The recent joint plan of action concluded between the P5 + 1 and Iran has met with mixed reviews both at home and abroad. States in the Middle East have been particularly vocal on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, leading some to suggest that any continued Iranian enrichment could yield a cascade of proliferation in the region. Since the P5 + 1 agreement came into effect, some have insisted that if a final deal allows even a very limited level of Iranian enrichment, countries throughout the region will be tempted to pursue nuclear weapons or a substantive nuclear energy program with enrichment and/or reprocessing capabilities. The evidence, however, suggests that such fears are unfounded.
Saudi Arabia has long been skeptical of international negotiations with Iran. Saudi leaders have enthusiastically supported the international sanctions aimed at Iran, and as a competing regional power, it is likely that they would not mind seeing Iran weighed down by continued sanctions. Other Gulf States share Saudi Arabia’s concern. Bahrain resents alleged Iranian interference in its internal affairs and opposes any negotiated settlement that might alleviate Iran’s economic woes. Abu Dhabi, the largest member of the United Arab Emirates, also opposes any sanctions relief, partly due to their own territorial dispute with Iran.
Of the states opposing the current deal, however, the first to receive a visit from a US leader was Israel, where Vice President Joe Biden discussed the Iranian nuclear program and a host of other issues with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Though Israel strongly opposed the initial P5 + 1 deal, its reaction following the announcement of the implementation agreement was somewhat muted. Saudi leaders similarly offered a tepid statement of support for the deal, but some in the ruling family have publicly criticized it. Saudi Arabia will receive a visit from President Obama in March designed in part to allay Saudi concerns. Though Saudi and Bahraini business leaders have also evinced skepticism of a thaw in relations with Iran, they appear ready to wait and see if a comprehensive nuclear deal can allay some of their concerns.
Middle Eastern states are not, however, unanimously united against the joint plan of action. Turkey, which has previously evinced wariness of the Iranian nuclear program, praised the agreement and offered “to provide every kind of support for the success of the process”. Oman hosted the secret US-Iranian talks that led to the breakthrough meetings in Geneva, and Dubai, which aims to bolster its trade with Iran, has welcomed the P5 + 1 agreement, putting it at odds with its fellow emirate, Abu Dhabi.
While these states have been more welcoming of the deal, it is clear that they support the diplomatic process partly because they fear the possibility of a nuclear Iran. While Iran’s neighbors generally feel threatened by the possibility of a nuclear Iran, the support for the pact—even if tepid in some states—suggests that a civil Iranian nuclear program with low levels of enrichment would not spark a new wave of nuclear proliferation.
When it comes to nuclear proliferation, not all states are created equal. Rather, when making the argument that an Iranian nuclear program, however limited, could lead to a cascade of proliferation, the three states most frequently identified as possible proliferators are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. Egypt, however, will need to cobble together a functioning government before it can explore enrichment. Turkey, which would be more capable of such an undertaking than Egypt, already hosts US nuclear bombs through NATO.
Saudi Arabia, it would seem, is the most likely of the three to seek nuclear weapons or a substantial enrichment program in response to continued Iranian enrichment. US security guarantees, which, as in the case of Turkey, sometimes come in the form of nuclear bombs but could just as easily rely upon conventional forces, will play an important role in dissuading these countries from pursuing dangerous and potentially destabilizing nuclear programs of their own. For the time being, ongoing diplomatic efforts have forestalled any such moves, and even though other states are clearly threatened by a hypothetical Iranian nuclear weapon, it is not clear that a limited degree of Iranian enrichment conducted under IAEA safeguards would yield proliferation in the region.
In addition, as Kingston Reif argues in his recent Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists column, it is not at all clear why an agreement that verifiably puts Iran farther away from a bomb than at any time since it began enrichment will suddenly increase the incentives for other Middle Eastern states to start hedging.
The technical and managerial challenges associated with nuclear programs are daunting enough. As has been argued elsewhere, however, it would take a perfect storm—more than simply an Iranian nuclear weapon, let alone a restricted enrichment program—to provoke proliferation in any of the states considered above. The continued existence of a limited and closely monitored Iranian nuclear energy program and accompanying low-level uranium enrichment is thus unlikely to encourage proliferation in the region.