Don’t fear a nuclear arms race in the Middle East

Steven Cook writes: On March 21, Haaretz correspondent Ari Shavit wrote a powerful op-ed in the New York Times that began with this stark and stunning claim: “An Iranian atom bomb will force Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt to acquire their own atom bombs.” Indeed, it has become axiomatic among Middle East watchers, nonproliferation experts, Israel’s national security establishment, and a wide array of U.S. government officials that Iranian proliferation will lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. President Barack Obama himself, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last month, said that if Iran went nuclear, it was “almost certain that others in the region would feel compelled to get their own nuclear weapon.”

Multiple nuclear powers on a hair trigger in the Middle East — the most volatile region on earth, and one that is undergoing massive political change — is a nightmare scenario for U.S. and other security planners, who have never before confronted a challenge of such magnitude. But thankfully, all the dire warnings about uncontrolled proliferation are — if not exactly science fiction — further from reality than Shavit and Obama indicate. There are very good reasons for the international community to meet the challenge that Iran represents, but Middle Eastern nuclear dominoes are not one of them.

Theorists of international politics, when pondering the decision-making process of states confronted by nuclear-armed neighbors, have long raised the fears of asymmetric power relations and potential for nuclear blackmail to explain why these states would be forced to proliferate themselves.

This logic was undoubtedly at work when Pakistan embarked on a nuclear program in 1972 to match India’s nuclear development program. Yet for all its tribulations, the present-day Middle East is not the tinderbox that South Asia was in the middle of the 20th century. Pakistan’s perception of the threat posed by India — a state with which it has fought four wars since 1947 — is far more acute than how either Egypt or Turkey perceive the Iranian challenge. And while Iran is closer to home for the Saudis, the security situation in the Persian Gulf is not as severe as the one along the 1,800-mile Indo-Pakistani border.

Most important to understanding why the Middle East will not be a zone of unrestrained proliferation is the significant difference between desiring nukes and the actual capacity to acquire them.

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