Will there be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East?

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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After a massive but failed Israeli effort to prevent the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, Israeli sources are now raising the alarm that a nuclear arms race is beginning in the Arab world. The competition is fueled by fear of a resurgent and expansionist Iran and mistrust, especially on the part of the Saudis, of American policy in the region.

The latest warning was issued by Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, who claimed that Israeli intelligence had determined Sunni Arab nations have started developing their own nuclear weapons in response to last year's nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers led by the United States.

Although Israel and the Gulf states do not have formal diplomatic relations, they nonetheless communicate through back channels, and their exchanges grew in their common effort to prevent world powers from completing a nuclear disarmament agreement with Iran.

On both sides, enmity toward Iran runs deeper than fear of its development of an independent nuclear capability. Israel regards Iran as "existential threat" to its survival. Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for the Assad regime in Syria makes it a direct threat to the Israeli state on its northern and the northeastern borders.

For the Saudis and the other Sunni Gulf states, the Iranians represent a religious threat to the Arab heartland from the Shi'a revival. Shiite states and proxies, led by Iran, are already engaged in a hot war in Syria and Yemen with Sunni states and proxies, led by Saudi Arabia.

For Saudi Arabia, in particular, Iran is also a political rival, threatening the fall of Arab monarchies with revolutionary regimes on the model of the Islamic Republic. In addition, Iran is a civilizational competitor to the al-Saud kingdom, threatening to displace Arab dominance of the region with a Persian one.

In January 2016, an editorial in the Saudi Al-Riyadh daily warned that with the lifting of sanctions against Iran "the American president has thrown the Iranian regime a lifeline." The editorial urged the country's leaders to "begin preparing a nuclear program for peaceful purposes" with 2030 as the goal for the activation of the first Saudi nuclear reactor.

There have also been whispers of Saudi Arabia purchasing "off-the-shelf" nuclear weapons from Pakistan, a close Sunni ally whose nuclear program Saudi Arabia has largely financed. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in purchasing U.S. arms, Saudi Arabia is still considered weaker than Iran in a head-to-head military confrontation.

A nuclear arms race in the Middle East -- that would surely also drag in Egypt, Turkey and even Algeria -- would be an unmitigated disaster to a region that is already experiencing upheaval, chaos and war unmatched in the modern era.

Although in essence this proxy war is a jockeying for political domination of the region, the adversaries have unleashed the sectarian genie and given the conflict a bloody religious dimension that will be difficult to control. Adding a nuclear dimension to this conflict increases the danger to the region exponentially.

Although the Iranian nuclear deal imposed tough monitoring and compliance restrictions on the Islamic Republic, the potential it has to improve regional security across the Middle East has yet to be realized. Instead, it seems that one of the unintended consequences many feared, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, may be on the verge of starting.

In a diplomatic miscalculation at last May's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the U.N. in New York, the U.S. abetted the Arab arms race by leading a coalition to block a consensus agreement. The draft consensus agreement would have begun the process of building a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone.

The putative reason for blocking the consensus was that Israel had not been consulted in drawing up the proposal. U.S. officials also regarded the NFZ as an attempt of the Egyptians and others "to pen in the Israelis."

Realistically, Israel, a nuclear-armed state and a non-member of the NPT, had not the least interest in crafting such a proposal. An opportunity to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East was lost.

Possibly the U.S. calculated that not forcing the issue with Israel would give diplomats more latitude to complete the Iran deal. But U.S. officials failed to grasp the degree of disaffection with the U.S. on the part of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

As a result, we now face a double threat, a nuclear arms race among the Arab monarchies and the unraveling of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal, as the Arab bomb threat grows. What was a tactical maneuver to fend off Arab and Israeli pressure against the Iran deal may prove to be a strategic blunder.

Ironically, the nuclear taboo in the Middle East was broken years ago by Israel in the 1950s. Israeli columnist Ari Shavit's 2013 book, My Promised Land, The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel argues that after 65 years of relative security Israel's unspoken nuclear shield has provided, "Israel's nuclear hegemony in the Middle East is coming to a close. Sooner or later, the Israeli monopoly will be broken."

Shavit traces the Israeli nuclear program to the trauma of the Holocaust and the siege mentality of the fledgling Jewish state. This, despite the fact that Israel had defeated a number of Arab armies during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, a military superiority that would only increase and multiply over the years.

Even if Arab states think that Iran is secretly building a weapon, Shavit warns, then Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Algeria could be next.

"[The Arab states] all believe that if we [Israel] have a right to our Dimona [the Israeli nuclear reactor]," Shavit writes, "they have a right to theirs. And when other Middle Eastern nations exercise their rights, our Dimona will turn from a blessing into a curse."

Finally, Shavit concludes that the nuclear program "that allowed Israel to flourish ... will become the biggest threat facing Israel. It might turn the lives of Israelis into a nightmare." We can only hope that he is wrong.

Achieving a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East will take some hard work. It will require the United States and other world powers to closely monitor Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. It will require addressing the regional security issues that would push the Sunni Middle Eastern powers toward a nuclear weapon. And it would require Israel coming to terms with the fact that a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East includes it too.

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