The Iran nuclear deal: Prelude to proliferation in the Middle East?

The global nuclear nonproliferation regime has been remarkably resilient, with no new entrants to the nuclear club in the last 25 years. But observers believe that could change and that we may be heading toward a “cascade of proliferation,” especially in the Middle East. The presumed trigger for a possible Middle East nuclear weapons competition is Iran, which has violated nonproliferation obligations, conducted activities relevant to the development of nuclear weapons, and pursued sensitive dual-use nuclear technologies without a persuasive peaceful justification. Tehran’s nuclear program—combined with provocative behavior widely believed to support a goal of establishing regional hegemony—has raised acute concerns among Iran’s neighbors and could prompt some of them to respond by seeking nuclear weapons capabilities of their own.

The Iran nuclear deal

Conscious of the risks that Iran’s nuclear program posed to the international and regional security order, the United States has sought to head off its further development until confidence could be built regarding Iranian intentions. In July 2015, negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and heading off a regional nuclear arms competition resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The JCPOA provides for deep reductions in Iran’s existing uranium enrichment capacity and the re-design of its planned plutonium-production reactor, which together effectively eliminate its capability to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons for at least ten to fifteen years. It also calls for highly intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring measures, many of which are unlimited in duration, capable of providing confidence in Iranian compliance. In exchange, the JCPOA requires the suspension and eventual termination of U.S., European Union (EU), and Security Council nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.

…the JCPOA is off to a good start. But the challenges to effective and sustained implementation of the JCPOA are formidable. Even if all parties intend to abide by their JCPOA commitments, compliance issues are bound to arise.

– p. 9

The JCPOA survived contentious reviews in the U.S. Congress and Iranian Majlis (parliament); key nuclear reduction and sanctions relief milestones have been reached; and implementation to date has gone relatively smoothly, although Iran’s return to the global economy has been more halting than Iran’s leaders would have preferred. But despite the promising start, the nuclear deal remains highly controversial in both Tehran and Washington as well as in several Middle East capitals. The potential for Iranian and American critics to undermine the JCPOA—together with the complex compliance issues likely to arise and the uncertainties surrounding leadership transitions in the United States and Iran—raise questions about the long-term sustainability of the deal, questions that will be on the minds of leaders of Middle East countries as they consider how best to ensure their security in the years ahead.

The The Iran deal's uncertain future

Reactions to the deal in the Middle East

Reactions to the JCPOA in the region have been mixed. Israel, in particular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been the most vocally negative, although Israeli officials were consulted during the negotiations and are now working constructively with the United States to promote vigorous enforcement of Iranian compliance. Turkey and Egypt have been generally positive, relieved by the peaceful resolution of the long-standing Iran nuclear issue and—unlike Israel, some Gulf Arab states, and American opponents of the deal—comfortable that the JCPOA permits Iran to retain an enrichment program. Perhaps reluctant to break ranks with their American security partner, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have publicly endorsed the nuclear deal, including at the April 2016 U.S.-GCC summit meeting in Riyadh.

However, despite public expressions of support, several states of the region, especially the Sunni Arabs of the Gulf, have serious reservations about the nuclear agreement. Their concerns fall into three areas:

  • The deal will only delay and not prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Key restrictions on enriched uranium- and plutonium-production expire after 10 and 15 years, permitting Iran to expand its nuclear capacities and greatly reduce the time it would need to produce nuclear weapons, if it chose to do so in the future. While U.S. supporters of the JCPOA believe that Iran can be deterred from seeking nuclear weapons after 15 years, Iran’s rivals, particularly the Saudis and Emiratis, are convinced that Iran remains determined to possess nuclear weapons and will bide its time, use the 15 years to develop more advanced centrifuges and missile delivery systems, and emerge after 15 years with a strengthened economy and in a better position than today to quickly expand its infrastructure and go for nuclear weapons.
  • The deal does not impede Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior and will even worsen the problem. Some of Iran’s neighbors accuse Tehran of meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbors, using proxies such as Hezbollah and the Houthis to advance its goals, intervening directly in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, and in general seeking to sow instability, undermine rival governments, and become the dominant power in the region. While they recognize that the JCPOA could not be expected to resolve their concerns about Iran’s behavior, they feel the deal could actually exacerbate them—by releasing to Iran tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets, ending Tehran’s international isolation, and strengthening its economic capacity to upgrade its military and expand its regional influence.
  • The deal is part of a regional realignment unfavorable to America’s traditional partners. Based significantly on suspicions and distorted perceptions of events and trends, some Middle East governments, especially among the Sunni Arabs, see the JCPOA as an indication that the United States is withdrawing from or at least reducing its military presence in the region. They fear that the U.S. may accept a prominent and even central role for Iran, and shift its allegiance from an exclusive focus on its traditional Arab partners to an approach balanced between those partners and Iran in which Iran would become a U.S. partner in promoting stability and resolving conflicts. Although the Obama Administration has made a major effort to dispel these concerns, they persist to a significant degree.

Will key regional states seek to acquire nuclear weapons?

U.S. supporters of the JCPOA argue that the removal of the near-term risk of a nuclear-armed Iran will sharply reduce the incentive for regional states to acquire their own fissile material production capabilities or nuclear weapons. Opponents claim that, by legitimizing Iran’s enrichment program, permitting Iran to ramp up its nuclear infrastructure after 10-15 years, and facilitating an economic recovery that will enable Iran to greatly boost the resources devoted to its nuclear program, the JCPOA itself will be the catalyst for proliferation in the region.

Whether states in the region eventually opt for nuclear weapons will depend on a range of factors, some related to the JCPOA and some not. Among the key factors will be their perceptions of Iran’s future nuclear capabilities and intentions, their assessment of Iran’s regional behavior, their view of the evolving conventional military balance with Iran, their confidence in the United States as a security partner, their evaluation of how the United States and other countries would react to their pursuit of nuclear weapons or a latent nuclear weapons capability, and, not least, the feasibility—in terms of their technical expertise, physical infrastructure, and financial resources—of succeeding in the effort to acquire fuel cycle facilities or nuclear weapons.

Prospects for nuclear proliferation in the Middle East

In assessing the probability of proliferation in the Middle East, it is necessary to focus on how these various factors may affect nuclear decision-making in individual countries, especially in the countries often cited as the most likely to go for a latent or actual nuclear weapons capability: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Turkey.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is widely considered to be the most likely regional state to pursue the nuclear option, an impression reinforced by occasional remarks by prominent Saudis that the Kingdom will match whatever nuclear capability Iran attains. The Saudis regard Iran as an implacable foe, not just an external threat determined to achieve regional hegemony but also an existential threat intent on undermining the Saudi monarchy. Moreover, while their concerns about Iran have grown, their confidence in the U.S. commitment to the security of its regional partners has been shaken. They cite what they regard as evidence of Washington’s unreliability, such as not preventing former Egyptian President Mubarak’s ouster, failing to enforce the red line against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, giving lukewarm support to Syrian rebels, and accepting a greater Iranian regional role.

At the same time that Saudi concerns with Iran have been rising, confidence in the United States has been falling.

– p. 33

Animated by what they see as a waning U.S. commitment to Gulf security, the Saudis have beefed up their conventional defense capabilities, explored cooperation with Russia and other potential partners, and adopted a more assertive, independent role in regional conflicts, most dramatically in waging their aggressive military campaign in Yemen. Still, senior Saudis maintain that they have no choice but to rely heavily on the United States for their security.

While confident that they can handle the current conventional military threat from Iran, the Saudis worry about the military implications of a post-sanctions Iranian economic recovery, and they regard a future Iranian nuclear weapons capability as a game-changer. These concerns, together with their uncertainty about the future U.S. role, may motivate the Saudis to consider their own nuclear options.

But while the Saudis appear to be motivated to acquire nuclear weapons, their ability to do so is very much in doubt, at least for the foreseeable future. While they clearly have the necessary financial resources, the Saudis lack the human and physical infrastructure and have had to postpone their ambitious nuclear power plans for eight years while they train the required personnel. Although Riyadh is not willing to formally renounce the acquisition of an enrichment capability, Saudi nuclear energy officials state they have no plans for enrichment and do not anticipate pursuing an enrichment program for at least 25 years.

Given the Kingdom’s difficulty in developing an indigenous nuclear weapons capability, speculation has turned to the possibility of the Kingdom receiving support from a foreign power, usually Pakistan, which received generous financial support from Saudi Arabia in acquiring its own nuclear arsenal. But while rumors abound about a Pakistani commitment to help Saudi obtain nuclear weapons, the truth is hard to pin down. Senior Saudis and Pakistanis deny such an understanding exists. If it does exist, it was probably a vague, unwritten assurance long ago between a Pakistani leader and Saudi king, without operational details or the circumstances in which it would be activated. In any event, the Saudis would find it hard to rely on such an assurance now, especially in the wake of Islamabad’s rejection of the Saudi request to take part in the Yemen campaign. Pakistan is highly unlikely to become the Saudis’ nuclear accomplice.

So Saudi Arabia may be motivated to make a run at nuclear weapons, but its prospects for success are very limited.

United Arab Emirates

Like the Saudis, the Emiratis believe Iran poses a severe threat to regional security, has increased its aggressiveness since the completion of the JCPOA, is still trying to export revolution, and will resume its quest for nuclear weapons when JCPOA restrictions expire. Also like Riyadh, Abu Dhabi has lost considerable confidence in the reliability of the United States as a security partner, has explored defense cooperation with other outside powers, and has played an increasingly assertive, independent military role in the region, especially in the Yemen campaign. But like Saudi Arabia, it knows it has no real choice but to rely heavily on the United States for its security.

Moreover, perhaps because of traditionally strong economic ties between the UAE and Iran, the Emiratis take a more pragmatic approach to Tehran than do the Saudis. While the Saudis tend to see the struggle with Iran as irreconcilable, the Emiratis tend to believe that if Iran’s regional designs can be countered and a regional balance established, a modus vivendi with Iran can eventually be achieved.

The ambitious UAE nuclear energy program—including a project well underway by a South Korea-led consortium to build four power reactors—is the best indication that Abu Dhabi has no current intention to pursue an independent nuclear path. In negotiations on a U.S.-UAE civil nuclear agreement required for the project, the Emiratis accepted a legally binding renunciation of enrichment and reprocessing ( the so-called “gold standard”), effectively precluding the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Although the UAE subsequently indicated that it might seek to renegotiate the gold standard in light of the JCPOA’s acceptance of enrichment in Iran, Emirati officials indicate that, while their acceptance of the gold standard received criticism at home and from other Arab governments, the Iran deal has not produced any change in their nuclear energy plans, and they still have no intention to pursue enrichment or reprocessing.


Although Egypt flirted with nuclear weapons development in the 1950s and 1960s and failed to report to the IAEA on some sensitive nuclear experiments it carried out between 1990 and 2003, Cairo today appears to lack both the inclination and the wherewithal to make a push for nuclear weapons.

Although Tehran and Cairo have occasionally sparred on regional issues and Iran is actively supporting causes that undermine the interests of Egypt’s main Arab allies and benefactors, Egypt does not see Iran as a direct military threat. Its principal security concern is the turbulent regional security environment—extremist ideology, the fragmentation of Syria and Iraq, and instability in Libya—and its adverse impact on internal security. Unlike the Gulf Arabs, the Egyptians are supportive of the JCPOA and believe a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement could have a positive effect on regional stability.

“Egypt will never seek nuclear weapons.”

– p. 43, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in an interview with the authors

Although Russia is committed to work with Egypt on its first power reactor, Cairo’s nuclear energy’s plans have experienced many false starts before, and there is little reason to believe the outcome will be different this time around, especially given the severe economic challenges currently faced by the Egyptian government. Moreover, although Egypt trained a substantial number of nuclear scientists in the 1950s and 1960s, its human nuclear infrastructure atrophied when ambitious nuclear energy plans never materialized.

So, given its preoccupation with nearby security challenges and low-tech threats such as insurgencies and terrorism and given its shortage of technical expertise and financial resources, it is unlikely that Egypt will reconsider its current non-nuclear status.


Because of its emergence in the last decade as a rising power, its large and growing scientific and industrial base, and its ambition to be an influential regional player, Turkey is usually included on a short list of countries that may decide, in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, to pursue a latent or actual nuclear weapons capability. But its pursuit of nuclear weapons is highly improbable.

Turkey has maintained reasonably good relations with Iran, and it resisted efforts to restrict its engagement with Tehran even at the height of the global sanctions campaign. Although Turkey and Iran have taken opposing sides in the Syrian war, most Turks do not see Iran as a direct military threat. Instead, Ankara sees instability and terrorism emanating from that conflict and from within Turkey’s borders as their principal security threats, concerns that cannot be addressed by the possession of nuclear weapons.

Tensions with Moscow over Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015 are a source of concern in Ankara. But the best means of addressing that concern is reliance on the security guarantees Turkey enjoys as a member of NATO. While Turkish confidence in NATO has waxed and waned in recent decades, most Turks, especially in the military, believe they can count on NATO in a crisis, and would be reluctant to put their NATO ties in jeopardy by pursuing nuclear weapons.

Turkey has plans for nuclear power to meet energy shortages, including by purchasing nuclear reactors from Russian and Japan. Moreover, although Turkish energy officials say they have no current plans for enrichment, they are unwilling to rule it out. Still, especially in light of current political difficulties with Russia, Turkish experts are skeptical that Ankara’s civil nuclear plans will proceed in a timely manner, if at all.

Other cases

Although Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Turkey are most often mentioned as potential aspirants to the nuclear club, three other regional countries merit observation, given their past interest in nuclear weapons: Iraq, Syria, and Libya. But none of them are likely to revive their nuclear weapons ambitions in the foreseeable future.

Iraq’s nuclear infrastructure was decimated by two wars and a decade of sanctions, and it is severely constrained by its conflict with ISIS, its internal political and religious differences, and an economy struggling to grow in the face of low oil prices. Israeli’s destruction of Syria’s al-Kibar reactor in 2007 effectively ended Damascus’s nuclear weapons program. Moreover, consumed by civil war and its survival as a unitary state very much in question, Syria lacks the basic attributes needed to pursue a successful nuclear weapons program, including human and physical infrastructure, financial resources, and a disciplined leadership. With most of the sensitive equipment acquired through Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s black market network shipped out of the country in 2004, the absence of sufficient indigenous technical expertise, and the country in a state of disarray, the likelihood of Libya embarking on a renewed nuclear weapons effort in the foreseeable future is remote.

In February 2016, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated publicly that “we see signs that countries in the Arab world are preparing to acquire nuclear weapons, that they are not willing to sit quietly with Iran on the brink of a nuclear or atomic bomb.” Ya’alon did not offer any evidence for his statement. It is, of course, possible that Israel has access to information unavailable to the authors (or even to the U.S. government). But the current study has not found indications that any of Iran’s neighbors are making preparations to acquire nuclear weapons. Indeed, our research and analysis suggest that none of them are likely to pursue nuclear weapons or succeed if they do.

Policies to reduce the likelihood of a proliferation cascade in the Middle East

Still, even if prospects for proliferation seem remote today, predicting future developments with confidence—especially given the unpredictability of the recent past and continued turmoil in region—seems imprudent. Whatever the likelihood that Middle East states may opt to acquire nuclear weapons in the future, it is incumbent on policymakers, especially U.S. policymakers, to do what they can to reduce those prospects further. The following are policies recommended for the Obama administration and future U.S. administrations.

1 Ensure that the JCPOA is rigorously monitored, strictly enforced, and faithfully implemented. Confidence by regional states that the JCPOA is working effectively as a barrier to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability will reinforce their inclination to remain non-nuclear, whereas a JCPOA of uncertain sustainability with a checkered compliance record will increase their incentives to hedge their bets. Effective and sustained implementation will mean not only pressing for strict Iranian compliance but also ensuring that Iran realizes the benefits of sanctions relief that it is entitled to, including by making modest adjustments in sanctions policy if it is found that previously unidentified and unintended technical problems are impeding sanctions relief.

2 Strengthen U.S. intelligence collection on Iranian proliferation-related activities and enhance intelligence-sharing on those activities with key partners. Uncertainty about nuclear developments in Iran will feed concerns about the future and create incentives for regional states to keep their nuclear options open. Washington should increase its investment in national intelligence capabilities to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities and create mechanisms for better sharing such intelligence with regional partners.

3Deter a future Iranian decision to produce nuclear weapons. Incentives for acquiring a latent or actual nuclear weapons capability will increase if regional states believe Iran can successfully break out and produce nuclear weapons. President Obama and his successors should declare that it is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and that the United States is prepared to use military force, if necessary, to stop Iran from breaking out and producing nuclear weapons. To demonstrate national unity and strengthen the deterrent effect, Congress should adopt a standing Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) in the event the president determines and provides evidence to Congress that Iran is breaking out and moving toward nuclear weapons.

4 Seek to incorporate key JCPOA monitoring provisions into routine IAEA safeguards applied elsewhere in the Middle East and in the global nonproliferation regime. Making some of the innovative features of the JCPOA’s monitoring systems the new normal for IAEA safeguards could enhance confidence that Iran’s neighbors are not pursuing nuclear weapons as well as ensure that Iran will remain bound by them indefinitely. Consideration should be given to widening the application of online enrichment-level monitoring and continuous surveillance of key elements of the enrichment supply chain, such as centrifuge production workshops. Explicitly banning activities related to the development of nuclear weapons, and verification of such a “weaponization” ban, should also be universalized.

5 Pursue civil nuclear cooperation with Middle East governments on terms that are realistic and serve U.S. nonproliferation interests. To avoid continuing deadlock with Middle East countries (particularly Saudi Arabia and Jordan) on bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreements—which would exclude the United States from nuclear commerce in the region and leave the field to nuclear suppliers less interested in discouraging enrichment and reprocessing—the United States should be prepared, if necessary, to relax its insistence on a legally binding renunciation of enrichment and reprocessing, while still pressing for the strongest possible constraints on such capabilities.

6 Promote regional arrangements that restrain fuel cycle developments. Developing region-wide or sub-regional arrangements (involving several states) could head off competitive fuel cycle developments as restrictions on Iran’s programs expire in 2025-2030. Some measures could apply equally to all participants, such as a ban on reprocessing, agreement to rely on foreign-supplied fuel for all power reactors and to ship all spent fuel out of the country, and agreement that all new research and power reactors would be light-water moderated and use uranium fuel enriched to below five percent. Some other measures might not apply equally to all participants, such as agreement by some Arab governments to forgo enrichment and agreement by Iran to postpone the expiration of key JCPOA restrictions or accept limits on its enrichment capacity after 15 years.

7 Strengthen security assurances to U.S. partners in the Middle East. Concerns about the credibility and effectiveness of U.S. commitments to their security are the principal reason that Gulf Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, might decide to pursue latent or actual nuclear weapons capabilities. At the U.S.-GCC summit meetings of May 2015 and April 2016, the United States issued strong statements of support for the security of its Gulf partners. Among other steps, the leaders called for stepping up maritime security cooperation, expediting the implementation of an integrated missile defense early warning system, training Special Operations Forces units from each GCC country, and expanding cooperation on cyber security. Building on those steps, the United States should explore with its GCC partners the development of a more closely integrated regional security framework, with strong operational and institutional ties.

8 Promote a stable regional security environment. In a Middle East less racked by conflict, incentives for acquiring nuclear weapons, both by Iran and other states of the region, would be significantly reduced. The United States should pursue a dual-track approach. On the one hand, it should instill confidence in its partners that the United States is committed to their security, will prevent any country from achieving regional hegemony, and will maintain a formidable military and diplomatic presence in the region. On the other, it should promote the resolution of regional conflicts, especially in Syria and Yemen, and encourage Iran and Saudi Arabia to find ways to tamp down their disputes and eventually reach an accommodation. In the longer run, Washington should encourage the creation of an inclusive regional security forum.

A proliferation cascade? Unlikely, at least for now

By sharply diminishing Iran’s capacity to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons for at least 10-15 years, the JCPOA has reduced incentives for neighboring states to acquire nuclear weapons or at least a hedging fuel cycle capability. But it has not eliminated those incentives.

For years to come, regional states will remain uncertain about several factors affecting their security—how well the JCPOA will deter and detect any Iranian non-compliance; whether the agreement will survive compliance disputes, challenges by opponents, and leadership transitions; and whether Iran will opt for nuclear weapons when key restrictions expire after 15 years. They will also be uncertain about other factors that could motivate them to reconsider their nuclear options, especially Iran’s future behavior in the region and America’s future regional role. These uncertainties will keep concerns about proliferation alive.

None of the Middle East’s “likely suspects” appears both inclined and able in the foreseeable future to acquire an indigenous nuclear weapons capability.

But this study suggests that, at least for now, those concerns have been subdued, even if not permanently set to rest. None of the Middle East’s “likely suspects” appears both inclined and able in the foreseeable future to acquire an indigenous nuclear weapons capability.

In the years preceding the JCPOA, it had practically become the conventional wisdom that, given Iran’s nuclear program, several additional nuclear-armed states would inevitably emerge in the Middle East. That conventional wisdom has largely been discredited. But there is a risk that a more complacent conventional wisdom will take its place—that we no longer have to worry about a regional nuclear arms competition.

It will be essential for the United States and other interested countries—pursuing policies along the lines recommended here—to make sure that the earlier predictions of a Middle East proliferation cascade do not yet come to pass.