Middle East: nuclear and safe?

Mohammad Fathi Hishamm

In June 2023, on the sidelines of the XXII PIR Center International School on Global Security, the presentation of the expert report “New Nuclear Nine? Assessing Nuclear Proliferation Threats in the World” took place.

The purpose of this report is to analyze the most radical scenarios for the development of the situation in the field of nuclear non-proliferation, which can lead to the appearance of new nuclear states on the political map of the world. The authors considered Japan, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Ukraine, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Brazil as states and territories ready to play on the rise. These states and territories, according to the researchers, that may be interested in maintaining uncertainty about their nuclear ambitions – either as “the last argument of the kings” or as a “bargaining chip.”

We spoke with one of the authors of the report, Dr. Leonid Tsukanov, who contributed to the preparation of chapters devoted to the Middle East.

– Dr. Tsukanov, how do you assess the situation in the region today? Has the Middle East become safer?

Yes and no. On the one hand, we can observe the process of gradual detente of old conflicts. For example, several states have restored relations with Israel; the sharp confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia ended; the tension in the Qatari-Omani and Turkish-Egyptian relations decreased; Syria returned to the Arab League, etc.

On the other hand, we are seeing some rather disturbing trends. The degree of tension between Iran and Israel is growing, attempts to form an anti-Iranian coalition, as well as to split the Arab world, do not stop.

Some “twists” are also observed in the field of WMD nonproliferation. The rhetoric of key regional states has become tougher in recent years – the intention to get “more serious weapons” sooner or later is sometimes spoken of without half-hints, almost in plain text. And, although the matter often does not go beyond talk, the situation itself requires a prompt and comprehensive assessment.

Given the depth of the conflicts in the region, the appearance in the report of several poles of power in the Middle East at once is quite expected.

As we can see, the “New Nuclear Nine” report features four Middle Eastern countries – Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Could you comment on this choice in more detail?

In choosing countries, we were guided not by personal interests, but by the real potential of states and their ambitions on the nuclear track. Here, we [the team of authors] were guided by the admonition of our senior comrade, Gennady Evstafyev: “do not prevaricate” when analyzing the data obtained.

If you wish, you can write that even Somalia is also striving to acquire nuclear weapons – and, I am sure, there will be some facts pointing to this. But the quality of the examination will not improve from this. And the real picture will be distorted. Let me emphasize that we do not have the task of “exaggerating” or adjusting the results to the desired picture of the world – on the contrary, we set a key goal to show the current development of world events in terms of WMD nonproliferation issues.

Returning to the first part of the question, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were selected based on a combination of factors. For example, they took into account the level of scientific and technical potential, the presence of political will, the ability to quickly obtain not only elements of the warhead, but also the means of its delivery. In addition, various constraining factors were taken into account. This made it possible to create a more balanced picture of the situation and eliminate “extra” candidates.

– To what extent are the listed countries interested in nuclear weapons?

These countries have a different level of interest. Predictably, everyone is now talking about Iran – after the “nuclear deal” [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] stalled, and the level of tension between Washington and Tehran grew a lot, many decided that it was Iran that would rush to create nuclear weapons by leaps and bounds.

In reality, of course, everything is much more complicated. The nuclear factor is used both to consolidate the population and to demonstrate Tehran’s readiness to play upwards. In addition, the factor of nuclear Israel strongly influences the situation.

However, it is unlikely that Iran is really set on creating a full-fledged arsenal. A demonstrative reduction in “breakout time” is needed rather in order to gain more space in international negotiations. And, judging by recent events, this tactic is working.

It is hardly worth expecting serious breakthroughs from Turkey and Saudi Arabia – here the “nuclear factor” remains only a populist construct. Egypt is not too zealous in this matter – for Cairo, the issue of ensuring food security is now much more important. Yes, and the main geopolitical adversary – in the face of Turkey – has somewhat slowed down in terms of capacity building.

Of course, in all the listed states there are “hawks” who would like to see some kind of “superweapon” in the hands of their country. But the voices of such hawks, fortunately for us, sound discordant and very quiet. At this stage, there are no serious reasons for concern, I think.

Let’s take a closer look at Saudi Arabia. Can the transfer of nuclear weapons to Riyadh by Washington become a “payment” for the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel?

This option, although not discounted and taken into account when making expert forecasts, is hardly feasible in practice. First of all, because the White House is not ready to give (on its own or through an intermediary) a red button into the hands of the Arabians. And here we are talking not so much about adherence to the “spirit of the NPT” as about banal uncertainty about the future.

Riyadh does not like the status of Washington’s “junior partner” (which does not fit well with the ambitions of the Kingdom), and it demonstrates this in every possible way – with its statements, decisions, public and behind-the-scenes steps. Even the decision on Syria was partly taken in defiance of the United States, which demanded to put more pressure on Assad.

In such a context, American strategists are unlikely to trust dangerous technology to such a flighty ally. In addition, even if you go “on the contrary”, the question immediately arises: “Why were some given, and others not?”. The United States has allied relations with many states in the region – and if the Saudis get nuclear weapons, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan will have a question of why they are worse. So the risks are too great.

– Does this mean that Washington has alternative options?

Certainly. Most likely, Washington will promise the Saudis assistance in the development of various branches of the “peaceful atom” – this topic is now very interesting to Riyadh, and the White House can really achieve greater loyalty with generous “atomic” promises.

But here it is also important to understand that in recent years the Americans have greatly lost their potential in terms of peaceful nuclear programs, and, accordingly, it will be quite problematic for them to compete with Russia and China.

– Can the list of potential candidates for the “nuclear club” expand?

I wouldn’t rule it out. World politics is very dynamic, and the interests of the “powerful ones” are changing rapidly. Any country can think about acquiring nuclear weapons if a number of external and internal factors coincide.

Nevertheless, there are enough checks in modern politics – and the key of them is the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – that prevent the arbitrary expansion of the “nuclear club”.

– Can Russia place its nuclear arsenals on the territory of any of the states of the Middle East (for example, Syria), as it was done earlier in Belarus?

No, this is impossible. The example of Belarus is a particular example, since in this case we are talking about the format of the Union State, within which the room for maneuver is much wider. Moscow should not be expected to move its arsenals far from its own borders.

Interview: Mohammad Fathi Hishamm,

Independent researcher and journalist

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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