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Middle East Arms Race Will Continue After Iran Nuke Deal: Experts

by Robert Windrem /  / Updated 

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President Barack Obama says the Iranian nuclear deal announced Tuesday will "stop the spread of nuclear weapons" in the Middle East, but U.S. officials and experts say they fear a wave of nuclear research and threatening rhetoric that will make the region even more of a tinderbox than it is now.

"The rhetoric isn't changing," said one U.S. official, who thinks Iran's neighbors won't be swayed from their belief that Iran is going after a bomb. Officials and experts said some unlikely actors, like Turkey and Egypt, may even try to develop their own nukes.

For its part, Iran won't need to do much to keep its neighbors on edge. Its nuclear program has been laid bare, and everyone now knows just how advanced it was.

Avner Cohen, senior fellow with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, thinks that even after the agreement, Iran's intentions are still clear.

Iran wants to "keep the world guessing," says Cohen, and thinking that "something's going on."

"They have used … the whole nuclear issue, to gain prominence and a greater role," said Cohen. "Obviously, they like that the sanctions will be gone, but their greatest political achievement is they have the stature and the ambiguity. … This is prestige, a role in the region."

And so U.S. intelligence and counter-proliferation experts are now looking at Iran's neighbors to handicap which tactic will be used by which country to counter the Iranian "threat."

Saudi Arabia presents the most pressing issue. The Saudis' most likely move, say officials and experts, will be to put political pressure on the U.S. to extend security protection to the Arabian peninsula. It will start, they say, with rhetoric that threatens, "You give us protection or we will build our own weapons."

But the Saudis, said the U.S. official, aren't close to building any real nuclear deterrent, and only the U.S. could deliver the needed military force to protect the kingdom.

For its part, the U.S. is unlikely to formalize any such security guarantees as it continues to disengage from the Middle East and its dependence on the region's oil lessens. The question, said the U.S. official, is whether Saudi concerns "can be tamped down" without such guarantees, calling the issue "a diplomatic challenge."

What might a nuclear threat from the Saudis look like? The kingdom has no nuclear infrastructure to speak of but they do have IOUs from Pakistan, because Saudi Arabia helped finance Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in the 1970's and 1980's.

"The Saudis," said the former U.S. official, "might ask Pakistan for a bomb and the Pakistanis would politely say no."

But what if the Saudis wanted help on uranium enrichment or weapons development. Would the Pakistanis refuse?

"You give us protection or we will build our own weapons."

Not everyone is sure they would. Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control said, "I don't know what the Pakistanis would sell, I don't know what commitment they made to the Saudis."

Milhollin thinks Saudi could become the ultimate recipient in a triangular trade that would send nuclear technology from Pakistan to North Korea and then on to Saudi Arabia. Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center at Stanford's Hoover Institution, suggests Pakistan could station its weapons in Saudi Arabia.

Most analysts inside or outside the government dismiss any such agreements. They say Pakistan is fully aware of what the U.S. would do in response to any nuclear cooperation between it and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Iran and Pakistan have had very good relations for decades.

In analyzing who else could get the bomb, many in U.S. intelligence have long believed that Turkey, with its great industrial base and its increasingly nationalistic leadership, is the most likely nuclear wannabe. "The Saudis don't have the industrial infrastructure," said one former senior U.S. non-proliferation official. "It would take them a generation. That's not the case with Turkey."

Turkey, alone among Iran's neighbors, also has some experience with nuclear weapons. For decades, NATO has stationed nuclear weapons on its soil. Turkish commanders did not have operational control, but they have a greater depth of nuclear knowledge than their counterparts in the Gulf states.

Until recently, Turkey, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, had only limited nuclear infrastructure, two research reactors built with foreign assistance in the 1950's and 1970's. Five years ago, however, Turkey and Russia signed an agreement to build a massive nuclear power facility at Akkuyu along Turkey's Mediterranean shore. The groundbreaking for the four-reactor complex took place in April.

Turkish officials have said they went with a Russian company, Rosatom, in part because Western nations were concerned about the proliferation risk. The Turkish energy ministry also has a deal with Japanese nuclear suppliers for technology and training.

Milhollin says such massive civilian spending has, in the past, been a cover for nuclear proliferation activities.

"History tells us that it's rare that a country goes directly for the bomb. It has to have civilian cover for the weapons program," said Milhollin. "The cover is that it's necessary economically. Bomb and missile development doesn't justify the political costs, so you buy the reactor or two or three." He said India and Pakistan had both followed the template.

David Albright of the Institute for Science in International Security says there is another issue that should make intelligence officials nervous.

"Turkish groups played a major role in the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network," said Albright, referring to the former director of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program who used smuggled components and technology to develop the centrifuges used to enrich the uranium used in the Pakistani bomb.

But Jessica Varnum, who follows Turkey for the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, believes concerns about Turkey's nuclear ambitions are overblown and contends the power reactors pose no threat. "They're all about Turkey's energy needs," she said. She adds that Rosatom, not the Turks, will be running the facility in a build, buy and operate agreement.

She also pointed out that Turkey has not expressed any interest in enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, the two tried-and-true routes to a bomb. She adds, however, that Turkey has historically supported Iran's right to do both, and believes the Non-Proliferation Treaty gives all member states the right to do the same.

"The military option is not real unless there is a major violation."

Egypt's nuclear ambitions have also worried the U.S. It is known to have engaged in clandestine weapons research at its reactor in the Nile Delta. Officials point to an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation 10 years ago that showed Egypt had experimented, at low levels, with enrichment and reprocessing. There's been no indication of any further research, but Egypt is now run by its military and militaries are always looking for new and more fearsome weapons.

And what of Israel, whose leaders are frustrated with the Obama administration? Will there be a more aggressive strategy from the only nation in the Middle East that currently has nuclear weapons?

Cohen, who has authored two volumes on the history of Israel's nuclear weapons program, says such a change in stance is unlikely. He says that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is focused on the value of Israel's aresnal as a deterrent. Netanyahu deeply believes Israel must retain its exclusivity as the Middle East's sole nuclear power, but also knows that nukes have limitations as a military option.

"The military option is not real unless there is a major violation," said Cohen, who expects that Israel, like the Saudis and GCC, will resort to threatening rhetoric as well.

Cohen believes the drumbeat of an impending Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities a few years ago had a clear motive. "Israel's perceived readiness to attack in 2010-12 was instrumental and critical to stronger sanctions at the United Nations." He expects something similar in the future. He just doesn't know what form it will take.

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