Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Getting Us Nuked

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 6, 2017 --  

Growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran risk war in the Middle East.

The biggest risk of a hot-headed populist in the White House is that his control of the nuclear suitcase may one day get everybody nuked. North Korea has served as the most likely flashpoint leading to such a conflict. Just two months ago, President trump declared he was sending an "armada, very powerful" to its shores as the rogue nation continued to test nuclear-capable missiles.

But events this week show that Korea is not the only regional conflict that can turn millions of people to ashes. On Monday, Arab states led by Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic ties with the gulf nation of Qatar, and sealed the land border with Saudi Arabia.1 The land blockade will hit the country hard, as many imports come over the border from its only land neighbor.

The dispute is partly over Qatari royal family's support for Islamist opposition groups challenging governments across the region, but also because the country has close ties with Iran, the arch-enemy of Saudi Arabia. Monday's diplomatic break after the Emir was quoted in Qatari media praising Iran and Islamist opposition groups in the Middle East. Qatar has denied the comments are genuine.

On the surface, it would seem that America has no dog in this fight. The United States has a huge air base in Qatar as well as close military ties with the Saudis -- president Trump just announced a large arms deal on a state visit to Saudi Arabia last month. But far from mediating the dispute, Trump has fanned the flames with tweets bragging that he inspired the act as a strong stand against terrorism.

In reality, Qatar is just a tiny pawn in the long-running cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two countries harbor every bit as much animosity as existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. They are currently engaged in a proxy war in Yemen where the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis have seized the capital of Sana'a and have been fighting a grinding conflict with a government backed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and several other Arab countries. The same coalitions also fight a proxy war in Syria, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards back the government and Saudi Arabia backs Sunni rebel groups.

Should the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia turn hot, America's existing alliances and bases would force the country to the side of the Saudis. Tiny Qatar would probably try to maintain neutrality, with the United States urging the Saudis to leave the country alone. But given Trump's past hostile statements toward Iran, it is unlikely that America would provide a moderating influence to deter the Saudis from attacking the Islamic Republic.

The most dangerous acts of a hot war would happen squarely on the Iranian side of the border. Populist pressures would push Iran to expel foreigners from the United Nations monitoring its nuclear program as spies. With the monitors gone, the nation would likely seize the chance to embark on a crash program to refine enough Uranium to produce a bomb. Conventional wisdom is that this "breakout" capability would take about a year to yield a crude nuclear weapon.2 To the Iranians, such a weapon would be an invaluable deterrent against invading forces.

Such a program would likely draw Israel into the conflict, either through overt air strikes or through clandestine backing of Saudi attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. If things get to this point, we're talking all-out war in the Middle East.

The good news for Americans, if there is one, is that U.S. cities would be very unlikely to suffer an nuclear attack by Iranian forces. Even in a few years' time, the country's nuclear arsenal would be extremely small and its air delivery systems incapable of long-range nuclear strikes. Saudi and other countries across the Gulf may not be so lucky. Should the Iranian regime find itself on the losing side of a war after producing a weapon, cities on the Arabian side of the gulf would serve as the easiest targets.

Yes, President Trump may yet get people nuked before his presidency is over. But for stateside Americans worried about their safety, this conflict is unlikely to put them in harm's way.


1. The Atlantic, What Just Happened With Qatar? June 5, 2017

2. National Public Radio, Obama: Iran Will Face Longer 'Breakout Time,' Though Not Indefinitely, August 11, 2017