ISSN 2330-717X

Nuclear Deterrence For A Nuclear-Armed Iran: The US / GCC Dilemma – Analysis


By Sabahat Khan

Following the political fall-out between Washington and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, relations between the GCC bloc, in particular Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. have recovered – largely driven by the necessity of the multi-dimensional security challenge Iran has come to posit. The rise of Iran – in part catapulted by the United States-led wars in Afghanistan and in particular Iraq, and the growth in status of proxy groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas – has presented a number of capitals in the GCC (some more so, admittedly, than others) with a renewed set of mutual interests to drive relations with Washington forward for potentially the next two decades. At the pinnacle of mutually shared security threats between the U.S. and GCC states are the suspected activities of Iran to enrich uranium to weapons-grade and then ‘weaponize’ the fissile material, closely followed by the increasingly sophisticated growing Iranian cruise and ballistic missile arsenals.

Iran - United States Relations
Iran - United States Relations

While remaining imbued with considerable ambiguities, the idea of a defense umbrella to GCC allies floated by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in fall 2009 has unavoidably carried undertones of Cold War-era ‘extended deterrence’ strategies – especially in the event Iran makes a breakthrough as a nuclear weapons state. The concept of ‘extended deterrence’ is traced back to the Cold War when the U.S. and the Soviet Union declared their willingness employ their nuclear arsenals for the protection of allies. What ‘category’ of a defense umbrella the U.S. could extend to its GCC allies remains unclear. For example, would such a defense umbrella be framed within bilateral or multilateral arrangements, and would it be designed only to offer GCC allies a defensive missile shield with deployed in-theater U.S. military assets? Or, would the United States’ umbrella go as far as extended deterrence whereby a potential nuclear attack on GCC allies by Iran would be met with Washington retaliating in kind?

Extended deterrence for GCC allies could simultaneously serve two core long-term policy objectives for Washington: Firstly, to support the security of indispensable energy partners in the GCC, and; Secondly, to offer an convincing alternative to GCC states that could consider their own nuclear weapons programs if Iran became a nuclear armed state. For now, however, it can be presumed on the basis of prevailing policy position that the U.S. will extend its military assets only in support of what could eventually evolve into an integrated regional air and missile defense shield against Iranian air and missile capabilities. To enable such, Washington would authorize – as it already is – sales of modern air defense systems such as the PAC-3 and THAAD systems, simultaneously with advanced weapons sales – also as it has already declared – to bolster GCC counterforce capabilities for offensive operations. At another level, presumably, Washington would entertain some tacit understanding to either lead or support military operations against Iran if it chose to attack GCC states, or destabilize them beyond a level of tolerability.

Gulf States (GCC)
Gulf States (GCC)

However, the posture outlined above only looks at dealing with Iran as a conventional power: The acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran could render a defense umbrella for GCC states redundant in the absence of a nuclear deterrent – prompting GCC states to consider their own. It is entirely conceivable if not increasingly certain that a GCC state or the GCC bloc would feel compelled to develop an indigenous nuclear deterrent. So it becomes necessary to consider at least in theory the possibility of a U.S. extended deterrence to GCC allies – firstly, as means to protect GCC allies, and secondly, as a strategy to contain a regional nuclear arms race.

Assuming the United States did eventually offer extended deterrence to GCC states, a number of important questions arise: The biggest ask where the U.S. would deploy its nuclear arsenal, how quantitatively large any such deployment would be, and – crucially – how much, if any, control GCC states party to such an arrangement would have. The latter presents several more questions – for example, where would the United States’ nuclear deterrent be positioned within either individual command and control structures for GCC states, or within an as-yet-unrealized regional command and control structure? If the nuclear deterrent was in the form of air-to-ground bombs deliverable by aircraft, who would be assigned to deliver them? Alternatively, if the deterrent was in the form of ground-launched missiles, would their launch be automated (and to what degree) or not in retaliation to a nuclear attack – and who would take responsibility in the event of miscalculation?

Indeed, any extended deterrence for the GCC would need to be deployed in-theater (i.e., on GCC territory), for nuclear missiles housed on U.S. aircraft carriers or naval ships would be exposed to unnecessary and potentially untenable risks – and for now no known submarine bases exist anywhere on the peninsula. However, even the deployment of U.S. submarines with nuclear weapons could create problems with regards to the balance of power between the U.S. and Russia, and increasingly, China – the implications of which could be an even more dangerous regional arms build-up than what Iran threatens by itself. Within that backdrop, it is almost certain that GCC states would want some level of control over U.S. nuclear weapons deployed on their territories – this could in fact be an essential element of any U.S. efforts to convince GCC states to voluntarily forgo efforts to launch their own nuclear weapons programs.

The idea of some level of joint control of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons seems feasible at least in theory – and perhaps the most useful model to contrast the possibility of such is the current NATO arrangement with Turkey. Under a decades-old Cold War-era NATO arrangement, Turkey still hosts as many as 90 B61 gravity bombs that can be delivered with F-16 jets at its Incirlik Air Base (IAB). Reportedly, U.S. pilots are assigned to deliver 50 of the 90 B61 bombs stored at IAB, and the rest are assigned for delivery by the Turkish Air Force. Similarly, the U.S. keeps upwards of 100 nuclear bombs at NATO bases in Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, and Italy. One particular feature in the Turkish arrangement may however be unacceptable to GCC states – that there is no permanent deployment of a nuclear-capable F-16 wing at IAB (only the B61 gravity bombs here are permanently stored).

Yet, even if the U.S. came around, firstly, to extended deterrence for GCC allies, and second, to some level of joint control for it, further obstacles remain in a workable long term arrangement. For instance, assuming Iran acquired a nuclear weapons capability and then, having acquired a capable modern air defense system such as future variants of the Russian-made S-400, begun stockpiling an unlimited number of nuclear warheads – would a presumed U.S. extended deterrence meet the threat of an expanding Iranian nuclear arsenal with some degree of quantitative parity? And as we are exploring future scenarios – would an implosion of the Islamic regime in Iran and its replacement with a democratic, pro-Western regime that, for instance, halts its nuclear weapons production but does not entirely disassemble its arsenal, prompt the U.S. to review and possibly withdraw its extended deterrence to GCC allies, in part or principle?

GCC states cannot entirely discount the possibility of a paradigm shift in the center of gravity for political power in Iran profoundly impacting their own relationships with Washington, reducing their dispensability to overarching U.S. interests and potentially leaving them isolated in fifteen years from now. GCC states look back to 1960s and 1970s when Washington was helping build its regional policeman under the Shah of Iran, much to the discomfort of Arabian Gulf states. Ironically, there are high-up circles in the GCC that have already subscribed to the belief that the potential nuclear weapons breakthrough of Iran is a Western conspiracy to undermine the Sunni Arabs. The issue here is about whether Saudi Arabia or GCC states would ever be prepared to live in the shadow of a nuclear-armed Iran per se, regardless of the nature of its government. Thus even an extended deterrence for GCC allies – while offering them a sense of protection, and an important one – may not be sustainable as a long-term substitute to dissuade all GCC states from exploring the feasibility of a national nuclear deterrent.

Some analysts feel that the development of a nuclear weapons capability would be too costly and draining on national resources for a nation like Saudi Arabia, for example – and combined with the likelihood of defying the U.S., which could fundamentally jeopardize the single most important strategic security relationship Riyadh has, the Saudis would be unlikely to pursue nuclear weapons capability. Similar arguments are made for the UAE – the next GCC state with theoretical weight to be able to embark on such an effort – which has become the first GCC state to launch a civilian nuclear program, poised to set new benchmarks for international safeguards and transparency. However, while such analyses may hold some weight, they represent an “outside-in” look into the security perceptions of Saudi Arabia rather than how the Saudis themselves – and indeed their GCC partners – view regional nuclear weapons proliferation, and feel compelled to channel their national and collective powers to counter the looming threat of nuclear weapons from what is perceived to be an interventionist and aggressive regional force. Quietly, some observers look at the closeness of Saudi-Pakistani bilateral relations – exemplified by historical Saudi support for Pakistan’s nuclear program – to consider the possibility of Pakistan deploying part of its own arsenal in the kingdom.

Some time ago the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas M. Freeman, noted that “[S]enior Saudi officials have said privately that, if and when Iran acknowledges having, or is discovered to have, actual nuclear warheads, Saudi Arabia would feel compelled to acquire a deterrent stockpile.” In fall 2011, Prince Turki al-Faisal – a U.S.-educated former Saudi intelligence chief and former Saudi envoy to the U.S. – declared in an unofficial capacity that the leadership of Saudi Arabia has a “duty” to its people to look into “all options we are given, including obtaining these weapons ourselves” if “the efforts of the world community, fail to convince Israel to shed its weapons of mass destruction and to prevent Iran from obtaining similar weapons.” Although Prince Turki’s remarks were made in a personal capacity to not reflect official policy, it should be noted that the remarks by Prince Turki – once a champion of a nuclear-free Middle East – suggest not only that a regional nuclear arms race is a real possibility in the event of a nuclear-armed Iran, but that even moderates are accepting its inevitability.

Any U.S. extended deterrence for the GCC remains only a conceptual exercise – but could feature as a future add-on to a “defense umbrella” which for now only focuses on combining advanced air and missile defense and GCC counterforce capabilities. GCC states have been working away at upgrading missile defense capabilities, and hope with renewed energies a regional integrated air and missile defense architecture can be realized within the decade. For that to happen, GCC states will need continued U.S. support – operationally, at least in the short-term, and technologically much longer. How dependency on the U.S. for defense needs would affect the self-drive of a state like Saudi Arabia or the UAE to consider a nuclear weapons capability if Iran acquired such remains unclear. Although the U.S. could in theory threaten withdrawal from regional air and missile defense set-ups – either by refusing to take part in or ultimately suspending sales of its missile defense systems – it may be reluctant to take such measures. Ultimately, in the prevailing environment, Washington could pay a much heavier price by deserting regional forces that are friendly to its greater interests, paving the way for competing powers to capitalize on a vacuum any U.S. retreat from longstanding relationships with GCC allies could create.

Sabahat Khan, Senior Analyst, INEGMA



INEGMA is a Free Zone Limited Liability Company based in Dubai Media City, in the United Arab Emirates. Established in 2001, INEGMA was set up to provide media organizations, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, militaries and governments of the Middle East, and international private companies with various services related to military and strategic affairs.

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