When it comes to nuclear weapons and the Middle East, it is tempting to focus just on Iran. This may make sense in the short term but over the next two decades, Iran is only a part of a larger nuclear future in the region, which includes Saudi Arabia’s, Turkey’s, Egypt’s, and the UAE’s nuclear programs. As John Spacapan, NPEC’s Wohlstetter Public Affairs Fellow, argues in the attached monograph, Blocking the Gateways to Nuclear Disorder in the Middle East, these countries will still need to be watched even if Iran never acquires nuclear arms.
The good news is that so far, only Israel has gone nuclear while every other Middle Eastern state that tried, failed. John explains why. First, U.S. and allied efforts have successfully blocked proliferation in the region. Second, several Middle Eastern states pulled the plug on their nuclear weapons efforts when they encountered technological barriers or faced more immediate economic and military demands. Finally, only a few Middle Eastern states have faced the kind of persistent threat of foreign invasion that might justify getting a bomb.
Israel, the exception, proves these rules. Israel’s nuclear program wasn’t blocked by the West, they developed private funding mechanisms separate from their government budget, and, unlike their neighbors, they were more concerned about foreign invasion than domestic overthrow.
Although these nuclear proliferation barriers are hardly as strong as they once were, John argues that Washington can rebuild them. What’s required is a coalition approach that provides more cooperation on energy, security, and economics than the development of civil nuclear programs or nuclear weapons ever could afford.
John’s work deserves attention. He makes the case that Washington should make preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East an organizing principle for our policies there, as a way to modulate our relations and produce steadier more sensible forms of engagement there. As Washington struggles to find its moorings after the wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, John’s historical and policy analysis could not be more timely.
When the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates refused to take phone calls from President Biden in the early days of the war in Ukraine, it was the clearest sign yet that America had lost the hearts and minds of its friends in the Middle East. A few days earlier, on March 2nd, the United Arab Emirates abstained from supporting a U.S.-led resolution at the United Nations condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, joining only China and India. Less than a week later, Saudi Arabia declared it would allow China to buy oil in the Yuan rather than the U.S. dollar, a mostly symbolic gesture that revealed the Arab states were turning eastward.
Some Americans might ask why we ought to care. China is the number one threat, they say, and President Putin’s Russia is not far behind. According to this logic, we should focus all of our attention where the real threats reside – in East Asia and Eastern Europe. One only needs to flip on the nightly news to see that Russia and China present threats, but the skeptic of American engagement in the Middle East may not be considering why Russia and China are fixating on the Middle East. Russia spent billions of dollars and hundreds of Russian lives to prop up the Assad regime in Syria, a country hundreds of miles from the nearest Russian border and with few natural resources. Russia is making in-roads with many of the West’s historical partners in the region, including by building and financing massive nuclear power plants in Turkey and Egypt.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Middle East was the only region where China’s investments increased between 2013 and 2019. Since 2019, China has promised at least hundreds of billions in investments and infrastructure development to Iran, Turkey, and the Arab states. China has built a major naval base in Djibouti on the Red Sea, recently sought basing rights at a port that it is constructing in the UAE, and is rumored to be developing naval capabilities at a commercial port it’s building in southwestern Pakistan, not far from the Gulf of Oman.
Why are Russia and China increasingly fixated on the Middle East? Recently, they told us. In a joint statement following President Putin and President Xi’s pre-Winter Olympics summit, the two leaders pledged to counter American influence everywhere and to combat “attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions.” Putin and Xi’s ambitions are beginning to sound like “domination of Eurasia,” which is how historians Stephen E. Ambrose and Ernest J. King described Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan’s primary goal at the outset of WWII.”
. Ambrose Stephen E. and King, Ernest J. (1970) Grand Strategy of WWII. Naval War College Review.
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