So far, Israel is the only nuclear state in the Middle East, but its monopoly will be broken if Iran is able to go nuclear, which will inevitably be followed by Saudi Arabia. The threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East became abundantly clear when the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, in an interview with Fox News, made it clear that if Iran succeeds in going nuclear, Saudi Arabia will pursue a similar course of action. Triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is a possibility if Iran and Saudi Arabia emerge as two nuclear states in the region, breaking the monopoly of Israel.
In the last several years, proliferation alarmists have argued that Teheran has a clandestine nuclear weapon’s program, an allegation which is denied forcefully by Iran. In an interview with CNN the other day, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made it clear that “we have announced time and again that the use of nuclear weapons, the use of weapons of mass destruction in general, do not have a place. Why? Because we don’t believe in it, nor do we have a need for it.”
If Iran publicly rejects its nuclear ambitions, then why has it not allowed nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to examine its nuclear sites remains a bewildering question. The credibility of Iran’s rejection of its nuclear ambitions is contested, because countries like India and Pakistan had also emphatically denied the existence of their nuclear weapons programs, and stated that their research was exclusively for ‘peaceful’ purposes, till the time the two countries tested their nuclear devices in May 1998. North Korea went nuclear a decade ago, justifying its nuclearization in terms of countering the American nuclear presence in its region.
When Iran and the P5+1 deal was reached in July 2015, Saudi Arabia and Israel expressed their reservations that Tehran would continue with its clandestine nuclear weapons program, which would be a grave threat to their security.
In order to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in July 2015, the Obama administration paved the way for a diplomatic deal with Teheran, along with several other countries. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was led by the US. According to a report released by the Council on Foreign Relations New York, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open up its facilities to more international inspection, in exchange for easing of sanctions imposed against Teheran. However, under the Trump administration, the US withdrew from that deal in 2018, and in retaliation, Iran resumed its nuclear activities. UN inspectors reported in early 2023 that Iran had enriched trace amounts of uranium to nearly weapons-grade levels, triggering international concern. The JCPOA included China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany, known as the P5+1. When Iran and the P5+1 deal was reached in July 2015, Saudi Arabia and Israel expressed their reservations that Tehran would continue with its clandestine nuclear weapons program, which would be a grave threat to their security.
When Saudi Arabia and Iran reached a rapprochement as a result of Chinese mediation and agreed to normalize their relations, it was expected that the two Persian Gulf powerful states, with a history of hostility since the Islamic revolution of February 1979, will mend fences and establish cordial, friendly and normal relations. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia also agreed to reestablish their trade and commercial ties, and shun hostile campaigns against each other through their proxies in Syria and Yemen. Now, after a breakthrough in Iranian-Saudi relations, it seems that the two countries are reverting to their past polemics, in which Saudi misgivings against Tehran’s nuclear program, along with Iranian criticism of the Abraham Accords of 2020, to establish diplomatic relations between Arab countries and Israel are again in the foreground.
The withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA in 2018 provided an opportunity to Iran to resume its nuclear enrichment program. The status of the JCPOA is in limbo, because despite the change in US administration in 2021, America is still not able to restore nuclear dialogue with Iran.
The recent pronouncement made by the Israeli Foreign Minister, that following Saudi Arabia’s recognition of Israel, at least six or seven Muslim countries will follow suit, is also a sharp of criticism by Iran. If this trend of negative diplomatic blows continues between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the net beneficiary will be Israel because it is Tel Aviv which has very well exploited Arab concern, particularly Saudi Arabia’s, about the implications of Iranian nuclear program. What is the basis of fear that Israel and the Arab world have about the Iranian nuclear program, and why is Iran unable to mitigate distrust despite repeated assurances by its leadership about Iran not going nuclear? What will be the implications of the Saudi threat that it will go nuclear if Iran follows the nuclear path?
The possibility of triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East needs to be analyzed from three perspectives. First, the Iranian perspective, which is somewhat duplicitous. On the one hand, the Iranian President rules out his country’s nuclear ambitions, but on the other hand, is not allowing inspectors from IAEA to inspect its nuclear installations. This brings into picture the policy of ‘nuclear opacity,’ which was for years was followed by India and Pakistan – claiming to the world that their nuclear programs were for peaceful purposes, but sustaining research and development on their nuclear weapons programs in a clandestine manner. How long will Iran be able to conceal its nuclear program under the policy of ‘nuclear opacity’ is yet to be seen.
If Israeli concerns against the Iranian nuclear program possess some merit, Saudi reservations against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are misplaced.
The withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA in 2018 provided an opportunity to Iran to resume its nuclear enrichment program. The status of the JCPOA is in limbo, because despite the change in US administration in 2021, America is still not able to restore nuclear dialogue with Iran. Second, the Saudi and Israeli perspective, which reflects total consonance in denying Iran a nuclear arsenal. Surprisingly, Saudi Arabia is after the Iranian nuclear program, but has not condemned Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. So far, it is estimated that Israel has 200 nuclear weapons, which for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman do not pose a threat to the Middle East!
If Israeli concerns against the Iranian nuclear program possess some merit, Saudi reservations against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are misplaced. Certainly, Iran has no policy or objectives to target any Arab country if it acquires nuclear weapons. It seems that a lack of trust and confidence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, despite having normalized their diplomatic relations, is a major factor which has failed to mend fences and expunge the longstanding enmity. It also means a possible reversal or hindrances in the peace process between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Furthermore, it is Israel which has prevailed over the Arab world while brutally suppressing Palestinians in the occupied areas of West Bank and Gaza. Iran’s policy vis-à-vis Israel is principled whereas the Arab countries, since losing the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars with the Jewish state, lack the confidence and capability to support the Palestinian struggle for emancipation and self-determination. It is because of the non-committal behavior of the Arab states that Israel has been able to prevail and deny Palestinians an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem. Now, Saudi Arabia, after the American brokered Abraham Accord of 2020, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Sudan, is thinking of mending fences with Israel, while ensuring an independent Palestinian state. It means that Abraham-II is on the cards, which will entail Saudi Arabia recognizing Israel and as assured by the Israeli Foreign Minister, at least six or seven Muslim countries will follow Riyadh.
Unlike the Iranian perspective, which completely rejects Israeli and Saudi concerns over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, the Arab perspective lacks rationality and pragmatism because it is Israel and not Iran which has hurt Palestinians by sustaining illegal occupation over the West Bank and laying siege to Gaza.
Finally, there is the Pakistani perspective, which tries to keep a balance between the Iranian and Saudi positions on the nuclear issue. So far Pakistan is the only nuclear state in the Muslim world, and if Iran and Saudi Arabia emerge as nuclear weapon states, its monopoly will be broken. Certainly, Pakistan ought to be concerned about the resumption of the Iranian-Saudi schism, if diplomacy fails to build bridges between the two Muslim countries.
The issue is not to break Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East or to prevent Iran from going nuclear. What is required is management and resolution of conflicts which compels countries to follow the path to nuclearization. Unless there is a serious effort to mitigate vertical and horizontal proliferation, the threat of nuclear war will remain. Even by going nuclear, the issue of security cannot be dealt with, as is evident from the nuclearization of India and Pakistan in May 1998. The two nuclear armed states are as insecure as they were before May 1998. The same will happen in the Middle East, because despite the possession of 200 nuclear weapons, Israel is the most insecure country in the region. This exact pattern will repeat itself in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia.