Riyadh's Nuclear Reaction

By: Matthew Pesce The possibility of a Middle East dominated by nuclear proliferation has occupied the minds of American policymakers for decades. Iraq and Iran are the two countries that come to mind upon a cursory examination of past and present proliferation threats. These two countries are not the only ones that serve as potential proliferation risks in the modern post Arab Spring environment. The regions changing landscape has led to many countries to voice their aspirations for eventual nuclearization. The much-debated consequences of such actions, to this very day, define the way in which American policymakers approach respective relationships involving these countries.

The events of the past decade, such as the Iraq war and the Arab Spring, have profoundly changed the Middle East in countless ways. One such shift stands out as centrally important for a discussion of proliferation. In the past, regional dynamics pitted Iran against Iraq and the Arab world against Israel. Although the latter trend still exists to some degree, the most significant shift has been an emerging rivalry between the rising regional hegemon of Iran, as well its ally Syria, and Saudi Arabia, as well as its allies that compose the Gulf Cooperation Council. This battle for influence over the Middle East today defines many dynamics throughout the region.

It is therefore not a surprise that the prospect of one of these countries joining the nuclear club has driven the other towards a more aggressive nuclear agenda. This is confirmed by an emerging empirical relationship. The past decade has seen Iran move closer and closer towards becoming the regions second nuclear power. As a result, there has been increasing chatter within the House of Saud relating to the countries own nuclear plans.

The implications of Saudi nuclear acquisition are significant. On one hand there are a large number of policymakers and academics that warn of the dangers such a development poses. On the other hand, some point out the benefits of Saudi nuclear acquisition. Generally these arguments are of the same variety as the general debate over costs and benefits of proliferation. The intricacy of the Middle East though adds greater complexity to the existing dispute.

The pessimistic version of events forecasts a Middle East dominated by destabilizing developments that could ultimately result in actual nuclear use. The argument predicts that a chain reaction results from such a single country acquiring nuclear weapons in which other countries pursue their own nuclear programs. Aside from the decisions of other countries to nuclearize, the addition of Saudi Arabia and Iran to the current list of one (Israel) would change regional relationships. The resulting actions and reactions by states would irreparably alter the regions status quo balance of power. The shifts in relative military power would provide incentives for others to counteract such jolting developments. Most would bolster their conventional militaries and in many cases pursue the nuclear option. This would in turn quickly erode the remaining barriers to regional and global proliferation. The worldwide nonproliferation regime would be placed in jeopardy.

The likely source of nuclear materials, expertise or even an operational nuclear weapon, Pakistan, only makes the situation more volatile. The specter of further Pakistani proliferation is one that would add further tension to the Indo-Pak rivalry. India would feel threatened by what they would perceive as a Pakistani attempt to increase strategic depth. Israel would likewise feel highly threatened by simultaneous proliferation of multiple countries. The country might match its current rhetoric with corresponding action and preemptively strike.

Potential Middle Eastern proliferators such as Saudi Arabia may avoid taking necessary steps to maximize the chances of stability. Many things have to simultaneously go right for deterrence to successfully work. Second-strike capabilities, or the ability of targeted states to respond in the event of a nuclear attack, are critically important to prevent ‘use it or loose it’ pressures. Many countries shy away from investment in such missile silos and submarine forces given the expensive nature and short-term diminishing returns of such technological sophistication. The presence of early warning systems that can accurately attribute a nuclear attack is a vital element of stable proliferation. Without such an option incorrect retaliation, even against the wrong party, is a real possibility.

Factors that are difficult to control add to the potentially explosive dynamic. The Middle East’s geographic proximity leads to short flight times, which creates an incentive to play it fast and loose or to launch on even the warning of a potential attack. Countries that are developing new nuclear arsenals sometimes delegate authority to low-level commanders who could incorrectly escalate a situation. Most importantly, steps necessary to prevent the theft of nuclear weapons or unauthorized use are difficult, if not impossible, in environments that are already unstable. The prospect of terrorist acquisition or use by a breakaway military faction is something that should not be left to chance.

It only takes one incident, accident or intelligence compromise to ignite catastrophe when nuclear weapons are involved. Therefore, those in opposition to Middle Eastern proliferation argue even a small chance of deterrence failure is not worth the cost. The cold war logic of deterrence, while having never failed us in the past, is not worth betting on in the future. The only sensible option from such a perspective is to prevent proliferation at all costs.

The optimistic view of Saudi proliferation paints a drastically different picture. Its proponents do not envision any of the above worst-case scenarios unfolding. They argue that, for a variety of reasons, the same set of conditions that has prevented proliferation from escalating in the past applies to potential Middle Eastern proliferators. The logic of deterrence, that nuclear weapons serve a stabilizing function, which prevents both nuclear use and conventional military hostility, holds true of Middle Eastern countries. Consequently, encouraging proliferation would have the outcome of decreasing conventional wars and the risk of nuclear use.

The threat of Israeli nuclear use, in the current environment, is of particular concern to such proliferation optimists. Proliferation is most stable in situations that enable mutually assured destruction in the event of nuclear use. Mutual vulnerability from a potential nuclear attack in theory limits the aggression of states. A rich empirical record arguably confirms this theory in practice. Unfortunately, there is no regional power capable of making a credible commitment to inflict such damage on Israel. This is what produces the bellicose rhetoric from many Israeli leaders today. Therefore, a shift in relative power away from Israel, to a dynamic that is more equitable, prevents the risk of Israeli nuclear weapons.

This brings us full circle and back to the original question. Which side of the proliferation debate is right when it comes to the ramifications of Saudi nuclearization? The truth is simple: no one really knows the answer. Anyone’s prediction is nothing more than educated guesswork. Despite this truth, a measure of caution does seem in order. It seems unlikely throwing nuclear weapons into the stew will decrease turmoil in the region over the next decade. That said, such a scenario, while less than rosy to say the least, seems unlikely to result in actual nuclear use.

Matthew Pesce is junior majoring in Political Science and minoring in Development Studies. His research interests relate to American & comparative legal systems as well as international political economy. He focuses regionally on the Middle East and North Africa. 

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