A nuclear Iran will not lead to a nuclear Middle East, no matter what the Persian Gulf states say

This week, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states pulled out of President Obama’s Camp David summit.

The issue at hand? Obama’s deal with Iran. In March, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence, warned in an interview with the BBC: “If Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that.” This has fueled new fears that George Shultz’s adage — proliferation begets proliferation — was right.

The argument goes something like this: Once Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia will have to get the bomb (or buy it from Pakistan). Once Saudi Arabia goes nuclear, the rest of the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council will follow suit. Egypt, Jordan and Turkey will be close behind.

This is a terrifying prospect. It’s also completely wrong.

Starting in the 1970s, states’ nuclear programs would trigger U.S. economic sanctions. These measures have been unable to compel states to reverse ongoing nuclear programs. However, they have been fairly effective deterrents for states contemplating going nuclear. For example, Japan and Taiwan were inhibited from pursuing nuclear programs for fear of losing access to global markets.

U.S. security guarantees have also dampened states’ incentives to pursue the bomb. U.S. policymakers feared that China’s acquisition of the bomb would set off a cascade of nuclear proliferation in East Asia. So they promised to protect South Korea in the event of an attack. That guarantee deterred the country from acquiring its own atomic arsenals. Similarly, Israel’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon circa 1967 failed to bring about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Egypt explored a nuclear program of its own, but ultimately abandoned it under Anwar Sadat’s leadership.

It is also incredibly difficult to acquire the necessary materials to build a bomb. And politicians in some authoritarian regimes inadvertently undermine their own aspirations. As Jacques E.C. Hymans of University of Southern California points out in his book “Achieving Nuclear Ambitions,” since 1970, half of the nuclear projects that states have undertaken have been abject failures; the rare successes have taken far longer than necessary. While it took China roughly 10 years to get the bomb, it took Pakistan 20. This is largely because rulers in weak or authoritarian states have a tendency to intervene and interfere in scientists’ efforts to develop nuclear weapons, undermining their professional ethos. A greater barrier exists between politicians and scientists in strong states, making it easier for their states to obtain the bomb and join the nuclear club.

The Gulf States argue that with Iran, it’s different. These countries have had long-standing tensions with the country. After the British withdrew from the region and granted independence to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, in 1971 the Iranian Shah asserted control of the Tunb Islands as well as the strategically critical Abu Musa. These regimes remain suspicious of Iran’s intentions with respect to their oil installations as well.

Some, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have complained of Iranian influence and interference among their disgruntled Shia populations. Their fears have grown since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in December 2010. They say that a nuclear Iran will become increasingly aggressive, making it more prone to engaging in coercive diplomacy. They fear that the Obama administration’s overtures to Iran will amount to the U.S. pivoting toward Tehran – and abandoning them. Acquiring nuclear weapons, they argue, is the only way to stay protected.

While nuclear dominoes rarely fall, one cannot completely dismiss the possibility of Riyadh pursuing a nuclear option. However, several obstacles stand in its way.

It has long been rumored that the Saudis expect the Pakistanis will help them to acquire an arsenal. However, Pakistan has of late asserted its independence from Saudi Arabia, as evidenced by their refusal to aid Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Such a move would exacerbate tensions not only between Islamabad and Washington, but Riyadh and Washington as well. If Pakistan is not willing to provide sensitive nuclear assistance to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh will have to pursue it on its own.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has an extremely limited nuclear infrastructure. It does not even possess a research reactor and only obtained small quantities of nuclear material through the IAEA.

It has plans for building up to 16 reactors, but the first will not go online until (at least) 2022. The Saudis have also signed an agreement to purchase American-designed reactors from South Korea.

The U.S. maintains that if such reactors were to be sold, KSA would have to sign what is known as a “123 agreement” that would shut down domestic enrichment and reprocessing. Given its weight in international oil markets, the Saudis could call the Americans’ bluff and enrich anyway. However, this would be a tremendous gamble that would likely jeopardize U.S. security guarantees.

Turkey, another potential source of concern, rests under the U.S. security umbrella. Despite strained ties in recent years, Turkey has not only signed a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, but an Additional Protocol as well, guaranteeing intrusive inspections.

Finally, Egypt and Jordan remain sources of concern despite one significant, omitted variable: the Israeli nuclear arsenal. Both states have fought wars against the Jewish state and have found ways to coexist with it while retaining their non-nuclear status. For both states, it makes little sense to suddenly pursue a nuclear weapon in response to Iran while having found a way to live with the more geographically proximate Israel.

Their primary challenges are internal rather than regional. Nuclear weapons programs would likely divert resources away from critical economic programs.

If Iran were to break its end of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and obtain a nuclear weapon, the world would be right to worry. For example, new nuclear states are more likely than non-nuclear states to bully their neighbors; a nuclear Iran would make it difficult for the U.S. to project force in the Middle East, undermining the credibility of American security guarantees in the process; and a host of organizational and bureaucratic dangers could arise that would lead to an accidental use of nuclear weapons. However, one thing we do not need to worry about is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

There is scant evidence that proliferation begets proliferation.

This article was written by Albert Wolf for The Washington Post on May 14 2015.