Iran and a Middle East Nuclear Arms Race

Since the collapse of the European effort to persuade Iran to renounce uranium enrichment, it has become a trope in British statements that if left unchecked, Iran’s nuclear programme will trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Even the Chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) reportedly believes this.

There seems to be a similar emphasis in US statements on Iran. This March, President Barak Obama said that an Iranian nuclear weapon “would trigger a nuclear arms race in the most dangerous part of the world” during a joint Press Conference with UK Prime Minister, David Cameron. Similar statements have been made by other officials over the years, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

So it may be worth subjecting the arms race claim to a little analysis.

Uppermost in British minds is the fear of Saudi Arabia becoming nuclear-armed. It seems to have been planted there by senior Saudis who may or may not see Iran’s nuclear activities as a threat to Saudi security, but who resent the nuclear achievements of an arch rival and fear that in some mysterious way a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran will acquire “hegemony” over neighbouring Arab states.

Yet a few minutes’ thought suffices to suggest reasons why Saudi policy-makers would hesitate to embark on a nuclear weapons programme. Saudi Arabia is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It has made a formal commitment not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons. It would risk international ostracism and UN Security Council counter-measures if it were to violate that obligation.

Saudi Arabia has been a close ally of the US since the 1930s. US friendship helps sustain in power the leaders of a tribe that acquired control of the Hejaz (and the Holy City of Mecca) by driving out the Hashemites less than a hundred years ago and that is unsure of its right to dominate the Arabian Peninsula. As partial and discriminatory as the US’s Middle East policy has sometimes appeared in the last decade, it is hard to imagine that the US would stand by while its Saudi ally set about proliferating, or, that Saudi rulers would risk that friendship by defying America’s wishes.

Jack Straw, a former British Foreign Secretary, recounts a senior Saudi’s reply when asked about Saudi nuclear intentions:

We say that we will have to keep step with Iran. But in reality our people would never forgive us for tolerating Israeli nuclear weapons for so many years and developing nuclear weapons to balance their acquisition by Islamic Iran.

So, Saudi proliferation seems an unlikely prospect. Saudi/Iranian rivalry, however, remains a problem. If ever the West were to decide to tolerate an Iranian enrichment capacity, this problem would have to be addressed.

One solution would be to build a multinational enrichment plant on Saudi soil. The Saudis themselves suggested such a plant to their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies and to Iran in the mid-2000s. The United Arab Emirates, which has four nuclear power plants under construction, and other GCC states that are looking into nuclear power, could be interested in becoming stake-holders. Western enrichment technology could be “black-boxed” and the plant opened to the same degree of international inspection as enrichment plants in Europe and Japan. The result would be a boost to Saudi confidence in their ability to thwart Iran’s supposed hegemonic aspirations and a reminder to Iran that action can trigger reaction.

The other nuclear competitor posited by British politicians is Turkey. Yet Turkey, also an NPT party, is a member of NATO and thus already has indirect access to nuclear deterrent forces. For more than forty years, Turkey shared a border with a hostile nuclear-armed Soviet Union but never sought to acquire an independent nuclear deterrent. In recent years, Turkish Ministers have shown no sign of feeling obliged to compete with, or threatened by Iran’s nuclear activities.

At a recent meeting in London, the Turkish ambassador took strong exception to one speaker’s mention of Turkey in a regional arms race context.

A state that is a past regional rival of Iran is Egypt. But Egypt, also an NPT party, is economically and militarily dependent on US friendship and would thus be inhibited from nuclear adventurism by its proximity to Israel and its vulnerability to pre-emptive Israeli strikes.

Similar factors would weigh against a Syrian nuclear weapons programme if a Western-backed regime replaced the Iranian-backed Assad regime. (Ironically, Iranian-backed Syria is the only other state in the region that has been suspected of having a programme to develop nuclear weapons in the last decade. Only the most ingenious sophist could claim that Iran provided the spur to that “race”.)

In sum, the claim that Iranian enrichment of uranium under IAEA supervision will trigger a Middle East nuclear arms race seems unreasonable. It should not pass unquestioned. Careless claims can have costly consequences.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. Better yet, if a mere Iranian nuclear enrichment program would cause a cascade of proliferation, why hasn’t this already occurred with the actual, existing nuclear weapons in Israel?

  2. More importantly none of these countries (except Turkey) has the scientific and technological capabilities to build a nuclear program independently or even semi independently.

  3. (fix your comments, if one writes a post and fails to enter their name first, all is lost.)

    The author is naive to assume public diplomacy bears any relation to reality. Turkey and the Saudis have the absolute leverage to pursue nukes and no one would say peep.

    He right that Iran won’t be what drives them to go nuclear, though he overstates that case as well. They’ll do it for their own reasons, and to have more leverage/security vis a vis the US and Israel

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