Will the Kingdom be Atomic?

If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, will it set off a cascade of unmanageable nuclear proliferation in the Gulf? Not necessarily, according to "Atomic Kingdom," a fascinating and deeply researched new report from the Center for a New American Security (full disclosure: I'm a non-resident senior fellow at CNAS, but I didn't review this report). Colin Kahl, Melissa Dalton, and Matt Irvine make a pretty strong case that its own self-interest would probably stop Saudi Arabia from taking the nuclear plunge. Their report is a vital corrective to one of those poorly-vetted Washington "facts" which too often shape policy ... even if it ultimately raises as many questions as it answers.

The logic of "Atomic Kingdom" is fairly straightforward:  While Riyadh would feel deeply threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon, the costs to Saudi Arabia of secondary proliferation would be higher than most assume, its technical capability to make the move is less than most believe, and it has better options at its disposal to enhance its security in the face of a nuclear Iran. Nor is the long-rumored Pakistani option for an off the shelf bomb very likely, given the risks and costs to both sides in doing so. Instead, the authors argue, Saudi Arabia is more likely to push for an American nuclear umbrella and deeper security guarantees (which would not be without its own complications).

They draw usefully on the academic literature on nuclear proliferation to frame their case, in a prime example of the policy relevance of academic research that we all so love to debate.  As Kahl put it to me over email, it is indeed striking that "nuclear cascades have been predicted for decades, yet since the NPT went into force, cascades have never actually occurred." What do we do with that track record? As with my argument about the lessons for Syria of the literature on the dismal track record of external arming of rebel groups, this doesn't prove that it wouldn't play out differently in this particular case. Iran and its neighbors might really be different, just like Syria might really be different from all the other comparable cases. But it would be folly to ignore both the lessons of history and rigorous analysis of causal mechanisms when trying to formulate policy responses. 

The core of their argument is that going nuclear wouldn't be Riyadh's choice despite its oft-expressed anxieties about Iran. They see Riyadh as facing "profound disincentives to rushing to a bomb or acquiring one "off the shelf" from Pakistan, including the prospect of facing crippling economic sanctions and a rupture in the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership." A key to their logic is that "Saudi Arabia acquiring its own nuclear weapons could, on net, make the threat to stability worse, not better." It would find itself potentially targeted by Israel or by Iran, it might find itself locked into an arms race, the nuclear weapons might be an attractive target for domestic jihadists, and it might run afoul of Congress regardless of whether the White House prefers to let it pass. The most likely outcome, in their view, is based on the classic Realist calculation that Riyadh would opt to balance Iranian nuclear power by moving closer to Washington rather than bandwagoning with a hated Tehran, going it alone, or relying on an unpredictable and competitive Pakistan.

The argument is well-made, but I see some key points which remain unresolved. India and Pakistan got away with going nuclear, oil behemoth Saudi Arabia is hardly a prime target for economic sanctions, and Washington doesn't have a great track record of standing up to Riyadh. What's more, the authors probably overestimate the rationality and coherence of Saudi foreign policy, which might leap forward out of status concerns or irrational terror of Tehran despite the compellingly logical reasons they shouldn't. For that reason, I just hope that "Atomic Kingdom" is read closely in Riyadh and its logic fully internalized there among the relevant decision-makers.

One other point struck me. The report demonstrates effectively why Saudi Arabia might prefer an American nuclear umbrella over other options, but what about the United States? Would Washington genuinely prefer a nuclear umbrella over Saudi to its standing up its own deterrent? Kahl noted that such a nuclear umbrella "would keep the United States bogged down in costly defense commitments in the Gulf for decades to come, entrenching ties to the least democratic countries in a democratizing region and limiting Washington's ability to strategically pivot toward Asia." Those are all rather problematic for the kind of "right-sizing" Middle East strategy which I think the Obama administration should be, and arguably is, pursuing.  

Despite these questions, Atomic Kingdom" is a good piece of work which should generate some interesting and useful debate about the probability and the potential responses to a nuclear cascade in the Gulf. I hope it gets widely read and discussed --- and I'm especially keen to see the response from Riyadh! 

Marc Lynch

Debating Jordan's Challenges

"375,000 Syrians have come to Jordan since March 2011, which is 6-7% of our population. In American numbers, at that rate, this is 17-18 million people."  The spillover effects of the Syria conflict were very much on the mind of Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh during a wide-ranging conversation over coffee in Washington last week.  His government's focus for Syria was very much on finding a political transition which, he said, "everybody realizes at this stage is the only game in town."  His other primary preoccupation was to advance a narrative of successful reform following Parliamentary elections against my more cynical perspective.

On the problem of Syrian refugees, Judeh and I had little about which to disagree. Jordan has good reason to be concerned about the impact of Syrian refugees on the Kingdom. The flow from Syria has been more intense than the wave of Iraqi refugees during the last decade:  faster, more concentrated, and with no end in sight.  The early accommodations for a much smaller refugee flow have struggled to keep pace, and Jordanians are feeling the strain from hosting this massive influx (things have only gotten worse since this sharply reported FP account by Nicholas Seeley a few months ago).  

Judeh presented at length the plight of the Syrian refugees in the Kingdom, who often arrive in desperate conditions, fleeing fighting and needing urgent medical care.  For a long time, he said, 500 to 700 people a night crossed the border.  But now it is up to 3,000 to 5,000 a night.    Jordan never established a refugee camp for Iraqi refugees, preferring that they disperse through the cities, but has already established one for Syrians (and has plans for a second).  Conditions in that camp have been grim during a harsh winter. And while there is a great deal of "goodwill" in the international community, including substantial pledges of humanitarian aid at the recent Kuwait donors crisis, the cold fact is that the international community has failed to deliver needed assistance for these refugees.  Jordanian officials estimate costs of nearly $500 million in 2013 in energy, food, water, education, health and subsidies. They should get it.

The impact of the refugee flow and fears of militarized spillover give some urgency to Jordan's efforts to find some solution.  Foreign Minister Judeh repeatedly emphasized the goal of an inclusive political transition agreement for Syria, and brushed aside questions about possible plans for arming rebels or no-fly zones.  He worried about the potential territorial breakup of Syria, which he described as "a danger that we should avoid at all cost."   He told me the same that he told several other interviewers: "for all intents and purposes this is a civil war of a political nature," but the worst scenario would be that it devolves into a true "ethnic sectarian civil war."  

For Jordan, he insisted, "what is most important to us as a country contiguous to Syria is to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria, to do everything in our power to ensure that whatever transition takes place in Syria is all inclusive." Judeh seemed encouraged by recent signals from Moaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition, of a willingness to engage in talks, and supportive of the ongoing efforts of United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar al-Brahimi.  He couldn't point to signs that the Assad regime was interested, but emphasized again: "I think everybody realizes that at this stage the political transition is the only game in town."

Our conversation ranged over a wide range of issues besides Syria, of course.  He emphasized yet again Jordan's view of the urgency of engaging on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and emphatically dismissed any suggestions that Jordan wanted any role in the West Bank other than one supporting the creation of a sovereign, independent and territorially contiguous Palestinian state. (I joked that I should program my recorder to automatically replay his rejection of Israeli ideas about the "Jordanian Option" every six months.)  He also emphasized the serious economic stakes involved in Jordan's ongoing discussions with Egypt over its failure to provide promised levels of natural gas, upon which the Jordanian economy is highly dependent.

But the lion's share of our conversation following the discussion of Syria focused on Jordan's domestic politics, which turned into a long, interesting and productive (if inconclusive) debate.  As Judeh knew well, I've been publicly and privately skeptical about the extent and implications of Jordan's reforms, after long years of watching royal promises of change fail to materialize.  Why, I asked, should we expect these reforms to be any different from the repeated cycle of past empty promises, to significantly empower the elected Parliament or to meaningfully change the nature of monarchical authority? 

Judeh was keen to convince me that these reforms were different.  He stressed that Jordan had met the benchmarks it laid out for itself in the reform process: revising the constitution, enacting relevant laws, establishing an independent election commission and a constitutional court, and holding elections.  "This marks the end of the constitutional phase of the reforms," he argued, and the beginning of a new phase of consolidating Parliamentary government.  He portrayed the process of government formation now unfolding, in consultation with Parliamentary blocs, as an historic change.  Now, he insisted, we would see the unfolding of a new culture of Parliamentary government and the crystallization of genuine political parties and blocs.  Who could have imagined, he argued, that the King would go before Parliament and demand that it launch a "White Revolution"? 

But why would this be any different than before, I pressed him?  He acknowledged past failures, but argued that this time the reforms were irreversible, fully embedded in the constitution and new institutions and fully supported by the King.  He argued that the new institutions and authorities embedded in the Constitution would prevent any relapse;  I countered that the law hadn't really prevented government by emergency law from 2001-2003.  He pointed to the many new faces in Parliament and the high electoral turnout; I noted that the "new" Parliament selected as Speaker Saad Hayel Srour.. for the sixth time.  He pointed to the high turnout and the genuinely impressive performance of the new Independent Election Commission;  I pointed out the continuing controversy around the election law and gerrymandered districts, and the fragmented and conservative Parliament it produced.  (For more on this, see my conversation with Yale's Ellen Lust, who was in Jordan for the election.) And around it went.

The bottom line is that the Palace is clearly feeling its oats on reform after the election, and thinks it has a positive story to sell at home and abroad. Casual observers will likely be easily convinced by the narrative they are offering. Skeptics like me are going to want to see a lot more: the new institutions actually functioning to constrain executive power, the Parliament actually behaving like a Parliament, and so on.  Judeh's trump card was that after all that had happened in the region, the overthrown regimes and wars and economic crises, "we are still here. We must be doing something right."  Perhaps. 

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images