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Is arms race logic a mistake in the Gulf?

May 6, 2010

Matt Yglesias points out some analysis from the Center for American Progress disputing the notion that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is an inevitable consequence of an Iranian bomb:

But there is no real reason to assume that Iran’s neighbors will automatically build their own nuclear weapons for the same security reasons that drove the United States and the Soviet Union to do so during and after World War II. Israel, after all, has possessed nuclear weapons since the late 1960s, and none of its neighbors—all of whom were at war with Israel at the time it developed nuclear weapons—acquired their own bombs.

If we are talking about intentions, then Egypt’s attempts to build nuclear weapons are nevertheless relevant, even if they failed. Nasser’s rhetoric and policies both indicated a desire to seek nuclear weapons status, or at least breakout capacity, apparently after learning of Israel’s infamous Dimona reactor. They went on to develop their ballistic missile capabilities. This sounds a lot like seeking nuclear arms for security reasons. These efforts floundered after the crippling defeat of 1967 and the failed 1973 Yom  Kippur war. The costs were simply too high, and prospects for the necessary Soviet cooperation dwindling.

That is not to say that Egypt did not attempt to find more cost-efficient means of acquiring WMD capabilities. Chemical and biological weapons were within Egyptian means, Egypt gassed Yemeni rebels and to this day will not sign the CWC. Egypt also likely had a biological weapons program and it is ambiguous what has happened with it since then. Egyptian leaders also likely believed they could rely on Soviet support and Soviet troops and advisors stationed in Egypt to deter a nuclear attack. Even after Sadat expelled Soviet troops in 1972, the USSR was still on-call for the Yom Kippur  War and could have been sent in to escalate the costs of further Israeli advances or a nuclear attack. When Andropov decided not to start WWIII for Sadat, and the US decisively intervened to solve Israel’s logistical woes, Egyptian leaders began to shrug off their role as the prime military counterbalance to Israel. Without Soviet support and with an otherwise damaged military, nuclear arms would not have been a cost-effective investment.

As one of the comments on Matt’s post pointed out, Iraq and Syria also sought nuclear arms, and in 1981 and 2007 the IADF thwarted them. So while the capabilities of these states certainly did not herald a Cold War-style arms race, were  means of Israeli rivals sufficient and the potential danger of a preemptive strike by the region’s nuclear hegemon less pressing, these states would be closer to an actual nuclear program. This seems to be exactly what is going on with Iran, which recovered from its devastating war with Iraq, lost its main regional rival to US wars and occupation, and by virtue of the distance, dispersal, and hardening of its nuclear facilities, has reduced the likelihood of a successful Israeli attack. So the case of Israel’s bomb should not give us any optimism that desires for nuclear arms, rather than safety from preemption and economic or technical ability, prevented 20th century nuclear proliferation.

What of North Korea’s case, where both South Korea and Japan could easily develop nuclear weapons?

Interestingly, there has been a test case over the last decade of the arms race model in Northeast Asia. North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and subsequent nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 have not set off a wave of proliferation in the region. Japan and South Korea, both technically capable of building nuclear weapons and having legitimate security concerns vis-à-vis North Korea, have not begun their own weapons programs. Their failure to do so calls into question the accuracy of the simple security-based arms race model many policymakers and pundits have adopted to warn about the consequences of an Iranian bomb.

No, there is not a major nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia (some comments by Japanese officials alluding to nuclear interests aside). That is because the overwhelming nuclear power in Northeast Asia is the United States, which maintains large, treaty-obligated conventional military presences in both of North Korea’s main rivals. The ROK and Japan do not need an independent nuclear deterrent against North Korea because they have the much larger, already extant US nuclear arsenal to rely on. Because American soldiers, sailors, and equipment reside on their soil, a nuclear strike against either would likely engender a US response. This fact should actually make us more optimistic about the prospects of avoiding a Gulf arms race, because it demonstrates that a nuclear umbrella by a geographically distant (but regionally engaged) power can prevent local allies from seeking nuclear arms. Of course, how important the formal defense treaties and military presence on allied territory is worth ascertaining, since I doubt America really wants to construct a formal alliance system and further commit US personnel to the Gulf.

Though the authors admit that states driven by nationalism and regime-preservation might pursue nuclear buildups, their case against the rationale of security competition seems incomplete. Iran’s relatively low ability to preempt nuclear rivals and the wealth of states such as Saudi Arabia might indicate the nuclear capability of Iran’s regional foes is higher than Israel’s in the last half century, and it is a principle of strategy to minimize the costs of future errors. The costs of constructing security assurances on the basis of arms race logic when if they do not actually apply seem far smaller than the costs of ignoring them if they do.

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