After JCPOA: Has the risk of Middle East nuclear proliferation waned?

Foreign Minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the last working session of the Iran negotiations leading to the JCPOA.

One week after "implementation day, the state of non-proliferation affairs in the Middle East.

Grantees in this story

For much of the past decade, the conversation on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East played out against a gloomy set of assumptions. One was that Iran could not be trusted as an honest negotiating partner at nuclear talks due to its recent record of covert development. Another held that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon posed a major risk of war, most likely sparking a preventive strike by Israel, the United States, or both--or perhaps a wider war. The third posited that, should Iran be allowed to cross the nuclear threshold, it would set in motion similar actions by regional rivals, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and possibly Egypt: in effect, a nuclearized Middle East.

I think we have dialed back the clock in the Middle East on nuclear weapons at least for the near term
— Martin B. Malin

Martin B. Malin, Executive Director of the Project to Manage the Atom at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, a Carnegie Corporation grantee, works to help avoid that last scenario.  Just one week after “implementation day,” when Iran completed its nuclear commitments and the nuclear-related sanctions were lifted, he spoke about the current state of non-proliferation affairs in the Middle East with Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow on Peace and Security at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 in July would seem to have changed the atmosphere regionally for non-proliferation. Yet the Middle East remains aflame. Syria’s civil war and the challenge of the Islamic State have pitted regional rivals against each other as at no other time in memory. So, are we in a better place today than we were a year or two ago?

I think we have dialed back the clock in the Middle East on nuclear weapons at least for the near term, and I think that is the contribution of the nuclear deal with Iran. In the end, countries make their decisions about whether to pursue nuclear weapons based on the threats that they face and, in particular, whether they feel nuclear-armed adversaries may threaten them. Today, assuming the agreement holds, everyone’s been given 10-to-15 years of breathing space. There will be debates in several countries — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran — about how to position themselves coming out of the agreement. But for now the immediate incentives to compete on the development of nuclear capabilities, at least those that are most relevant for acquiring nuclear weapons, have been dialed back a bit. And that’s a good thing.

But many Saudis speak today of the Islamic State and Iran as a real threat to the Kingdom. We also have a Saudi ruling elite pursuing a much more independent foreign policy in Yemen and elsewhere, and not so concerned as before with the view in Washington. Does that raise the likelihood of eventual Saudi proliferation?

I don’t think so. I think the Saudis may continue to pursue a nuclear hedge. For instance, they are funding their own human capital and creating a cadre of nuclear scientists and engineers. They certainly will pursue a nuclear energy program that bears watching. In the short term, however, I don’t think they’re going to be making much progress on elements of the fuel cycle that would give them a meaningful leg up in any nuclear arms race. They have talked about matching Iranian capabilities, which is useful diplomatically, as it gets everyone’s attention and keeps the U.S. riveted on the issue. But I don’t see a program to produce enriched uranium or plutonium for nuclear weapons getting very far in Saudi Arabia at this juncture.

Before the Iran nuclear accord, Israel and Saudi Arabia both expressed apprehensions about the negotiations. Their positions on Iran seemed quite close. What is your view of the Saudi-Israeli relationship now that the agreement is in place?

I think they are in sync at the moment, not only the Israelis and Saudis, but also the Israelis and other Gulf Arab states. Although Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians get in the way of open or normal diplomatic relations, I think Israel and the Gulf states see common interests and are cooperating quietly to keep Iran at bay. I don’t see that changing immediately. Israel has identified Iran as a much bigger threat than Sunni extremism, and most Israeli analysts will say compared to Iran ISIS is a manageable problem.  Israel views Iran’s alliance partners as threatening because of their proximity and Iran’s technological prowess. Yet the “alliance” really only consists of a sub-state organization, Hezbollah, and a teetering one in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. One way or another, that view puts Israel very much on the same page as the Gulf monarchies and on the same page with Egypt as well.

You’ve done a good deal of work trying to encourage progress toward regional nuclear disarmament talks – a kind of Middle Eastern agreement to create a zone without nuclear weapons or other WMD. Of course, Israel’s non-NPT status and nuclear arsenal is a pretty large obstacle. Do you think there is any prospect for a nuclear-free Middle East under those conditions?

Unfortunately, I don’t think so. There was an initiative coming out of the 2010 NPT review conference to hold another conference where all Mideast states would begin a process of discussing the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the region. Israel initially opposed the idea if it was going to be linked to the NPT, but was possibly willing to participate in regionally-based discussions with a broader agenda that included eliminating WMD. There was a very interesting series of meetings, they were called “consultations,” involving all of the key players in the region— Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, even Iran—to try to agree on the terms of a formal process. But they couldn’t agree, and the whole issue has been eclipsed by other priorities.  For now, the best we can hope for is a continuing policy of ambiguity from Israel about its nuclear capability, some continuing discomfort with that policy among the other states in the region, and a continuing process of adjustment to Iran’s scaled back and more intensively monitored nuclear program. Perhaps we’ll see some halting progress on pieces of a regional WMD disarmament agenda—such as additional progress on chemical weapon disarmament in Syria, or activation of additional regional stations to detect nuclear testing. Eventually, these disconnected and relatively modest steps may become building blocks for a more peaceful region. 

Michael Moran is a Visiting Media Fellow and author of The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power. The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of the Corporation.