Today’s bombshell regarding the nuclear plans of four, possibly six Arab states is not necessarily bad news.
- It makes clear to Iran the consequences of its own nuclear agenda: broad proliferation in the Gulf and North Africa (I wonder just what Qaddafi’s thinking now?). Hegemony is not assured. Is it worth the hassle?
- Assume Tehran presses on nonetheless. This is likely, since the genie of nuclear nationalism is out of the bottle and the mullahs will have a hard time putting it back in. It’s arguably healthier to have the current balance of regional power preserved, or even shifted towards the smaller states. Trench warfare is labour intensive.
- The Arab world is going to need nuclear power at some point; why not deal with the consequences now? It’s not clear that this is necessarily a bad time to do this. The outside option does not obviously dominate.
Against this, one could argue that today’s news makes it more likely that extra-territorial bad guys (AQ, for one) will get their hands on the technology. This risk exists, but realise that the benchmark is the state where Iran has the bomb, not to mention Pakistan. The probability might not rise that much; the ISI might even be warier of sharing their hard-won nuclear secrets if they think they might be used against the House of Saud, who will know just where to send their counter-strike.
A better argument is that multiple nuclear players in the region makes purely civilian programmes unsustainable. Iran might be persuaded not to weaponise the technology if it were the only one close enough to do so; this gets harder when the neighbours are similarly poised. Against this is a version of 3 above. The Middle East is going nuclear sooner or later, and to pretend otherwise is naive. Sort it out now.
A more nebulous benefit of today’s announcements is that they enhance the value of multilateral agreements among the local players, including the elephant in the living room.