How to Prevent a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: Invest in Stability Instead of Conflict


There are two current trends in the Middle East that threaten to enable a nuclear arms race. A third offers a way to prevent it.

The first concerns the very aggressive pace of Russia’s efforts to expand its influence throughout the Middle East from Egypt through Syria to Iran, and in the process to displace the United States as the preeminent power in the region. This is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, Russia has sought to gain assured access to the world’s oceans and to overcome the impediments posed for example, by the Bosporus and Turkish Straits which stand in the way of that access. Their ultimate goal is to ensure access to distant critical resources and to control choke points vital to the flow of global maritime commerce.

Throughout the past two years, the U.S. government has watched passively as Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War on behalf of Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s intervention has little to do with the welfare of the Syrian people, and everything to do with securing port facilities at Tartus and an air base at Khmeimim. Now under Russian control, these two bases will serve as the western anchor of their strategy to link Syria (and ultimately Iraq) with Iran. Russia’s support for Iran’s nuclear power program and its generous offers to sell state-of-the-art sophisticated weapons to the Khamenei regime, gives it powerful influence over Iranian policy. Moscow has already been allowed to launch tactical air missions into Syria from an Iranian air base.

The second trend involves the international ambiguity that has arisen concerning U.S. policy toward preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Specifically, the United States has lacked a clear strategy for promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy in the Middle East since  signing of the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA) with Iran in 2015. the JCPOA was designed to place restraints on Iran’s nuclear-power program and prevent it from becoming a nuclear-weapons program. Regardless of how one may feel about that agreement, it is seen throughout Saudi Arabia, the GCC states, Egypt, Israel and Jordan as enabling Iran to legally pursue a nuclear-weapons program later on. In truth, all states in the Middle East have a desperate need for more electricity. Nuclear power generation is a natural choice for the region as part of a diversified energy mix in the years ahead. The Arab states signed the nonproliferation treaty (NPT) and now, abiding by its terms, are entitled to develop peaceful uses of nuclear technology. The NPT likewise obligates the United States to assist such countries in this pursuit. However, Russia and China are rushing to market their own nuclear power reactors, while U.S. policy lags. This will undermine Washington’s ability to shape the highest standards of nonproliferation safeguards, safety, and security developed and implemented in the Middle East—as we have done so successfully in the United States.

Furthermore, Russian offers come accompanied by thousands of Russian advisors in each Sunni Arab country. Moscow thus has an opportunity to further consolidate its influence and control over countries who own more than 50 percent of all global crude oil reserves and the strategic waterways through which the oil passes.

In short, the Middle East is in the process of going nuclear. The big question is whether the nuclearization of the region will be dominated by Russia and China, or by the host countries in partnership with the United States and its allies under a proven program that ensures absolute safety, security and standardization throughout the nuclear fuel cycle. America’s nuclear security record makes us the acknowledged leader in nuclear nonproliferation governance throughout the world. Russia and China are not even close.

Bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements are required by U.S. law in order for U.S. companies to construct and operate nuclear plants overseas, and better enable U.S. government agencies and companies to develop deep relationships to aid in promoting high standards, optimal technical solutions, and strong nonproliferation norms. Continue reading.