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. Of all three states that Shavit mentioned, the one on virtually everyone's list for possible nuclear proliferation in response to Iran is Turkey. But the Turkish Republic is already under a nuclear umbrella: Ankara safeguards roughly 90 of the United States' finest B61 gravity bombs at Incirlik airbase, near the city of Adana. These weapons are there because Turkey is a NATO member, and Washington's extended deterrence can be expected to at least partially mitigate Turkey's incentives for proliferation.
But even if the Turks wanted their own bomb, they have almost no capacity to develop nuclear weapons technology. Indeed, Turkey does not even possess the capability to deliver the 40 B61 bombs at Incirlik that are allocated to Turkish forces in the event of an attack, according to a report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Given the changes in Turkey's foreign policy and its drive for global influence, it is conceivable that it will want to develop a Turkish version of France's force de frappe. However, Ankara would literally be starting from scratch: Turkey has no fissile material, cannot mine or enrich uranium, and does not possess the technology to reprocess spent fuel, all of which are required for nuclear weapons development.
This does not mean that Turkey is not interested in nuclear technology. Yet Ankara's efforts, to the extent that they exist beyond the two small-scale facilities in Ankara and Kucukcekmece, are directly related to the country's predicted energy shortfall resulting from the combination of a booming economy and growing population. The Turkish government has announced plans for civilian nuclear power to provide a quarter of Turkey's electricity needs by 2040. But even this three-decade timeline seems overly optimistic given the inchoate nature of Turkey's nuclear research.
The Egyptians are way ahead of the Turks in developing nuclear infrastructure, but don't expect to see the rise of a nuclear power on the Nile anytime soon. Egypt's nuclear program is actually older than India's, and was established only three years after Israel founded its Atomic Energy Commission. The Egyptian Atomic Energy Commission, which Gamal Abdel Nasser established in 1955, was exclusively dedicated to the development of peaceful atomic energy, though there were suspicions to the contrary. The 1956 nuclear cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union transferred to Egypt a 2-megawatt light water reactor that only produced small amounts of plutonium.
There were, of course, worrying signs about the Egyptian program -- specifically Cairo's refusal to open the Inshas reactor to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection until after the peace treaty with Israel. Yet neither President Anwar Sadat nor his successor, the recently deposed Hosni Mubarak, ever made any effort to develop nuclear weapons technology. Sadat signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1980, and Mubarak negotiated with the United States, France, Canada, and Germany for reactors and funding for Egypt's nuclear program. Nothing, however, ever came of these discussions because of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster -- and the fact that the Egyptians never signed what is known as the Additional Protocol, which gives the IAEA enhanced powers to inspect nuclear facilities. Given the trajectory of Egypt's nuclear development, Cairo's rejection of the Additional Protocol had more to do with politics and sovereignty than plans for a clandestine weapons program.