Dr. Rezaei, a member of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), is a specialist on Iran’s foreign policy, its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, counterproliferation, and nuclear and radiological terrorism. He is the author of Iran, Israel, and the United States: The Politics of Counterproliferation Nuclear Intelligence.
The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran unsettled neighboring countries and threatened a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. To thwart Iran’s ambition, the international community imposed an increasingly crippling series of economic sanctions. The regime responded by entering negotiations in 2013 that culminated in a deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed by Iran and the P5+1 on July 14, 2015. Iran committed itself to a serious rollback of its nuclear project in exchange for sanctions relief. In December 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified Iran to be in compliance with the agreement, paving the way for sanctions relief. The IAEA promised stringent oversight of Iran’s remaining civil program for the 15-year duration of the agreement. All sides expressed optimism that the deal would prevent proliferation in the Middle East.
However, Iran has a long history of fomenting tensions in the region and an equally long record of deception in dealing with the Safeguard Division of the IAEA. As a result, a residue of mistrust has clouded the JCPOA’s achievements. Concerns have been raised that, despite stringent oversight, Iran could manage an illicit-weapons program. Questions about its ultimate intention of achieving a nuclear-weapons-based dominance in the Middle East had also not been put to rest.
This research will analyze the reaction to the deal of three key Middle Eastern countries — Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. All three offered guarded acceptance but reserved the right to reevaluate their decision, should Iran fail to comply with the agreement. Iran’s future behavior is thus of critical importance in shaping their respective responses.
REACTION TO THE JCPOA
The only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, Israel has emerged as a leading opponent to Tehran’s nuclear project. As envisaged by David Ben-Gurion, an Israeli nuclear arsenal was to provide deterrence against threats from the Arab countries with their numerically strong armies. To sustain this deterrent power, however, Israel has had to preserve its monopoly. As a result, under the so-called Begin doctrine, the Israeli Air Force bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and a Syrian reactor in 2007.
Following the discovery of Iran’s nuclear program in the 1990s, Israel launched a fierce campaign to roll it back. Using an array of clandestine tools, the intelligence services, working alone or with the United States, sought to expose and damage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. On the diplomatic front, Jerusalem led the drive to impose harsh economic sanctions on Tehran. By 2009, however, the newly elected Likud government concluded that, in spite of some guarded success, these measures would fail to stop Iran’s nuclear progress.
Instead, Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, planned to execute a preemptive strike. On a number of different occasions between 2010 and 2012, Netanyahu and Barak tried to persuade the security cabinet of eight ministers to attack. They failed because of strong objections from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the intelligence chiefs and several cabinet members. Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad, took the lead in organizing opposition to the proposed mission. They and other opponents suggested that the action was ill-conceived, as Iran was still several years from weaponization. More to the point, they argued that an attack on Iran presented a vastly complex military challenge that could not be carried out without the help of the United States.
Forced to revert to the diplomatic route, the Likud government urged the United States to negotiate a zero-enrichment deal, a position the Obama administration viewed as unrealistic since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entitled Iran to a civilian program. Though the JCPOA represented a severe setback to Iran, Netanyahu mobilized the U.S. Israel lobby to defeat it in Congress. During a bitterly fought campaign, Netanyahu and his American supporters, including most Jewish groups and the powerful Christian Zionist movement accused the Obama administration of exposing Israel to a second Holocaust. Jewish mega-donors such as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer and Bernard Marcus contributed to candidates who objected to the deal.
Netanyahu’s tactics generated considerable criticism from military leaders, intelligence officials and nuclear experts in Israel. Days after Congress voted on the deal on September 17, 2015, a special panel of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) passed a resolution praising the agreement. This stand was all the more remarkable because the highly secretive organization played a key role in evaluating the nuclear information collected by the intelligence services. Two former heads of the commission — Gideon Frank and Shaul Chorev — were apparently involved with the panel. More consequential, IDF chief Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot described the agreement as harboring both risks and opportunity. Adding that the “Prime Minister’s Office” emphasized only risk, Eisenkot assured the public that Iran would not be able to fabricate a bomb any time soon.
To prevent future internal division and public rebukes, Netanyahu appointed Yossi Cohen, a veteran intelligence operative and his national-security adviser, to head the Mossad. Cohen, who is personally close to Netanyahu, had been in charge of the clandestine operations against Iran under Dagan. The new director of the IAEC, Zeev Snir, came from the Ministry of Defense and had no activist history. The head of Aman, Major General Herzl Halevi, and the chief of the research department, Brigadier General Eli Ben Mor, are considered somewhat more hard-line on Iran than their respective predecessors, Aviv Kochavi and Itai Brun. Without referring to nuclear weapons, Halevi told a closed-door meeting that Iran is engaged in “a technological war” with Israel and that it is closing the gap. Halevi asserted that the Iranians enroll and graduate more engineering and technology students than Israel.
Needless to say, the testing of ballistic missiles by Iran provoked a negative reaction. The media pointed to the slogan painted on the missiles, quoting the head of the Air and Ballistics Branch of the Revolutionary Guards that the missiles were designed to reach Israel. Commentators suggested that the hard-liners in Iran had not abandoned their dream of vanquishing the Jewish state. For those familiar with the highly charged discourse on Iran, it was clear that the Likud government had scored an important point.
To counter the public-relations fallout from the Iranian provocation, Washington accelerated its anti-missile collaboration with the IDF. Dating to the early 2000s, a joint American-Israeli project, estimated at some $3 billion, resulted in an integrated multilayered, anti-ballistic-missile system: the short-range Iron Dome, the mid-range Jericho and the long-range Arrow. Linked to the FBX-T Raytheon radar systems and known popularly as the ex-band, it is part of the Joint Tactical Ground Station (JTGS) Theater Warning System based in Europe but operated by American personnel in Netivot in the Negev. To increase combat preparedness, the United States and Israel hold the biannual Juniper Cobra, a five-day combined military exercise against regional threats, including missile attacks.
Welcome as the anti-ballistic umbrella might be, Israel has also redoubled its diplomatic and political efforts. Jerusalem has complained to the United Nations and the P5+1 countries (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — plus Germany) about what it described as Iran’s blatant disregard for UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2231 and the spirit of JCPOA. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations demanded the Security Council punish Iran. There is some sympathy for the Israeli position among the P5+1, but it is not clear whether the Security Council would act, because of the opposition of Russia and China.
Israel received a better hearing in the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress, where a number of legislative initiatives made the rounds. On May 24, 2016, Michael Elleman, an expert from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), testified before a Senate Committee on the considerable increase of ballistic tests in Iran. Elleman pointed out that ballistic missiles are used to deliver a nuclear payload and that Iran has been trying to increase their precision. Though the Obama administration slapped a number of sanctions on 11 entities and individuals linked to the ballistic project, lawmakers considered the gesture inadequate. They wanted to reauthorize the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA), due to expire at the end of 2016, and add a variety of new restrictions. Israel-lobby organizations like United Against Nuclear Iran and the Iran Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies warned companies and banks in the United States and abroad against doing business with Iran.
The election of President Donald Trump added to the uncertainty about the future of the JCPOA. Prior to his election, Trump repeatedly described the JCPOA as the “worst agreement ever” and promised to “dismantle” it.
Equally important, congressional Republicans mounted an unprecedented campaign to derail the deal. Similarly, the Israeli lobby and its congressional patrons tried to limit the economic benefits of the deal to Iran. Lawmakers from the House Republican Israel Caucus introduced several bills that would extend the Iran Sanctions Act, blocking the sale of 80 Boeing planes, and prohibit the Export-Import Bank from financing business with Iran. Unlike President Obama, Donald Trump did not veto the anti-Iran legislation, setting a relatively low bar for its passage.13
On March 23, 2017, Congress voted 98-2 for new sanctions on Iran: “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017” (CIDAA-2017). It directs the Departments of State, Treasury and Defense, and the Director of National Intelligence to submit a strategy every two years for deterring conventional and asymmetric Iranian activities that threaten the United States and its key allies in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.14
Signed into law on August 2, 2017, the CIDAA-2017 imposed new restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, more restrictions on arms sales, and penalties if Iran sponsored terrorism and human-rights violations. The bill introduced the freezing of assets and the imposition of sanctions against any individual contributing to Iran’s ballistic-missile and nuclear programs, or the sale or transfer of specified military equipment or the provision of related technical or financial assistance to Iran. Furthermore, the bill blocked the Revolutionary Guards’ properties, sanctioned its affiliated foreign individuals, and prohibited transactions with any Iranian individual who supported or had ties to terrorism. In other words, the CIDAA-2017 sanctioned the entire Revolutionary Guards organization as a terror group.15
President Trump accused the IAEA of covering up for Iran and pressed for more vigilant oversight of Iran’s compliance, creating additional friction. By refusing to issue the waivers, the Trump administration on May 8, 2018, abrogated American participation in the accord.16
Even prior to this formal abrogation, the aggressive American policy had made it hard for President Rouhani to protect all the aspects of JCPOA-mandated compliance. Iranian hard-liners were encouraged by the fact that the EU, Russia and China were not likely to agree on snapping back sanctions; they would hold the Trump administration responsible for disrupting the increasingly flourishing trade with Tehran. It is virtually impossible to predict whether Iran, under a hard-line leadership, would resume its nuclear project. It is equally difficult to foresee whether an Obama-type coalition behind the JCPOA could be recreated in the future, should the need arise.
Like Israel, Saudi Arabia has had a long history of strife with Iran. Immediately after it seized power in Tehran, the regime, intent on exporting its revolution and undermining the kingdom, launched operations against Riyadh and its Gulf neighbors. In its latest venture, Iran has promoted the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, arguably the most direct challenge to Saudi interests in decades. Riyadh also took a dim view of Iran’s steadfast support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It is not surprising thus that the monarchy has considered Iran’s nuclear ambition as not only a means of national preservation but as a protective umbrella for pursuing regional hegemony.17
President Obama’s readiness to negotiate with Iran was met with considerable alarm in Riyadh. Though the Saudis were less vocal than the Israeli government, WikiLeaks documents and other sources indicated that King Abdullah was exceedingly frustrated by the Obama imitative. To the Saudi elite, the JCPOA was an indication of Washington’s willingness to tolerate Iran’s expansionism at the cost of its historical alliance with the Arab states. To make their feelings known, some officials in the royal circle urged trying to match Iran’s nuclear advances. For example, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and an influential member of the elite, declared that Riyadh will not live in the shadow of a nuclear-armed Iran.18 In 2011, he stated that, should Iran cross the nuclear threshold, Saudi Arabia may react by building its own enrichment capabilities: “It is in our interest that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, for its doing so would compel Saudi Arabia, whose foreign relations are now so fully measured and well assessed, to pursue policies that could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences.”19
In fact, the Saudis have already laid down the foundation for their own nuclear infrastructure. In 2010, a royal decree created the King Abdallah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE), headed by Hashim A. Yamani. Waleed Hussein Abulfaraj, in charge of the atomic program at K.A.CARE, announced that Riyadh would gradually replace the oil used to generate electricity with nuclear-generated power. In 2011, K.A.CARE signed a deal with France, a leader in nuclear technology, to build a number of nuclear reactors, the first of which is projected to go online in 2020. In June 2015, a study of two French-built European Pressurized Reactors (EPR) — among the most advanced and safest in the world — was announced.20 It is not entirely clear whether K.A.CARE would enrich its own uranium or buy it abroad. Saudi Arabia joined the NPT but did not sign the Additional Protocol and the updated version of the Small Quantities Protocol (SQP). Originally established to exempt states with no or little nuclear activity from safeguard inspections, in 2005 the Board of Governments of the IAEA modified the SQP to deter states from clandestine processing.21
Riyadh has not yet signed the 123 Agreement (Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act), which would have given it access to American nuclear technology in exchange for forgoing indigenous enrichment. Even so, Saudi Arabia would find it difficult to purchase enrichment technology; the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a loose trade organization of countries that make crucial components for nuclear energy, is not likely to supply Saudi needs.22
Observers have argued that purchasing enrichment technology — or, better still, nuclear weapons — from Pakistan is a more plausible scenario. The Saudis have a long history of collaboration with Pakistan and financed Abdul Qadeer Khan, “the father” of its nuclear weapons. In 2003, Mark Urban, the BBC defense correspondent, claimed that as part of a finance deal, Pakistanis fabricated a number of warheads to be transferred to Riyadh in an emergency. Urban interviewed numerous diplomatic and intelligence sources and included public statements by others. For example, he quoted Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel’s military intelligence, telling a conference in Sweden that “the Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb; they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring.” Likewise, senior Saudi officials have implied that the country would be ready to respond to the Iran nuclear challenge on short notice. Other journalists have supported the theory of an “off the shelf” arsenal in Pakistan as well. However, it is hard to assess the veracity of these reports.23
The Saudis have a vested interest in demonstrating that the JCPOA would spur proliferation and that Israeli intelligence must be viewed as suspect for the same reason. Having objected to the impending JCPOA, Israelis found it useful to disclose information strengthening the proliferation scenario.24
The Saudi drive to amass a ballistic arsenal, on the other hand, is quite evident. In 1987, the Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force secretly bought dozens of CSS-2 ballistic missiles from China. The inventory has been gradually replaced with the more advanced CC-5 model. In the 2000s, Saudi Arabia bought a number of Storm Shadow missiles co-developed by the British and French. A land-attack cruise missile with a range of 500 km would be able to hit infrastructure while operating outside the range of Iranian defenses. The missiles are housed in the Al Jufayr base (lying approximately 90 km south of Riyadh) and the Al Sulayyil base (450 km southwest of the capital). A third complex, Al Watah, is configured in a different way, but experts assume it has a missile inventory. The missiles are conventional but could be modified to carry nuclear warheads should the occasion require it.25
The new Saudi leaders have taken additional steps to position themselves as Iran’s main counterpart in the region. In reassessment of the Saudi economic and geopolitical position, King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed, who serves as defense minister, unveiled a dramatic proposal to restructure the Saudi economy, “Vision 2030.” The plan would seek to diversify the Saudi economy away from its overwhelming dependence on oil (90 percent of the budget) towards manufacturing and investment. A revitalized economy is expected to increase Saudi security and self-sufficiency. As one knowledgeable observer put it: “It perhaps constitutes the most important and comprehensive futuristic plans that prepare for all possible positive and negative eventualities, underpinned by realism away from the costly ‘comfort zone’ mentality.”26
Translated into the language of realist theory, Saudis accepted the diminished U.S. role in the region and its perceived shift toward Iran. This is the gist of the evolving “Salman doctrine,” which also envisages isolating Iran diplomatically and using conventional military means to increase Tehran’s costs for fomenting upheaval. At the present time, there is nothing in the “Salman doctrine” to hint of proliferation but, depending on future developments, a nuclear option could be incorporated.27
To dissuade Riyadh from taking the nuclear path, the Obama administration agreed to upgrade the Patriot anti-missile defense system operating in the kingdom. In July 2015, the State Department approved the sale of 600 Lockheed Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missiles, the newest version of the Patriot system. The Saudi Ballistic Defense System (BDS) is being supplemented by the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a Lockheed-made interceptor powered by the Raytheon AN/TPT-2 E-Band radar. THAAD has a flawless performance record against a variety of short- and medium-range missiles. According to some military experts, Washington should link the Saudi BDS to that of the Gulf states, Jordan and Israel, creating a single effective response to Iranian missiles.28
The Trump administration’s priority has also been to prevent the kingdom from developing a nuclear-weapons capability. As already mentioned, Riyadh currently has a small nuclear infrastructure, and obtaining a nuclear bomb is an extremely difficult and complex process. Given the fact that the kingdom is a party to the NPT and has a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, the intrusive inspection and verification regime of the nuclear watchdog would make any clandestine enrichment hard to achieve.29 Other facets of nuclear-weapons development are easier to hide, including research on explosives, the design of missile warheads, developing nuclear detonators and conducting explosive experiments with compressed fissile material. But there is as yet no indication that the Saudis have undertaken even these activities.
The Institute for Science and International Security, a private think tank based in Washington that has a high profile regarding nuclear proliferation, issued a report on March 30, 2017, on the risk of proliferation by Saudi Arabia. The report indicated that it would take years for Riyadh to create a military nuclear infrastructure. As the report put it, “at this point in time and at its current pace of nuclear development, Saudi Arabia would require years to create the nuclear infrastructure needed to launch a nuclear weapons effort. Our open source research...shows that Saudi Arabia is not likely to have launched any domestic covert nuclear programs to create the wherewithal to build nuclear weapons.”30
Finally, the literature indicates that nuclear proliferation cannot occur without the necessary technological capability. A country may forgo its aspiration if it becomes overwhelmed by the scientific requirements of fabricating nuclear weapons: scientific know-how, industrial- production capacity, and the engineering technology for nuclear weapons as well as physical resources such as raw materials. Such factors tend to be overlooked when determining Saudi Arabia’s technical capacity and can be essential in affecting its ability to produce nuclear weapons. The lack of a technical capability explains why many countries have not pursued nuclear weapons.31
Like Israel and Saudi Arabia, Egypt has had stormy relations with Iran. The two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1979 and, despite several attempts at reconciliation, notably during the period of President Hosni Mubarak, they were only resumed under President Mohammed Morsi in 2011. President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who replaced Morsi in 2014, has been much more critical. He has blamed Tehran for aiding the violent Muslim Brotherhood resistance and for helping to destabilize the Sinai Desert through the Iran-aligned Hamas forces in Gaza. Echoing Saudi grievances, Egyptian officials described Iran’s involvement in Yemen as unhelpful.32
Egypt’s attitude toward Tehran’s nuclear project has differed from that of Saudi Arabia and Israel in ways that are complex and occasionally contradictory. Egypt’s ambivalence toward nuclear energy in general, and nuclear weapons in particular, goes a long way toward explaining this complexity. President Gamal Abdel Nasser was the first Middle Eastern leader to consider nuclear power. In 1954, he created the Egyptian Atomic Energy Commission, currently known as the Atomic Energy Authority (AEA). Ibrahim Hilmy Abdel Rahman, its first director, negotiated a number of agreements with the Soviet Union under which Egypt received a 2 MW light-water research reactor EETR-1, located in Inshas.33
After Israel unveiled the Dimona reactor in December 1961, Nasser stepped up its nuclear rhetoric, announcing that, should Israel acquire nuclear weapons, “we would secure atomic weapons at any cost.” Indeed, Egypt tried to buy a heavy-water reactor capable of producing plutonium, an alternative to the more arduous process of enriching uranium to the weapons-grade quality used in nuclear bombs. Reports at the time indicated that Nasser wanted the Soviet Union, China or India to supply Egypt with nuclear weapons. In line with his evolving political views, Nasser envisioned a pan-Arab nuclear force led by Egypt. The devastating loss in the Six-Day War in 1967, however, put Egypt’s nuclear ambitions on pause.34
Neither Sadat nor Mubarak, who succeeded him in 1981, were nuclear enthusiasts. Mubarak was even lukewarm toward civilian nuclear technology. After a number of failed attempts, following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, negotiations to buy nuclear reactors were terminated. Instead, in 1992 Egypt bought a 22 MWT light-water reactor, EETR-2, which operates in the Nuclear Research Center in Inshas. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Egypt experimented with uranium conversion as well as the reprocessing of uranium and thorium. A storage facility in Inshas is said to contain 3 kg of uranium metal, some 67 kg of imported UF4, 9.4 kg of thorium compounds, 1 kg of uranium rods enriched to 10 percent and very small quantities of domestically fabricated UF2, UF3 and UF4. Egypt imported most of the materials before joining the NPT but failed to report them at the time. In addition, Egypt carried out experiments in nuclear reprocessing in a two-stage process. First, natural uranium was irradiated in its ETRR-1 and ETRR-2 research reactors. Second, the irradiated material was dissolved in nitric acid, which, as a rule, is used to recover plutonium-239. Nuclear reprocessing is controversial because plutonium-239 is fissile and can be used to make an atomic bomb. Egypt denied that the process involved plutonium, but the IAEA cited Egypt for failing to declare the experiments in 2004.35
Having decided that acquiring nuclear weapons was prohibitive for economic and political reasons, Egypt, which joined the NPT in 1980, decided to push for a nuclear-free Middle East. Mubarak embraced this idea and made the so-called WMD-Free Zone the core of Egyptian nuclear policy. The subsequent movement, renamed the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (MENWFZ), became a major irritant in relations between Cairo and Jerusalem. Israel has not joined the NPT or even acknowledged its arsenal. Known as “ambiguity” (amimut), this posture was a low-cost strategy to develop nuclear weapons without censure from the international community. In fact, in the 1970s, the United States committed itself to shield Israel from pressure to join the NPT. MENWFZ challenged this arrangement, however, and the Egyptians pushed the United Nations to take up the initiative at the 1990 meeting of the General Assembly.
During the 1995 NPT Review Conference, Egyptian representatives agreed to vote for the extension of the treaty in return for a promise to convene a separate meeting to discuss the Free Zone. Mohammed ElBaradei, the Egyptian diplomat who led the IAEA from 1997 to 2009, strongly encouraged this move. In his view, Western countries engaged in rank hypocrisy by turning a blind eye to Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal and its attack on the Syrian reactor, while harassing Iran. ElBaradei was pleased that Egypt and other states in the Arab Group objected to the American drive to impose sanctions on Iran.36
ElBaradei also supported Egypt’s continued efforts to convene a special conference on a nuclear-free zone, which was backed by Tehran. During a high-profile visit to Washington in September 2006, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called for a denuclearized Middle East. On September 17, 2009, Egypt and Iran scored a victory when the IAEA General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Israel to join the NPT and open its program for inspection. The companion resolution was the first of its kind to appeal for a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone.
Some experts considered the Egyptian behavior to constitute a “misdirection point,” as “the more Iran pursues nuclear capabilities, the more Cairo rails against the Israel Bomb.” But, for the Egyptians, the attack on the Syrian reactor was conclusive proof of the double standard and hypocrisy that ElBaradei railed against. Al Ahram denounced “the synchronized silence of the Arab world” and castigated other countries for ignoring the attack on a sovereign state. Egypt registered its protest by voting against sanctions on Iran during the 2009 meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors.37
As the leader of the 118-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and New Agenda Coalition — a group of eight influential countries, including Brazil and South Africa — Egypt has occupied a special position in shaping the nuclear agenda. Teaming up with Iran, it compelled the 2010 NPT Review conference to call for a special meeting in 2012 to discuss a regional WMD ban. Finland agreed to host the gathering, but, in November 2012, Washington, acting under Israeli pressure, intervened to postpone it. The American maneuvering outraged Egypt, where the MENWFZ has commanded substantial public support. According to a 2015 poll, 61 percent of the public supported Iran’s right to nuclear weapons, even as 87 percent said Egypt should be developing its own arsenal. With 65 percent of the respondents lauding Morsi’s decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Tehran, the poll also revealed the growing popularity of Iran in Egypt. After being declared in compliance with the NPT in January 2016, Iran joined Egypt to push for a new conference, a stand that found support in the EU and beyond.38
Even as Israel and Saudi Arabia were signaling their opposition to the JCPOA in the spring of 2015, the Egyptians renewed their push for a NWFZ, in conjunction with the national debate about the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CNTBT). During the May 2015 NPT Review Conference, Egypt urged a new deadline of March 2016 for a special MENWFZ conference, only to see it vetoed by the United States. At the time, Tehran, anxious to see the JCPOA negotiations through, did not support Egypt. However, there were strong indications that Iran, which was reinstated as a Non-Nuclear Weapons State (NNWS) within the NPT, would team up with Egypt to push for a MENWFZ. Mohamad Javad Zarif, then Iran’s foreign minister, said as much in a Guardian article titled “Iran Has Signed a Historic Nuclear Deal, Now Its Israel’s Turn.” Ambassador Badr Abdel Ati, the spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, stated, “We assess the agreement within the framework of Egyptian foreign policy’s general direction, which believes in a principal goal: for the Middle East to be free of nuclear proliferation.”39
Ironically, Egypt’s rapid demographic growth renewed its interest in nuclear energy. The country has experienced electricity shortages in recent years because the Aswan Dam, which once supplied half of the country’s output, now accounts for about 15 percent. In November 2015, Cairo signed an agreement with Russia for a nuclear power plant with four 1,200 MW reactors, each to be located in Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast. The complex is expected to go online in 2020 and is said to include a water-desalination facility. President Sisi emphasized that the facility would be strictly peace oriented, but some observers noted that it could hide a clandestine program, should a decision to proliferate be made. In any event, the deal with Russia would make Egypt a regional leader in the field of nuclear technologies boasting a highly advanced generation 3+ plant. As a side benefit, the accord has cemented its growing closeness to Moscow, a premier supplier of nuclear technology and know-how.40
Russia and the former Soviet Union also had a role in Egypt’s missile arsenal, headquartered in the Jabal Hamza facility. Egypt has a limited number of short-range ballistic missiles, based on Scud-B technology. There are uncorroborated reports that it also has some medium-range North Korean Nodong Scud B-100 models. With a range of up to 500 km, these missiles reflect the localized perception of threat. Egypt’s anti-ballistic defense system encompasses 32 American Patriot-3 missiles. As part of its 2014 deal with Russia, Egypt purchased the Bug 2 air-to-air missile and the Antey 2000 (S-300 VM) anti-ballistic missile system.41
The extent to which these developments could signal a hedging strategy is not clear. Egypt did not sign the Additional Protocol and is free of other intrusive inspection regimes. But its past history and its leadership of the MENWFZ indicate a lack of interest in proliferation. More important, the success of ambitious nuclear-energy plans depends largely on the improved political and economic stability of a would-be proliferator. Egypt remains in tumult following the revolution in 2011 and the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the election of Mohamed Morsi, a 2013 military coup and the election of General Sisi in 2014.
The literature indicates that resource factors or supply-side issues as well as the scientific requirements of fabricating nuclear weapons are very important to the success of any nuclear-weapons program. Proliferation cannot occur without the necessary financial resources and technological capabilities.42
Nuclear-weapons programs entail considerable costs, in part due to the ever-increasing quest for bigger arsenals and better delivery systems. Analysts point out that in the early 1980s, the number of nuclear programs (civilian and military) declined because the operating costs had skyrocketed.43 The cost of a weapons program is a major obstacle to proliferation. It would be difficult for a country like Egypt with its small GDP to generate sufficient funds for a weapons program within a reasonable period of time.
It is important to recall that economic vulnerability was a significant factor in the decision by Kazakhstan and Ukraine, two countries that already possessed nuclear weapons, to give them up. Faced with devastating economic hardship, Kazakhstan and Ukraine traded away their nuclear weapons in exchange for economic benefits and security insurance.44 It is likely that domestic and economic turmoil will preoccupy Egypt for some time and that these matters will be placed on a higher agenda than ambitions for advanced nuclear capabilities, making its proliferation risk moderate for the time being. The United States should continue efforts to keep such technologies from being established in Egypt and increase pressure on Cairo to ratify the Additional Protocol.
In discussing the reaction to the JCPOA, politicians and analysts warned about a possible cascade of proliferation in the Middle East. Informed by realism and neorealism in international relations, the theory of proliferation is based on the assumption that countries act on their security interests. When one player acquires a nuclear arsenal, it becomes imperative that other players match it. The security model has dominated the field, obviously, because of its empirical validity. Countries that have made the decision to weaponize were driven by war, prospects of war or a desire to level the playing field with a military adversary. But, as Scott Sagan, the eminent proliferation theorist suggests, other models of behavior can drive the decision to either proliferate or not.45
The present analysis indicates that the JCPOA is not likely to trigger an indiscriminate rush to proliferation or, worse, to preemptive action. The three countries profiled here — Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — provide support for this assumption. Israel has used an array of clandestine strategies to roll back Iran’s program. Yet Jerusalem did not launch a preemptive attack on the Iranian facilities; intense divisions between its civilian and military leadership and a failure to secure American support stayed their hand. Israel is expected, however, to continue with its vigorous effort to undermine the Iranian economy through sanctions and subversion.
Saudi Arabia, a country that could have been expected to launch its own nuclear military program, according to the security model of proliferation, seems to have taken a low-key approach. Admittedly, its nuclear-energy program could provide the infrastructure for a clandestine weapons program, especially if Riyadh decides to enrich its own uranium. Alternatively, the Pakistanis could supply the Saudis with ready-made nuclear warheads, should the JCPOA break down. Either way, Riyadh’s policy qualifies as a very modest exercise in hedging.
In spite of its occasionally high-profile rhetoric, Egypt has never launched a sustained nuclear program, civilian or military. This behavior does not comport with the security model of proliferation but may be explained by Sagan’s observation that some countries do not proliferate despite living in a “rough neighborhood.” Rather than matching Israel’s arsenal, Egypt chose to engage in the MENWFZ movement, a decision that has colored its response to the JCPOA. The two countries are expected to join forces in launching another appeal to the UN General Assembly, where the nuclear-free-zone idea has broad support.
Conversely, Iran’s default on the JCPOA, whether as a break-out or a sneak-out, could radically reconfigure the equation. Israel may try again to execute a preemptive strike or, at the very least, a massive clandestine operation. Saudi Arabia and Egypt may try to leverage their fledging nuclear-energy projects into military ones. Going beyond the issue of Iran, there has been an increase in concern that the United States would be unwilling or incapable of guaranteeing its allies a protective nuclear umbrella. President Trump once suggested that Japan and South Korea would need to fend for themselves. Fear of American abandonment could thus spur a new international nuclear race.
1 Farhad Rezaei, Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Study in Proliferation and Rollback (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
2 Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (Columbia University Press, 1999); and Aaron Kalman, “Israel used 17 tons of explosives to destroy Syrian reactor in 2007,” Times of Israel, September 10, 2012.
3 Ofira Seliktar and Farhad Rezaei, Iran, Israel, and the United States: The Politics of Counter-Proliferation Intelligence (Lexington Books, 2018); and Richard N. Haass,“Israel, Iran, and the Military Option,” August 28, 2012.
4 Ilan Kaspi and Barak Danny Dor, Wars of My Life (Hebrew), Tel Aviv, 2015; and Zmora Kinnert and Dvir Bitan, Ilana Dayan, “The Iran File: Exposed (Hebrew),” Uvda, Channel 2 TV, November 7, 2012.
5 Paul Blumenthal, “Republicans and Iran Deal Opponents are Founded by the Same Mega-Donors,” Huffington Post, March 10, 2015.
6 J.J. Goldberg, “Israel’s Top General Praises Iran Deal as a Strategic Turning Point,” Forward, January 26, 2016.
7 Amir Oren “Netanyahu Must Stop Silencing Intel Chiefs Who Find Iran Deal Acceptable.” Haaretz, Aug 10, 2015; Yoav Zitun, “Eizenkot: Iran Deal is an Opportunity,” Ynet, January 18, 2016; and Barak Ravid, “Iran Closing Technology Gap with Israel, Military Intelligence Chief Warns,” Haaretz, November 1, 2015.
8 Roy Case “Iran Shigra tilim balistiim shealehem bikhtav be-ivrit ‘israel khayevet lehimakhek’ (Iran launched ballistic missiles, which were written in Hebrew, “Israel must be wiped out”) (Hebrew),” Ynet, March 9, 2016; Shmuel Meir, “Nisuye Hatilim shel Iran: Ma haya lanu kan (Iran’s missile tests: what have we got here) (Hebrew),” Haaretz, March 9, 2016.
9 JNI Media, “Joint Military Exercise Against Iranian Terror: U.S. Army, IDF Unite to Fight,” Breaking Israel News, February 7, 2016.
10 Rick Gladstone, “Israel Calls on U.N. to Punish Iran for Missile Tests,” New York Times, March 14, 2016.
11 Julian Pecquet, “Iran missile tests fuel sanctions push in Congress,” Al Monitor, March 8, 2016; Roger Cohen, “U.S. Policy Puts Iran Deal at Risk.” Washington Post, May 6, 2016; Kenneth Kaztman, “Iran Sanctions.” Congressional Research Service, May 18, 2016; IISS, “Statement of Mr. Michael Elleman, Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program,” U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs,” The International Institute for Strategic Studies, May 24, 2016; and Judah Ari Gross, “8 Iranian Missile Launches Since Nuke Deal Signed, Expert Tells US Congress.” Times of Israel, May 26, 2016.
12 “Trump election puts Iran nuclear deal on shaky ground,” Reuters, November 9, 2016, www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-iran-idUSKBN13427E.
13 Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran and Boeing Sign $16.6 Billion Deal on Sale of 80 Aircraft,” New York Times, December 11, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/11/world/middleeast/iran-boeing-airplan….
14 Congress.gov, “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017,” June 29, 2017, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/722.
15 Thomas Erdbrink, “Iran and Boeing Sign $16.6 Billion Deal on Sale of 80 Aircraft,” December 11, 2016, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/11/world/middleeast/iran-boeing-airplan…; and Congress.gov, “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017,” June 29, 2017, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/722.
16 TWP, “Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned,” New York Times, May 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/world/middleeast/trump-iran-nuclear-….
17 Farhad Rezaei, Iran’s Foreign Policy after the Nuclear Agreement: Politics of Normalizers and Traditionalists (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); and Zeina Karam and Lee Keath, “Iran, Saudi Arabia Fighting Bloody Proxy Wars Across Region,” Associated Press, March 26, 2015 .
18 Ali Ahmad, “The Saudi proliferation question,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December 17, 2013, thebulletin.org/saudi-proliferation-question; and Yaroslav Trofimov, “Like Israel, U.S. Arab Allies Fear Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2015, www.wsj.com/articles/like-israel-u-s-arab-allies-fear-obamas-irannuclea….
19 Ali Ahmad, “The Saudi proliferation question,” December 17, 2013, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, thebulletin.org/saudi-proliferation-question; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Like Israel, U.S. Arab Allies Fear Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2015, www.wsj.com/articles/like-israel-u-s-arab-allies-fear-obamas-irannuclea…; Carol Morello, “On Kerry visit, Arab nations express support for Iran nuclear agreement,” August 3, 2015, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/on-kerry-visit-arab-na…; Kenneth M. Pollack, “U.S. policy toward the Middle East after the Iranian nuclear agreement,” Brookings, August 5, 2015, www.brookings.edu/research/testimony/2015/08/05-us-policy-iran-nuclear-…; Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, “Saudi Arabia May Go Nuclear Because of Obama’s Iran Deal,” Daily Beast, February 2, 2014; Jenna Corderoy, “Saudi Arabia Says It Will Want Same Enrichment Rights as Iran if Nuclear Deal is Done,” Vice News, March 16, 2015, news.vice.com/article/saudi-arabia-says-it-willwant-same-enrichment-rights-as-iran-if-nuclear-deal-is-done.; and Chemi Shalev, “Dennis Ross: Saudi King Vowed to Obtain Nuclear Bomb After Iran,” Haaretz, May 30, 2012, https://www.haaretz.com/dennis-ross-saudi-king-vowed-to-obtain-nuclear-….
20 Agence France Press, “France, Saudi Arabia Announces $12b in Deals.” Defense News, June 24, 2015; and “Saudi Arabia: Civil nuclear ambitions,” Gulf States News, September 18, 2014.
21 Mark Hibbs, “Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Additional Protocol,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 18, 2010.
22 Mark Hibbs, “Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Additional Protocol,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 18, 2010; Mark Hibbs, “Saudi Arabia Uranium Enrichment?” Arms Control Wonk, August 24, 2010; and Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, “Saudi Arabia May Go Nuclear Because of Obama’s Iran Deal,” Daily Beast, February 2, 2014.
23 Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, “Saudi Arabia May Go Nuclear”; and Mark Urban, “Saudi Nuclear Weapons on ‘Order’ from Pakistani,” BBC News, November 6, 2013.
24 Aron Stein, “Nuclear Chain Nonsense,” Arms Control Wonk, March 31, 2015.
25 Jeffrey Lewis, “Saudi Arabia Strategic Dyad,” Arms Control Wonk, July 15, 2015, http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/206688/saudi-arabias-strategic-d…; Jeffrey Lewis, “Saudi Missile Claims,” Arms Control Wonk, June 8, 2010, http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/202761/china-and-saudi-bms/; and Jeffrey Lewis, “Storm Shadow, Saudi & the MTCR,” Arms Control Wonk, May 31, 2011, http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/204051/saudi-arabia-storm-shadow….
26 Eyad Abu Shaqra, “Welcome Realism and Good-Bye Comfort Zones,” Asharq Al-Awsat, May 9, 2016.
27 Nawaf Obaid, “The Salman Doctrine: The Saudi Reply to Obama’s Weakness,” National Interest, March 30, 2016.
28 Michael Makovsky and Charles Wald, “Time to take aim at Iranian missiles,” Politico, April 12, 2016.
29 “Saudi Arabia: Overview,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, July 2017.
30 David Albright, “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions and Proliferation Risks,” March 30, 2017, Reports issued by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/saudi-arabias-nuclear-ambitions-and-proliferation-risks/8.
31 Stephen M. Meyer, The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation (University of Chicago Press, 1984).
32 Ayah Aman, “Will Iran Nuclear Deal to Rapprochement with Cairo?” Al Monitor, April 28, 2015.
33 Steven Carol, Understanding the Volatile and Dangerous Middle East: A Comprehensive Analysis (Indiana University Press, 2015).
34 Rafael Ofek, “Egypt’s Nuclear Dreams,” Israel Defense, November 2, 2013, www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/egypts-nuclear-dreams.
35 “Nuclear Chemistry Building,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, http://www.nti.org/learn/facilities/354/.
36 Mohamed Elbaradei, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times (Metropolitan Books, 2011); Mohamed I. Shaker, “Key Elements of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East; A WMD- Free Zone in the Middle East,” Regional Perspectives, (November 2013). Paulo Foradori and Martin B. Mallin, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
36 Michael Krepon, “Egypt, the Spoiler,” Arms Control Wonk, May 6, 2010; and Andrew Butters “Is a Nuclear-Free Middle East a Pipe Dream?” Time, September 23, 2009.
37 Paolo Foradori and Martin B. Malin, “A WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East: Regional Perspectives.” Belfer Center for Science and International Relations, November 2013; and TIP “Egyptians Support Iranian Nuclear Program, Want Own Nuclear Weapons,” The Israel Project, September 8, 2012.
38 Ayah Aman, “Will Iran Nuclear Deal to Rapprochement with Cairo?” Al Monitor, April 28, 2015. Shemuel Meir, “Expect Non-Proliferation Pressure on Israel Following the Iran Deal,” 972 Magazine, February 17, 2016; and Javad Zarif, “Iran has signed a historic nuclear deal – now it’s Israel’s turn,” The Guardian, July 31, 2015.
40 Shaul Shay “From Aswan Dam to El Dabaa: Egypt Russia Nuclear Deal,” Israel Defense, November 22, 2015.
41 Jeffry Lewis, “Egyptian Ballistic Missile Center,” Arms Control Wonk, February 16, 2010, http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/202630/egyptian-ballistic-missil…; and Oscar Nkala, “Egypt, Russia Negotiating Missile Sale,” Defense News, November 25, 2015, www.defensenews.com/story/defense/2015/11/24/egypt-russia-negotiating-m….
42 Stephen M. Meyer, The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation (University of Chicago Press, 1984).
43 William C. Potter, Nuclear Power and Nonproliferation: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain, 1982).
44 David Cortright & Raimo Väyrynen, “Building Cooperation for Non-proliferation and Disarmament,” The Adelphi Papers 49 (410) 2009: 123-144; and Erik Gartzke Dong-Joon Jo, “Determinants of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 51 no.1 (2007): 167-194.
45 Scott D. Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security 21, no.3 (1996-97): 54-86.