Marc Lynch

Will the Kingdom be Atomic?

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!