Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s most explicit warning of the dangers of a “bad deal” with Iran are not that Iran would immediately get the bomb, but that other countries in the region might accelerate efforts to catch up with Tehran.
According to Emily B. Landau of the Institute of National Security Studies, whose expertise lies in nuclear proliferation and armament, all eyes are on Saudi Arabia.
Following Iran, “Saudi Arabia is the #1 contender to get nuclear weapons because there is a perceived relationship there with Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has financed Pakistan’s ballistic missile program and there might be some arrangement already in place on nuclear capability,” she said
“Saudi Arabia might be able to buy a bomb from Pakistan.”
Ms. Landau emphasizes that she is not saying anything new here. The speculation that Saudi Arabia (as well as Egypt and Turkey) would go nuclear in response to Iran’s program is an old one. Still, Saudi Arabia’s motivation might be more pronounced because regional proximity to Iran and because Riyadh has the financial means to compete.
“Saudi Arabia is the most motivated to get a nuclear weapon because of the Persian Gulf ‘subregional’ rivalry. Egypt and Turkey also have the motivation to be contenders and are not comfortable with Iran having a strategic edge over them.”
She went on to say that Iran is not unique in its motivation to at the least reach the so-called “nuclear threshold” where it would take very little effort to flip a civilian program to a military one.
“The tendency of countries who are members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is to build civilian programs first or to build the infrastructure that can be turned to military purposes. Remember, the technology used for enriching uranium for civilian energy is the same used in the process to create higher grades for weapons.”
Arutz Sheva asked her more specifically about Turkey, given that many experts feel Turkey is trying to gain more influence in the region. She could not say for sure that Turkey would assuredly try to launch a military nuclear program or follow the Saudis in buying a weapon, but the temptation exists.
“I can say in terms of motivation that, yes, because Turkey wants to have a more assertive role in the Middle East. This was less the case when Turkey was trying to become a member of the European Union, but over the last 10 years you can look at their interest in playing mediator in the Middle East.”
She outlines attempts to usurp Egypt as the primary mediator between Israel and the Palestinians as early as Operation Cast Lead (2008-09), though Cairo maintained that role.
When asked how any of these countries might actually gain from having the bomb if there was a very slim chance they would use it, she explained that even the miniscule chance a nuclear weapon could be used in combat forces armies and governments to recalculate their strategy.
“Israel is an assumed nuclear state but is defensive in the nuclear realm. I don’t think this will be the case with Iran. Iran has hegemonic ambition and would like nuclear weapons to serve its interests in expanding those ambitions throughout the region.”
She tried to illustrate an example to explain how Saudi Arabia might be hesitant to stop more explicit Iranian aggression. She considered the possibility Iran might try to conquer the tiny island of Bahrain, a strategic Saudi partner where the Sunni-controlled government dominates the lives of its Shiite majority.
“Let’s take a theoretical scenario where Iran wants to take over Bahrain. If Iran had nuclear weapons, no state might see the country as important enough to confront Iran coercively. When nuclear weapons are in play, mind-games are the reality. With the small, small chance that a state might use those weapons, there is deterrence.”
She noted Saudi Arabia is as nervous as, if not more so than, Israel. However, the Kingdom has not utilized its public profile as much as Prime Minister Netanyahu to make known its objections to the current direction of the Iran nuclear negotiations.
She emphasized that Iran getting the bomb will have real implications on every other Middle Eastern country’s ability to counter Iran in Yemen or Iraq or Syria.
“Particular to nuclear studies – as opposed to Middle Eastern studies – getting the strategic value of the nuclear weapon isn’t a function of using that weapon. Nuclear weapons have strategic value across the board for whatever state has them.”
“Weapons of non-use come into play in deterrent relationships – like the United States and Soviet Union or between India and Pakistan, today. They have an influence on the way states relate to each other.”
That last point is the primary motivator for a country like Saudi Arabia: equivalency. If Saudi Arabia has a nuclear capability, particularly one already past a nuclear threshold, it can protect against further Iranian moves like in Yemen or Iraq. Notably, it could also facilitate any Saudi military operations in those areas. Still, Ms. Landau refused to promise Saudi Arabia would launch any military operations against Houthi rebels in Yemen or get more intimately involved in the wars in Syria and Iraq.
“The motivation to get some sort of nuclear capability will definitely be strong. I don’t think they’re necessarily going to take action on multiple fronts though, especially at such a sensitive time when they feel Iran is at an advanced stage.”