Deteriorating Nuclear Disincentives in the Middle East

President Obama Meets with former Turkish Prime Minister and current President Tayyip Erdogan at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, Wikimedia Commons

By Evan Thompson, Columnist

Since the public disclosure of Iran’s nuclear program and the prospects of its weaponization, experts have worried about a spiral of nuclear proliferation in the already unstable Middle East. Three countries consistently top this list of concern: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.[1] Fortunately, when those experts make that case, others summarily dismiss it.[2] The last three years, however, have seen changes sweep through the Middle East, and these developments are changing the drivers, making it increasingly likely Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey will pursue nuclear weapons.


Egypt has one of the most advanced nuclear infrastructures in the region, including a limited capability to separate plutonium from spent fuel, a technology that is applicable to nuclear weapon development.[3] Despite its dated infrastructure, Egypt still has the capability to pursue nuclear weapons. Political and security incentives also drive Egypt’s nuclear aspirations because of the ‘cold peace’ it shares with the presumably nuclear – and conventionally stronger – Israel.[4] Israel’s ostensible nuclear status is the reason most often cited by Egypt for not signing the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocols, providing further indication that it considers Israel’s nuclear arsenal a threat to itself and the region. In turn, this provides some measure of ambiguity to Egypt’s own capabilities. [5]

Robert Einhorn, former Assistant Secretary and Special Advisor for nonproliferation with the State Department, argued Egypt would stay on the non-nuclear course under three conditions: (1) Egypt has strong bilateral relations with the United States; (2) the United States is working to keep the region stable and secure; and (3) President Hosni Mubarak remains in power.[6] In the past three years, Mubarak fell, the United States referred to the Morsi administration as neither an ally nor enemy, the United States criticized the Sisi administration over the ousting of Morsi and temporarily froze military support, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rose from the chaos of the Syrian Civil War. [7][8] Since 2011, Einhorn’s three criteria for a non-nuclear Egypt evaporated, and the results are beginning to show: development of nuclear energy in Egypt figures prominently as part of President Sisi’s economic development plan – a way to meet energy demands and hedge against nuclear threats.[9]

Saudi Arabia

Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia perceives a nuclear Israel and a potentially nuclear Iran as threats. To that end, in 2013, Saudi Arabia spent more on their military than any state in the region, fourth in the world, and still has concerns about military readiness and their ability to fight a war against Iran.[10] Saudi Arabia’s deficits are increasing because of these expenditures in the face of declining oil prices.[11] Saudi Arabia needs a nuclear deterrent. For now, the United States fills this role.

Recently, however, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has cooled. When the Syrian conflict broke out, Saudi Arabia supported the Sunni opposition to Assad, and they looked expectantly to the United States to join them in installing a new government as had been done in Libya. They were disappointed in the United States’ limited assistance and inaction when President Assad crossed President Obama’s “red-line.”[12]

This dissonance in Saudi-U.S. relations is only increasing with respect to Iran nuclear negotiations. While the interim deal was a success for the United States, the failure thus far to conduct a comprehensive deal is only decreasing Saudi faith.[13] Former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman says Saudi Arabia would seek to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent if Iran achieves nuclear weapons.[14] If the parties do not reach a deal and Iran develops nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will likely pursue their own nuclear program. Indeed, Saudi’s longtime strategic ties to Pakistan – also a nuclear state – only further reinforce this possibility.


As a NATO ally, Turkey is often considered the least likely to pursue nuclear weapons, but this close tie to the United States means it is most affected by U.S. actions, especially when they diverge from their own. Leon Fuerth, former National Security Advisor to Vice President Al Gore, argued that enhancing NATO, U.S., and E.U. credibility in defending Turkey would decrease the incentives for Turkey to acquire nuclear weapons.[15] Instead, the last three years have shown that Turkey is not a priority for the United States.

Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey was disappointed when the United States did not act in Syria. Now ISIS destabilizes the region and the United States is taking limited action. This would be a welcome change for Turkey, if not for the fact that over two million refugees already overwhelm Turkey and the United States is arming the Kurds – a group the Turkish government considers terrorists. To the Turks, this is overdue and still insufficient, and with the arming of Kurdish militants in the region, there is every possibility it will negatively affect Turkey.[16]

The U.S. response has been to criticize Turkey’s lack of commitment to the conflict.[17] United States Vice President Joe Biden blamed the rise of ISIS on Turkey and other Middle East allies.[18] Editorials called for NATO to strip Turkey of its membership.[19] The United States should not be conveying this message to an ally that relies on them after recently failing to follow through with other deterrence commitments. Successful deterrence requires deterring enemies as well as assuring allies – the United States is doing neither. Given these circumstances, President Erdogan’s plan to expand and develop Turkey’s nuclear infrastructure may be for more than meeting energy needs.

The escalating conflicts in the Middle East are eroding the arguments experts have always cited for a lack of proliferation. While this does not mean these states are certain to pursue nuclear weapons, it means there is a more compelling case to do so, and with each of these states pursuing some form of nuclear expansion, it becomes a more realistic prospect. The United States needs to take a more cohesive approach to its foreign policy, taking into consideration its allies’ interests and assurance for their security, or the United States may see a push for nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Evan Thompson is a second year Master’s student of Security Studies at Georgetown University where he concentrates in Unconventional Weapons and Nonproliferation. He began his career in nonproliferation while an undergrad studying International Affairs at the University of Georgia. In his senior year, he worked with the Center for International Trade and Security as a Security Leadership Fellow. The research he conducted at CITS on strategic trade control violations led to his next fellowship with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as a Leonard M. Rieser Fellow. He continued his work in nonproliferation this summer at the State Department’s Office of Export Control Cooperation, and he transitioned to the non-profit CRDF Global in September. He will graduate from Georgetown in Spring 2015 and hopes to continue in the field of nonproliferation and international security in the future.

[1] Amos Yadlin and Avner Golov, “A Nuclear Iran: The Spur to a Regional Arms Race?” Strategic Assessment, 15 (2012): 7.

[2] Steven A. Cook, “Don’t Fear a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, April 2, 2012,

[3] “Egypt- Nuclear,” Last modified July 2014,

[4] Yolande Knell, “Egypt-Israel ‘Cold Peace’ Suffers a Further Chill,” BBC News, September 10, 2011,

[5] “Egypt-Nuclear.”

[6] Robert J. Einhorn, “Egypt: Frustrated but Still on a Non-Nuclear Course,” in The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider their Nuclear Choices, ed. Kurt M. Campbell et al. (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 66-71.

[7] Jonathan Marcus, “Obama: Egypt is not US Ally, nor an enemy,” BBC News, September 13, 2012,

[8] “US Unlocks Military Aid to Egypt, Backing President Sisi,” BBC News, June 22, 2014,

[9] Abdel Qader Ramadan, “Nuclear Energy Platform Will See Immediate Start: Al-Sisi Campaign,” Daily News Egypt, May 20, 2014,

[10] Graeme Baker, “Saudis Lead Middle East Military Spending,” Al Jazeera, April 15, 2014,

[11] Thomas W. Lippman, “Saudi Arabia: The Calculations of Uncertainty,” in The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider their Nuclear Choices¸ ed. Kurt M. Campbell et al. (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 126.

[12] Martin Chulov, “Is America’s Relationship with Saudi Arabia Broken Beyond Repair?” The Guardian, March 28, 2014,

[13] “Awkward Relations,” The Economist, March 29, 2014,

[14] Lippman 129.

[15] Leon Fuerth, “Turkey: Nuclear Choices amongst Dangerous Neighbors,” in The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider their Nuclear Choices¸ ed. Kurt M. Campbell et al. (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), 167.

[16] Jonny Hogg, “Turkey’s U.S. Relations Show Strain as Washington’s Patience Wears Thin,” Reuters, October 23, 2014,

[17] Hogg.

[18] Associate Press, “Biden Says He Never Apologized to Turkey,” Al Arabiya, November 4, 2014,

[19] Jonathan Schanzer, “Time to Kick Turkey out of NATO?” Politico, October 9, 2014,

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