A US Defense Umbrella in the Middle East

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that the US would extend what is often referred to as a “defense umbrella” or a “nuclear umbrella” over the Middle East if Iran developed nuclear weapons.  This strategic concept entails assuring other countries that the US would retaliate militarily if a hostile nation attacked them with atomic bombs.  The purpose of the policy is to deter other powers from attacking or coercing US allies and to dissuade those allies from developing nuclear weapons of their own, thereby minimizing potentially destabilizing weapons proliferation .  Since the beginning of the Cold War, America has extended its nuclear umbrella over parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America.

During a town hall meeting in Bangkok, Clinton argued that Iran should not pursue nuclear weapons, which Western officials believe the Islamic Republic is doing, by saying “We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment, that if the US extends a defense umbrella over the region…it’s unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon.”

Another important American objective is to reassure US allies in the region, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular, and to convince them that they do not need to acquire the Bomb to protect themselves from Iranian aggression.  Many Arab states, which are predominantly Sunni Muslim, perceive Iran, which is predominantly Shiite Muslim, as a rival and a security threat, which is why they might be inclined to counter Iran’s nuclear developments with their own without a security guarantee from the US.

The Obama administration’s umbrella extension policy is unlikely to deter Iran from developing an atomic arsenal, which Iranian leaders apparently believe to be an important strategic asset and a way to deter the US from attacking their country in the future.  However, the strategy might be effective when it comes to limiting nuclear weapons proliferation in the region if history is any indicator.  Thus far, America has dissuaded major powers like Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy and new NATO members in Eastern Europe from pursing such weapons, and there is no apparent reason why nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia would not make similar decisions.

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