If it needed another reminder of the global danger posed by Iran's nuclear program, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has just gotten one. In early May, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations, revealed in a closely held report that its inspectors had found traces of highly enriched uranium in Egypt last year. The disturbing revelation is the latest sign that the regime of President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo may in fact be looking for a nuclear deterrent, despite official assurances that its program is intended strictly for "peaceful purposes." Egypt's apparent interest in "the bomb" is hardly an isolated incident, however. It is part of a growing pattern of proliferation and nuclear development in the greater Middle East — a trend that has been intensified by Iran's increasingly mature, and menacing, atomic effort.
The numbers tell the story. In the fall of 2002, on the eve of the Bush administration's military campaign against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, there was just one overt nuclear aspirant in the Middle East. As the United States and its allies would discover later, much to their dismay, that country was not Iraq, whose atomic effort had never fully recovered from Israel's brutally effective bombing raid more than two decades prior.
Rather, it was Iran, which had been outed publicly as possessing a clandestine national nuclear program by an exile group just a few months earlier.
Today, by contrast, there are at least 13 other countries in various stages of nuclear acquisition. For example, the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — have embarked upon an ambitious plan for a joint nuclear energy program, even as the House of Saud is said to be enlisting Pakistani assistance to build atomic weapons. Neighboring Yemen, for its part, is eager to join in the GCC effort, despite the dubious distinction of being one of the world's poorest countries. In Jordan, meanwhile, King Abdullah has signaled his government is committed to a civilian nuclear program, and is currently courting foreign partners with whom to build one.
The list goes on. From Morocco to Algeria, Tunisia to Turkey, countries in the shadow of the Islamic Republic are signaling their interest in attaining nuclear status. And, while some appear to be searching simply for a new source of energy, there are clear signs that others are doing so out of strategic motivations, as part of their efforts to erect a counterweight to the emerging Iranian bomb.
This reality led London's prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies to warn last year, in its landmark study on the subject, that if it goes "unchecked," Iran's nuclear program could "prompt a regional cascade of proliferation among Iran's neighbors." The Middle East, in other words, is fast approaching a pivotal proliferation moment — one in which Iran's persistent quest for a nuclear capability unleashes an arms race among its neighbors and competitors, with potentially devastating consequences for global security.
So far, policymakers in Washington have been slow to grasp this reality. The Obama administration's persistent efforts at "engagement" with the Islamic Republic since taking office have not done much to assuage regional concerns about Tehran's growing atomic clout. Neither has its not-so-subtle acquiescence to Iran's uranium enrichment efforts — a move interpreted by many in the region, including in Tehran itself, as a quiet American acceptance of the inevitability of Iranian nuclearization.
Such perceptions could have disastrous consequences. How Washington deals with Iran's nuclear program will go a long way toward preventing a new arms race in the Middle East, or conversely causing a new cascade of proliferation in one of the world's most dangerous regions. Simply put, if Iran continues to make headway on its nuclear program despite — or because of — current policy, regional states are likely to conclude that the White House lacks the political will or the interest in preventing them from doing the same.
And that is perhaps the most compelling reason for Washington to take the threat of Iran's nuclear ambitions more seriously. If it does not, the United States may soon find itself contending with not one new nuclear power in the Middle East, but many.