A Nuclear (em)Powered Middle East: Why the United States Cannot Afford a Counterterror Only Approach to the Region

The Barakah nuclear power plant in United Arab Emirates is seen in an undated photo released by the state-run WAM news agency. Photo Credit: Arun Girija/Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation/WAM/AP 

By: Taylor Clausen, Columnist 

The most recent National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy heralded the return of great power competition. Before the documents’ release, Elbridge Colby, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, stated that the documents were driven by the “central challenge facing the department of defense and the joint force [that is] the erosion of U.S. military advantage vis a vis China and Russia.”[i] While the documents themselves do not call for a withdrawal from the Middle East, they provided a path for maintaining progress on counterterrorism while transitioning to longer-term threats. For an overarching strategy, the documents were well constructed and argued, and provide a viable path forward for securing US interests on the whole. But what about competition in the Middle East beyond counterterrorism? Many proclaim that interstate conflict in the Middle East has largely been replaced by sub-state threats.[ii] However, this fails to encapsulate the broader spirit of the NDS and NSS itself – conflict may have regressed in the Middle East but competition is thriving. Nowhere is this competition more pronounced than in the race to acquire nuclear technology, which ups the ante considerably given the lack of verifiable commitments to forgo obtaining nuclear weapons.

Last week, Iran announced that it would take a half step out of the nuclear deal, which the United States withdrew from in May 2018, by lifting stockpiling limits on heavy water and low enriched uranium. Furthermore, if Europe does not assist in helping to skirt US sanctions, Iran has threatened to produce highly enriched uranium and reopen a plutonium reactor complex.[iii] These actions have started a flurry of responses from the United States, including a Carrier Strike Group and bomber task force sent to the region.[iv] Secretary of State Pompeo abruptly cancelled his agenda in Germany to fly to Iraq, urging leaders to reign in Iranian backed militias under the control of the central government.[v] Whether or not the United States can deter Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is yet to be seen, however, these responses are only short term in nature. The US does not have a permanent carrier rotation in the Persian Gulf, and the Secretary’s attention will likely be drawn to other pressing matters in the coming months, to name only a few North Korea, Algeria, Libya, China, and Russia.[vi] This becomes a concern when other states, beyond Iran, begin scrambling for the bomb.

In March, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry reportedly approved six secret authorizations by companies to sell nuclear power technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia.[vii] Unlike South Korea and Japan which possess nuclear technology but have made verifiable commitments not to obtain nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia has already pledged not to be held by any agreement that would limit its ability to develop weapons grade uranium through enrichment processing or reprocessing spent fuel.[viii] To remove any doubt about Saudi’s intent, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, publicly pledged that if Iran gets a bomb Saudi Arabia would develop one as well.[ix] Furthermore, the UAE currently possess nuclear energy through a 123 agreement with the United States.[x] Its pathway to a bomb would be relatively quick, and can be assumed that if Iran and Saudi Arabia obtained nuclear weapons, they would as well.

A vision for the Middle East that includes Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE, with verifiable commitments not to develop nuclear weapons seems highly unrealistic. Instead, chances are that the Middle East of the future will contain four states with nuclear weapons (Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran), along with three superpowers vying for influence and control (Russia, China, and the United States). Sub-state threats are and will remain a problem in the region for the foreseeable future. However, it is only one of many issues that could be exacerbated by the inclusion of nuclear-powered states. For instance, the Gulf Cooperation Council remains fractured.[xi] The Arab League has welcomed back Bashar al-Assad.[xii] The future of Kurdistan and relations with Turkey remain uncertain, as well as the latter’s status in NATO. Finally, the civil war in Yemen is stuck in stalemate.

Sanctions, carrier and bomber deployments, and diplomacy are all means to an end. However, the United States has been plagued with an inability to develop a broader strategy toward the Middle East for some time. The point is fast approaching where the US will be facing a very different Middle East, one rife with nuclear powers, severe disagreements, and three great power competitors all vying for influence and efficacy. The time to formulate the next long-term strategy for this uncertain region is now. A viable path forward is one that includes a prioritization of national security interests and dedicated resources, while recognizing future threats to US interests in the Middle East include sub-state violence and inter-state competition.


[i] Aaron Mehta, “National Defense Strategy Released with Clear Priority: Stay Ahead of Russia and China,” Defense News, January 19, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/breaking-news/2018/01/19/national-defense-strategy-released-with-clear-priority-stay-ahead-of-russia-and-china/.

[ii] Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes, “America’s Middle East Purgatory,” January 29, 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2018-12-11/americas-middle-east-purgatory.

[iii] Aresu Eqbali, Sune Engel Rasmussen, and Laurence Norman, “U.S. Tightens Iran Sanctions After Tehran Threatens to Abandon Nuclear Curbs,” Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2019, sec. World, https://www.wsj.com/articles/iran-to-stop-complying-with-some-nuclear-deal-commitments-11557297791.

[iv] Tom Bowman, “U.S. To Deploy Carrier And Bomber Task Force After Concerns About Iran Threat,” NPR.org, May 6, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/05/06/720800641/u-s-to-deploy-carrier-and-bomber-task-force-after-concerns-about-iran-threat.

[v] “Pompeo Briefs Iraqi Leaders on U.S. Security Concerns over Iran,” Reuters, May 8, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-iraq-pompeo-idUSKCN1SD2I1.

[vi] Lolita Baldor and Zeke Miller, “US Sending Aircraft Carrier to Mideast, Citing Iran Threats,” AP NEWS, May 7, 2019, https://apnews.com/c13d7c2ce4a1429bad83d5482f9193f3.

[vii] Timothy Gardner, “U.S. Approved Secret Nuclear Power Work for Saudi Arabia,” Reuters, March 28, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-saudi-nuclear-idUSKCN1R82MG.

[viii] Gardner.

[ix] “Saudi Crown Prince: If Iran Develops Nuclear Bomb, so Will We,” CBS News, March 15, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-iran-nuclear-bomb-saudi-arabia/.

[x] “The U.S. Atomic Energy Act Section 123 At a Glance,” Arms Control Association, April 2019, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/AEASection123.

[xi] Farah Najjar, “A Fractured GCC Meets in Riyadh amid Ongoing Crisis,” AlJazeera, December 9, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/12/expect-year-gcc-summit-riyadh-181208122627452.html.

[xii] Bethan McKernan and Martin Chulov, “Arab League Set to Readmit Syria Eight Years after Expulsion,” The Guardian, December 26, 2018, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/26/arab-league-set-to-readmit-syria-eight-years-after-expulsion.

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