Why nuclear dominoes won’t fall in the Middle East

By Dina Esfandiary, Ariane Tabatabai | April 22, 2015

A highly regarded member of Saudi Arabia's royal family recently repeated assertions that Riyadh will want the same capabilities that Iran is allowed under a final agreement on its nuclear program. The Saudi stance, articulated most recently by former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, has raised fears that a nuclear agreement between six world powers and Iran will produce a regional domino effect that could spread civilian nuclear programs across the Middle East and increase the number of nuclear weapons states in the region.

Although such a possibility can't be dismissed entirely, a close analysis of probable scenarios suggests that a final Iranian nuclear agreement is unlikely to trigger a regional nuclear weapons cascade.

On their own, civilian nuclear programs do not necessarily imply a military threat. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), member countries are allowed to pursue civilian nuclear programs. Because of a growing energy demand, many countries in the Middle East are exploring nuclear power as part of their energy mix. While some, including the United Arab Emirates, have succeeded in starting civilian nuclear power programs, others face serious financing and technical capacity issues. Developing a nuclear program is neither easy nor cheap. Nuclear power plants cost $4 billion to $10 billion each, and acquiring nuclear technologies requires significant financial and scientific investment and, for most countries in the Middle East, foreign help.

To be sure, civilian nuclear programs have been used as cover for nuclear weapons acquisition. The front and back ends of the fuel cycle for a nuclear power plant provide technology—uranium enrichment and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing—that can provide the nuclear material needed to build nuclear weapons. Because this fuel cycle paves the path to nuclear weapons, many experts call for limiting its spread and suggest that countries creating nuclear power industries develop international sources for their fuel needs. And most countries that are considering nuclear power in the Middle East don’t yet have concrete plans to develop a domestic fuel cycle that includes enrichment or reprocessing. But the NPT has no prohibition against non-nuclear weapons states developing a domestic nuclear fuel cycle.

Just the same, capabilities alone do not determine whether a country acquires nuclear weapons. Intentions matter, and placing a high price on weapons acquisition or offering credible security guarantees can influence a state’s nuclear intentions.

Developing a nuclear bomb is hard. It took the United States, with its vast resources and advanced know-how, six years to develop a nuclear device. It took China roughly 10 years and Pakistan more than two decades. There are two ways a country can pursue the fissile material needed for a bomb: one that produces highly enriched uranium, and another that extracts plutonium from used fuel. Both processes involve complicated technologies that are subject to strict international controls. Countries in the Middle East have forgone these options, or accepted strict controls on their nuclear programs, or do not have the technical know-how to develop enrichment or reprocessing capabilities. And although some countries in the region possess the financial means to overcome these technical constraints, political obstacles will hamper their progress toward nuclear weapons capability.

Of course, there is an alternative to building a bomb: Buying or stealing one. For political, legal, and practical reasons, the first is difficult, and the second extremely unlikely. And countries in the Middle East that attempt to create their own nuclear power sectors face many obstacles that make nuclear weapons development quite difficult and unlikely. The factors that will likely inhibit nuclear weapons proliferation in the region vary from country to country. But it is clear that, in each country, the technical and political forces arrayed against nuclear weapons production are significant.

Saudi Arabia: The human and technical impediments to a nuclear arsenal. Saudi Arabia is viewed as the Middle East's most likely nuclear proliferator. Riyadh has been the loudest voice in the region, claiming it'll "go nuclear" should Iran do so. It also wants an enrichment capability to mirror Iran’s. An assessment of the nascent Saudi nuclear power program shows that for all of Riyadh's foot-stomping, it doesn't have the technical capability to build nuclear weapons. Even if this technical deficit could be overcome, its allies could influence its intentions.

Saudi Arabia has ambitious plans for its nuclear industry. It wants to build 16 nuclear reactors in the next few decades, but right now Saudi Arabia does not have any nuclear reactors, and its first won't go on line until 2022, at earliest. To date, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-CARE) has scouted out foreign suppliers and developed regulatory frameworks—but gone no further down the nuclear path.

Riyadh lacks the human capacity to develop and operate its own nuclear infrastructure in the foreseeable future. But Saudi Arabia is aware of its technical shortcomings, and it’s looking for other options

After contributing financially to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and defense sector, the Saudis may want Islamabad to return the favor, some observers believe. The Saudi leadership plays along with suggestions it may acquire nuclear technology from Pakistan. In March 2015, King Salman bin Abdulaziz urgently summoned Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Riyadh to discuss strategic cooperation efforts, while calling for Pakistani involvement in Saudi efforts in Yemen. This was intended to remind nuclear weapons state negotiators that Riyadh is keeping its nuclear options open.

But it is unlikely the Saudis will get a nuclear weapon from Pakistan. Pakistan—which covertly developed its nuclear arsenal outside the nuclear nonproliferation regime—aims to normalize its nuclear status, rather than becoming further alienated from the international community. Islamabad was already singled out for the activities of the world's biggest and most successful illicit nuclear trafficking network, led by a key figure in its nuclear weapons program, A.Q. Khan. What’s more, Islamabad is extremely proud of its nuclear achievements. In the words of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, “We will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own [bomb].” Pakistanis didn’t eat grass, but they endured a great deal of hardship to get the bomb. The program was extremely costly for the country. So, it’s no surprise that many Pakistani officials and former officials take issue with assertions that their country might give nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Even if Pakistan agreed to provide the Kingdom with the bomb, the Saudis are very unlikely to go through with such an acquisition. Saudi Arabia is dependent on the United States for security guarantees. As long as Washington remains Riyadh’s main security guarantor, it has the power to influence Saudi decision making on other issues, including, specifically, nuclear weapon acquisition. And the Kingdom would find it very difficult to attract another country willing to supply the security and trade guarantees that the United States now provides. It is hard to imagine any of the world's major powers agreeing to be viewed as a supporter of nuclear proliferation.

It is reasonably likely that Saudi Arabia will continue its efforts to develop a civilian nuclear program. Saudi Arabia recently signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with South Korea to explore the feasibility of building two nuclear reactors in the Kingdom. Moving forward with South Korea as the main supplier raises a key issue: Washington says that Seoul’s reactors are US designs, and that, if that technology is to be sold, the countries acquiring it must enter into nuclear cooperation contracts (known as 123 agreements, because they are based on Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act) with the United States. Although South Korea disputes the need for a 123 agreement, if Saudi Arabia does agree to enter into such a pact, it could well mean a ban on enrichment and reprocessing in the Kingdom, closing domestic paths to the bomb.

Riyadh could of course acquire nuclear technology from the two other countries that have developed nuclear power plants on an international basis, France and Russia. But given Paris’s hardline stance on nonproliferation, it’s unlikely to oblige an effort by Saudi Arabia to develop the enrichment or reprocessing capabilities needed to produce fissile material in the Kingdom. Moscow, too, would think twice before allowing Riyadh to go nuclear, particularly given the competition between the two countries in world petroleum markets and their divergence on regional security matters.

Turkey: Unlikely to weaponize for strategic and political reasons. Like most of the region, Turkey's stated goal for developing a nuclear program is to meet its energy needs. But Turkey's nuclear journey has been a long and difficult one so far.

Ankara has faced a number of regulatory challenges in the development of its nuclear program. As is the case for most of the region's nuclear newcomers, Turkey's leading nuclear partner is Russia's Rosatom. The two countries concluded a so-called "BOO" [build, own, and operate] agreement. At the current pace, Turkey’s first nuclear power plant won’t be ready before 2022. The severe impact of sanctions on the Russian economy may further slow progress. In addition to Russia, Turkey is also working with a Franco-Japanese consortium that would build a second plant in the Black Sea town of Sinop by 2023.

To date, Turkey denies any plans to develop an enrichment or reprocessing capability. In addition, Turkey has entered a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and has agreed to the Additional Protocol, putting Ankara’s program under strict IAEA monitoring and making it difficult to divert fissile material for use in a weapons program.

Aside from the technical limitations, there are strategic and political reasons why Turkey isn't likely to weaponize. As a member of NATO and a US ally, Turkey benefits from Washington's nuclear umbrella. Its defense needs are met without it having to go through the trouble of developing its own nuclear capability—a resource-heavy endeavor for a country struggling to build a nuclear energy program. A military nuclear program would most likely result in a loss of the US as a strategic ally and the NATO nuclear umbrella.

Egypt: Some capability, little apparent interest. Egypt is unique among the countries under discussion; it’s the only one that has had a nuclear weapons program. But it decided to give up its attempts to acquire nuclear weapons in 1968, following the country's disastrous defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel. In the 1970s, Egypt backed Iran when the Shah proposed the idea of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East. Yet, some argue that Egypt could reverse course and again decide to seek its own bomb if Iran and Saudi Arabia do so. Cairo, after all, doesn’t want hand over leadership of Arab world to others.

To be sure, Egypt's nuclear infrastructure is more developed than nuclear newcomers in the region. But so far, Cairo's program has remained research and development-focused. It operates two research reactors but hasn’t built a power reactor, and the country doesn't have an enrichment or reprocessing capability. It does, however, have small-scale spent-fuel-management and plutonium-separation capabilities.

In recent years, Egypt’s political climate has inhibited any focus on a nuclear program. Following the Arab Spring, there were multiple changes in government, domestic unrest, and economic near-collapse. Since the Arab Spring, the real threat to Egypt’s security has been internal rather than external.

Those who argue that Egypt is likely to weaponize if Iran is allowed a civilian nuclear program are ignoring the Israeli factor. Egypt shares a border and has fought wars with Israel, which has a nuclear arsenal. Egypt's effort to establish a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East is focused on Israeli disarmament. If a nuclear-armed Israel didn’t cause Egypt to pursue the bomb, why would a final agreement that limited the Iranian nuclear program to civilian concerns? Some argue that Cairo’s nuclear ambitions aren’t security-focused but are based on the country’s quest for regional leadership. Right now, however, the Egyptian establishment doesn’t seem to believe nuclear weapons to be in its interest.

Jordan: A nonproliferation advocate that lacks resources for a nuclear weapons program. Jordan too has ambitious plans for a civilian nuclear program, which it developed in response to growing energy needs and its over-reliance on foreign energy supply; some 97 percent of its energy was imported in 2011. With the help of a South Korean consortium, Jordan is building a 5 megawatt research and training reactor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology. It also wants to build a nuclear plant with two 1,000-megawatt reactors; the plant aims to provide 30 percent of Jordan’s electricity by 2030. In February 2015, Jordan signed an agreement with Russia’s Rosatom, which will build and operate both nuclear units.

But Jordan’s nuclear program stops there. The country lacks the technology, human resources, experience, or infrastructure necessary for a nuclear weapons program.

There is one cause for concern: Amman’s refusal to sign a 123 nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. Jordan has significant uranium reserves and wants to preserve the option of domestic enrichment. Among countries in the Middle East who want to preserve the “right to enrich,”Jordan’s claims may make the most sense economically and practically. To this end, Amman pursued mining and milling options with foreign companies. To date none has panned out.

Jordan’s plans for nuclear power are grounded in long-standing energy concerns that emerged long before the start of nuclear talks with Iran and that are unlikely to be affected by Iranian nuclear plans. Jordan has been an upstanding non-proliferation advocate and party to the NPT. The country has an Additional Protocol and a series of other non-proliferation commitments in place. It has a sterling track record: It was not found in violation of any of its non-proliferation commitments. What’s more, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, its security depends on its alliance with the United States—an alliance Amman will not lightly jeopardize.

United Arab Emirates: The gold standard for nonproliferation. Of all the countries in the region, the UAE is the least likely to proliferate. While the country has the most developed nuclear energy program among the newcomer states of the region and is likely to operate the second power plant to open in the Middle East (after Iran’s Bushehr), the plant will be under strict controls and self-adopted restrictions.

Because of its growing energy requirements, in 2006 the UAE began exploring options for a nuclear energy program. Like others in the region, the UAE had no nuclear infrastructure or specialized human capital, but it did have a mature energy sector, a civil construction industry, and an advanced educational system that a nuclear energy program could build on. Most important, the UAE had the economic means to pursue its nuclear energy ambitions.

After establishing governmental and private-sector organizations to supervising the program’s safety and security, the UAE has begun building two of four reactors, in collaboration with a South Korean consortium; they are due for completion in 2020.

Like Jordan, the UAE is an exemplary member of the international non-proliferation regime. Along with the NPT and safeguards agreement with the IAEA, it also adopted the Additional Protocol. Unlike others in the region, Abu Dhabi relinquished domestic enrichment and reprocessing in January 2009, signing a 123 agreement with the United States that sets what is often called the “gold standard” for civilian nuclear programs. This agreement effectively bars the country from pursuing enrichment and reprocessing, the only indigenous paths to the bomb.

The conventional wisdom is wrong. Conventional wisdom holds that a nuclear Iran will lead to a nuclear weapon proliferation cascade in the highly volatile Middle East, making an already rough neighborhood even more unstable and insecure. After all, a combination of fragile and failed states, terrorist organizations, and nuclear weapons could well constitute a horror story.

Nuclear history shows us that nuclear arms races are the exception rather than the rule. A final agreement between six world powers and Iran to limit the Iranian nuclear program would aim to keep Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But if an agreement is not reached or Iran cheats and acquires nuclear weapons, a nuclear weapons race is still unlikely to unfold in the Middle East. A number of political and technical challenges are likely to prevent it. No country in the region currently has the technical ability to develop a nuclear weapon by itself. Most regional candidates to become nuclear weapons states—especially ones most vocal in claiming they’ll go nuclear, if Tehran does—depend heavily on the United States and other Western states for their security, providing the West with significant leverage over them.

But the international community must draw lessons from the Iran case. In Iran, foreign suppliers left a vacuum when they stopped their involvement in the Iranian nuclear program. This created an opportunity for Tehran to undertake and justify activities that would have been difficult to pursue, had the United States, Germany, Japan, and France continued helping it acquire nuclear technology. Foreign suppliers should remain active in nuclear newcomers’ programs in the region, taking away any excuse to develop an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle. This kind of engagement will go a long way toward ensuring Middle Eastern nuclear programs remain peaceful.

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