Nuclear Proliferation in Southwest Asia

Iran’s nuclear program could destabilize the balance of power in the Middle East.

Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program has the potential of destabilizing the balance of power in the entire Middle East. In a recent special strategic issue, the analysts of Wikistrat warn that a nuclear Iran could kick off a regional bout of rapid proliferation. “If and when this occurs,” the geopolitical analysis firm predicts, “the region will rerun the same brinkmanship dynamics that Europe experienced during the early Cold War decades, logically leading to the same stabilizing conclusion of arms control but suffering an extended period of extreme danger along the way.”

Iran’s reach for the bomb is far from irrational. As Wikistrat points out, it came amid American invasions of both of its neighbors — Afghanistan and Iraq. “Also, Iranian leaders believe that if Iran had had the bomb in 1980, it never would have suffered its devastatingly long war with Iraq.” The logic of seeking a nuclear capacity is clear — it provides an enormous security benefit compared to nonnuclear states.

An atomic weapon in the hands of the ayatollahs may well pose an existential threat to Israel although its conventional and nuclear weapons superiority could be sufficient to deter a first strike. Other countries are in a less enviable position. Wikistrat points out that given Saudi Arabia’s fears of Iranian encroachment on the peninsula, “it is possible that Israel might someday act with more than just the silent blessing of the region’s Sunni regimes.”

If Israel doesn’t attack however and Iran eventually weaponizes its nuclear potential anyway — the likeliest scenario — would it compel the Saudis to seek a similar capacity? Iran and Saudi Arabia are the only two powers standing in the Middle East but the kingdom’s influence seems to be eroding. Its client government in Lebanon was undermined by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah earlier this year while the Shia turmoil in neighboring Bahrain was, according to the Saudis, part of an Iranian conspiracy.

“If the Saudis join Iran and Israel in a nuclear triangle, it is possible others in the region would feel compelled to join in,” including Egypt and Turkey which already controls tactical nuclear weapons deployed there by its NATO ally. Indeed, Wikistrat analyst Thomas Barnett suggested last year that Iran’s nuclear quest could be why Turkey pretended to be outraged when Israel intercepted a fleet of blockade runners bound for Gaza. For all the anti-Israel rhetoric that suddenly poured out of Turkey, what mattered, according to Barnett, was that “Ankara has its bloody shirt, which will be used — once Tehran inevitably announces the weaponization of its nukes — to justify Turkey’s rapid reach for the same.”

Turkey can claim that — despite its efforts to broker a nonnuclear peace in the region — it needs its own deterrent against Israel’s nuclear arsenal, too.

It may be preventable if the United States are willing to assume an even more activist role in the region. Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski proposed last year that America extend its defense umbrella to cover friendly regimes in the region which, if sufficiently credible, could deter Iranian aggression. Middle East analyst Ramzy Mardini offered similar advice, fearful that “uncertainty about Washington’s commitment will dramatically increase the incentive for regional states to seek self assurance, and hence, indigenous nuclear deterrents of their own.”

In the long run, a nuclear Iran may make the region a safer place. Just as during the Cold War, when mutually assured destruction always stopped the superpowers from going to war, Iran and Israel may be compelled to reach an understanding which includes a de facto recognition of the Jewish state by the Middle Eastern parties involved. The world’s great powers would not allow confrontations in the meantime to escalate out of fear of putting the world’s primary oil reserves at risk.

History teaches that whenever a region welcomes its second nuclear power, its potential for major conflict plummets. According to Wikistrat, “it all depends on how unique you think the Middle East is versus how universal you think the impact of nuclear weapons is.”