With both the US and Russia withdrawing from the INF, a nuclear stand-off in the Gulf could be closer than you think.
One of the many challenges of covering the impact of Donald Trump’s presidency on global affairs is that, in the constant churn of stories generated by his Twitter outbursts and the abrupt policy decisions he makes, really important stories get lost in the storm. One of those lost stories happened the weekend before the US president’s delayed State of the Union address, which he finally delivered on February 5.
On the preceding Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was following in Trump’s footsteps and pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). In what he called a “symmetrical response,” Putin signaled that a new nuclear arms race was under way: “Our American partners announced that they are suspending their participation in the INF Treaty, and we are suspending it too. They said that they are engaged in research, development and design work, and we will do the same.”
It was a clever response, with Putin able to say that Russia was against the destruction of the treaty, but if that was what the US was going to do by walking away, then his country would mirror American actions step by step. You develop and build new nuclear weapons, we will too.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the world was striving to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. All of those Cold War decades of delicate and exquisitely challenging negotiations designed to stave off nuclear annihilation now seem somehow quaintly old-fashioned. In the macho world of the new authoritarians, led by President Trump, the bigger the weapons and the more you have, the tougher you are.
Trump’s reason for pulling out of the INF was that the Russians were non-compliant and were using the agreement as cover to get a leg up on America. That is undoubtedly the case but the treaty, even in violation, acted as a constraint. So, why would what is still the world’s greatest military superpower enable the Russians by walking away? And what are the implications for the Gulf and the wider Middle East as a new nuclear arms race emerges from Trump’s decision?
Nuclear Weapons in the Gulf
To the first question, one can only speculate, given the strange and troubling relationship that Trump has with what has been America’s greatest enemy: Russia. It is the second question, however, that should be of most concern. As the war rhetoric against Iran ratchets up, and as the nonproliferation environment weakens, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may push to arm Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons.
Though he dismisses the Iranian military capacity in public, in private he must know that in any conventional war scenario, the battle-hardened Iranians would prevail on the ground. The Saudis may have sharpened their air expertise in Yemen at the expense of both the civilian population and the rebel Houthis, but it is ground forces that would ultimately decide the outcome. As the Yemen conflict has shown, Saudi Arabia’s ground troops are an incompetent and ill-prepared fighting force, hence the reliance on the air war to try subdue the Houthis.
In a conventional war, the Iranians would use Iraq as the pathway to attack Saudi Arabia along its northern border. They could be in the capital Riyadh in a matter of days. That is a sobering thought and one that could serve as a catalyst for securing the bomb. The logical place to turn to is Pakistan, which has possessed nuclear weapons since the mid-1980s. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is much beholden to the Saudis, even more so than his predecessors. Indeed, he came to the so-called “Davos in the Desert” in October 2018 with a begging bowl in hand, one the Saudis were happy to fill.
If Saudi Arabia acquired nuclear weapons, then it follows that Iran would do so as well. Indeed there are forces within Iran, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who have long advocated that to preserve and protect the revolution, their nation must have the bomb.
And here we come to the extraordinarily reckless and dangerous game that President Trump, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are playing. Bolton, in particular, has long advocated for regime change in Iran. The harsh sanctions that America is imposing on the Iranians and demanding that the rest of the world follow are intended not so much to effect regime change in and of themselves, but rather to prevent the Iranians for a time from securing nuclear firepower.
The Saudis, in the meantime, will have picked up, off the shelve, nuclear weapons from Pakistan. Backed by a nuclear-armed Israel that shares the Saudi fear of Iran and with whom Mohammed bin Salman has forged a close relationship, the two together with other Gulf states will be the ones to force regime change backed by the nuclear muscle that Iran lacks. They and not the Americans. So the thinking goes.
That scenario is useful for Trump because the last thing his base wants is any more engagements in foreign places — and that is especially true of the Middle East. Hence, his oft-repeated and ill-thought-out vows to withdraw American troops. These are gambits, designed to shore up his support as he heads into what will undoubtedly prove for him a bruising and difficult re-election bid in 2020.
The Iranians, however, will not succumb. Indeed, such naked threats will only serve to pull the country’s often battling factions together. Iran will do whatever is necessary to acquire a nuclear counter-punch. And Vladimir Putin, burnishing his already significant power in the region, may be very happy to oblige.
A nuclear stand-off in the Gulf, with all that that implies, could be far closer than any of us realizes.
*[A version of this article was originally published by Gulf House.]
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