Simon Henderson is Baker fellow and director of the Gulf & Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A former journalist with Financial Times and a consultant to corporations and governments on the Persian Gulf, he regularly comments on Saudi political dynamics, energy developments, and Pakistan's nuclear issues. He briefed the Middle East Forum in a conference call on December 17, 2013.
With the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon looming over the Middle East, the recent Geneva accord has heightened fears among the Gulf states of Tehran's growing hegemony and Washington's naïve acquiescence in this detrimental development.
There is a wide gap between Washington's and the Gulf states' perceptions of the nuclear threat. While the former defines a nuclear weapon as a detonated warhead, the latter see the nuclear threat in terms of a cruder weapon that Iranian technology has already reached. As a quasi-nuclear state with the potential to rapidly weaponize, Tehran has already changed the balance of power in the region.
Both Jerusalem and Riyadh, equally alarmed by the Iranian nuclear threat, would require more conclusive evidence of Tehran's real intentions in order to sway international public opinion to take a firmer position. Absent this, Israel's decision on a preemptive strike will have to weigh the possible damage to its international standing, on the one hand, and the ability of such a strike to dissuade Tehran from sustaining its nuclear quest. For its part, Riyadh may seek to undermine the Geneva agreement through alternative means, from funding insurrections and opposition groups in Iran and Syria, to organizing acts of sabotage against Hezbollah, Tehran's foremost Lebanese proxy.
More importantly, should Tehran gain nuclear power status, Riyadh will seek its own nuclear capability, eyeing Pakistan as a potential supplier. Nuclear proliferation would be disastrous for Middle Eastern stability and an abysmal failure of US foreign policy, and is bound to lead to further escalation whose consequences are too horrific to fathom.
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Associate Fellow with the Middle East Forum.