Saudi Arabia lacks Israel’s official stance of nuclear ambiguity, but its status is even more opaque. Indeed, though it has never acknowledged a nuclear program, the kingdom may already have a bomb.
With Iran’s seemingly inexorable march toward a nuclear weapon, it’s not difficult to see why the Saudis would want one of their own, to ensure the regime’s security against its key regional adversary. The Saudi population is among the world’s most vulnerable, as human existence on the Arabian peninsula is dependent on a number of desalination plants, which could be easily targeted with conventional payloads. What concerns Riyadh is how an Iranian bomb could destabilize the Saudi ruling order. That same concern for regime security affects every authoritarian state in the Middle East, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone has nuclear capability, as everyone has a reason to fear everyone else.
A number of observers maintain that the Saudis have not yet pulled the trigger. “We don’t know if they’ve made any decision,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. Nevertheless, it was the working assumption of some high-level Bush Administration officials that the Saudis had a Pakastani bomb in escrow—one of the possible scenarios that Sokolski has heard. “One of the options might be to have the Pakistanis base some of their nuclear capability in Saudi Arabia. Saudi is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but that doesn’t forbid others, like the Pakistanis, from basing their nuclear capabilities on Saudi soil, as long as it’s under Pakistani control.”
Who else needs a bomb? The United Arab Emirates, which has a civilian nuclear program that is further along than those in other Arab states, would want a bomb because it fears not only Iran but also its Saudi neighbor, with whom it has had territorial disputes. Kuwait, the Gulf state most recently invaded by an Arab neighbor, Iraq, has just announced it’s starting a civilian nuclear program. The fact that Egypt is restarting the program it halted several years ago suggests that it, too, is concerned about both Iran and Tehran’s ally Syria, a longtime Egyptian rival, whose own nuclear facility was destroyed by the Israelis in 2007. Jordan, which has also just started a civilian nuclear program, would want a bomb to keep at bay a Syrian neighbor that has worked to destabilize the Hashemite kingdom over a half century. Even Sudan wants a bomb, for prestige and to ward off Egypt, with whom it has frequent disputes over rights to the Nile. And then there are the non-Arab actors, like Turkey, which can hardly afford to let either Iran or the Arabs have a leg up. The Kurds appear to be the odd man out; however, against a backdrop of widespread nuclear proliferation it would not be impossible to imagine a scenario in which existing Israeli-Kurdish ties could be expanded to include technology necessary to ensure Kurdish independence against the Turks, Iranians and Iraqis, and Syrians.
So, what would the region look like with widespread proliferation? The good news is that Middle Eastern politics would look almost exactly the way it already does, except more so—violent, fractious, and with the most ambitious actors in the region looking to tip the balance of power in their favor but checked by other regional powers as well as by the United States. In short, this is the argument for containment—that the essential strategic contours of a nuclear-armed Middle East stay exactly the same, just more dangerous.
The nuclear bomb, wrote the British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart, “reduces the likelihood of full-scale war, [while] it increases the possibility of limited war pursued by widespread local aggression.” Liddell Hart was writing of the Cold War, but he might have been prophesying a nuclearized Middle East, where state-on-state warfare is already relatively rare, certainly compared to 19th- and 20th-century Europe. Perhaps it is because the nation-state is relatively new in the region, or maybe it is because the Arabs, as Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi told me, are a feuding people and not a warring one, but regional regimes tend to avoid direct confrontation with each other. Indeed, the last two state-versus-state wars in the Middle East had on one side a foreign power, the United States, as it squared off against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; the last time two Middle Eastern countries fought it out directly was the 1980s-long Iran-Iraq war; and Israel hasn’t fought an Arab army on its own borders since 1973.
Middle Eastern actors are historically inclined to wage armed conflict through proxies, or privateers, as America’s founding fathers referred to the pirates ransoming U.S. ships and citizens off the Barbary Coast at the behest of the Beys of Algiers and Tripoli. We now call them non-state actors—or terrorist organizations that are incapable of waging large operations without the logistical, financial, and political support of Middle Eastern states.
The bad news, then, is that a nuclearized Middle East will look pretty much the same as it does now, with governments using terrorist proxies to attack, and deter, each other. The real concern over an Iranian bomb and the subsequent arms race isn’t that regional states would drop their radioactive payloads on each other but that a chessboard full of nuclear umbrellas would further embolden terrorist outfits working at the behest of Arab and Iranian clandestine services. While Iran and Syria make use of Hezbollah and Hamas, let’s not forget that al-Qaida is largely a function of how the Saudi Interior Ministry and security services have dealt with Saudi’s excess young men—by sending them off to do jihad, whether that’s to Afghanistan in the 1980s, to Bosnia in the 1990s, or now to Iraq.
Who knows whether loose nukes would wind up in the hands of Hezbollah or al-Qaida, but we already know how nukes will embolden state sponsors of terror. Since Islamabad has gone nuclear, Pakistani-based terrorist groups have conducted attacks against India, like the one against the Indian parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai massacre of 2008, with the assurance that India can’t do a thing about it—or else risk nuclear war. It is reasonable to assume that other state sponsors of terror, once nuclear, will follow suit.
There’s another problem with Middle East proliferation, a lesson the Saudis learned with their purchase of intermediate-range Chinese missiles in the 1980s. As Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of State, explained to Riyadh, “You have put Saudi Arabia squarely in the targeting package of the Israelis. You are now number one on the Israeli hit parade. If the balloon goes up anywhere in the Middle East, you’re going to get hit first.” That never occurred to the Saudis, who were simply scared of the Iranians. If Middle East proliferation could be boiled down to Tehran and Riyadh, or even Sunnis and Shiites, or better yet if the Middle East really was all about the Arab-Israeli conflict, then the nuclear issue would be bipolar, precisely the sort of scenario the United States managed to contain for almost half a century. But the Middle East is not like that, and the issue is not simply multipolarity; rather, regional proliferation partakes of the same issues that make this highly ideological part of the world different from any other. In the Middle East, it is standard operating procedure to shoot at third parties in order to make war on your enemies.
Consider how Middle Eastern states triangulate off of Israel to enhance their own prestige. Our American obsession with the peace process obscures the fact that the conflict is the primary means by which Middle Eastern regimes compete with each other. For instance, supporting Hezbollah is not just how Iran fights Israel; it is also how Iran challenges the prestige of its Sunni Arab adversaries. By making war on Israel through Hezbollah, Iran has driven a wedge between the conservative Arab regimes that have made accommodations with Israel and the Arab masses who prize resistance to the Zionist enemy.
Most recently, Turkey sought to enhance its regional standing by competing for a stake in the resistance when it sent the Mavi Marmara to Gaza. The Iranians were caught flat-footed and promised their own flotilla, which has yet to materialize, to match Ankara’s. Proliferation means that all the regimes are competing against each other—with nuclear weapons in their quivers. If Hezbollah or Hamas were at war with Israel, maybe Turkey or Saudi Arabia would rush to put its nuclear umbrella over the resistance before the Iranians had a chance. If that intra-Muslim competition manages to deter Israel, it nonetheless raises the stakes among Tehran, Riyadh, and Ankara.
There is no containing several dozen men in a room shooting at each other, which is what a nuclearized Middle East will look like.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).