Saudi Arabia's King Salman
Saudi Arabia's King SalmanReuters

Saudi Arabia is on the march. Within days of a framework agreement between Iran and the United States, the Saudis launched Operation Decisive Force in Yemen to ostensibly roll back Iranian influence in the region. 

It also possible that the Saudis think they have a time limit to make moves against Iran before Iran actually gets the bomb. After that, the Saudis might need to be much more cautious going to war with Iran's allies or with Iran itself. There is another worry as well - that the Saudi alliance with the United States might also be eclipsed by a new relationship between Tehran and Washington.

“I think Saudi Arabia is obviously, tremendously worried about the nuclear deal,” says Emily Landau of the Institute for National Security Studies. “But what worries them about it the most isn’t the nuclear capacity of Iran but the bilateral arrangements between Iran and the United States that might have broader implications on the overall strategic situation that would end up coming at their expense.”

What Landau is referring to is the increasingly discussed idea that the United States is shifting to an alliance with Iran. While it is hard to say how seriously experts are taking the notion that this would happen, what matters is more that the Saudis see some degree of probability in the move. Israel is also likely weighing if this is in the background of the United States’ thinking, but for the time being Israel is not as afraid of such a development as much as Saudi Arabia.

“It is not nuclear capability per se that worries Saudi Arabia but the context the agreement, of a possibly changing Iranian-US relationship that is tremendously disconcerting for Saudi Arabia. It also has serious implications for Saudi hegemony in the Persian Gulf in how it could change regional dynamics.”

Landau emphasizes that despite the literature that has been written about nuclear brinksmanship and strategic responses to developing nuclear power, very little can be predicted with a degree of certainty. The United States and Soviet Union danced around each other for decades, with both sides "prevailing" in a way since neither employed nuclear weapons against the other, nor against each other’s allies, throughout the years of the Cold War. But that dynamic is very different from analyzing how two regional rivals, particularly neighbors, might compete with each other or what might lead the two sides to the brink.

“We don’t know yet. The problem in assessing the strategic relationship (between the Saudis and the Iranians) is that we have relatively few cases to examine and compare it to. For experts, there aren’t too many cases on which to base our projections in terms of future developments.”

Other cases involve the rivalry between India and Pakistan, but Landau dismisses the possibility that that rivalry might hold definitive answers for the Middle East; particularly considering the possibility other regional powers could also develop their own nuclear weapons. In addition to the presumed possibility of Iran and Saudi Arabia racing each other to the bomb, Israel is already assumed to have an arsenal, Egypt is a military power that has begun its own nuclear energy program, and Turkey has the financial means to launch its own program. 

Most people assume that Saudi Arabia can move toward a nuclear weapon relatively quickly,” says Landau, whether via its own development program or "buying" a bomb from Pakistan. On the possibility that five Middle Eastern states could either have or be near having their own nuclear weapons all at the same time, she says there are more questions than answers on how that would change regional dynamics.

“Will they have a mutual deterrent relationship? What will it involve? How will it evolve?

“A lot here is not known – a lot of people knowledgeable about nuclear issues are having a hard time predicting what will happen.”

Beyond just the nature of the rivalries, specific countries have their own internal dynamics that could determine different paths to the bomb, then subsequently the sort of strategy they project toward the world once they actually have that bomb.

“It depends on how specific states will formulate the rules of the game under the threat of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. No one can promise it will be stable or necessarily cause additional proliferation.”

That lack of certainty of what smaller states would do with their weapons - states with much more deeply-seeded rivalries based on battles over shared resources or land than the Americans and the Soviets had between each other over global influence or hegemony - is precisely what frightened political leaders in the early 1960s to push for a global arms control agreement to prevent nuclear proliferation, says Landau.

“It was the main reason for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the 1960s. There was a tremendous concern about these states being a source of nuclear instability in the world.”

At the time, there might have been more concern over superpower allies like Turkey or Cuba, which were at the center of 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis. If such states had their own weapons, would they feel the sense of responsibility that superpowers do, who have interests around the world?

“Again, different states have gone nuclear for different reasons and that has an impact on how relationships (or rivalries) between nuclear states develop. All these things factor into how things will develop. Maybe Iran will be an ambiguous nuclear state like Israel is.”