by Derek Davison
In a newly released report, Brookings Institution fellows Robert Einhorn and Richard Nephew argue that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will not lead to a “proliferation cascade” throughout the Middle East. Instead, their report suggests that the Middle Eastern nations thought most likely to pursue nuclear weapons are constrained from doing so, for a variety of reasons. In fact, Einhorn and Nephew conclude, the rigorous implementation of the JCPOA can reduce the likelihood of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race by taking the possibility of Iran’s pursuit of a weapon off the table.
One of the main concerns about the JCPOA has been that its terms will encourage Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East to pursue nuclear weapons programs of their own. Per Einhorn and Nephew:
Others claim that, by legitimizing Iran’s enrichment program, permitting Iran to ramp up its nuclear infrastructure after 10-15 years, and facilitating an economic recovery that will enable Iran to greatly boost the resources devoted to its nuclear program, the JCPOA itself will be the catalyst for additional proliferation. They contend that, while Iran may have been expanding its nuclear capabilities prior to the JCPOA, the international community considered Iran’s nuclear program at the time to be illegal and sanctionable, and regional states had some hope that a deal would be struck that would terminate the program and end the nuclear threat. Now, according to this view, regional states have concluded that the deal actually reached is not capable of alleviating their concerns, and they may feel compelled to pursue their own capabilities to prepare for the time when Iran’s nuclear program emerges from its restrictions in 2025-2030.
Some of this concern stems from an unproven belief that Iran has been maintaining a nuclear weapons program, an assumption that does not comport with any available evidence, and that it will immediately begin working toward a nuclear weapon once the JCPOA restrictions are eased, which of course is unknowable. But there are some legitimate concerns that Iran could take provocative nuclear action in the future even if its goals are entirely civilian.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has made no secret of his plans to dramatically ramp up the country’s uranium enrichment capabilities once its JCPOA-imposed restrictions on such activity expire. However, as Einhorn and Nephew note, much can and will change with respect to regional security and the nuclear issue in the 10-15 years before that happens. If Iran is seen to have complied with the JCPOA (which, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, it has been doing so far), if the overall security picture in the Middle East has improved, and if the next U.S. president and Iranian Supreme Leader (the 76-year-old Khamenei will likely have been replaced before the JCPOA’s restrictions begin to sunset) are able to maintain the deal, then the regional reaction to an increased Iranian enrichment program is likely to be muted. If the deal breaks down and/or if the Middle East is even more perilous than it is today, then that reaction is likely to be more emphatic.
Four Case Studies
However, Einhorn and Nephew studied four leading Middle Eastern countries—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Turkey—and found that the possibility of proliferation by each one was relatively small:
Saudi Arabia is Iran’s greatest regional rival and has already announced plans to develop a large-scale civilian nuclear power program by 2040. However, its domestic nuclear capacity has remained small, owing in part to low oil prices and their effect on the Saudi budget. The country is also heavily reliant on foreign assistance to build its civilian reactors. It has expressed some interest in developing a domestic enrichment program, but that would take considerable time to build up. Of course, the Saudis could acquire a nuclear weapon. However, though it has long been assumed that Pakistan has agreed to provide a weapon to Riyadh should it ask for one, Einhorn and Nephew found scant evidence of such an agreement. Moreover, the international repercussions for both Riyadh and Islamabad if this actually came to pass are probably enough to prevent both countries from going through with it.
The UAE has also adopted a robust anti-Iran policy, for example in its commitment of forces to the anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen (under the perhaps somewhat misguided assumption that the Houthis are Iranian proxies). But the UAE has held out more hope for engaging Iran than the Saudis have, and its nuclear program is even more dependent on external support. The UAE created the “gold standard” for nuclear energy deals in its 2009 123 Agreement with the U.S., wherein it renounced all ambitions toward uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing. Einhorn and Nephew found no evidence that the UAE is interested in changing that position, let alone in developing a weapons program.
Egypt has rejected the idea of developing a nuclear weapon since the 1960s and has been one of the leading proponents of creating a “Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone.” Though Cairo does have a small nuclear research program, it lacks the financial wherewithal to expand it and, unlike the Saudis, it does not identify Iran as the biggest threat to regional stability or its own security. Rather, the Egyptians see terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood as their biggest concerns, and neither of those warrants developing a nuclear deterrent.
Turkey, with its membership in NATO, arguably already has a nuclear deterrent, though it might also seek a domestic weapons program. However, Turkey’s relationship with Iran has remained relatively strong even though the two countries are on opposite sides when it comes to supporting factions in the Syrian civil war, and so an expanded Iranian nuclear program is unlikely to spur Ankara to take any drastic action.
Keeping the Genie in the Bottle
Although not even the Saudis will likely pursue a nuclear weapon as a result of the JCPOA, the report offers eight recommendations to assuage Saudi concerns and strengthen the deal’s non-proliferation impact:
Ensure that the JCPOA is rigorously monitored, strictly enforced, and faithfully implemented
Strengthen U.S. intelligence collection on Iranian proliferation-related activities and intelligence-sharing on those activities with key partners
Deter a future Iranian decision to produce nuclear weapons by threatening the use of military force if Iran were believed to be proceeding toward breakout
Seek to incorporate key monitoring and verification provisions of the JCPOA into routine IAEA safeguards as applied elsewhere in the Middle East and in the global nonproliferation regime
Pursue U.S. civil nuclear cooperation with Middle East governments on terms that are realistic and serve U.S. nonproliferation interests
Promote regional arrangements that restrain fuel cycle developments and build confidence in the peaceful use of regional nuclear programs
Strengthen security assurances to U.S. partners in the Middle East
Promote a stable regional security environment, especially the resolution of current civil wars and the reduction of Saudi-Iranian tensions
Of these, the most critical, and most challenging, would seem to be the last. Ending the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and rebuilding diplomatic ties between Iran and the Gulf Arab states are both massive challenges (and, indeed, achieving the latter depends on achieving the former). But if regional tensions are not eased then no region-wide deals on the peaceful use of nuclear power will be possible, and no amount of U.S. security assurance to the Gulf states will be enough to assuage Arab fears about Iranian intentions. Although the short-term risk of proliferation seems small, in the long run if these regional conflicts aren’t settled that risk will only increase, regardless of the JCPOA.
Photo: Despite close relations, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have not engaged in any nuclear cooperation.