Countries in the Middle East are countering the growing Iranian nuclear threat by starting nuclear weapons programs and arming themselves to the teeth. The Middle East weapons race is on.

by Peter Brookes for The International Chronicles


With the exception of a handful of capitals friendly to Tehran, and of course the Iranian regime itself, few now dispute the notion that the Islamic Republic of Iran is involved in a nuclear weapons program—and one that will, unfortunately, come to fruition in the next few years. News of Iran’s seemingly-unstoppable drive for nuclear status is no real surprise, of course; despite four UN Security Council Resolutions condemning Iran and imposing punitive economic sanctions, Tehran continues to enrich uranium for those  weapons virtually unhindered.

Making matters worse, Iran recently informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it would move beyond the three to four percent uranium enrichment level normally used for reactor fuel, alarmingly increasing enrichment to 20 percent.1  While not illegal under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory, there is no benign reason to enrich uranium beyond those levels, leaving little doubt about Tehran’s strategic intentions. It clearly puts Tehran on track to being able to enrich uranium to 80 percent or more—the levels needed for a nuclear weapon.

Putting a finer point on it, Central Intelligence Agency  director Leon Panetta told an American national news program this summer that “[w]e think they [Iran] have enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons.”2 The U.S. intelligence community now believes Iran will be able to weaponize this fissile material in the next one to two years.3

American officials aren’t the only ones worried. Intense suspicion over Iran’s nuclear program, combined with nervousness over Tehran’s already-capable short-range and medium-range ballistic missile arsenal, is increasingly palpable in the Middle East, where a dangerous domino effect is taking shape.

Regional restlessness

Commentators tend to focus on the United States, Israel, and Iran in the seemingly quixotic struggle to prevent Tehran from joining the once-exclusive nuclear weapons club. But Tehran’s efforts are not taking place in isolation from the rest of the region; Iran’s nuclear program increasingly is garnering the rapt attention of countries in the Middle East.

The consequences are potentially profound. When a country becomes a nuclear weapon state, its clout, leverage, prestige, and even legitimacy are bolstered significantly, often  at  the expense of others. In addition, the development of a nuclear deterrent, depending on the circumstances, can provide a state with a new degree of freedom to undertake policies that it might not otherwise be able to conduct due to political, economic or conventional military opposition. A dramatic development such as the one embodied in a nuclear breakout can shift existing balances of power, destabilize security situations, create or increase existing tensions, and infuse regional dynamics with additional levels of uncertainty.

Tehran’s neighbors are justifiably concerned about the effect a new nuclear weapons state will have on the neighborhood—and how such a development will affect their own respective national security interests. Not surprisingly, questions regarding Iranian behavior in a post-proliferation environment are now generating significant discussion and debate, especially in the Middle East.

Geopolitically, some Sunni Arab states clearly feel threatened by the rise of a Shi’a Persian superpower in their midst, and are worried about Middle Eastern leadership shifting towards Tehran and away from the region’s traditional centers of power, Cairo and Riyadh. Once in possession of a bomb, Iran could quickly become the region’s dominant state, reasserting its long-lost place as a historical, cultural and political hegemon in the Middle  East and even South Asia. It might also see an opportunity to redress what it perceives as pernicious discrimination against Shi’ism by Sunni-led states, animating Shi’ite minorities along the Persian Gulf, across the Middle East—and beyond. And, less challenged by conventionally-armed rivals, a  nuclear Iran might flex some military muscle in the Persian Gulf, affecting commerce and the flow of energy through the Strait of Hormuz, a major regional chokepoint.

Of course, its new status might also encourage Tehran to increase its support for terrorist proxies such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, further roiling the region’s security situation, especially for arch-nemesis Israel. If its recent, inflammatory  language is to be believed, a nuclear Iran also might look for opportunities to engage Israel directly in some way on a conventional military level or, worse yet, opt for the unspeakable nuclear option. And while Tehran has been quietly meddling in the internal affairs of neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan for some time now, possession of a nuclear bomb might prompt it to play an even larger, more destabilizing role in those places.

Indeed, as a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal noted,  “The world’s most open secret is that the Arab countries of the Middle East fear a nuclear Iran as much, and perhaps more, than Israel does.”4  And because they do, countries in the region are taking steps to protect their national interests and address the security dilemma that Tehran is creating in the Middle East.

 Atomic aspirations abound

In just the last four years, no fewer than fourteen countries in the Middle East and North Africa have announced their intention to pursue civilian nuclear programs—programs  which, irrespective of their stated purpose, many believe are a hedge against the possibility of a nuclear Iran.          

Possible Atomic Aspirants                           
United Arab Emirates
Saudi Arabia
 Of course, it is possible that the intentions of these states are honest ones, spurred on by domestic energy needs. Not all countries are blessed with abundant natural resources, and consequently could be seeking an efficient and durable source of energy. There are even those that may be attempting to diversify their energy sources beyond simply oil and natural gas, or seeking to free up their energy reserves for profitable international export instead of costly domestic consumption. In addition, due to increasing concerns about climate change, some have come to see nuclear power, once considered an expensive investment, as an  attractive alternative to fossil fuels, due to its reduced emissions and  potential cost efficiency.

Intense suspicion over Iran’s nuclear program, combined with nervousness over Tehran’s already-capable short-range and medium-range ballistic missile arsenal, is increasingly palpable in the Middle East, where a dangerous domino effect is taking shape.
In some cases, it could also be an issue of national pride—a matter of keeping up with the nuclear Joneses; or even an effort to demonstrate to your neighbors and the world the scientific and technical achievement involved in developing, building, and safely operating a peaceful, civilian nuclear power industry.
Of course, developing an indigenous nuclear industry is a significant undertaking. A nuclear reactor can take a decade and three to ten billion dollars to build. Even more time and money is required if a full nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment capacity, is desired.

But such work is transformative. The development of scientific and technical capabilities for a civilian nuclear power program is instrumental to the subsequent building of the bomb. Even if it remains in compliance with the tenets of the NPT, a state can go quite a long way toward developing a nuclear program with a potential military dimension. Having the necessary nuclear infrastructure,especially that which would provide for a full nuclear fuel cycle, would allow concerned states to offset an Iranian nuclear breakout by possessing the theoretical potential to create a nuclear arsenal themselves.

Geopolitically, some Sunni Arab states clearly feel threatened by the rise of a Shi’a Persian superpower in their midst, and are worried about Middle Eastern leadership shifting towards Tehran and away from the region’s traditional centers of power, Cairo and Riyadh.
Indeed, some  analysts see the construction of nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia as symbolic of Riyadh’s dread over Iran’s nuclear activities, and as a move which will surely deepen tensions between the cross-Gulf rivals. In fact, many are convinced that the  development of an Iranian Shi’a bomb will inevitably be matched by a Saudi Sunni bomb. It has long been rumored the Saudis have a deal with the Pakistanis for access to its nuclear inventory, or the stationing of Islamabad’s nuclear-capable missiles in the Kingdom in the likelihood of a change in Iran’s nuclear status.5

Of course, while this is possible, it does pose a number of political and strategic dilemmas for Pakistan, such as the health of its relationship with neighboring Iran, and  a potential dilution of its nuclear deterrent against rival India. Egypt, the long-standing leader of the Arab world, operates two research reactors, has significant scientific and technical capabilities on nuclear matters, and is interested in nuclear power. Of course, developing a nuclear program with a military dimension is a possibility; however, doing so would surely hurt its ties with United States, could increase tensions with neighboring Israel, and drain less-than-plentiful government coffers.

Other countries that have expressed an interest in nuclear power, such as Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, are likely doing so because of more local concerns. None of them have significant indigenous energy sources, and as a result are focused on the development of alternative energy sources. But that isn’t true for all of the  states that have  launched atomic plans. Kuwait and Qatar have significant holdings of oil and natural gas, which makes their respective decisions to pursue a nuclear program difficult to explain in a context other than that of a hedge against Iran’s growing capabilities.

And in some cases, these nuclear dreams have started to become reality. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country with the fifth largest proven oil reserves in the Middle East, last year completed a  “123” agreement with the United States, paving the way for heightened nuclear cooperation and technology transfer between Washington and Abu Dhabi. During the Bush administration, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia also signed Memoranda of Understanding related to nuclear cooperation that—if pursued by the Obama White House—could lead to additional agreements such as the one struck with the UAE.

Turkey, another major regional power and NATO member, is also considering its nuclear options. Since taking power in 2002, the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has plotted  a friendlier course toward neighboring Iran, a country Ankara historically has seen as a competitor. But despite the current, warm ties, Ankara may eventually come to see Tehran as a regional rival that could “undercut Turkey’s desired role as a respected and powerful mediator between east and west,” according to a 2008 Report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.6 Indeed, a shift in Ankara’s sentiments toward Tehran could incite interest in a nuclear program with a military dimension. And the current strains in Turkey’s existing relationships with the United States and Europe may make such a  decision less taboo than in the past.

Then  there  is  Syria.  Damascus was caught with its hands in the nuclear cookie jar when Israel destroyed its undeclared nuclear facility at al-Kibar back in 2007. That plant—likely a reactor capable of producing fissile material—was being built with North Korean assistance.7 Of course, Syria’s nuclear activities are not focused on checking Iran; indeed, given the enduring partnership between the two countries, Syria might be receiving nuclear assistance from Iran. Rather, Syria’s strategic efforts are directed toward Israel.

Regional states are also banding together in pursuit of nuclear status. Most directly, the Gulf Cooperation Council  (GCC)—consisting of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, and Qatar—is now said to be contemplating a joint nuclear program that would  pool resources and share electrical power among member states.8  And although some of the members’ interest in nuclear issues is stronger than others, as evidenced by the existence of separate indigenous programs, many analysts believe this joint effort was sparked specifically in response to Iran’s nuclear activities.9

But the nuclear option is not the only one being explored by states confronted with a rising Iran.
Countries in the region are looking  to missile defense as a way to blunt the growing Iranian missile and nuclear threat.

Arms racing
Rife  with  rivalry  and  conflict, the Middle East is one of the world’s most volatile regions. Considering the challenges confronting regional states, it is no surprise to see a robust arms trade under way. And Iran’s ascent as a power is only accelerating this trend.

Indeed, defense spending in the Middle East is up 40 percent over the past decade, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an organization which closely follows global military expenditures.10 SIPRI also claimed in an April 2009 report on “Recent Trends in the Arms Trade” that from 2004-2008, nearly 40 percent of American exports of major weapons systems went to the Middle East, including  “207  combat  aircraft  and 5,000 guided bombs.” Israel and the UAE were the region’s main recipients, garnering 11 percent each of U.S. sales.11

During the same period, according to SIPRI data, 40 percent of France’s arms exports went to the region as well, with the UAE its top weapons recipient, and the United Kingdom sent 10 percent of its exports to Saudi Arabia alone.12 (Russia, meanwhile, is believed to  be selling billions of dollars in arms to Iran.)

One thing almost all observers do agree on is that once Iran goes nuclear, the Middle East will never be the same. Iran’s nuclearization will, by necessity, entail a significant shift in the regional balance of power.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which has often led the region in defense spending, continues to  spend heavily on arms—over $40 billion in 2009, including advanced weapons systems such as smart bombs from the United States and Tornado fighters from the United Kingdom, even cruise missiles from European producers.13

But Riyadh is not the top arms client in the Middle East. That honor belongs to tiny UAE, which now ranks fourth in the world for weapons imports, including U.S. made Patriot surface to air missiles, C-17 transport aircraft, helicopters, F-16 fighters, and multiple rocket launchers.14 The reasons for Abu Dhabi’s spending spree are unequivocal: according to the Emirati Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, “Out of  every country in the region, the UAE is most vulnerable to Iran. Our military ... wake up, dream, breathe, eat, and sleep the Iranian threat.”15

Some are looking to bring friends closer, too. Bahrain, a majority Shi’a country ruled by a Sunni monarchy, is unsettled about Iran’s rise and the possibility of Tehran’s interference in its domestic affairs, in the view of some analysts. As a result, Bahrain has given the United States permission to increase its presence at its Manama naval facilities.

And, of course, Israel, which sees a nuclear Iran as an existential threat, has also taken steps to deal with the growing challenge, including acquiring bunker-busting JDAMs and conducting air exercises simulating a raid on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Rumors also abound about the  possibility of the Israeli Defense Forces using Saudi airspace to conduct a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, which  now seems increasingly plausible considering the poor state of relations between Israel and its one-time ally, Turkey, whose border once provided an alternative route to Iran.

Israel  is also  playing  defense. Squarely in the crosshairs of Iran’s nuclear and  missile programs, it has developed and deployed the Arrow missile defense system, and is now seeking to expand its missile defense capabilities with a three-tiered program designed to  deal with a full spectrum of rocket and missile threats.

Israel is not alone. Other countries in the region are looking to missile defense as a way to blunt the growing Iranian missile and nuclear threat. The UAE has made a multi-billion dollar request of the United States for THAAD  (Theater High Altitude Air Defense)and the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missile defense system. Bahrain has also held discussions with the United States on missile defense. And Qatar and Kuwait have expressed interest in a missile shield, while Saudi Arabia has requested missile defense requirements analysis.16

 The coming storm
There is little doubt today that Iran’s rise, especially its troubling nuclear work, has stirred up  a sand-storm of interest and activity. But whether Iran can actually be stopped from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold to become the tenth nuclear weapons state is the subject of significant debate. The believed range and depth of Iran’s nuclear program makes a limited military strike a  difficult undertaking—one which may delay, but not derail, Tehran from its goal of assuming a seat at the global nuclear table.

One  thing almost all observers do  agree on, however, is that once Iran goes nuclear, the Middle East will never be the same. Iran's nuclearization will, by necessity, entail a significant shift in the regional balance of power.

While all parties would prefer a peaceful, diplomatic solution that would keep Iran’s nuclear genie in the bottle, many in the region are taking deliberate steps to counterbalance what some see as the inevitable emergence of a nuclear Iran. Unless Tehran changes course, or is compelled to abandon its nuclear program, the Middle East may be bound for a destabilizing explosion of nuclear weapons-capable states and more dangerous times ahead. And that would be in the interest of no one—not even Iran.          



Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.
          1. Associated Press, “Iran Moves Closer to Nuke Weapon  Capacity,” CBS  News, Feb. 8, 2010, world/main6184932.shtml.
2. “Political  Punch: Power, Pop, and Probings from BC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake  Tapper,”  ABC, June 27, 2010.
3. Ibid.
4. “ The  Arabs on Iran,” Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2010,
5. Stephen Blank, “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Gambit,” Asia Times, November  7, 2003, _ East/EK07Ak01.html.
6. Chain Reaction: Avoiding a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East, Report to the Committee on  Foreign Relations of the United States Senate, February 2008, 110 -34 (pg xi).
7. “Syria Country Profile,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, July, 2009, research/profiles/Syria/Nuclear/index.html.
8. Sammy Salama and Heidi Weber, “The Emerging Arab Response to Iran’s Unabated Nuclear Program,” Monterey Institute for International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, December 22, 2006, http://
9. Lynda Hurst, “Is Mideast on Brink of an Arms Race?” Toronto Star, January 27, 2007,
10. “Media Background—Military Expenditure,” SIPRI Yearbook, June 2, 2010, http:// releasetranslations/storypackage_milex.
11. Mark  Bromley,  Paul Holtom, Sam Perlo-Freeman, Pieter D. Wezeman, “Recent Trends  in  the  Arms Trade,”  SIPRI  Background Paper, April 2009, http://books.sipri. org/files/misc/SIPR IBP0904a.pdf.
12. Ibid.
13. “Arms Transfers Database,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2009, stransfers.
14. Kareem  Shaheen, “UAE Becomes Fourth-Biggest Arms Buyer,” The National (Abu Dhabi), March 21,2010,
15. “Iranian  Official  Sees  Penalties  Slowing Nuclear Work” Global Security Newswire, July 7, 2010, php?Date=07/07/2010.
16. “Ballistic Missile Defense Update,” National Defense Industrial Association, June 4, 2009, sions/MissileDefense/Documents/Hemp - hill%20Presentation.pdf.

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published this page in The Attic 2012-03-27 01:59:00 -0400