U.S. President Obama is actively pushing for a deal with Iran that would allow it to maintain a limited nuclear programme. America’s allies in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, are concerned this would pave the way to an Iranian nuclear bomb. Riyadh has vowed to match any nuclear capabilities Teheran might acquire, sparking fears of a nuclear arms race.
In one of his first major speeches in Prague in 2009, President Obama outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Criticized as overly idealistic, Obama conceded that his idea was unlikely to materialize in his lifetime. Later that year, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for his efforts to promote nuclear disarmament.
Now at the tail end of its tenure in 2015, the Obama administration is pursuing policies that will determine the President’s legacy. One of these is a deal with Iran, which would allow it to enrich nuclear fuel for civilian use. The administration’s rationale is to move closer to the vision outlined in Prague all those years ago. The deal is intended to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran that would inevitably lead to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
With the self-imposed negotiation deadline on June 30th fast approaching, the Obama administration is facing a rather inadvertent outcome. Saudi Arabia has declared that it will match any nuclear capability Iran is allowed to keep as part of a deal, potentially setting off the arms race that a deal was intended to prevent in the first place.
The Saudi argument is not illogical: By allowing Iran to maintain a substantial number of spinning centrifuges, the international community would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium which could potentially be used for military purposes. Saudi leaders and other Sunni Gulf states argue that, as a consequence, they must also be allowed to enrich uranium.
How realistic is such an outcome? Will a deal with Iran lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with potentially destabilizing consequences for the already volatile region?
Saudi ambitions and anxieties
The war in Yemen, the reshuffling of the royal succession, the promotion of the Sudairi family branch, and the snub to Obama at the recent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Camp David are signs of a changing Saudi attitude.
However, Saudi threats of matching Iranian enrichment capabilities are merely rhetorical sabre-rattling. Despite its oil wealth and political clout in the Middle East and Sunni Muslim world, Saudi Arabia faces several hurdles in obtaining nuclear weapons.
Obstacles to the nuclear threshold
While it required a technological breakthrough to first produce nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the underlying technology has remained roughly the same. As production capabilities have improved over the years, building a bomb from scratch would not be difficult for Saudi Arabia’s team of national scientists.
Other nuclear states in the region could also lend Saudi Arabia a helping hand, potentially even selling Riyadh a weapon. The most likely candidate would be Pakistan. However, while this cannot be ruled out, especially given the precedent of the Khan-network, it appears unlikely. Islamabad maintains close links with Riyadh but has recently rebuked the Kingdom by refusing to join the Saudi-led alliance to fight the Houthis in Yemen.
Riyadh would also face severe sanctions if it were to jump-start nuclear capabilities. Oil revenue comprises roughly 45 percent of GDP and sanctions would cripple the Saudi economy. The dire state of the Iranian economy after years of sanctions only serves as a warning to Saudi ambitions.
Furthermore, despite the United States’ military pivot to Asia, Saudi Arabia remains firmly beneath the American security umbrella. As the recent GCC summit demonstrated, America continues to support Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf allies in the case of external aggression. Despite increasing differences, the United States and Saudi Arabia remain strong allies and the U.S. remains committed to long-term stability in the Middle East.
Lastly, historical and empirical evidence demonstrates that the acquisition of nuclear capabilities by one state does not automatically set off an arms race by adversaries. 70 years after the first atomic explosion, there are still only nine nuclear-armed states.
Many states have nuclear reactors for civilian use and could potentially ‘break-out’. However, very few have chosen to do so. For example, South Korea and Japan, also under the U.S. security umbrella, show no desire to build a national domestic weapons programme. The Cold War adage that “proliferation begets proliferation” is no longer valid.
Rhetorical chest beating
While potentially easy to obtain nuclear technology, it is unlikely that the strong rhetoric by the Saudis surrounding a nuclear programme has been anything else but that.
It is more likely that threats to match Iranian nuclear capabilities are part of a new Saudi assertiveness driven by two interrelated factors: A retreating U.S. more focused on China and a newly-resurgent Iran intent on widening Shia authority across the Middle East.
If a deal is reached with Teheran, it will remain the international community’s concern to ensure that the enrichment programme is strictly for agreed upon civilian purposes. The United States must also work to overcome Saudi suspicions of the deal, but a nuclear arms race in the Middle East remains unlikely.