Whatever the eventual results of the West’s confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, America has lost the region. Even if Iranian nuclear installations were to be bombed in the nick of time, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have already realized that they cannot count on the US to alleviate their security problems. Iraq had long realized that, and firmly clings to Iran. America has spent the last six years talking about soon withdrawing from Iraq despite political instability, so Iraqi leaders would have been foolish not to reorient themselves toward Iran.
Iraq won’t develop a strong army in the near future precisely because it is leaning toward Iran, which doesn’t want its former nemesis well-armed. For Egypt and the Saudis, the choice is less straightforward. Egypt cannot afford a large modern army because the government is using every spare piaster to subsidize its forty million paupers, to ease their discontent and prevent them from embracing the Muslim Brotherhood, which they are doing anyway, albeit more slowly than they otherwise would. Saudi Arabia, with its smaller population and larger oil revenues, can afford an expensive military, and indeed runs the most expensive army in the Middle East. But the Saudis innate inability to progress beyond watching camel races precludes them from developing a viable army. The bottom line is the same for both countries: they have to rely on nuclear weapons. The Saudis already have nuclear bombs, which they received from Pakistan in return for financing its nuclear program, and Egypt is slowly enriching uranium to weapons-grade on its small research reactors.
Nuclearization is their only option against Iran, which not only subverts governments around the region, but actively encourages Shiite activities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Their problem is that Shiites are loyal to the Grand Ayatollah in Iran rather than to the local government. The problem does not loom large in Egypt—though it is certainly bigger now than a decade ago—but it is tremendous for Saudi Arabia, whose oil fields are settled by Shiites. Any Shiite unrest in Saudi Arabia would immediately raise the possibility of the Wahhabite Sunni monarchy losing its oil fields, the country’s only significant source of income. With stakes that high, brandishing and using nuclear weapons is not too drastic a step to take.
With Egypt and Saudi Arabia about to officially nuclearize, Syria cannot allow itself to fall behind. Oman will have to maintain its regional superpower status, so it will also go nuclear. Morocco, a perpetual peacemaker in the Middle East and colonizer of the Sahara, won’t let its king down, and will also go nuclear.
In a region seething with nuclear weapons, a country which has failed to preserve its onetime nuclear monopoly won’t get much respect.