Tuesday, April 03, 2012

How credible is the threat of a Nuclear Arms race in the Middle East?

In recent weeks with all the discussion about Iran pursuing a nuclear weapon, and fears that Israel is planning a strike on Iran to prevent them achieving their goal, many commentators have been warning about the threat of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.  There is real fear the if Iran joins the Nuclear club then Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey  will all be compelled to join as well.  Defence secretary William Hague warned: “If Iran set about the development of nuclear weapons then other nations in the Middle East would do so as well. I therefore do believe there would be a nuclear arms race in the region.”

It is perfectly fair to say that having a slew of new countries with nuclear weapons in the most politically volatile part of the world is far from ideal.  But very few people are questioning the realities of the situation; asking how real is this threat? How far away are these countries for going nuclear?

In Steven A. Cook’s Foreign Policy article ‘Don’t Fear a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East’ (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/02/don_t_fear_a_nuclear_arms_race?page=0,0) he does try to provide some perspective by assessing Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey ability to ‘go nuclear’. 

-          Turkey: Cook asserts that the country is already under the United States nuclear umbrella; as part of NATO approximately 90 American nuclear warheads are stationed in Turkey.  Despite this backing from the United States, if Turkey (given it pursuit of a larger global role) wanted its own independent nuclear deterrent, it currently has no means of achieving it.  It has no fissile material and no means of enriching or ‘weaponizing’ uranium.  Currently Turkey plans that by 2040, 25% of the countries power will be supplied by nuclear power plants. Many experts think this three decade span is ambitious given the level of technology Turkey currently possesses.  With this in mind, any shift to nuclear weapons program would likely take decades.
-          Egypt: There is little credible threat of Egypt developing a functioning nuclear weapons program any time soon.  Despite Hosni Mubarak spending $160 million on nuclear consultants in the 00’s, it is highly unlikely that Egypt could afford a civilian nuclear program, let alone a military one.  Over the last year Egypt has spent $26 billion of its $36 billion foreign currency reserves to keep the country afloat.  In the aftermath of the Revolution the country’s economy is on the verge of failing, and its infrastructure is crippled.  There is no way Egypt could afford to invest a nuclear program anytime soon.      

-          Saudi Arabia: The oil-rich kingdom has the finances to buy a nuclear weapons program; but it has been claiming to be developing a nuclear arsenal to match Israel’s since the 1970’s, without there ever being any evidence for this.  At this point in time the Saudi’s have no meaningful nuclear infrastructure; despite their wealth it would take years to be in possession of a nuclear weapon.  Cook comes to the conclusion that the Saudi claim, that they will be ‘forced’ to obtain nuclear capability if Iran get the bomb, is purely posturing.

What Cook makes appear is that these three countries do not present a credibility proliferation risk in the short or medium term.  It is clear that Iran getting a nuclear weapon will destabilise and already unstable region but to suggest that it will cause a domino effect, leading other States to obtain nuclear weapons, is, at least in the short term, a gross exaggeration.  

- T.J. Callingham

No comments: