The release of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on February 2, 2018 acknowledges US President Donald Trump’s determination to modernize and significantly enhance America’s already substantial nuclear arsenal. The document argues that the world has become far less safe since the last NPR’s release in 2010:
“There now exists an unprecedented range and mix of threats, including major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space, and cyber threats, and violent non-state actors. These developments have produced increased uncertainty and risk.”
In what it sees as this dangerous new world of potent threats the NPR presents the case that America has no option but to substantially strengthen its nuclear strike force. In doing so, it may also have the unintended consequence of kicking off a nuclear arms race with significant implications for the Gulf and the wider Middle East.
In this context three factors need to be considered. The first is Israel’s weapons arsenal which according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI,) already holds 80 nuclear warheads. The second are President Trump’s persistent threats to walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iranian nuclear deal. The third factor is the growing rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which is anchored in their shared belief that Iran is the greatest regional threat.
If Trump tears up the JCPOA, and together with Saudi Arabia and Israel ramps up the level of bellicosity towards Iran, hardliners in Tehran will almost inevitably push to acquire nuclear weapons. Although opinions vary, the consensus appears to be that it would take perhaps only a year for the Iranians to get their own version of Trump’s “big button.” The Saudis, who are already in negotiations with, among others, Russian and American companies to develop nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes (as Iran claims to be doing) would without doubt want to match Iran. For the know how to do so, Iran could turn to Pakistan, which is the only Muslim-majority nuclear weapons state nation, and one which is close to Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, Pakistan’s successful development of nuclear weapons by 1998 was attributable to substantial Saudi financial assistance. In 2013, the BBC revealed that Pakistani nuclear warheads were available to Saudi Arabia should the need arise in an “off the shelf” arrangement. The trigger for delivery of the warheads would be Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Thus, at a time of high regional insecurity, from one country in the Middle East possessing nuclear armaments the number could rapidly move to three.
Of the three, the Israelis have always said that the nuclear option would only be as a defensive weapon of last resort if faced with annihilation. The Iranians and the Saudis could, however, see nuclear weapons as an offensive tactic as they each vie for regional hegemony. Both countries have a record of growing belligerence with the Iranians engaged militarily in Syria and Iraq while supporting Yemen’s Houthi insurgency. The Saudis under the leadership of King Salman and his powerful son, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), have adopted a muscular and militaristic foreign policy approach, most notably in Yemen. That the policy has delivered few, if any, dividends and massive suffering to the people of Yemen seems not to have altered Riyadh’s trajectory.
It is at this concerning time that the NPR reverses decades of successful efforts by US administrations, both Republican and Democrat, to reduce nuclear stockpiles in the then Soviet Union and in America and to restrain proliferation elsewhere in the world. Brushing aside fears that a nuclear weapons revamp will trigger a news arms race, the authors of the study argue instead that “the flexible, adaptable, and resilient US nuclear capabilities now required to protect the United States, allies, and partners, (will) promote strategic stability.”
Given that the US has 6,800 warheads, the paper argues not for an increase in overall numbers but rather a range of new nuclear options coupled with an overhaul of existing ones. The price tag is estimated at somewhere between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion to be spent over the next 25 years.
It is worthwhile noting that Keith Payne, one of the principal NPR authors, is a noted nuclear weapons hawk. He argued in a 1980 article (“Victory is Possible”) that the US should be willing to sacrifice 20 million citizens in a nuclear war. Such a sacrifice in Payne’s view constituted “a level compatible with national survival and recovery.”
It is also worth noting that Donald Trump, the commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military force has repeatedly threatened North Korea with nuclear retaliation. In August 2017, while speaking to reporters in New Jersey, he boasted about unleashing “fire and power like the world has never seen” on the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Language that, prior to the Trump presidency, would have been widely condemned as criminally irresponsible has become, if anything, commonplace.
In the early morning of the January 3, 2018, reacting to a statement from Kim Jong Un the president tweeted “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
What is far more likely to transpire is a global nuclear arms race, which will inevitably include the Gulf states. Spurring this new arms race on, and what informs much of the thinking in the NPR document, is the fact that the Chinese and the Russians, to say nothing of the North Koreans, are continuing to enhance their nuclear capabilities. The Russians possess 7,000 nuclear warheads, the Chinese 270, and the North Koreans between 10 and 20, according to SIPRI.
The Russians are not keeping to at least one of the arms reduction deals already hammered out (that being the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987). So, the Pentagon and the president have taken the view that while America was honestly and honourably keeping to deals already struck and working sincerely to reduce nuclear weapons, Russia and China were going in the other direction, building up their stockpiles. America in this scenario sees itself as being played for the patsy, its good intentions mocked. The NPR is a statement document, one that echoes the president, and says clearly “no more Mr Nice Guy.”
This new hardline nuclear approach, a radical departure from previous policy, is happening at a time when neither the Israelis or the Saudis are in any mood to make conciliatory gestures towards Iran. Rather, strengthened by the belief that Trump’s America has their back, Israel and Saudi Arabia are moving closer to a confrontation with the Iranians. Tehran, having already scored significant regional geo-political gains, is in no mood to back down. The net result of Trump’s “nuke” rhetoric is the empowerment of hawks in all three countries.
The NPR may achieve its primary goal of making America secure but in doing so it sets a flight path to a global nuclear arms race, one that will worryingly draw in Iran and Saudi Arabia, with profoundly dangerous implications for the Gulf and the greater Middle East.
By Bill Law Middle East analyst.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.