By Ethan Kessler

Last week, it was revealed that Saudi Arabia has built a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, a key first step in producing nuclear fissile material. Riyadh’s diplomatic statements notwithstanding, it has been obvious for some time that the Gulf kingdom was eyeing a nuclear option. After all, the Saudis’ regional rival, Iran, has been pursuing the bomb for nearly two decades. What does this mean for U.S. interests? And how should the possibility of another nuclear weapons state (NWS) inform future U.S. foreign policy?

First, this episode should serve as a reminder of the importance of nuclear nonproliferation to U.S. interests. Historically, the nuclearization of states like Saudi Arabia has been viewed by Washington as detrimental to U.S. interests. Moreover, Riyadh’s steps toward a bomb indicate the uniquely difficult challenge the Middle East, more so than other regions, poses for nuclear nonproliferation. Importantly, the Saudis’ pursuit of a bomb also gives us reason to approach nuclear nonproliferation through a realist lens. It reminds us that institutional limits on state behavior can be trumped by national security considerations; that state actors will be as, if not more, challenging for nuclear nonproliferation as non-state actors in the Middle East; and that restraint can only do better than military interventionism at stemming nuclear proliferation. We cannot forget that theoretical considerations such as these have very real implications for foreign policy in practice.

The Saudis view their security environment as precarious. To the northwest is Israel, which has had nuclear weapons since the 1960s. Though Tel Aviv has evolved from foe to unofficial partner in the kingdom’s rivalry with Tehran, it is still nevertheless far from an ally. To the east is Iran, which was first found to be pursuing nuclear weapons in 2002. Iran is Saudi Arabia’s main antagonist, as each sees itself as the rightful custodian of Islam in the region. The Israelis do not fear a Saudi attack or have reason to attack the Saudis, so of these two nuclear powers, only Iran presents a real threat. And the Saudis have no mutual defense agreement with a nuclear power, like South Korea, Japan, and NATO countries maintain with the United States, that would secure it under a foreign “nuclear umbrella.” So, if Tehran moves close to actually acquiring a bomb, Riyadh will presumably do somersaults to acquire its own ultimate deterrent.

Of course, one (or two, or three) more NWS in the Middle East is not what Washington wants. Nonproliferation has been a key American interest for decades. After all, it is only because an cohort of nuclear facilities inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) was inside Iran – consistent with Tehran’s obligations as a state-party to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – that we know Iran was chasing a nuclear weapon back in 2002. The NPT forms the centerpiece of the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, whereby the NWS nominally agree to pursue their own eventual disarmament in exchange for the non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) agreeing to not obtain their own nuclear arsenals. This arrangement serves the U.S. and other NWS well because it maintains their oligopoly on the power to annihilate; moreover, the nuclear powers dread the regional instability that nuclearizing non-nuclear states may create (see the U.S. reactions to South Korean and Taiwanese attempts to nuclearize in the Cold War). Indeed, proliferation of nuclear weapons to states with weak civilian control of the military or extensive ties to radical non-state actors may increase the risk of actual nuclear weapons use, which is certainly in no state’s interest. Especially as Washington attempts to disentangle itself from Middle Eastern conflicts to focus its efforts on China, the Saudis’ advancement on the nuclear front is not welcome news.

But, if the U.S. and other NWS have successfully limited nuclear proliferation for this long, then how can it be that two of the Middle East’s most powerful countries are pursuing nuclear weapons programs? In fact, the Middle East’s regional dynamics present a unique challenge to nuclear non-proliferation. That is because nuclear non-proliferation not only depends on international institutions like the NPT that may disincentivize states from nuclearizing, but also the security environment each state finds itself in.

To be clear, the NPT has real substance. It makes it costly for NNWS to break their pact and nuclearize both by ensuring these steps will be detected (through nosy IAEA inspectors) and by imposing sanctions on parties in breach of the NPT, who are liable to sanctions by the UN Security Council and informal condemnation more broadly. The NPT also positively reinforces non-nuclearization by rewarding obedient NNWS with the benefits of peaceful nuclear research. It is easy to see, then, how the cost-benefit analysis for most NNWS ends up preferring continued non-nuclearization to nuclearization. For those NNWS who face few threats from NWS (think Mexico, Ghana, or Chile), this is the end of the analysis. For those NNWS who do believe they face threats from NWS (think Canada, Germany, South Korea, or Japan), the security guarantee from an NWS (the United States) generally suffices to maintain non-nuclearization. Though South Korea and Japan in particular still maintain a “latent” capability to produce deliverable nuclear weapons quickly due to their extensive peaceful nuclear energy and space programs, that they have still declined to build nuclear weapons shows the value of a nuclear umbrella. A tame threat environment and/or a nuclear security guarantee in the absence of one seem to be characteristic of NPT compliance.

But, absent these characteristics, a state would plausibly be tempted to pursue the security provided by nuclear weapons. States in the Middle East fit this description, driving them to pursue nuclear weapons even in the era of the NPT. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq made the case to the Arab world that it was intolerable for the region to be dominated by Israel’s nuclear capability. More importantly, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran helped create rivalries between Tehran and both Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the latter of which went to war with Iran from 1980 to 1988. This war left an indelible mark on Iran’s military and political establishment, convincing them that a nuclear deterrent was necessary to prevent war. (This thinking was likely accelerated by the post-Cold War liberalizing mission of the U.S., which explicitly defined Iran as a rogue actor and somewhat normalized open calls for attacking Iran.) Iraq, in turn, felt threatened by Tehran’s size and geographical advantages, driving Baghdad to enthusiastically pursue the bomb. There is no reason that Riyadh today, at a nadir in relations with Iran, would not feel similarly. And there is no country in the Middle East (unless you count Turkey) that receives protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, so these states ultimately feel left to their own devices.

This all reaffirms the first tenet of neorealism: states are primarily concerned with their own security, and will therefore act in ways that enhance national security. While international institutions like the NPT can severely constrain and guide state behavior, key national security interests will generally displace such considerations. The NPT continues to be a vital part of nuclear nonproliferation efforts. But, in addition to those NWS like India, Pakistan, and Israel that never ratified the NPT, states-parties such as North Korea and Iran have walked back previous commitments as their conceptualizations of national security changed. As Thomas M. Countryman, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation and now of the Arms Control Association, said, “[the Saudis] see a value in having a latent capability to produce their own fuel and perhaps their own weapons.” International strictures can only discourage, not prevent, states from pursuing the bomb.

Last week’s news also vindicates realism’s focus on states as the international system’s primary actors. For all the attention given to the prospect of non-state extremists getting their hands on nuclear material – from the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Act and Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which aimed to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons stockpile from bad actors, to Graham Allison’s worry a decade ago that Kim Jong-Il believed “he could get away with selling a nuclear weapon to Osama bin Laden” – existing safeguards have been able to protect us from nuclear terrorism quite well. This is not to say that the threat of nuclear terrorism is not real (though it may be exaggerated). But focusing efforts on non-state proliferation to the exclusion of state proliferation challenges could clearly be detrimental. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it is easy to see why the U.S. obsessed over the prospect of a nuclear-armed al-Qaeda. Last week’s news was a further reminder that state actors in the Middle East will pose as much, if not more, of a long-term problem to nonproliferation as non-state ones.

Lastly, the revelations of a gestating Saudi nuclear program should further incline the U.S. to act with more restraint abroad. U.S. bellicosity toward Iran has only solidified the view in Tehran that the regime is under threat from foreign powers, giving hardliners ample reason to defy the NPT and pursue nuclear weapons. Diplomatic openings, like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, did the opposite by empowering moderates in Iran to roll back aggressive activities in exchange for sanctions relief. This is the same strategy that helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the intricacies of domestic politics should not be papered over by such an approach, it is clear that pugnacious alternatives such as the current U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign likely empower hardliners and incline states like Iran to resume nuclearization. Of course, this Iranian scramble for a bomb then furthers Saudi nuclear desires, making nonproliferation in the region less attainable. As John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt have noted, “Countries usually seek the bomb because they fear being attacked, and U.S. efforts at regime change only heighten such concerns.”

More hawkish voices may be less inclined to question bellicosity on the grounds that it is a prerequisite for effective deterrence – that U.S. allies and partners will only be assured nuclear weapons are not worth building if Washington stands by, ready to act aggressively on their behalf or at least support them in their own misadventures. But this argument is dangerously self-justifying, failing with regard to both treaty allies and partners like Saudi Arabia. America’s closest allies, with whom it has mutual defense treaties, are protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and often host large garrisons of U.S. tripwire forces. As Thomas C. Schelling quipped, these forces signal U.S. credibility simply for the fact that “they can die.” American chest-thumping toward North Korea is not necessary to deter it from attacking the South; the large number of Americans in and around Seoul and Washington’s nuclear promise suffice.

This logic does not extend to partners outside the U.S. nuclear umbrella, such as Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, the past two decades of U.S. military adventurism in the Middle East prove that effecting regime change and encouraging bellicose partners only serve to accelerate, not alleviate, proliferation concerns. After Washington’s toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Riyadh took stock of the resulting instability and reviewed its options for regional security, which included acquiring a nuclear bomb. More recently, the U.S.-backed Saudi intervention in Yemen has pushed the Houthi rebels Riyadh is fighting into Tehran’s arms, enlarging the threat Iran poses to the Saudis. In other words, when the U.S. and its non-nuclear partners act aggressively, they often bring about the outcome they purport to fear, heightening the nominal need for nuclear weapons. To be sure, realists recognize the limits to any U.S. strategy – restraint or aggression – in addressing other states’ nuclear ambitions, because a state’s nuclear ambitions are primarily driven by its own conception of national security. But in the context of the Middle East, restraint can hardly do a worse job than military interventionism at staying nuclear proliferation. U.S. policymakers would do well to keep this in mind moving forward.

The Saudis’ march toward a domestic nuclear capability is certainly big news, but it should not come as too much of a surprise. As realism reminds us, states are extremely concerned with their own security, and will act to enhance it. Nuclear weapons are thus appealing to regimes concerned about attacks from other states. This is especially the case in the Middle East, where the regional heavyweights, Iran and Saudi Arabia, do not possess nuclear assurances from outside powers and have historical and ideological reasons to both oppose and fear each other. These dynamics all militate against the U.S. aim of nuclear nonproliferation, for which the NPT is a useful but limited tool. If U.S. policymakers are to preempt future nuclear weapons wannabees, they should keep in mind the salience of states in nonproliferation efforts and embrace restraint as opposed to military intervention. Much is uncertain looking ahead, but one certainty is that these challenges will not end in Riyadh.

Ethan Kessler is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a major in Political Science and a minor in History. Originally from California, he is working on a political campaign in Michigan. He enjoys studying international relations and American politics.

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