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Thursday, March 23, 2017
- Challenging what has become conventional wisdom here, a new report released here Tuesday by an influential think tank argues that Iran’s neighbours – Saudi Arabia in particular – are unlikely to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran obtains one.
The 49-page report, “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?”, notes that Riyadh would indeed be “highly motivated to acquire some form of nuclear deterrent to counter an Iranian bomb”.
But it would be far more likely to seek shelter under a U.S. nuclear umbrella than to either launch its own weapons programme or buy one from Pakistan despite its close relations with Islamabad, according to the report, which was released by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank from which President Barack Obama has drawn a number of its senior Pentagon and State Department officials.
“…Saudi Arabia would likely pursue a more aggressive version of its current conventional defense and civilian nuclear hedging strategy while seeking out an external nuclear security guarantee from either Pakistan or the United States,” according to the report whose lead author, Colin Kahl, served as the top Middle East policy official at the Defence Department for most of Obama’s first term.
“And ultimately, a potential U.S. nuclear guarantee would likely prove more feasible and attractive to the Saudis than a Pakistani alternative,” said the report, which was co-authored by Melissa Dalton and Matthew Irvine.
The new study, which challenges a core contention pushed hard by both Israel and successive U.S. administrations – that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon or “breakout capacity” would set off a rush by other regional powers to obtain one – comes at a critical moment.
After a seven-month hiatus, Iran and the so-called the so-called P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) will resume talks on Tehran nuclear programme in Kazakhstan next week. Hopes for a breakthrough remain low, with most observers insisting that major progress is unlikely until after a new Iranian president takes office in June.
Failure to make any progress, however, is almost certain to increase pressure on the Obama administration to get tougher on Tehran, most likely by backing up its announced policy of “preventing” Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon with additional sanctions and more credible threats of military force.
That is likely to be the central message of the annual policy conference of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) here Mar. 3-5 at which virtually every lawmaker in the U.S. Congress is expected to make an appearance.
Israeli and U.S. officials have long argued that a nuclear-armed Iran is “unacceptable” precisely because, in their view, “deterrence” – a key component of the containment strategy deployed against the Soviet Union – won’t work.
Some Israeli leaders, notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have insisted that Tehran’s religious “messianism” would make it undeterrable.
Both Israeli leaders and U.S. officials have also argued that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons would set off a chain reaction in which Tehran’s regional rivals – Turkey, Egypt, and most especially Saudi Arabia – would feel compelled to urgently follow suit, thus creating a nuclear tinderbox in one of the world’s most volatile and energy-rich regions.
The latter argument, strongly promoted by the Israel lobby, neo-conservative think tanks and commentators, and some non-proliferation hawks, has become conventional wisdom here. But it “is probably wrong,” according to the report.
Consistent with the administration’s view, the new CNAS study stressed that preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon should remain the policy goal since “even a small risk of a poly-nuclear Middle East should be avoided.”
However, “(a)t the same time, quiet planning to establish a deterrence and containment architecture – including a possible nuclear guarantee to Saudi Arabia – should begin in case preventive measures (up to and including military force) fail,” the report says.
Coming from Kahl and CNAS, that recommendation will no doubt feed suspicions by neo-conservatives and Israel lobby groups that Obama, despite his stated commitment to prevention, is determined to avoid any action that could involve the U.S. in yet another war in the Muslim world.
While it focuses almost exclusively on Saudi Arabia, the new report argues that neither Egypt nor Turkey is likely to respond to Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon with a weapons programme of its own – Egypt, because it does not see Tehran as an “existential threat” and has so many other problems to deal with; Turkey, because it already has a credible nuclear deterrent as a member of NATO, among other reasons.
On the other hand, Riyadh – some of whose leaders have publicly suggested they would pursue a bomb if Iran got one – have genuine fears that Iran could act more aggressively, either directly or through proxies, behind a nuclear shield.
But the report concludes that these fears are unlikely to overcome key “disincentives” against its going nuclear. These include the prospect of risking an attack by Israel, possibly rupturing the critical security ties with the U.S. itself, damaging the country’s international reputation, and making the Kingdom the target of international economic sanctions.
The U.S. could also use positive incentives to ensure Riyadh does not emulate Iran. In addition to providing Riyadh with a nuclear guarantee, Washington should be prepared to significantly expand civilian nuclear co-operation if the Saudis agree to strict limits on its programme.
Using both negative and positive incentives, Washington could also press Pakistan, which, like Egypt, does not consider Iran a direct orexistential threat, not to transfer a weapon to Saudi Arabia.
Predictions that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by one country in a region will trigger a re-active proliferation by its neighbours have most often proven false, according to the report.
It noted that in the nearly 50 years since China tested a weapon, only four additional countries – Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea – have gone nuclear, while seven others have either given up their weapons or ended highly developed programmes, in part due to the disincentives that Saudi Arabia would also face.
“I used to believe that a cascade of proliferation would be inevitable if North Korea or Iran went nuclear, but we can’t ignore the historical evidence,” Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear disarmament group, told IPS.
“North Korea tested in 2006, and no neighbours have followed their example. Use of nuclear weapons can be deterred; their spread contained; and global regimes survive even severe shocks to the system.”
Paul Pillar, a former top CIA analyst for the Near East and South Asia, said the report helped pierce through the “fog of conventional wisdom (about Iran and the region) consisting of unexamined assumptions, …one of which is that an Iranian nuclear weapon would trigger a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East.
“It demonstrates that the application of some careful and informed analysis leads that assumption to fall apart,” he told IPS in an email exchange.
But Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, predicted that the Saudis would be more likely to seek a Pakistani nuclear guarantee than one from Washington.
“In circumstances in which Saudi Arabia would face nuclear threats from both Iran and Israel, a U.S. guarantee would not apply to Israel,” he said in an email message from Riyadh where he is currently visiting.
“After the U.S. decision to abandon (Egyptian) President Mubarak and his regime, there is not much inclination in the region to rely on American support. For those reasons and many others, Saudi Arabia would probably turn to Pakistan rather than to the United States as its nuclear guarantor.”
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.