How to Understand Nuclear Deterrence in the Middle East

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 29, 2012

Lots of people commenting on Iran’s drive for nuclear energy–and possibly, nuclear weaponry–assure us that giving the likes of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad access to nuclear weapons can’t be all that bad. After all, they say, Israel has nuclear weapons, and other countries in the Middle East have taken things in stride. Surely, that means that nothing bad will happen in the region if Iran gets nuclear weapons. Right?

Well, not so fast with that sentiment. NPR interviewed former Obama administration official Dennis Ross, who was the special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia in the Obama administration. Consider the following exchange between host Robert Siegel, and Ross:

SIEGEL: Let’s say that all this were to fail and either military force were not used or were used unsuccessfully and Iran did develop a nuclear arsenal. How much – given the fact that Israel has a significant nuclear arsenal – how much would that alter the politics of the region?

ROSS: I think it would transform the reality there quite fundamentally. This is not going to be a case where it’s the Cold War and it’s the U.S. and it’s the Soviet Union. This is a case where you’re going to have a nuclear-armed Middle East, because if the Iranians get nuclear weapons, you can count on the fact that Saudi Arabia will do so as well. And that will mean others in the region, over time, will seek to have it as well.

SIEGEL: You’re not inferring that from Saudi policy. This isn’t theoretical. This…

ROSS: Not theoretical. The king of Saudi Arabia was very clear with me. I met him in May of 2009 when I was still within the administration. I was there at that time to explain to him our approach to the Iranians and the whole question of their nuclear program. And he was very clear with me in terms of saying if they get it, we get it. And obviously, I wasn’t the only person he said that to.

So I think what we’re dealing with here is if Iran becomes a nuclear weapon state, we are talking about the Middle East becoming a nuclear-armed region. This is a region where conflict is the norm, not the exception; where instability unfortunately is also a norm, not the exception. And to think that somehow the rules of the Cold War would apply in this region, I think, would be to stretch our imaginations quite far.

Something to bear in mind when people say that the presence of a nuclear-armed Iran would be greeted placidly by the other countries in the Middle East. Note that Saudi Arabia hasn’t raced to get nuclear weapons to counteract Israel. They’ll race to get them to counteract Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, however. Israel has done nothing to destabilize the region by possessing nuclear weapons. But the region will be plenty destabilized if other countries see the regime in Iran gain the ability to split the atom.

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