Potential regional reactions to a nuclear-armed Iran are unclear, and are further complicated by variables including the transparency and scale of Iran’s weaponization. The possible regional consequences range from a de-escalation in conflict to the outbreak of a nuclear arms race. If the US is not balanced in its response to a nuclear-armed Iran, US influence risks worsening the resultant situation, whether it is one of relative stability or widespread insecurity.
Examining the origins of the current Iranian nuclear situation is useful in attempting to understand Iran’s motives in initiating a nuclear program. That Iran began building its nuclear program in secrecy implies that at the time Iran desired a weapons program as a security deterrent. Following Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, and the international community’s relative silence on the issue, it is understandable that Iran would no longer want to subject itself to such hypocritical international norms. Yet despite Iran’s current lack of existential threats—following the destruction of its two greatest enemies, the Hussein regime and the Taliban—Iran has continued its nuclear program.
Despite assertions from Iranian leaders that Iran seeks a nuclear program solely for energy purposes, Ahmadinejad in particular has exclaimed his desire to use a nuclear bomb to attack Israel. Iranian leaders no doubt are attempting to exploit this ambiguity, though it may backfire and result in an Israeli airstrike. If it were suddenly to emerge that Iran had successfully built a bomb, Iranian intentions would be equally ambiguous, inciting a security crisis in the Middle East. Iranian rulers may build a bomb just to increase their perceived powerfulness or Iran’s regional prestige, yet no one on the outside can know their true intentions. It is this uncertainty that would be the greatest source of Middle East insecurity.
Because of the insecurity created by the development of an Iranian bomb, there is a significantly increased likelihood that other regional actors would also develop nuclear weapons programs. Other states might want to do this for two reasons: because they believe that a nuclear Iran poses a legitimate threat or because they believe that nuclear weapons give Iran an overwhelming regional prestige. Furthermore, Iran’s nuclear weaponization would not only alter the balance of power in the Middle East, but it would also signify the inability of the US and UN to stop Middle East powers from becoming nuclear-armed.
While other regional actors would be tempted to develop nuclear weapons to balance against Iranian regional leadership—or an Iranian security threat—they would be further encouraged by the failure of the international community to stop Iran’s weaponization. If Iran becomes nuclear-armed, it is likely that other regional powers will attempt to do the same, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Facing a potential existential nuclear threat in Iran, Saudi Arabia would likely seek to build a nuclear weapons program in response. Saudis likely fear a retaliatory attack from Iran in the event of a US or Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This potentiality justifies Saudi ambitions to build bomb. Further, a bomb would allow Saudi Arabia to more fully guarantee its own security, moving away from reliance on the US Thus a nuclear weapon would increase Saudi regional prestige, as well as its dominance over the other Gulf states.
Egypt would likely attempt to develop a nuclear bomb in response to Iran’s nuclear weaponization in order to attempt to restore its prestige and leadership in the Arab world. Any political constraints keeping Egypt from developing a bomb would be lessened by the presence of a nuclear-armed Iran. The perception that Saudi Arabia would be attempting to develop a bomb in response to Iran’s weapons program would further entice Egypt to consider building a bomb in a competition for prestige.