Is Nuclear Balancing in the Middle East Possible?
Renowned international relations scholar, Kenneth Waltz, in his 2012 article “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” explains how the balance of power between a nuclear Israel and a nuclear Iran would bring stability to the Middle East. At the time he was writing the article a heated debate over the best way for a combined United States and Israel response to Iran’s nuclear activities was raging. At that time the United States and the European Union had tightened their sanctions against Iran while Israel was threatening air-strikes and continuing its covert operations targeting Iranian scientists. Most western analysts and Israeli security experts warned that a nuclear-armed Iran was the worst possible outcome for regional security and stability. Kenneth Waltz, on the other hand, thought that a nuclear Iran would have the exact opposite effect in the Middle East.
Waltz explains that in the real world and in the international system of nations, balanced power provides stability. His neo-realist argument was that Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East for over four decades was remarkably durable but it fueled instability in the region. He further pointed out that the Middle East was the only region in the world where an unchecked nuclear power contributed to the never ending chain of crisis in the region.
Aside from his convincing balancing hypothesis Waltz delved into the issue of rationality and the unfounded fear of Iran. He stated that the danger against a nuclear Iran was grossly exaggerated and that the debate surrounding it was distorted by misplaced worries and misunderstandings of how nations behaved in the global political system.
Waltz’s concern was the notion propagated that the Iranian regime was irrational. Despite this widespread belief, to the contrary, Waltz analyzed that Iranian policy was not made by “mad mullahs” but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who wanted to survive just like any other world elites.
He pointed that even though Iran’s leaders indulged in inflammatory and anti-Zionist rhetoric, they showed no propensity for self-destruction. Hence he further argues that it would be a grave error for policymakers in the United States and Israel to assume otherwise.
Ironically years later, it was this very grave misconception that pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give a rather unconvincing argument on the Iranian bomb ‘threat’ to the world at the United Nations General Assembly and more recently to the United States Congress before his reelection on 17 March 2015. However for Waltz, in spite the excellent explanation of balancing and the rationality of the mullahs, he ‘accidentally’ forgot about the other major state actors in the Middle East and their likely reaction to a nuclear Iran.
Threat of a Salafist Bomb
Fast forward to 2015 and the rivalry between the House of Saud and the Islamic state of Iran is almost at its peak. A credible Middle East expert once proclaimed that Iran and Saudi Arabia were perfect enemies. At the center of this perfect enmity was power and centuries of old unfinished ideological religious differences. Two oil-rich giants, vying for control of the region. Surely the acquisition by Iran of a nuclear bomb would likely trigger the Saudi’s need to acquire one too. For years Saudi Arabia and Iran struggled to avoid direct confrontation, but the United States invasion of Iraq and subsequent pull out, the Arab Spring and the accompanying sectarian tensions in the region did not help. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s long time key ally, was a wanted man besieged by the revolution turned civil war.
In as early as 2012, Saudi Arabia took the bold and adventurous step to extended diplomatic and financial support to Syria’s opposition of whom the majority were Sunni with the hope of removing Iran’s longtime ally. Ironically at the very same time the Saudi Kingdom was suppressing Bahrain’s revolution whose opposition was mainly Shia. In the ensuing political and military support and counter support, the relationship between the two nations has steadily declined with new fronts opening up in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. It is a forgone conclusion to many that in this deteriorating environment, Saudi Arabia would likely react to a nuclear Iran by acquiring a nuclear bomb of its own. This prospect would be a frightening prospect for Israel and other states in the world fighting off the Saudi’s Wahhabi onslaught.
To understand the fear against a nuclear Saudi Kingdom one must first understand the history and origins of the kingdom and its ties with Salafism/Wahabism. For much of the region’s history a patchwork of tribal rulers controlled most of what is today the Saudi Kingdom. The Al Saud (the Saudi royal family) emerged as minor tribal rulers in Najd in central Arabia. From the mid-18th century, strengthened with the religious zeal of the Wahhabi Islamic movement, they became aggressively expansionist. Over the following 150 years, the extent of the Al Saud territory fluctuated. However, between 1902 and 1927, the Al Saud leader, Abdul-Aziz, carried out a series of wars of conquest which resulted in his establishing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.The alliance between followers of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab the founder of Wahhabism and the House of Saud has proven to be a durable alliance.
The house of bin Saud continues to this day to maintain its politico-religious alliance with the Wahhabi sect. Today Mohammed bin Abd Al-Wahhab’s teachings are state-sponsored and are the official form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia within and outside Saudi Arabia despite the fact that majority of its Sunnis are non-Wahhabi. According to WikiLeaks cables the then United states Secretary of state was once quoted as saying “‘the donors’ in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” The cables continued: “More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups.” Other cables released by WikiLeaks outlined how Saudi front companies were also used to fund terrorism abroad. Begging the question would a Nuclear Saudi Arabia be a rational state even as it continues to covertly, overtly and irrationally support the financing of terrorism against friends and foes. American Vice President Biden recently caused a stir at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government when he characteristically undiplomatically spoke the truth, saying: “Our allies in the region are our largest problem in Syria. The Saudis….What were they doing? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda the extremist elements of jihadist who were coming from other parts of the world.”
Muslim scholar Reza Aslan in January 2015 asserted that Saudi Arabia should be held accountable for the recent strain of terrorist attacks done in the name of Islam. Aslan believed that Islamic extremist groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaida, Boko Haram, Al Shabab and ISIS were directly influenced by Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Speaking to the press in the United States, Reza Aslan once said the following: “There’s no question that there has been a virus that has spread throughout the world, a virus of ultra-orthodox puritanism. But there’s also no question what the source of this virus is. All of them have as their source Wahhabism, or the state religion of Saudi Arabia.” Shouldn’t the world therefore be more fearful of a possible nuclear Saudi state that supports terrorism? It should. If a nuclear Iran means a nuclear Saudi Arabia too then the world is better off with the Middle East having just one nuclear power, Israel.