The Middle East has traditionally remained a hotbed of regional conflicts and interstate rivalries which have almost always seen involvement of extra-regional forces. While the past decade has seen intensification of these conflicts and increased anxieties owing to perceived Iranian nuclear ambitions, there have also been major moments of thaw between Israel and its regional antagonists under the Abraham Accords led by the United States (US); and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran rapprochement facilitated by China. However, old rivalries may not be so easy to overcome and fissures in these peace processes could continue due to historical baggage.
Since former President Trump abrogated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 – a deal to check Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons – there have been reports of Iran increasing its uranium enrichment activities and corresponding coercive actions from the West to ensure compliance with its international non-proliferation obligations. However, the situation remains unsettled.
In response to US withdrawal from the agreement, over the years Iran has signalled that it was no longer restricted by the agreement. Eight years after its signing, there was supposed to be a transition day on 18 October 2023 when the United Nations, the European Union and the US were supposed to terminate certain sanctions. However, on 14 September 23, France, Germany and the United Kingdom announced that, ‘In direct response to Iran’s consistent and severe non-compliance with its JCPoA commitments since 2019, [the three governments] intend to maintain nuclear proliferation-related measures on Iran, as well as arms and missile embargoes, after JCPoA Transition Day on 18 October 2023.’ Predictably, Iran has denounced this move by the E3.
It is puzzling to consider how Iran might be anticipated to honour an agreement that the primary party, the US, had already forsaken. Similarly, Iran’s hope that sanctions might be relaxed under the JCPOA’s ‘transition day’ – a pact no longer adhered to by either the US or Iran – raises questions. While both parties have seemingly abandoned their commitments, each expects the other to uphold their end of the deal. Some nations now seem more inclined to plan for the eventuality of Iran’s potential military nuclear capability, aiming to safeguard remnants of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
Fearing potential proliferation repercussions in a scenario following Iran’s nuclearisation, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen recently asserted that US defence assurances under an Israeli-Saudi normalisation deal would render nuclear ambitions in the Gulf States redundant. He contended that American support would shield against Iranian hostilities in the region, thereby providing peace of mind to Middle Eastern nations, especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. According to Cohen, US extension of the nuclear umbrella would make individual nuclear ambitions unnecessary, bolster regional stability, and promote the peace and normalisation agenda. A united front, bringing together moderate Middle Eastern nations and Israel, would be an effective check on Iran’s growing ambitions, in his assessment. Cohen thinks that South Korea, which has not pursued nuclear weapons, could be a model for this arrangement.
While extended deterrence (also called positive security assurance) is likely to assuage some of the allies’ concerns; it has a negative impact on vertical non-proliferation. This is because the extending country, the US in this case, will need to quantitatively improve its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems to make this pledge of extended deterrence credible. Meanwhile, an arrangement like this will also force a prospective nuclear-armed Iran to improve its own arsenal. This, additional commitment on US nuclear forces will also run counter to the Biden Administration’s prioritisation of ‘reducing the role of nuclear weapons in [US] national security strategy.’ Moreover, issues could further complicate if the US eventually deploys some of its nuclear forces in the Gulf to enhance credibility of its pledge. Any potential regional conflict would then have the propensity to escalate and possibly involve other nuclear weapon states.
Notwithstanding the downsides, Cohen’s logic has some merit. The US is the only nuclear weapon state in a position to enter into such arrangements given the presence of its conventional and nuclear forces around the globe. Moreover, South Korea, and possibly Japan, are two countries relying on the US’ extended deterrence to secure themselves against a nuclear belligerent – North Korea. However, even in that case while extended deterrence works as a check against potential South Korean or Japanese pursuit of nuclear weapons; the US actions to enhance the credibility of its pledge come at the cost of North Korea’s qualitative and quantitative improvements in its nuclear arsenal.
South Koreans today seem to feel that extended deterrence may not be a substitute to their independent nuclear deterrent. Historically, the Gulf countries, with Saudi Arabia at the forefront, have relied heavily on the US for their security needs. Should they choose to come under the US’ nuclear umbrella, it would intensify their reliance on Washington, potentially limiting their autonomy in security and foreign policy decisions. The trustworthiness of US security assurances could be as debatable in the Gulf as they are in the Pacific and may not present a sustainable solution to the region’s security challenges.
Extended nuclear deterrence or positive assurances demand ‘an adequate-size nuclear arsenal and a posture of readiness to use those weapons.’ Both an increase in nuclear arsenal and a posture of higher readiness, would be ill-advised for a region as volatile as the Middle East. Before jumping to a risky play like positive security assurance, it is important to take stock of all available options. Unlike positive security assurances, negative security assurances have been a longstanding demand of regional states which they have often sought to formalise through a Middle East Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (MENWFZ). Such assurances can obviate all individual nuclear ambitions in the region without creating pressures for increase in nuclear arsenals or generating risks of any more states acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. However, this solution would require Israel’s denuclearisation which may not be a preferable option for the latter nor for the US. Nonetheless, it is an option that needs to be considered prior to the one that entails proliferation and stability challenges.
Sameer Ali Khan is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com
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