Could Saudi Arabia and Iran Soon Engage in a Nuclear Cold War?


The controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program has one very important international dimension: What happens if Saudi Arabia carries out its assertion of going nuclear in response to Iran itself going nuclear? The implications are serious, because there would be little the West can do to affect the policy behaviour of a rich, oil-exporting country, let alone how it chooses to approach its relations with Iran.

The thesis of an Iran-Saudi Arabia cold war in the Middle East has been considered for a long time, and while it has simmered on the back burner of international relations, it may very well soon come to the forefront. The issue is serious, because we would overnight have two additional nuclear members in the world’s most volatile region and this time, the quantitative factor would most likely cause a qualitative shift in the geopolitics of the Mideast.

Handling a nuclear Saudi Arabia will be a delicate manner. Given that it is in the top three of oil exporters, sanctions will be even less effective than they are with Iran, and the option for war may very well extend the economic recession by a good few years. As well, given its historic good relations with the West, it is not likely that Washington, or the European capitals, will attempt anything more serious than condemnations at the UN and repeated calls for diplomacy. The fact the Kingdom is also a major customer of U.S. arms exports is a further disincentive for Washington to alienate this key Mideast ally.

Effectively, nothing the West does can prevent or seriously hinder Saudi Arabia going nuclear. But, what will Riyadh do if it possesses these weapons?

Saudi foreign policy reflects the decidedly Islamist foundation and conservative character of the country’s government. It can be considered retrenched rather than expansive, favouring strategic choices and deployments rather than overt gesticulations or moves. For instance, the deployment of Saudi forces in Bahrain to quell unrest against the island monarchy and the choice to finance radical Islamist groups reflect a strategic attitude that puts the preservation of a geopolitical status quo higher than change that may hurt the relative position of the Saud monarchy.

Nuclear weapons are going to make Saudi Arabia one of the power poles in the Middle East. They will enhance the entrenched character of Saudi foreign policy and reinforce not only the domestic, but also the regional status quo from the Saudi perspective.

For the wider region, a nuclear Iran and Saudi Arabia will certainly make Iraq, Syria, or Turkey think really hard about their relative positions. Already, Turkey is investing into building nuclear power stations, and this may translate into the militarization of nuclear energy within a decade. Iraq, stuck between two nuclear powers at that point may also re-consider some of Saddam’s policies in the area. Syria, a contemporary geopolitical loser, might also re-launch its nuclear programs. With such a domino effect a realistic possibility, Israel would become just another nuclear power in the region.

Three paths are possible if nukes make it into Mideast arsenals: One, a thousand shining suns over respective capitals, the second — a regional cold war, and the third, a new age of nuclear cooperation. With more nuclear states, I hope we can legitimate better and less exceptional control regimes; at least, until nuclear energy becomes obsolete and we invent more powerful weapons to destroy ourselves with.

Photo Credit: Omar Chatriwala