Chain Reaction: Avoiding a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East

Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate
February 27, 2008

Related Country: 

  • Egypt
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Turkey

U.S. interests and Middle East peace, despite the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) conclusion that ‘‘Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003.’’ Iran continues to enrich uranium-the most difficult component of a nuclear weapons program-and continues to conduct work that could contribute to nuclear weapons development. As the NIE states, Iran now possesses the ‘‘scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.’’ Consequently, the NIE judges ‘‘with moderate confidence’’ that Iran will have enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to produce a nuclear weapon by 2010–2015. Furthermore, because the motivations inspiring the Iranian drive for nuclear weapons remain unaddressed, Iran remains unlikely to fully abandon its long-term drive to obtain a nuclear weapon capability. If in fact Iran halted the other aspects
of its nuclear weapons program in 2003, this action almost certainly represents a tactical pause rather than a strategic change of course. In short, Iran now possesses the means as well as the motivation to develop nuclear weapons. Consequently, it is entirely possible that the United States could confront a nuclear-armed or nuclear weapons capable Iran in the next decade.

If such an undesirable scenario were to occur in the next decade, despite the international community’s best efforts, the U.S. must not be caught unprepared. U.S. decision-makers must seek to understand the regional dynamics that would accompany an Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons and be ready to implement policies to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse. An Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon or a nuclear weapons capability would dramatically shift the balance of power among Iran and its three most powerful neighbors-Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. This shift in the balance of power could spark a regional nuclear arms race as Iran’s neighbors seek to redress the new power imbalance. This raises important questions: How are these three countries currently responding to the Iranian nuclear program? How would Riyadh, Cairo, and Ankara respond if Tehran were to cross the nuclear threshold and acquire nuclear weapons? Would they pursue nuclear weapons of their own? What factors would influence their decisions? What can the U.S. do now and over the coming years to discourage these countries from pursuing a nuclear weapon of their own?


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