The global club of nuclear weapons states now stands at nine, but if President-elect Donald Trump rips up a nuclear deal with Iran or backpedals on alliance commitments in East Asia, the number might grow, experts say.
It may be foolhardy to predict what will happen after Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 since Trump has already changed course on several campaign pledges.
But Trump has zigzagged in public statements on the prospect of East Asian allies potentially going nuclear and has suggested repeatedly that he’ll scrap the 2015 Iran deal that imposed curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.
“If the outcome is that Iran says, ‘All gloves are off,’ that would set off an enormous cascade of events, particularly with Saudi Arabia,” said Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists.
Saudi Arabia is the Islamic world’s rival power to Iran, and the two nations have clashed over opposing interpretations of Islam, relations with the West and how to handle flashpoints around the Middle East, such as Syria and Yemen.
If Iran does end up moving forward with its nuclear weapons program, I think Saudi Arabia is very likely to feel pressure and want to move forward.
Scott D. Sagan, Stanford University
“If Iran does end up moving forward with its nuclear weapons program, I think Saudi Arabia is very likely to feel pressure and want to move forward,” said Scott D. Sagan, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
Another regional power, Turkey, may also feel the nuclear itch.
“In Turkey, there is a set of hard-liners that have muttered for a long time that maybe they should have their own nuclear weapons,” said Jeffrey Knopf, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
Those three nations would be motivated by concern, or even fear, of one another. But experts say other motivations can come into play in proliferation.
“If you also look at questions of prestige and broader political rivalries, I think the Egyptians are a serious, long-term concern,” Sagan said. “I don’t think the Egyptians feel a need to move forward with nuclear weapons today but . . . it’s something we should keep our eyes on over the long term.”
Another region of concern is Northeast Asia, home to North Korea, the most recent nation to join a club of nuclear powers that also includes the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India and Pakistan. North Korea conducted the most recent of five nuclear tests in September, and it is estimated to have material to make 10 or so nuclear bombs.
With each demonstration of North Korea’s nascent nuclear might, polls find a rise in support in South Korea for developing its own nuclear weapons.
Trump has indicated that South Korea and Japan are not pulling their weight on defense and has suggested that treaties that place a U.S. nuclear “umbrella” over those nations will not last forever.
I have heard from contacts in South Korea that they are extremely nervous about a Trump presidency.
Jeffrey Knopf, Middlebury Institute of International Studies
“I have heard from contacts in South Korea that they are extremely nervous about a Trump presidency,” Knopf said.
Seared by the memory of the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan has an allergy to nuclear weapons. But experts say that if Japanese public opinion veered, the nation might use a stockpile of plutonium from its nuclear energy program to make bombs.
“They could very rapidly turn into a significant nuclear power,” Kristensen said. “They have perfected ballistic missiles of significant range.”
Other observers suggest that once in power, Trump and his top aides will reverse course and work to ensure that Japan and South Korea do not go nuclear.
“While the issue of whether the allies are paying their fair share has been raised off and on for years, I suspect Trump will come to realize that it is not a one-way street and that the U.S. gains a lot from the security arrangements that have been set up, including stability in the region and the use of foreign bases,” said David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.