If the US nuclear deal with Iran fails in the future, the possibility of a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites and an Iranian counterattack on US military bases in the Gulf would inaugurate a new, dangerous, unstable nuclear balance of terror in the Middle East. Iran’s determination to acquire a nuclear weapon will strengthen Saudi and even Turkish resolve to acquire nuclear capabilities (the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish air force has created a new fault line in the Great Power confrontation in Syria). Nuclear weapons would be the Iranian regime’s ultimate insurance policy against US-imposed regime change or invasion, and this is why the Islamic Republic has paid such high political and financial costs (Western sanctions) to enrich uranium.
Iran does not need nuclear warheads to project its power in the Arab world. The existence and instability fomented by Hezbollah in Lebanon, the deployment of Qods forces in Syria, the Shiite militias attached to Iraq’s army, the Houthis in Yemen and the Bahraini Hezbollah prove that. Iran has intervened with its Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Lebanese, Yemeni, Iraqi and Syrian civil wars, an interventionism with roots deeper than the Islamic Revolution of 1979: the last Shah of Iran sent combat troops to neighboring Oman to help the Sultan’s army defeat Marxist-Leninist Dhofari secessionists in the 1970s.
Yet a nuclear Iran is the “Armageddon scenario” for a Saudi Arabia that sees revolutionary Iran as a threat to its “regime legitimacy” as the natural leader of the Islamic world. Yet any multipolar nuclear balance of terror in the Middle East would be unstable. There are no hotlines between Qom, Jerusalem and Riyadh, as existed between the superpowers of the Cold War. Nuclear deterrence in the Middle East can easily break down due to political miscalculation. Can the world really expect cold rationality while far-right ideologies, such as those espoused by Iran’s zealous clerical rulers or Binyamin Netanyahu’s xenophobic Likud in Israel, hold sway? Anyone who claims that predicting such actors’ responses under conditions of existential national crisis would be easy is sadly misguided. A multipolar region populated by nuclear powers would present us with a dangerously unstable nuclear balance of terror, one imposed by Israel and Iran against the backdrop of a crumbling post-Ottoman Arab state system. Even the ‘rational’ US and USSR came to the brink of nuclear war over Cuba in October 1962, and again during the Ramadan War of 1973.
If the accord reached last year breaks down and Iran does obtain an atomic weapon, what we will witness is the development of a tripolar arch of nuclear instability in the Middle East, with Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia playing the role of nuclear powers (the latter obtaining a weapon via its client state Pakistan, as some believe it has already tried to do). Egypt and Turkey would not stand idly by and would probably be tempted to defy Washington and develop nuclear capabilities.
Communications protocols, verification regimes, high-tech satellite surveillance and strict bureaucratic hierarchies – Khrushchev-style – moderated the brinksmanship of the Cold War. These do not exist in the secretive oligarchies overseen by the Supreme Leader and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. If the future of peace in the Middle East is dependent on “rationality” and “restraint” in Jerusalem, Tehran and Riyadh, then world peace will have come to rest on an alarmingly fragile and wobbly foundation.
Both Israel and Iran formally deny having nuclear weapons, though the former’s possession of nukes was all but confirmed by the Pentagon last year. These powers have very flawed and limited intelligence on each other’s intentions, command-and-control systems, decision-making protocols, capabilities or operational nuclear doctrines. Saudi Arabia/Pakistan can only add another dimension of dangerous “nuclear ambiguity”. As long as Israel was the sole nuclear power in the region, deterrence was stable. A nuclear trio in the Middle East means a region with a highly unstable system of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East must be prevented at all costs, posing as it does a genuine threat to world peace. A world where megalomaniac dictators like Muammar Gaddafi could aspire to nuclear weapons or the Pakistani military built a clandestine “Islamic bomb” is not a world where proliferation risk can ever be minimized.
“Buying the bomb” was a strategy used by both Libya and Saudi Arabia with Pakistan the prospective supplier, while Syria’s Assad regime turned to North Korea for assistance. However, a Saudi-Pakistani nuclear transaction would have to be carried out with extraordinary secrecy in order to evade the constant threat of Western retaliation, be it in the form of economic sanctions or interceptions and sabotage by Mossad or the CIA. Discovery of such a deal between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan could result in economic sanctions which would destroy Saudi Arabia’s oil export reliant economy, which is already suffering from low energy prices. One would think that a House of Saud obsessed with the calculus of regime survival would view this as an unacceptable risk, but if there is one thing we know about the Middle East it is that we know very little at all.
- Iran’s Political Economy Since The Revolution by Suzanne Maloney
- Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan by Aqil Shah