Iran, Yemen and nuclear power politics

Recent declarations made by Mr Sergey Lavrov[1], the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, are highlighting several points on the Middle East current political situation. The most important concerns of course the provisional agreement reached with Iran. But, in the same speech, he devoted a part of his time to the Yemen crisis. The two topics are actually interlinked.

Iran, the nuclear issue, and proliferation.

Mr Lavrov has rightly pointed to the fact that Iran is and will be the most controlled State concerning its nuclear program[2]. This is making a clear-cut difference with other “clandestine” proliferators like Israel, India and Pakistan and possibly North Korea. It was an open secret that Israel has reached the nuclear status since probably the early 1970’s and is holding now an arsenal of 250 to 300 nuclear warheads. Some of them are embarked on submarines, arming cruise missiles deployed on tem. Proliferation IS taking place[3] despite all misguided efforts to prove the contrary[4]. The very question is not to prevent proliferation, a clearly impossible task, but to limit it and to avoid creating “clandestine” proliferators, with highly unstable nuclear arsenal and decision-making procedures. This is certainly where the main risk is lying[5]. An “unstable” nuclear arsenal is one that could be entirely destroyed by an adverse first strike. The same could be said of decision-making procedures. If the country could be decapitated by a nuclear first strike, or its leadership totally incapacitated, it could be called “unstable”. This situation would then provide the “unstable” country with a strong incentive to strike first or at the least to adopt a strategy of “launch on warning”, which is notoriously dangerous[6].

The danger doesn’t lie in the possession of nuclear weapons per se. Right now a state of nuclear deterrence exists between India and Pakistan, and both countries are making strenuous efforts to reach a “stable” position both on their (limited) arsenal and on the decision-making procedures. Nuclear deterrence have educated politicians, made the same much more cautious, at least when it comes to deal with other nuclear countries. This is not to say that every country has to go nuclear. We have a number of examples of countries either deciding not to go nuclear (like Sweden) or deciding to exit form a nuclear regime like South Africa (which reached the nuclear status with Israel help) or Ukraine and Kazakhstan. But reasons of such a move were quite various, going from the fact some countries had no need nor were equipped for keeping their nuclear arsenal they actually inherited from the former SSSR (Ukraine and Kazakhstan) to the situation where the country was no more threatened because its own internal policy (South Africa with the dismembering of Apartheid and the pacific transition to multi-colored power). It is also well known that most developed countries could, if they were feeling the necessity, go nuclear at short notice, something true for Sweden of course but also Japan, Germany, Australia and Canada to just give some names.

On this point, Russia and US attitudes toward Iran seem to have been much better balanced than French ones. Not that these countries were pleased by the prospect of Iran acquiring the capacity to go nuclear if wanted. But, in international negotiations the point is frequently not to choose between the “good” and the “evil” but to select the lesser evil. This point seems to have been completely lost by Mr Laurent Fabius, the French Minster of Foreign Affairs.

The geopolitical problem and nuclear stability.

The problem is nevertheless more complex with Iran, not because of Iran by itself but because of the geopolitical context. Progresses made by Iran on the road to nuclear power, be it civilian or military – and it is well known that the border between both is largely blurred – has raised concerns not just in Israel but also in Saudi Arabia. These concerns are however not symmetrical. Concerns in Israel look more of an internal political nature than anything else. The right-wing government and Mr Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged many times that it will not accept a “nuclear” Iran. But, the fact that its own arsenal is reaching more than 200 warheads is a proof by itself that it has accommodated to this possibility.

Actually the size of Israel own nuclear arsenal is more than enough to reach deterrence equilibrium with Iran, without compromising to any other adversary. A reversal on its pledge would certainly undermine the political legitimacy of the government and this is what its is afraid of. That’s why the Israel Prime-Minister has been so vocal against this agreement when there is no rational security reason. In the same time, the development by Israel of an anti-ballistic system (ABM defence) is raising again the issue of the “first strike”. An ABM defence could make sense, against a foe, who is at an initial stage of development of its nuclear arsenal, for protecting itself against a retaliatory strike after a first strike which could have destroyed more than 90% of adversary arsenal. Then one has to raise the question of who is really undermining stability in the Middle East. Part of Western (and French) efforts would be addressed to making Israel foreign policy both more predictable and more accommodating. The “Spartan” model embraced by Israel’s leaders is not going anywhere.

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

The problem with Saudi Arabia is of another nature and the current crisis in Yemen, which was also a topic covered by Mr. Lavrov’s declarations, is a good example of power politics in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has taken a staunch position on the Yemen crisis and is intervening with armed forces, in what amount probably to an illegal move in the light of international law[7], against Houthi Shi’a militias. These militias are by the way telling us that the old divide between “North” and “South” Yemen, which were at a time two separated countries, is not completely over. But it is not the old, and sometimes ferocious, opposition between Sunnite and Shi’ite, which is making the core of Saudi policy on Yemen even if Saudi Arabia is the place of birth of an extreme and fundamentalist variant of Sunnism, something not to be forgotten. Saudi Arabia, a long lasting opponent to Iran ambitions is now deeply concerned by what it sees as a possible encirclement by Iran. Iran has now established itself as a major political power both in Iraq and Syria. But for Iran, supplying men and weapons, both the Bagdad and Damas government would have crumbled. Another development of possible Iran’s influence in Aden, the natural exit for the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, would change the balance of power in the region. It is to be remembered that Iran has already the de facto power of blockading the Gulf. This is too explaining the decision of Egypt to move on the side of Saudi Arabia. In this context, Saudi Arabia could well oppose the agreement with Iran threatening to go nuclear if Iran is let with an ambitious civilian program enabling it to switch to military purposes at short notice.

The main risk appears to be a regional nuclear arms race, engulfing Iran, Saudi Arabia but also Egypt. Such a situation would be a quite instable one because of the combination of nascent, and then inherently unstable nuclear arsenals and power politics. Of course, would each country reach a stable position, not just for its arsenal but also for its decision-making procedures, the deterrence could play a stabilizing role. This is why negotiations giving Iran the insurance of national security are an important factor in limiting the proliferation process. But, what are insurances in the view of revolving US commitments and of Israel frequently erratic behaviour? We are paying the price of the 2003 aggression against Iraq, which not only let us with a very unstable country but created a widespread feeling of uneasiness toward the US policy in the region.

Russia embarrassment.

Mr Lavrov declarations could not shield the fact that Russia is de facto embarrassed by these developments. Russia has made strenuous efforts to mend fences with Saudi Arabia and has re-established good relations with Egypt as exemplified by the recent trip of President Putin in Cairo. But, Russia stands as the main ally of Iran in the region, and will certainly not compromise on this point. To a large extent Iran is decisively much more important for Russia (and for Central Asia countries) security than is both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. If Russia had to choose between a nuclear Iran and a non-nuclear Iran there are few doubts it will prefer the non-nuclear option. But if the real choice is between an overtly nuclear Iran and a covertly nuclear Iran, there are few doubts that Russia would prefer and overtly nuclear Iran.

However, in the same time, there are arguments for maintaining as good as possible relations with these two countries. By the way, Egypt has a clear need of Russian influence to stabilize its South, and Russo-Chinese influence on Sudan is pretty high. This could open the door for some comprehension between Russia and Egypt on the Yemen crisis. The bellicose behaviour of Saudi Arabia in Yemen is most probably linked to US influence, a country not above playing the chaos trump card to foster its interests. It is interesting to note that Saudi Arabia and the United States are now working for Al-Qaeda in Yemen, when the US is actually bombing other Al-Qaeda affiliated groups all over the world. It is an interesting situation, which could soon evolve into an embarrassing one in Washington if it allows for Al-Qaeda to make progresses into Saudi Arabia. The inconsistencies of foreign policies, be it the US one about the Yemen crisis or the French one in Syria, where the government is helping those it fights in Northern Mali and Niger, is not helping to find reasonable solutions and to defuse the growing power politics in the Middle East.

As a matter of fact we are seeing power politics developing thick and fast in the Middle East. The game is between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with of course Israel acting as an observer but now dominated by its internal politics and the ill-advised pledge made its Prime-Minister. It is a very unstable game, and one that could lead to a major conflict. The only possible solution to defuse this conflict could be Russian pressure on Egypt to convince this country to take a more neutral attitude, understanding the fact that Egypt has vital interest in the fact that the Red Sea would not be closed.

[1] ,


[3] As I warned in 1992. Sapir J., Feu le système soviétique ? Permanences politiques, mirages économiques, enjeux stratégiques, La Découverte, Paris, 1992.

[4] Zagare, Frank C., « Reconciling Rationality with Deterrence: A Re-examination of the Logical Foundations of Deterrence Theory », Journal of Theoretical Politics 16 (2), 2004, pp. 107–141 .

[5] Schelling T., The Strategy of Conflict, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1960.

[6] See Schelling T., « Surprise Attack and Disarmament, » Claus Knorr, ed., NATO and

American Security, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1959.



Jacques Sapir

Ses travaux de chercheur se sont orientés dans trois dimensions, l’étude de l’économie russe et de la transition, l’analyse des crises financières et des recherches théoriques sur les institutions économiques et les interactions entre les comportements individuels. Il a poursuivi ses recherches à partir de 2000 sur les interactions entre les régimes de change, la structuration des systèmes financiers et les instabilités macroéconomiques. Depuis 2007 il s'est impliqué dans l’analyse de la crise financière actuelle, et en particulier dans la crise de la zone Euro.

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