Iran may soon have nuclear weapons. Official intelligence estimates put an Iranian bomb five-to-ten years away. Yet some experts think one-to-four years is a more realistic figure. Regardless of whether or when Iran announces that it has fabricated nuclear weapons, prudence may soon dictate that Iran’s neighbors treat it as a de facto nuclear power. And that will change the world.
Of course, a preemptive American strike may preserve the nuclear status quo. Yet prospects for an American attack are anything but certain. What’s more, given Iran’s ability to hide large sections of its nuclear program, an American raid could fail. So it behooves us to consider what may result from Iran’s getting the bomb. That will help us to decide whether stopping Iran is worth the considerable risks of a preemptive strike, and/or how we ought to conduct ourselves once Iran becomes a nuclear power.
The implications of nuclear weapons being gained by the largest and most radical power in the Middle East are much too broad to be investigated in a single piece. A nuclear-capable Iran, the chief state-supporter of Islamist terrorism standing athwart the world’s oil spigot, will not be like India, Pakistan, or even North Korea going nuclear. This is bigger. So here I’ll concentrate on just some of the effects of a nuclear Iran on the Persian Gulf region, and particularly on Saudi Arabia.
Even without using agents to slip a retaliatory bomb onto American soil, Iran could repel a conventional American attack simply by dropping a nuclear bomb on our massed forces. Thus protected from a direct conventional assault by the United States, a nuclear Iran would have much greater freedom to make mischief in the Gulf.
So if a nuclear-armed Iran made a play to take over Saudi Arabia (and with it, the world’s oil supply), should the United States retaliate with nuclear weapons? What about an Iranian attack on one of the smaller Gulf states, like Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, or the United Arab Emirates? After all, over and above the question of their huge oil reserves, these countries provide our armed forces with critical basing privileges. Doesn’t the granting of such privileges gain for these Gulf states a place under America’s nuclear umbrella?
In 1980, after their invasion of Afghanistan put the Soviets just a move away from an outlet on (and possible control of) the Persian Gulf, President Carter enunciated the “Carter Doctrine.” According to Carter, “Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America; any such assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” At the time, the United States lacked the conventional force projection capabilities to follow through on that pledge. So the Carter Doctrine was a barely disguised threat to break a Soviet stranglehold on world’s oil jugular with a nuclear attack. Would today’s Democratic party favor a similar pledge to protect the Gulf from Iranian control? Oh, and while we’re at it, what is the Republican line on this issue?
This time, however, there will be a radically new element to the debate. If the United States is unwilling to pledge to protect the Persian Gulf with its nuclear deterrent, these states just might buy umbrellas of their own. That especially applies to Saudi Arabia, which is poised to become the first post-Iran domino in what may soon become a nuclear proliferation nightmare. Once Iran, Saudi Arabia, and a number of other Muslim states become nuclear powers, it could become next to impossible to trace the state source of a terrorist nuclear device. And by removing our ability to know where a terrorist-planted bomb had come from, proliferation would vastly increase the likelihood that some state (or rogue element within a state) might pass a nuclear weapon to terrorists.
But why all this talk of nuclear weapons? The Iranians aren’t fools. They’re unlikely to risk a direct nuclear strike on the Persian Gulf, since pledge or no-pledge, the possibility of American nuclear retaliation would loom large. And while the Iranians have significantly more conventional power than any of the Gulf states, they are military midgets in comparison to the United States. It’s no longer 1980, and America now has considerable force projection capabilities in the Gulf. So the Iranians would seem to be stymied — unable to risk a nuclear strike on the Gulf, and unable to launch a conventional invasion that America couldn’t easily repulse.
Unfortunately, the Iranians are masters at fighting low-level wars through terrorist proxies. An Iran protected from direct American attack by its own nuclear umbrella would be likely to ramp up terrorist mischief in the Gulf. That would destabilize American-allied Gulf regimes, force up oil prices, and put pressure on Gulf states to revoke American basing rights. Chronic, low-level terrorist proxy battles between America and Iran may remain “safely” below the nuclear threshold. Then again, they may not.
The spectacle of an America powerless to stop Ahmadinejad from obtaining the bomb may change the internal dynamic of the Gulf states, making such an Islamist revolution thinkable. What if Iran succeeds in destabilizing one of the Gulf-state regimes to the point where it is overthrown by pro-Iranian Islamists? Would the United States stand idly by as effectively pro-Iranian regimes take control of the Gulf? Or what if one or more Gulf states try to save themselves from internal subversion by revoking America’s basing privileges? And what if the conflict, chaos, and uncertainty of a post-nuclear-Iran Gulf sends oil prices through the roof, doing major damage to the world’s economy?
Then there’s the possibility of Iranian-supported terrorist attacks on U.S. forces based in the Gulf. Many American servicemen were killed, and hundreds of soldiers were wounded, in the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996. Yet the Saudi’s were reluctant to investigate that bombing, for fear of uncovering a hidden Iranian hand. That would have lodged the Saudis uncomfortably between America and Iran. But in our current environment, terrorist strikes on American soldiers defending the Gulf would fairly obviously have been done in alliance with and with support from Iran (even if conducted by al Qaeda, which has cooperated with Iran in the past).
In other words, terrorist pressure on the Gulf, orchestrated by a newly nuclear Iran, may at some point escalate to general war between Iran and the United States, nuclear stand-off or not. This would be particularly so if Iranian-backed terror attacks threatened decisively to drive America from the Gulf and/or to generate world-wide economic chaos. All of which brings us back to our initial question. In the event that Iran should begin to gain control of the Gulf, overturning or blackmailing states through some combination of nuclear, conventional, and terrorist force, how far will the United States go to stop it? The Gulf states will insist on answers to these questions as they assess whether they may need to purchase nuclear weapons of their own to defend against Iran.
Chat with Armitage
Let’s step back for a moment and look at the history of proliferation in the Gulf. Richard Armitage is famous for chatting with Robert Novak about Valerie Plame. But a conversation Armitage had when he was an assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration is at least as interesting. Quite by accident, the United States had just stumbled onto a secret purchase of Chinese CSS-2 missiles by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were in the market for a weapon that could reach Tehran, yet be deployed outside the range of Iranian surface-to-surface missiles. The Chinese CSS-2 missiles fit the bill, but were too inaccurate to be used
for anything other than nuclear, chemical, or biological warfare. All known deployments of CSS-2s carried nuclear weapons, so the United States had to assume that the Saudis were secretly purchasing atomic warheads as well. Fresh from their attack on Saddam’s nuclear reactor, the Israelis realized they could be facing a new “Islamic bomb,” and so they threatened a preemptive strike.
In the ensuing atmosphere of crisis, Armitage delivered a most undiplomatic dressing down to Saudi Arabia’s American ambassador, Prince Bandar, who had personally negotiated the missile deal. “I want to congratulate you,” Armitage said to Bandar, “This is the law of unintended consequences. You have put Saudi Arabia squarely in the targeting package of the Israelis. You are now number one on the Israeli hit parade. If the balloon goes up anywhere in the Middle East, you’re going to get hit first.” (For more, see Thomas W. Lippman’s excellent piece, “The Nuclear Tipping Point“, on which I’m drawing here.) Having received a graphic demonstration of America’s shock and concern over his secret missile purchase, first from Armitage, and later from Congress, Prince Bandar cut a deal. The missiles would stay, but Saudi Arabia would sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the king would promise never to go nuclear. To this day, however, the Saudi’s will not allow the United States to inspect their CSS-2 missiles.
At the time, the Saudis probably hadn’t meant to go nuclear. Worried by the all the missiles being lobbed in the nearby Iran-Iraq war, the Saudis wanted missiles of their own. The Chinese actually seem to have hoodwinked the Saudis into purchasing missiles that were worthless without nuclear warheads. Like something out of Goldfinger, these antique missiles sit in the Saudi desert, still manned by Chinese crews (the Saudi’s being too technologically challenged to take over).
Yet the Keystone Cops aspect to the affair only underlines the dangers of the “law of unintended consequences” in matters nuclear. In the game of proliferation, inexperienced powers can make costly mistakes. And the United States itself was caught off-guard by the secrecy of our Saudi ally. American satellites could have easily found those missiles, but no one had dreamed of checking for Chinese missiles in the middle of the Saudi desert. After all, the Saudis were rabid anti-Communists. Officially, Chinese civilians couldn’t even visit Saudi Arabia. Yet there were Chinese military men, sitting in the Saudi desert, manning a potentially nuclear delivery system.
A Bomb of One’s Own
The Saudis may not have actually wanted nuclear weapons back in the 1980s, but they have plenty of reasons to think of purchasing them now. A huge country, four times the size of France, with vast coastlines, a small population, and a tiny, technologically challenged army, Saudi Arabia is incredibly vulnerable to military attack. As Lippman puts it, “The oil installations that provide most of the country’s revenue and the desalination plants the produce 70 percent of its drinking water are visible, vulnerable targets that could be devastated in short order by air assault or seaborne attack.” The Saudis have never recovered from the shock of watching America stand by as the Iranian Revolution overthrew the U.S. backed Shah. With the American public shaken to its roots by less than 3,000 casualties in Iraq (a fraction of the tolls in earlier American wars), the Saudis now have reason to doubt American resolve in the face of a nuclear-armed and terrorist-friendly Iran.
On the other side of the coin, the Saudis have direct experience of American resolve in the first Persian Gulf War. And they understand perfectly well that America and the West cannot afford to surrender control of the world’s oil supply-line to Iran. Yet even America’s unarguable and inescapable interest in the Gulf holds problems for the Saudis. From the Saudi point of view, ongoing conflict between America and Iran threatens to subordinate completely Saudi Arabia’s interests to America’s. Yet as we saw with the Khobar Towers investigation, the Saudis would prefer to carve out some wiggle room between the two powers. America’s post-9/11 suspicion of the Saudis frightens the House of Saud, which worries about American-enforced regime change, perhaps in response to further al Qaeda terrorist attacks. There are reports that the Saudis have already decided to obtain a nuclear deterrent, if and when Iran gets the bomb.
Warheads purchased from North Korea or Pakistan (whose nuclear program the Saudis have long supported, with just this sort of exchange in mind) would likely be retrofitted onto the Chinese CSS-2 missiles. Those missiles are probably useless at the moment. But if the Saudis were to allow us to inspect them now, when Saudis blocked future inspections, we’d know they’d been weaponized. That’s probably why we’ve been forbidden to visit them. And if the Chinese won’t help fit nuclear warheads onto the missiles (for fear of provoking the United States), the Saudis could seek new missiles elsewhere, or simply plant “suitcases” where needed.
The days when Richard Armitage could extract non-proliferation guarantees from the Saudis with a stiff dressing down are gone. At this point, in the wake of a nuclear-capable Iran, we’d need to offer the Gulf states a sophisticated anti-missile system, major conventional weapons capabilities, and serious American defense guarantees, to have any hope of preventing further proliferation. Yet each of these potential solutions to the proliferation problem raises troubling difficulties of its own.
Richard Russell (whose article “Arab Security Responses to a Nuclear-Ready Iran” I’ve also drawn on here) argues that it would be a mistake to follow the Carter Doctrine in extending guarantees of nuclear retaliation to our allies in the Gulf. Russell believes that American reluctance to kill thousands to millions of Iranian civilians in retaliation for Iranian mischief in the Gulf would dampen the credibility of such a deterrent in any case. Better, says Russell, for America to threaten Iran with regime change imposed by conventional forces. But of course, it’s far from clear whether America has the will, and the conventional forces, to impose regime change on Iran. Then there’s that problem of Iran dropping a nuclear device on massed American troops. So our nuclear deterrent may be all we have left.
In “Deter and Contain: Dealing with a Nuclear Iran,” Michael Eisenstadt suggests a different answer. To stop nuclear proliferation in the Gulf, arm our allies with major naval and air power, enabling them to threaten conventional destruction of Iran’s oil production and export facilities, in retaliation for Iranian assaults on the Gulf. But this would mean a dangerous conventional arms race in the Gulf, with all the instability and provocation to war that that implies (a war that could easily cripple the world’s economy). Nor would this arms aid likely eliminate pressure for American nuclear guarantees.
Imagine the battles over American foreign policy when the question becomes whether to extend our nuclear deterrence to the states of the Gulf, and how to arm and protect them. The offer of our nuclear umbrella raises the prospect of devastating nuclear war with Iran. Yet failure to deter means losing control of the world economy, and speeding up a proliferation nightmare. Options short of a nuclear guarantee require kicking off a major conventional arms race and/or a huge expansion of our own convent
ional military capabilities. All the options will be bad, and none of them will be dovish.
A nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia (perhaps eventually joined by a few of the smaller Gulf states) may soon emerge, whether America offers nuclear guarantees or not. A decade or two from now, an Islamist revolution in the Gulf could land those bombs in the hands of yet another rogue regime. In the meantime, a Saudi bomb (perhaps mounted on Chinese missiles that can reach Haifa as well as Tehran) could spark a conflagration in the Middle East and/or stimulate further proliferation, with Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Algeria all candidates. At that point, it would be all-too-safe to hand effectively untraceable nukes off to terrorists for use against the cities of the United States.
— Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center