A coming Mideast arms race?
Last week, Prince Turki al-Faisal, formerly Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, raised blood pressure levels when he suggested that his country would consider becoming a nuclear weapons state if it found itself between a nuclear-armed Iran and Israel. Such an outcome would be a severe setback to the Obama administration's vision of working toward a world without nuclear weapons. With Iran's nuclear program proceeding apace, will more nuclear weapons, owned by either the United States or Saudi Arabia, be required to deter a future Iranian nuclear capability?
The annex of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran discussed the program's military dimensions and was the agency's most alarming yet. International sanctions and suspected covert action (such as the Stuxnet computer worm, the assassination of a few Iranian nuclear scientists, and mysterious explosions at Iranian military sites) have slowed but not stopped Iran's progress. Absent the arrival of some heretofore missing and persuasive sanction, the United States and its partners in the region face the prospect of eventually having to deter and contain a nuclear-capable Iran.
A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) discussed the price of deterring Iran, which the authors asserted would be more costly than many have appreciated and would require much more preparation than the United States and its partners have made thus far.
Among the difficulties is the inherently subjective nature of deterrence -- which requires persuading adversaries to not do certain things, by threatening measures that U.S. planners estimate these adversaries would not tolerate. But these calculations depend on imprecise cross-cultural estimates of costs and benefits, where there is much room for misperception and miscalculation. In addition, Iran has created a diffuse structure of governing authority. This opaque arrangement, combined with Iran's expertise with irregular warfare and covert action, gives Tehran a method for taking hostile action while avoiding the responsibility for doing so.
Prince Turki seemed to suggest that Saudi Arabia requires its own nuclear force to, at a minimum, deter a classic and existential Cold War-style nuclear ballistic missile threat to the kingdom. The acquisition of a Saudi nuclear deterrent would be highly destabilizing. Very short missile flight times within the region, combined with fragile early-warning and command-and-control systems, would create an extremely dangerous hair-trigger posture on all sides. The Saudi acquisition of a nuclear deterrent would also be a crushing blow to the prestige of the United States as a military ally and to the diminishing role President Barack Obama has sought for nuclear weapons.
If, in the interests of stability, prestige, and nonproliferation, the United States wishes to dissuade Saudi Arabia from becoming a nuclear power, a U.S. security guarantee and adequate U.S. military forces in the region may be necessary. The AEI report noted that there has been little consideration of what military posture the United States might be required to maintain in the region to enforce deterrence and containment of a nuclear-capable Iran.
It would be a blow to the vision expressed in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) if the United States eventually found itself stationing nuclear weapons around the Persian Gulf, as it had to in Europe and the Western Pacific during the Cold War. The NPR discussed "a devastating conventional military response" as an alternative form of deterrence. But looming cuts to U.S. conventional forces and the cultural friction created when U.S. forces were previously stationed in Saudi Arabia greatly reduce the credibility of this alternative.
Prince Turki and perhaps others in the Saudi royal family apparently believe that nuclear weapons will be required to deter a future Iranian nuclear arsenal. U.S. officials have good reasons to prefer that such a nuclear deterrent not be owned and operated by Saudi Arabia. But that likely means the United States will have to substitute its own deterrent instead. That's exactly the outcome the White House hoped to avoid.