President Obama believes that if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, the Saudis, the Turks, and perhaps others, would almost immediately try to do the same. Benjamin Netanyahu believes as Obama does, and so do many European officials, and certainly many Arab officials. Different Saudi officials have, from time to time, signaled such an intention. But Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who has carefully studied the Iranian nuclear program and its ramifications, thinks that the conventional wisdom is wrong. I happen to agree with the conventional wisdom -- it is prudent, if nothing else, to assume that an Iranian bomb would trigger a nuclear arms race in the world's most volatile region -- but Kahl is a serious guy, and his new report, from the Center for a New American Security (and written with Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine, is worth reading. Here's a brief summary of their argument:
The Saudis would be highly motivated to acquire some form of nuclear deterrent to counter an Iranian bomb. However, significant disincentives - including the prospect of worsening Saudi Arabia's security environment, rupturing strategic ties with the United States, damaging the country's international reputation and making the Kingdom the target of sanctions - would discourage a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons. And, in any case, Saudi Arabia lacks the technological and bureaucratic wherewithal to do so any time in the foreseeable future. Saudi Arabia is more likely to respond to Iranian nuclearization by continuing to bolster its conventional defenses against Iranian aggression while engaging in a long-term hedging strategy designed to improve civilian nuclear capabilities.
The Kingdom is also much less likely to illicitly acquire operational nuclear weapons from
Pakistan than is commonly assumed. Despite longstanding rumors suggesting the existence of a clandestine Saudi-Pakistani nuclear deal, there are profound security and economic disincentives cutting against Riyadh's motivation to seek a bomb from Islamabad - as well as considerable, though typically ignored, strategic and economic reasons for Pakistan to avoid an illicit transfer. Pakistan also faces significant, seldom-recognized imperatives to avoid diverting its strategic attention from India by providing a nuclear guarantee to the Kingdom. Furthermore, even if Islamabad proved willing to extend its nuclear umbrella, a potential U.S. nuclear guarantee would likely "out compete" a Pakistani alternative.
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