the accuracy of the simple security-based arms race model many policymakers and pundits have adopted to warn about the consequences of an Iranian bomb.

But while there are flaws with the security-based arms race model trotted out by policymakers, these imperfections do not necessarily represent an open-and-shut case against regional proliferation sparked by an Iranian nuclear weapon.

First and foremost, other regional states may decide to pursue their own bombs to provide symbolic confirmation of their own self-conception, modernity, and international standing. Two countries in particular would be more likely to seek nuclear weapons for these reasons than others: Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Both states view themselves as regional leaders and the heirs to proud and ancient civilizations and religions—Saudi Arabia as the birthplace of Islam and Egypt as the land of pharaohs and pyramids. Being seen as technologically backward, vulnerable in security terms, and generally lower in the regional pecking order as the result of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would be the primary motivator for these states to seek their own atomic arsenals.

Second, Iran’s neighbors may seek nuclear weapons due to internal bureaucratic politics. National security or energy bureaucracies in regional states may view the acquisition of their own nuclear weapons as a means to enhance their own domestic power at the expense of rivals, and Iran’s acquisition of a bomb would give then a plausible security rationale to do so.

Determining which reason might drive regional states such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt to seek their own nuclear weapons can help the United States better craft a policy that might be able to avoid a wave of proliferation even in the worst-case scenario that Iran does get the bomb. The United States has already undertaken steps aimed at preventing a future nuclear arms race by concluding civil nuclear cooperation deals with regional states that restrict enrichment and reprocessing activities. Considering other components of a strategy and a security umbrella that might be constructed as a means to prevent an arms race in the region is essential.

The United States should continue to advance its strategy for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. After years of neglect, the Obama administration has strengthened America’s hand to do so. But at the same time, an effective national security strategy requires examining all available options and considering all of the scenarios—including what the United States should do if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. While the military option always remains open, the United States needs to address former CENTCOM commander Gen. Tony Zinni’s question: “And then what?”

Examining these options can also help the United States craft a more coherent regional security strategy than it currently has for the Middle East—one that seeks to enhance multilateral security cooperation and move beyond a piecemeal approach centered on several bilateral relationships.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow and Peter Juul is a Research Associate at American Progress.

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