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If Saudi Arabia gets the bomb, the rest of the Middle East is likely to go nuclear

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Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrive for a summit meeting near Beirut in July, 2010. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia lacks Israel’s official stance of nuclear ambiguity, but its status is even more opaque. Indeed, though it has never acknowledged a nuclear program, the kingdom may already have a bomb.

With Iran’s seemingly inexorable march toward a nuclear weapon, it’s not difficult to see why the Saudis would want one of their own, to ensure the regime’s security against its key regional adversary. The Saudi population is among the world’s most vulnerable, as human existence on the Arabian peninsula is dependent on a number of desalination plants, which could be easily targeted with conventional payloads. What concerns Riyadh is how an Iranian bomb could destabilize the Saudi ruling order. That same concern for regime security affects every authoritarian state in the Middle East, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone has nuclear capability, as everyone has a reason to fear everyone else.

A number of observers maintain that the Saudis have not yet pulled the trigger. “We don’t know if they’ve made any decision,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. Nevertheless, it was the working assumption of some high-level Bush Administration officials that the Saudis had a Pakastani bomb in escrow—one of the possible scenarios that Sokolski has heard. “One of the options might be to have the Pakistanis base some of their nuclear capability in Saudi Arabia. Saudi is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but that doesn’t forbid others, like the Pakistanis, from basing their nuclear capabilities on Saudi soil, as long as it’s under Pakistani control.”

Who else needs a bomb? The United Arab Emirates, which has a civilian nuclear program that is further along than those in other Arab states, would want a bomb because it fears not only Iran but also its Saudi neighbor, with whom it has had territorial disputes. Kuwait, the Gulf state most recently invaded by an Arab neighbor, Iraq, has just announced it’s starting a civilian nuclear program. The fact that Egypt is restarting the program it halted several years ago suggests that it, too, is concerned about both Iran and Tehran’s ally Syria, a longtime Egyptian rival, whose own nuclear facility was destroyed by the Israelis in 2007. Jordan, which has also just started a civilian nuclear program, would want a bomb to keep at bay a Syrian neighbor that has worked to destabilize the Hashemite kingdom over a half century. Even Sudan wants a bomb, for prestige and to ward off Egypt, with whom it has frequent disputes over rights to the Nile. And then there are the non-Arab actors, like Turkey, which can hardly afford to let either Iran or the Arabs have a leg up. The Kurds appear to be the odd man out; however, against a backdrop of widespread nuclear proliferation it would not be impossible to imagine a scenario in which existing Israeli-Kurdish ties could be expanded to include technology necessary to ensure Kurdish independence against the Turks, Iranians and Iraqis, and Syrians.

So, what would the region look like with widespread proliferation? The good news is that Middle Eastern politics would look almost exactly the way it already does, except more so—violent, fractious, and with the most ambitious actors in the region looking to tip the balance of power in their favor but checked by other regional powers as well as by the United States. In short, this is the argument for containment—that the essential strategic contours of a nuclear-armed Middle East stay exactly the same, just more dangerous.

The nuclear bomb, wrote the British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart, “reduces the likelihood of full-scale war, [while] it increases the possibility of limited war pursued by widespread local aggression.” Liddell Hart was writing of the Cold War, but he might have been prophesying a nuclearized Middle East, where state-on-state warfare is already relatively rare, certainly compared to 19th- and 20th-century Europe. Perhaps it is because the nation-state is relatively new in the region, or maybe it is because the Arabs, as Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi told me, are a feuding people and not a warring one, but regional regimes tend to avoid direct confrontation with each other. Indeed, the last two state-versus-state wars in the Middle East had on one side a foreign power, the United States, as it squared off against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; the last time two Middle Eastern countries fought it out directly was the 1980s-long Iran-Iraq war; and Israel hasn’t fought an Arab army on its own borders since 1973.

Middle Eastern actors are historically inclined to wage armed conflict through proxies, or privateers, as America’s founding fathers referred to the pirates ransoming U.S. ships and citizens off the Barbary Coast at the behest of the Beys of Algiers and Tripoli. We now call them non-state actors—or terrorist organizations that are incapable of waging large operations without the logistical, financial, and political support of Middle Eastern states.

The bad news, then, is that a nuclearized Middle East will look pretty much the same as it does now, with governments using terrorist proxies to attack, and deter, each other. The real concern over an Iranian bomb and the subsequent arms race isn’t that regional states would drop their radioactive payloads on each other but that a chessboard full of nuclear umbrellas would further embolden terrorist outfits working at the behest of Arab and Iranian clandestine services. While Iran and Syria make use of Hezbollah and Hamas, let’s not forget that al-Qaida is largely a function of how the Saudi Interior Ministry and security services have dealt with Saudi’s excess young men—by sending them off to do jihad, whether that’s to Afghanistan in the 1980s, to Bosnia in the 1990s, or now to Iraq.

Who knows whether loose nukes would wind up in the hands of Hezbollah or al-Qaida, but we already know how nukes will embolden state sponsors of terror. Since Islamabad has gone nuclear, Pakistani-based terrorist groups have conducted attacks against India, like the one against the Indian parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai massacre of 2008, with the assurance that India can’t do a thing about it—or else risk nuclear war. It is reasonable to assume that other state sponsors of terror, once nuclear, will follow suit.

There’s another problem with Middle East proliferation, a lesson the Saudis learned with their purchase of intermediate-range Chinese missiles in the 1980s. As Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of State, explained to Riyadh, “You have put Saudi Arabia squarely in the targeting package of the Israelis. You are now number one on the Israeli hit parade. If the balloon goes up anywhere in the Middle East, you’re going to get hit first.” That never occurred to the Saudis, who were simply scared of the Iranians. If Middle East proliferation could be boiled down to Tehran and Riyadh, or even Sunnis and Shiites, or better yet if the Middle East really was all about the Arab-Israeli conflict, then the nuclear issue would be bipolar, precisely the sort of scenario the United States managed to contain for almost half a century. But the Middle East is not like that, and the issue is not simply multipolarity; rather, regional proliferation partakes of the same issues that make this highly ideological part of the world different from any other. In the Middle East, it is standard operating procedure to shoot at third parties in order to make war on your enemies.

Consider how Middle Eastern states triangulate off of Israel to enhance their own prestige. Our American obsession with the peace process obscures the fact that the conflict is the primary means by which Middle Eastern regimes compete with each other. For instance, supporting Hezbollah is not just how Iran fights Israel; it is also how Iran challenges the prestige of its Sunni Arab adversaries. By making war on Israel through Hezbollah, Iran has driven a wedge between the conservative Arab regimes that have made accommodations with Israel and the Arab masses who prize resistance to the Zionist enemy.

Most recently, Turkey sought to enhance its regional standing by competing for a stake in the resistance when it sent the Mavi Marmara to Gaza. The Iranians were caught flat-footed and promised their own flotilla, which has yet to materialize, to match Ankara’s. Proliferation means that all the regimes are competing against each other—with nuclear weapons in their quivers. If Hezbollah or Hamas were at war with Israel, maybe Turkey or Saudi Arabia would rush to put its nuclear umbrella over the resistance before the Iranians had a chance. If that intra-Muslim competition manages to deter Israel, it nonetheless raises the stakes among Tehran, Riyadh, and Ankara.

There is no containing several dozen men in a room shooting at each other, which is what a nuclearized Middle East will look like.

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Ken Besig Israel says:

The Arab possession of nuclear weapons has the real potential of calming the Middle East rather than stirring up more trouble. Just look back a few months at the Pakistani sponsored terrorist attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai and the aftermath. Dozens of innocent Indians were murdered as were dozens of non Indians and tourists, and yet, because both Pakistan and India possess usable nuclear weapons, no war broke out and the terror attacks were dealt with diplomatically rather than the causus belli they were. I would point out that prior to the Pakistanis and the Indians holding deliverable nuclear weapons, they fought at least three wars over Jammu and Kashmir and came close several other times to going to war.
Indeed, India and China have gone to war several times over border issues, but since both sides have gone nuclear, things have calmed down considerably and war is no longer an option.
This is also a possible and probably scenario for a nuclear Middle East as well.

Bloomberg praises Rauf: Why not build an ecumenical place of worship near ground zero instead of one dedicated to only one faith using the funds intended for Cordoba House? That would show all concerned that it is not a Moslem takeover of the “hallowed” ground but a real effort at getting americans of all faiths pulling together in unity.

asherZ says:

A calming of the war drums in the Middle East resulting from Mutually Assured Destruction weapons has held true when the protaganists were rational, self preservationists. But if the man with his finger on the red button is someone like Ahmadinejad or his subordinate satellites Hezbollah and Hamas, who have little regard for life in this world if an act of martyrdom will lead to the Paradise in the sky, the deterrents that Besig Israel speaks of above are ones I would not bank on. I’m afraid Lee Smith is correct in the dangers to the civilized world of nuclear proliferation, and steps must be taken very soon to defang Iran if a nuclear destroyed world is to be avoided. It is five minutes to midnight and our administration is dawdling.

Even if the Iran situation is dealt with, through sanctions, bribes, bombs or whatever, the threat of a nuclearized Middle East will still exist, because the act of supplying nukes (or the threat of nukes) to America’s enemies/frenemies is how Russia and Pakistan fight their proxy wars with us.

We’ve been playing this nuclear whack a mole game for years; first there was Libya with their nuclear program, the Saddam with his WMDs – now Ahmadinejad with his threats. When Ahmadinejad is gone, there will be another angry little dictator who pops up and says “I hate America and I want WMDs”. We will try to whack that mole, our economy will suffer, the Middle East will become more of a mess and our frenimies score more points in their proxy wars.

Our military buildup during the cold war forced the Soviets to waste billions. It seems that they’re using the same strategy against us. It would make sense to try to dismantle Iran from within, by weakening their economy and their intelligence agencies (in Iran and around the world). But we can only deal with the whack-a-mole threat by finding a new way of dealing directly with Russia, Pakistan and all of the proxy warriors out there.

Europeans also used proxies, or privateers, to fight their wars, but they stopped doing that when the proxy wars became as dangerous, and as much of a threat to the ruling class’ power, as the real wars. It seems we’re reaching that point now.

“…the Arab masses who prize resistance to the Zionist enemy.” How in the world would you or anyone know what the ‘Arab masses’ think.
This sort of rhetoric hyperbole does not serve us well.

The only problem with “buying” a nuclear weapon,even from a reputable source, is you really don’t know if it works until you try it.

Mark Brown says:

Mary M.,
You are inspiring in your comments. I think your viewpoint is historically graspable and has merit. Thanks… it’s eye opening…

Great to see Mr. Smith’s thoughts on the ramifications of a nuclear armed Saudi Arabia. This is actually the subject of a self-published book based on my time working the issue during the George W. Bush adminstration. Too few in the international community are considering this unspoken reality. Saudi Arabia is in fact already a nuclear weapon state in my view, and I would point out that it is not Pakistan per se–basing a nuclear capability inside the Kingdom–but rather the People’s Republic of China. It is Beijing running Riyadh’s ballistic missile program as nothing less than payback for vast promised future shipments of Saudi crude. Logistics details aside, today’s popular discourse over the dangers of a nuclear powered Shia Iran fails to account for a much more pressing problem within the borders of her largest Sunni neighbor.

This is exactly what I’ve been trying to find all the time. Do not stop updating this blog.

Yes. All the Middle Eastern countries will soon be competing for nuclear power that Israel already has. Israel is the most powerful nuclear force after the US in the entire world. It probably has some 500-600 nuclear warheads. So what is the purpose of this article. If Israel really wants a nuclear free Middle East it must set an example first by disarming its nuclear power. Iran has not yet even acquired a nuclear weapon. It insists its nuclear energy is only for peaceful purposes. Iran has also proved this by readily agreeing to the non-proliferation treaty. The fact that Israel does not admit its possession of nuclear weapons and does not want to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty only shows who is the guilty party. Why is this pot calling the kettle black?


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If Saudi Arabia gets the bomb, the rest of the Middle East is likely to go nuclear

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