Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East presents a multifaceted challenge with far-reaching implications for global security. While certain Middle Eastern countries already possess nuclear capabilities, others are actively pursuing their development. Anticipated in the coming decade is a significant expansion of nuclear power across the region. In 2021, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the second nation in the area, following Iran, to initiate a nuclear power reactor. Presently, the UAE is in the process of constructing its fourth reactor. Likewise, Egypt is embarking on a similar path, having recently commenced the construction of a four-unit nuclear reactor utilizing Russian technology. Furthermore, Jordan has also expressed its commitment to projects involving Small Modular Reactors and uranium extraction and mining.
The Middle East is witnessing a notable advancement in its nuclear landscape. However, the most prominent states playing a role in nuclear proliferation in the Middle East are Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s Nuclear Development:
The Iranian nuclear program has a longstanding history, commencing in 1957 with the United States providing Iran with its initial research reactor, which is still operational in Tehran. However, the progress of Iran’s nuclear program was interrupted following the 1979 Iranian revolution.
In 2015, the Iran Nuclear Deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was brokered between Iran and the P5+1 countries (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany) to address concerns surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. As part of the agreement, Iran consented to restrictions on its nuclear activities in return for the easing of international sanctions. During the Trump administration, the JCPOA faced controversy as President Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2018 due to concerns regarding Iran’s regional activities and ballistic missile program.
In April 2021, negotiations commenced between the United States and Iran, aiming to restore the JCPOA. However, progress has been slow, and both sides have encountered challenges in reaching a mutually agreeable resolution. As obvious from the latest developments, reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is not currently a primary focus of the Biden administration. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby stated that the issue is not prioritized due to Iran’s domestic strife and its support for Russia in the Ukraine conflict.
Recent concerns have arisen regarding Iran’s nuclear activities, notably its decision to surpass the uranium enrichment levels permitted under the JCPOA. Additionally, Iran has faced accusations of researching advanced centrifuges, potentially facilitating quicker uranium enrichment. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors have reported that Iran enriched uranium up to 84%, just short of the 90% threshold required for nuclear weapons.
Despite Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, skepticism persists within the international community. This skepticism stems from Iran’s history of secrecy and deception surrounding its nuclear activities. While Iran asserts its non-proliferation intentions, the international community remains cautious, given past instances of secrecy and non-compliance.
Israel’s Nuclear Weapon:
Israel’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is primarily motivated by its security considerations. Given its small size and surrounded by rivals, Israel perceives its nuclear capabilities as an essential deterrent against potential threats. Despite possessing nuclear weapons since the 1960s, Israel has consistently adhered to a policy of nuclear opacity, refraining from officially acknowledging the existence of its nuclear program.
Israel’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons was largely influenced by its involvement in the 1967 Six-Day War, during which it successfully defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. This conflict exposed Israel’s susceptibility to conventional military attacks, emphasizing the necessity of having a nuclear deterrent. While Israel has not officially acknowledged conducting nuclear weapons tests, it is widely speculated that an atmospheric test took place in collaboration with South Africa in 1979, commonly referred to as the Vela Incident. Accordingly, Israel has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is estimated to have sufficient nuclear material for around 200 nuclear weapons.
Israel faces a dilemma where the potential development of a nuclear warhead by Iran could diminish its sense of security, making its own nuclear deterrent more necessary. Paradoxically, some argue that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons might be one of the factors fuelling Iran’s nuclear program in the first place.
Some scholars believe that major powers, such as the United States, tacitly accepted the existence of Egyptian and Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles as a means to counterbalance Israel’s oeapons of mass destruction. This concession, albeit limited, aimed to dissuade these countries from pursuing nuclear weapons of their own.
Over the years, successive US presidents, starting from Nixon to Obama, have acknowledged Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. However, likely, the United States would eventually prefer a Middle East region where all countries are devoid of weapons of mass destruction.
KSA endeavors to become nuclear:
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 encompasses a comprehensive plan to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy from its heavy reliance on hydrocarbons to a more diverse, sustainable, and productive one. A crucial aspect of this vision involves the development of a civilian nuclear energy program. Since the unveiling of Vision 2030 in 2016, Saudi policy elites have consistently emphasized their unwavering interest in achieving nuclear fuel-cycle independence, aiming to domestically produce low-enriched uranium as nuclear fuel using their resources.
This strategic pursuit aligns with Saudi Arabia’s long-term goal of diversifying its energy sources and reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
Saudi Arabia has expressed its intentions to develop a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, primarily to address its increasing energy demands and reduce reliance on oil as the primary energy source. As one of the world’s leading oil-producing nations, Saudi Arabia heavily depends on oil revenues to fuel its economy. However, with the rising global demand for renewable energy sources, the country is seeking to diversify its energy mix by investing in nuclear power.
While energy diversification remains a key driver, concerns have been raised regarding Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions and the potential for acquiring nuclear weapons. The regional dynamics, especially Iran’s existing nuclear program, contribute to this concern. Saudi Arabia views itself as a regional power and may perceive a nuclear program as a means to balance Iran’s influence in the region. Notably, the Saudi Crown Prince has previously stated that if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would pursue a similar path in response.
Saudi Arabia has outlined plans to develop its nuclear power program, but it would require signing a 123 agreement with the United States to access U.S. nuclear materials and technology. Such an agreement establishes the terms and enables cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear energy resources, equipment, and materials with other nations.
According to reports from the New York Times, Saudi Arabia has said that it might consider normalizing relations with Israel if the United States offers security guarantees, assistance in its civilian nuclear program, and lifts restrictions on arms sales to the kingdom. However, the U.S. has rejected providing such guarantees, leading Saudi Arabia to seek closer ties with its historical rival, Iran.
The involvement of China in brokering the KSA-Iran deal is seen by some as a failure of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy in the Middle East.
Preventing the Nuclear Proliferation:
Efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East have achieved notable progress. The Iran nuclear deal of 2015 marked a significant advancement in preventing nuclear proliferation in the region. Although the agreement received widespread acclaim, its fate became uncertain after the United States withdrew from it in 2018. Another encouraging development has been the proposal to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. Discussions surrounding the creation of such a zone have been ongoing since the 1970s. In 1995, a United Nations resolution was passed, calling for its establishment.
During the 10th review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Arab states restated their longstanding position in favor of establishing weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-a free zone in the Middle East. However, given the growing interest in nuclear technology in the region and the ambiguity surrounding nuclear activities in Iran and Israel, concerns about potential proliferation have been raised. To address these concerns, it is crucial to pursue a robust and inclusive WMD-free zone.
While bringing Israel into such a zone presents significant challenges, the other countries in the region and concerned parties like the United States, Russia, and China need to initiate discussions with Israel on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Although finding a resolution may be complex, starting the dialogue is a crucial step in addressing the concerns and laying the groundwork for future progress.
The pursuit of nuclear weapons by these major states has triggered an arms race and poses a significant threat to regional stability. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is a pressing concern for the international community. The United States and China have both expressed their commitment to preventing further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
The U.S. has taken a leading role in negotiating a deal with Iran, aiming to limit its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. However, progress has been slow and challenging.
With China’s success in brokering a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, some analysts believe that China can also play a constructive role in reviving the Iran Nuclear deal, an area where the U.S. has faced difficulties thus far.
Efforts to prevent further nuclear proliferation in the Middle East require sustained diplomatic engagement, cooperation among international actors, and a commitment to finding peaceful resolutions. It is crucial to continue dialogue, negotiations, and efforts to revive or establish effective agreements that can mitigate the risks and promote stability in the region.
The author is a Scholar of International Relations at the International Islamic University Islamabad. Her areas of interest are theories of IR and US relations with other states. Currently working as Research Officer at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI).