The expected return of former Vice President Joe Biden to the White House will likely end the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, allowing the Islamist regime to expand its influence in the region and triggering alarm among its neighbors.
Biden’s statements on Iran – indicating he would be amenable to a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and further concessions to Tehran – are a wakeup call for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and Egypt that they can no longer depend on the United States to protect them from a nuclear Iran and the time has come to consider developing their own nuclear arsenals.
Saudi Arabia, eager to have a good working relationship with Biden, wasted no time in congratulating him for his victory and did so in 24 hours. But days later, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir made it clear that Riyadh would definitely consider arming itself with nuclear weapons if Iran acquired them.
Asked in November if Riyadh would consider nuclear development in the face of a nuclear-armed Iran, al-Jubeir said it was “definitely an option.” He has made this threat before. It was voiced when Saudi Arabia feared the mullahs would use the newfound cash they were receiving under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 to fund various nefarious activities (i.e., terrorism) and when tensions between Riyadh and Tehran heightened as Iranian supported the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Since the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal, paved the way for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons despite assurances otherwise, any discussions about a new agreement will see Iran demanding nothing less. Tehran is already making it clear, while the U.S. is obliged to return to the nuclear deal, it will cost us to do so.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who negotiated the agreement with Secretary of State John Kerry, sounded a bit like an old Smith Barney commercial in which the brokerage house claimed to make money the old fashioned way — by earning it. Zarif claims the U.S. now has to “earn” the right to return to the deal by fulfilling its commitments since its withdrawal — which means he is looking for a similar financial windfall as Tehran received for agreeing to JCPOA originally. Interestingly, and somewhat curiously, since Iran never actually signed JCPOA, a legal argument could be made the U.S. owes Tehran nothing —but it is an argument Biden likely will not make.
Skeptics believing a Middle East nuclear arms race is many years down the road fail to realize Riyadh can join the race almost instantaneously. Having helped Pakistan fund its nuclear defenses for years, Saudi Arabia did so with a tacit understanding that if it needed such weapons from Islamabad, they would be provided. Since Iran continues to be firmly committed to knocking Saudi Arabia off its pedestal as custodian of Islam’s Two Holy Cities, to establishing a Shia caliphate as the leader of the Islamic world, and to triggering the return of the “Hidden Imam” – all goals pointing to a nuclear attack on Saudi Arabia – Riyadh will quickly press Pakistan to make good on their understanding.
The prospect of a Middle East nuclear arms race should make us pause and reflect upon how two former leaders — one Iranian and the other American — viewed a nuclear-armed world.
In 1980, Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini said, “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam remains triumphant in the rest of the world.” It tells us a militant Iran does not fear its own destruction in its plan to destroy other nations.
In 2009, President Obama described his policy of the “audacity of hope” by announcing he sought to create a world free from nuclear weapons.
Ironically, Obama’s dream could be shattered by a nuclear arms race ignited by his former vice president.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama, and the first Gulf war. He is the author of Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields, Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty and Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking. He is a senior analyst for Ravenna Associates, a corporate strategic communications company, who frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.