"If Iran gets an operational nuclear weapon, all bets are off," said the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in a recent statement, referring to the likelihood of KSA and UAE developing their own nuclear weapons in response to Iran’s threat. Iran, at the moment, is reported to be enriching uranium at the highest level recorded to date, as the UN nuclear watchdog is preparing for a visit. The visit is to address the issue of safeguards that has been the subject of controversy since traces of uranium were discovered at three nuclear sites in 2019. But three years later, there is concern from the international community that Iran is much closer to achieving the nuclear threshold than at the time of last inspection. Iran has recently announced that it is enriching uranium at 60% purity, which is one technical step away from weapons-grade purity. IAEA has made no announcement whether it will be investigating these claims.
Iran’s recent announcement raises a number of questions. First, of course, is why the Islamic Republic would make such an announcement – and whether it is really true. Indeed, at first glance, it is in Iran’s best interest to hide its nuclear progress until it is achieved rather than advertise it. After all, the closer the international community believes Iran is to creating to nuclear weapons, the less it has to bargain for. In other words, by appearing too successful, Iran invites scrutiny, pressure, and is likely to get more concessions out of other countries. In reality, based on the actions by the international community thus far, the impact of such announcements is precisely the opposite, because it has been exactly the same both under the Obama and the Biden administrations. Iranian propagandists in the West echoed the panicked headlines claiming that unless the West negotiates with Iran immediately, Iran will go nuclear and then stopping the regime from aggression will be utterly impossible. Moreover, the possibility of a new nuclear Middle East is at hand.
However, as we have seen for over a decade now, Iran continued unbridled aggression around the world without having a nuclear weapon, and indeed, JCPOA in the past has not prevented Iran from arming militias, plotting assassinations, abusing its population, abducting critics, holding dual nationals and foreigners hostage, and exploiting good will of liberal democracies. Iran is counting less on the concerns about its own abusive behavior and more on the theoretical fears of its neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia and UAE getting their own nuclear programs started. In that, Iran is playing on old stereotypes where the Gulf Arab states are portrayed as ideologically extremist, unaccountable, impulsive, and dangerous. In reality, of course, only Iran has shown any hegemonic tendencies and only Iran has armed dangerous proxies to take over swaths of populated territories in the Middle East, leaving behind failed states, poverty, chaos, and terrorized, broken societies. Iran’s aggression to date has contributed to a number of conflicts in the Middle East, and with time, has spread to Africa and to attempted assassination plots on European, Latin American, and US soil.
Another natural question is about inspections. Now that Iran has made this sensational claim, why won’t IAEA go to all possible lengths to verify it? The answer is fairly obvious: first, Iran is not likely to allow full inspections anyway, and second, IAEA itself may wish to leave room for “strategic ambiguity”, a face-saving position for those of the negotiating countries which are still holding out hope for the mythical renewal of a nuclear deal in some form.
However, that brings us to the real elephant in the room – can the Middle East afford a nuclear Iran, and what happens if it decides to respond in kind? Sadly, the example of Russia’s Ukraine invasion points the likely turn of events in case Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not curtailed. In 1994, Ukraine has agreed to destroy its nuclear arsenal after US has guaranteed its security, joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Today, that treaty is as good as dead. US failed to stop Russia’s aggression; indeed, the pattern of one-sided negotiations closely followed the failed diplomacy in the Middle East. Ukraine has attempted to buy the Patriot missiles a year before the invasion but the US refused to sell; Ukraine asked for preemptive sanctions against Russia to deter invasion but the US refused to impose them; members of US Senate such as Senator Ted Cruz called for keeping sanctions on Nordstream 2 and undermining Russia’s financial stake in a potential conflict, and that too, was ignored as the sanctions were lifted. The outcome is before us, as Russia and Iran are now working closely together on drones, missiles, energy, and potentially, even the nuclear program.
The same pattern with respect to Iran increased Iran’s determination to go nuclear; every gesture of appeasement by the West – such as the lifting of the FTO designation from the Houthis in Yemen, far from pacifying the Islamic Republic, only led to renewed threats, demands, and announcements of nuclear progress. The lifting of various sanctions on the regime itself did not help the people of Iran, but resulted in more money spent on terrorism and the nuclear program. Saudi Arabia and UAE have a good reason to be concerned having seen this policy play out in real time not once, but time after time. Today, Russia has attempted to prevent being held accountable for its war crimes in Ukraine by threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons, which would impact not only the local Ukrainian population but impact the environment, the product, and even water going to other European states and even to the Middle East.
If Iran uses strategic nuclear weapons against its neighbors, the outcome would be devastating. The theory of mutually assured destruction would prevent Tehran from taking that step, if its potential targets developed their own arsenals. That still would not, of course, put a stop to other forms of tyranny and terrorism we seen Iran engage in on a daily basis. Moreover, while it is believed that Israel already possesses nuclear weapons, its growing relations with UAE and others in the region would not necessarily protect those states from Iran’s targeting. The US, of course, has not only not given Saudi Arabia and UAE the same guarantees as it has given Ukraine, but in fact, on the contrary, had attempted to freeze even conventional weapons sales to Riyadh, for instance starting with Obama. Furthermore, under both under the Trump and Biden administration, US has signaled a security pivot to other regions, leaving its allies dependent entirely on their own resources.
But there is more to be said about the Saudi Foreign Minister’s comments than the simple desire of two countries to engage in nuclear deterrence against an aggressor. Indeed, had this been simply the case, arguably, a nuclear race in the Middle East might in fact be welcomed. However, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are not the only actors with potential interest in going nuclear, whether in response to Iran, or simply inspired by Tehran’s success in that arena. Another strong potential candidate for nuclear weapon acquisition is Turkey, whose independent defense program is growing by leaps and bounds.
Turkey’s nuclear development likely would not be entirely independent. It could turn to Pakistan – itself a highly unstable and sectarian society driven by various extremist factions – for assistance. Russia, which has recently approached Ankara with a number of proposed energy ventures aimed to bring financial relief to both countries – too, could lend a hand with building nuclear reactors, tactical nuclear weapons, and more. Given that under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has threatened Greece on multiple occasions and has outright invaded and attacked Northeastern Syria and Northern Iraq, aside from aggressive meddling in Libya and Eastern Mediterranean, its pursuit of nuclear weapons would not be welcomed by US or the European Union.
As concerning as having a volatile head of state with access to nuclear weapons would be, there are far worse possibilities that are only being touched on in the general analysis. The first possibility is that the theory of mutually assured destruction, that would prevent nuclear powers from engaging in acts of aggression that could escalate into a deadly conflict, relies upon all parties being rational actors dedicated to preserving state stability and security. Islamic Republic even now, however, does not necessarily operate by that logic, having prioritized the exportation of the Islamic Revolution above all else.
And while the regime is corrupt and self-serving and dedicated to its own self-preservation, there is a potentially plausible scenario where the top levels of the apparatus could unleash a nuclear Armageddon and let others suffer the fallout – if it meant dealing a truly devastating blow to its enemies. Even if it meant temporarily relocating elsewhere and operating its proxies from abroad, a nuclear response to Tehran would not necessarily be the worst fear of the Khomeinists, nor would necessarily put an end to their ideology. The seecond issue is more immediate and less theoretical, as recent reports have indicated that some of the nuclear fuel has fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda, which could mean nuclear weapons ending up in the hands of a non-state terrorist organizations.
When the Saudi Foreign Minister said that “ all bets would be off”, quite likely he wanted to remind the international community that Saudi Arabia and UAE joining the nuclear pursuit would be the least of everyone’s worries. Other, far more dangerous actors are complicating the geopolitical scene and may be eagerly waiting to join the fray.