The media is loaded with coverage of the international crisis over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. The 24/7 news cycle is focused on the latest tit-for-tat in the West's ineffective diplomatic effort to get Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment and other suspected nuclear-related activities. Media coverage has also focused on the likelihood of American military action against Iran's nuclear-power infrastructure. However, the media has paid little or no attention to the longer term implications of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.
It is easy to envision Iran working toward robust capabilities to enrich large quantities of uranium as well as producing stocks of plutonium for nuclear weapons under the guise of civilian electricity production. But the United States is reluctant to threaten or use military force to punish Iran and to disrupt its nuclear program because U.S. international political capital and military capabilities are wearing thin with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Absent the United States, the Europeans-or the Israelis, for that matter-could not project sufficient military power to do anything more than dent Iran's geographically remote and dispersed nuclear infrastructure. In 10 to 25 years, Iran might be capable of producing large stocks of fissile material, harnessing it into warheads, and marrying the warheads to a large inventory of ballistic missiles capable of reaching most of the Middle East and swaths of southern Europe.
American military commanders and strategists have to squint and try to peer over the horizon to see the longer term security challenges posed by an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. What would the regional fallout be? How would regional states react? What would the impact of these reactions be on regional stability? How would these changes affect American force projection capabilities? How should the United States adapt its posture and forces in the region? We can offer only speculative and tentative answers, but having a sense of the trends and directions is critical to putting the American military on the right footing today to be better prepared to face tough strategic challenges in the coming decades. We cannot turn on a dime in transforming and repositioning the American military to tackle the problems posed by a nuclear-weapons-saturated Middle East, but we could plot a smart course in that direction.
Playing Nuclear Weapons Catch-up
Nuclear detonations, or more likely, regional suspicions that Iran is hiding a nuclear bomb in the basement would, over the long run, probably accelerate already strong security incentives for regional states to follow suit. The major regional states of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey would not want to be vulnerable to coercive Iranian political power derived from a nuclear weapons advantage. These states would want their own nuclear forces to deter Iranian threats and to ensure their national, regional, and international prestige. Moreover, they would not likely have a great deal of confidence in an American nuclear security umbrella as an alternative to their own nuclear deterrents. Riyadh, Cairo, and Istanbul would likely worry that the United States would hesitate to come to their aid in a future military contingency with a nuclear-armed Iran. Their security calculus would be similar to that of France when it acquired its nuclear "force de frappe" during the cold war in Europe.1
Saudi Arabia will be engaged in a bitter political competition with Iran for power in the Persian Gulf and would want a nuclear weapons capability to keep pace. Nuclear weapons would also bolster the Saudis' domestic prestige against militant Islamic extremists seeking to oust the royal family, and they would increase the country's political stature as the protectorate of the Sunnis against the regional Shi'a political revival led by Iran.
To support its nuclear weapons capability, Saudi Arabia would likely turn to its security partners in Pakistan and China. …