The Dominoes Won’t Fall

Nov 9, 2012
By Sarah Weiner

Recently it seems that the more is written about Iran, the less is actually said. The situation is enormously geopolitically significant but painstakingly slow to evolve, and that has produced an agonizing hurry-up-and-wait game. The constant need to talk about Iran – even when there is not much to report – seems to have generated a bit of an echo chamber in the media, and a noticeable hint of groupthink has started to creep into the political conversation. The newest “common knowledge,” stated most recently by UK Prime Minister David Cameron [1], holds that Iranian nuclearization “would trigger a nuclear arms race” in the Middle East. This echoes previous statements emanating from the US administration [2], the European Union [3], the opinion pages [4] of major newspapers, and the blogosphere writ large. Many take this claim for granted without offering much in the way of substantiation, but a closer look at the evidence points towards a different conclusion. Despite prophesies of an “atomic arms race [3],” Iranian nuclear acquisition would not spark wider proliferation in the region.

The proliferation-mongers certainly make an intuitively persuasive case: when one nation secures the ability to make nuclear threats, its neighbors logically want the ability to mount a nuclear defense. This is the simplistically alluring logic of mutually assured destruction taken a step further to form the foundation of the nuclear “domino” theory. According to this model, when one nation goes nuclear its rivals will follow; then their rivals will subsequently follow them and so on and so forth until the world is filled with unstable and potentially hostile new proliferators. This theory is especially disconcerting when applied to the Middle East. If Iran gets the bomb, the theory goes, a slew of regional rivals including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey could be compelled to proliferate, potentially sparking subsequent programs in other Middle Eastern powers unwilling to be the odd-man-out in a new nuclear world. Adding new nuclear weapons states to an already-volatile mix of ethnic, religious, and historical tensions could produce deadly instability.

The narrative is compelling. Fortunately for us, however, it makes much more sense in theory than it is likely to play out in practice. The first glaring problem with the nuclear domino theory is that it has been wrong for almost 70 years. Since the United States successfully detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1945, eight additional nuclear powers have emerged: Russia (1949), the United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), China (1964), (presumably) Israel (late 1960s), India (1974), Pakistan (1998), and North Korea (2006). That averages out to about one new nuclear state every 7.5 years (and just one every 14 years since the Nonproliferation Treaty entered into force in 1970). If this is “domino” proliferation, then it is the slowest domino chain in history.

Some may look at this list and see the domino theory confirmed: the Soviet Union pursued a nuclear weapon because its adversary the United States was doing so; Maoist China went nuclear in response to U.S. and Soviet nuclear build up; and India nuclearized in response to China, sparking subsequent proliferation in Pakistan. The trouble with this chronicle is that it walks right into a classic stats 101 trap: choosing based on the dependent variable. If we are interested in understanding why states proliferate, analyzing a sample of nuclear states is bound to skew our examination because, by our own definition, only nuclear states made it into the dataset. It’s like interviewing a sample of Republican voters, discovering that the state of the economy determined their votes, and concluding that anyone worried about the economy would vote for the GOP. In this scenario, we would need to sample all voters. So to understand proliferation, we need to understand all states. The decision not to proliferate is just as significant as the opposite, and the list of non-proliferating states tells quite a different story. After China’s first successful nuclear test, for example, the U.S. administration predicted [5] India, Indonesia, and Japan could nuclearize, followed by a menacing crew including Sweden, Italy, Canada, and several nations in Eastern Europe. Viewed from this lens, India’s nuclearization hardly confirms the domino theory. Look at all the dominos that didn’t fall! The same dog-that-didn’t-bark problem holds true in more modern cases. A long list of Asian countries should feel threatened by North Korea’s nuclear program [6], especially Japan and South Korea. Yet, in contrast to dire predictions, the rest of the East and Southeast Asia dominos remain upright.

So perhaps the question we should be asking of the Middle East is not “which countries will proliferate in response to Iran?” but rather “why have so few countries tried to proliferate in response to Israel?” Israel’s (presumed) proliferation already let the nuclear genie out of the bottle, so to speak. Those who fear an Iranian-induced arms race implicitly assume that there are Middle Eastern nations who did not feel threatened enough by the Israeli bomb to start a nuclear program but who would experience sufficient insecurity in the face of a nuclear Iran to proliferate. Iran may have a healthy list of competitors in the Middle East, but it’s a much bolder claim to assume Tehran could cause proliferation where Israel failed.

To be fair, it must be acknowledged that several other Middle Eastern states flirted with nuclear weapons programs in the past. Libya began shopping around for nuclear weapons in the late 1960s, asking China and then India to supply it with a weapon. After these inquiries were rebuffed, Gaddafi began efforts to develop an indigenous nuclear capability, a fitful program that finally concluded in 2003 in the face of significant pressure from the West. Iraq, too, appeared to take first steps towards nuclearization in the 1970s and 80s. While some elements of Hussein’s WMD program were frighteningly successful, especially the development of chemical weapons, Iraq’s nuclear program remained relatively immature. Syria was also suspected of attempting to purchase a reactor for non-peaceful purposes, but its early efforts were shut down by an Israeli air strike, and Damascus’s true intentions remain the subject of much debate.

It could reasonably be said that any or all of these programs were influenced, at least in part, by Israel’s (alleged) acquisition of nuclear weapons – the first domino to fall in the Middle East. That conclusion, however, does not prove that an additional nuclear power in the Middle East would cause additional proliferation. First, these potential historical proliferators were responding to threats far beyond Israel’s nuclear bombs. Each of these nations faced significant conventional threats in a region characterized by complex rivalries, and their conventional vulnerabilities likely played a significant role in each country’s decision to begin a nuclear program. And if nuclear fears did not cause their halting attempts to acquire the bomb, then it is a specious conclusion at best to assume Iranian nukes would cause other powers to attempt to nuclearize. Second, the experience of these nascent proliferators exemplifies just how difficult and time-consuming the development of a nuclear weapon can be. Libya, for example, unsuccessfully attempted to acquire a nuclear weapon for over three decades before giving in to international demands. This shows that even if some Middle Eastern nations would theoretically want a nuclear weapon, in practice a lack of technology and expertise could thwart or seriously delay its development.

Perhaps most importantly – and frustratingly most overlooked – is the simple fact that none of the Middle East’s proliferation candidates are very credible. Saudi Arabia is the most often cited, and it is true that a strong regional rivalry exists between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. The most popular theory holds that instead of embarking on a decades-long program to build their own weapon from scratch (with a very limited base [7] of technology and expertise), Saudi Arabia would just buy a nuclear weapon from Pakistan if push came to shove. The trouble with this argument, however, is that such an arrangement is in neither country’s interests. Pakistan, after decades of painstaking development, would be reluctant [8] to sell off a chunk of its arsenal. Islamabad’s continuing nuclear buildup [9] and refusal to sign the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty both indicate that the country is less than confident in its current nuclear posture. And countries building new nukes aren’t likely to auction off the ones they already have. Even if the price tag was high enough to justify the loss of a few weapons, selling nuclear bombs to Saudi Arabia would risk making Islamabad the target of significant international backlash. The loss of financial aid [10] from the United States alone, not to mention the threat of international sanctions and the deterioration of its military relationships, would make the cost of such a sale incredibly – and prohibitively – high for Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, also understands the international condemnation that would come with nuclear acquisition, especially from its military ally the United States. Petrodollars are the lifeblood of the regime in Riyadh, especially at a time when civil unrest in the wider Middle East could spill onto its shores. The House of Saud could not afford U.S. censure and international efforts to cut Saudi oil imports. Furthermore, a nuclear arrangement with Pakistan would put Saudi Arabia in an awkward position [11]. Who would perform maintenance on the weapons? Who would operate them? Outsourcing the construction of a nuclear arsenal creates a host of operational ambiguities and custody issues that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to find comforting. Those who fear a Saudi bomb point to statements made earlier this year by Prince Turki al-Faisal [12], who stated that Saudi Arabia would go nuclear if Iran successfully tested a weapon. But these declarations are hollow. If Saudi Arabia really did plan to acquire a nuclear weapon, it would not announce the program to a global audience through the news media. Much more likely, Prince Turki’s statement was intended to send a cautionary signal to the U.S. and lay the groundwork for Saudi Arabia to leverage further security guarantees from Washington in the event that Iran acquires the bomb. And given insinuations [13] from U.S. officials, Washington seems willing to oblige.

After Saudi Arabia, the list of potential proliferators begins to border on laughable. Turkey has been suggested, but its participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization guarantees its nuclear security. Turkey’s Incirlik airbase already hosts dozens of U.S. B61 bombs, and more could be deployed in the event of a legitimate threat escalation. Moreover, Turkey’s domestic nuclear capabilities are virtually nonexistent. With no operational nuclear power reactors, no commercial enrichment or reprocessing abilities, and only two small research reactors [14], Turkey would be decades away from building a functional nuclear weapon.

Egypt and Syria have also been proposed as nuclear candidates, but Arab Spring hangover is sure to distract both countries for quite some time. The embryonic Egyptian government [15] is still characterized by power struggles between Islamists, secularists, and the military. It’s not clear who in the government would have the authority or resources to start a nuclear program. And if one of these factions did begin such a program, any number of their political opponents would likely leap at the chance to stymie and discredit their efforts. Nothing in this fractious situation indicates that the government in Cairo is prepared to embark on a coordinated and secretive program to build a nuclear weapon. And that assumes the government would want one in the first place. Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi [16] has called for a “Middle East free of nuclear weapons.” Lacking the financial resources [17], logistical bandwidth, or political motivation for a nuclear program, Egypt is unlikely to acquire a nuclear bomb anytime soon.

The environment for nuclear weapons development is even more hostile in Syria. An Israeli air strike destroyed Syria’s first (clandestine) nuclear reactor in 2007, leaving the country with no nuclear infrastructure. Syria proposed to open a nuclear power plant by 2020 [18], but those efforts will take a backseat to President Bashar al-Assad’s more immediate task of keeping his county in one piece. The brutality of the Syrian civil war has already generated calls for international military intervention, and Assad is unlikely to press his luck by embarking on a nuclear weapons program as well. And if all that weren’t enough, Syria stands as one of Iran’s only allies in the region. It’s difficult to see why Iranian nuclearization would make Syria feel more threatened.

All this evidence should make us puzzle at recent statements about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. These assertions are based on a model that sounds convincing but fails to explain some very important cases of proliferation (or lack thereof) in recent history. In fact, the historical record shows that proliferation in response to the only Middle Eastern nuclear power, Israel, has been slow and largely unsuccessful. The model’s popularity profits from the fact that predictions of wildfire proliferation in the Middle East make good fodder for politicians and pundits. But while it has been easy for these commentators to make dire predictions, it is much harder for them to identify the next Middle East proliferator. No nation that traditionally makes the new-proliferator shortlist is a serious risk, and yet the doom-saying prevails. I will admit without reservation that there is a litany of other reasons to fear Iranian proliferation, but to have an informed national conversation about them we have to start distilling fact from fear. To begin that process, we have to take a hard look at the historical and regional evidence. Far from a fait accompli, Middle Eastern proliferation in the face of Iranian nuclearization is incredibly unlikely.

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