05/23/2008 - 08:56

Why Arab leaders worry about Iran's nuclear program

Tariq Khaitous

Tariq Khaitous

A political scientist, Khaitous is a visiting fellow at the...

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On the surface, it would seem as though Arab leaders would support the Iranian nuclear program. After all, Iran is a fellow Muslim state in close geographic proximity that shares a strong hostility for Israel. Moreover, Pakistan's triumph in developing nuclear weapons to combat India's nuclear program generated great pride in the Arab world. Yet, save for Syria, which supports the Iranian nuclear program because of its strategic alliance with Tehran, Arab governments disapprove of Iran's nuclear pursuits, commonly believing that Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a pretext to develop nuclear weapons.

In several meetings, leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, have urged Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions, with GCC Secretary General Abd Arahman Attiyah saying [in Arabic] at a November 2005 council meeting, "The Iranian nuclear program does not have any justification. . . . We call on the international community to make the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction."

Likewise, in February 2006, Egypt, which has always called for denuclearizing the Middle East, made clear that it opposes Iran's nuclear program by voting to transfer the Iranian crisis from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors to the U.N. Security Council. (See "Nonaligned Realinging to Confront Iran.") Similarly, the Security Council's current leader, Libya, and its North African neighbors aren't friendly to the current leadership in Tehran. Morocco hosted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1980s after the Islamic Revolution, while Algeria and Tunisia enjoy strong political, economic, and diplomatic relations with Egypt and the Gulf States. For its part, Libya revealed several secret connections between A. Q. Khan and Tehran when it dismantled its nuclear weapons program in 2004. (See "Arab States in the Iranian Nuclear Equation" [in Arabic].)

There is also historical precedent. Iran and the Arab world have never had a strong relationship. Iran is the birthplace of Shiism while the Arab states are mostly Sunnites. After Mohammed's death in 632, both the Sunnis and Shiites wanted to inherit the leadership of Muslim communities around the world. When Arab Muslim armies defeated the Persian Sassanide Empire 20 years later, it began a rift between Iran and the Arab world that lasted for several centuries. In particular, border disputes continue to this day. In 1970, Iran forcibly occupied three Arab islands located at the entrance of the Persian Gulf. The United Arab Emirates still considers these islands as part of its territory. In addition, Iran briefly declared Bahrain as part of its territory because Bahrain is guided by a Sunni regime while the majority of the population is Shia.

The new Iraqi government and Tehran are also currently arguing over the Shat al Arab region that Baghdad wants included as part of Iraq. Traditionally, the Arab states have sided with Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq War, all of them but Syria supported Saddam Hussein militarily, politically, and logistically in hopes of curbing the spread of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The centuries of acrimony have led to a healthy distrust of Iranian intentions--especially when it comes to the safety and security of Iran's nuclear facilities. Tehran's nuclear program relies on Russian technology, and its Arab neighbors fear another Chernobyl. Therefore, the location of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, less than 2 miles from the Persian Gulf and closer to six Arab capitals (Kuwait, Riyadh, Manama, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Muscat) than it is to Tehran, is a serious problem. Any nuclear accident would be an ecological disaster. The Persian Gulf, the only source of water for Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, would be contaminated, leaving those countries without drinking water. Meanwhile, the air contamination would spread to most of the populations who live downwind of the reactor. Commenting upon this possibility at a May 2006 GCC consultative summit, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Ibn Zayed said, "We appreciate Iran's efforts to reassure the region over its program. . . . But for the sake of stability and to avoid any environmental disaster, there needs to be more Iranian guarantees, and we are trying to ensure this."

The Saudi government newspaper Al-Watan also raised security issues about Iran's nuclear facilities. In an April 2006 editorial, it opined, "The main problem in the Iranian issue is concern for the environment and future dangers, in the event of a nuclear leak that could pollute the entire Gulf region. What increases concerns about an ecological disaster is Iran's reliance first and foremost on Russian nuclear technology. The safety of this technology cannot be trusted, particularly after the well-known Chernobyl disaster that caused radioactive ecological pollution in extensive regions of the world."

In terms of protecting themselves against an Iranian Bomb, it's likely that some Arab states--particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt--would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and seek nuclear weapons of their own. In September 2003, the Guardian reported that Saudi Arabia had launched a strategic security review that included the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. According to the article, the contents of which Saudi officials denied, the review set out three options:

  • To acquire a nuclear capability as a deterrent;
  • To maintain or enter into an alliance with an existing nuclear power that would offer protection;
  • To try to reach a regional agreement on having a nuclear-free Middle East.

As for Egypt, on January 4, 2005, the IAEA announced that it had found evidence that Cairo had conducted clandestine nuclear experiments that could be used to develop a nuclear weapon. IAEA inspectors discovered fission products near a nuclear facility, a possible indication that the Egyptians had conducted research on plutonium separation. The IAEA's investigation concluded that Egyptian nuclear activities conformed to the country's NPT obligations, but Egypt's failure to declare its activities raised doubts about Cairo's intentions, the extent of its nuclear activities, infrastructure, and capabilities, and whether it pursued other undeclared nuclear weapon-related activities.

More largely, Iran's suspicious activities have stimulated increasing Arab interest in nuclear energy. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates have already sought nuclear partnerships with the United States, Russia, and France to acquire nuclear technology. Since all of the Arab countries belong to the IAEA and NPT, the acquisition of nuclear energy is their "undeniable right." But it's possible this interest in nuclear power could lead to nuclear weapons. As Jordan's King Abdullah told Haaretz in January 2007, "The rules have changed on the nuclear subject. . . . Everybody's going for nuclear programs. . . . What we don't want is an arms race to come out of this.

The Arab countries also fear that Iran's nuclear program could lead to a military conflict between Tehran and the United States and/or Israel. The 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which declares that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003, may have decreased the chances of U.S. military aggression. But the option of an Israeli attack similar to its June 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak is still on the table. During a January 2008 Parliamentary meeting, Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Ulmert said, "Israel clearly will not reconcile itself to a nuclear Iran. . . . All options that prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are legitimate within the context of how to grapple with this matter."

If Iran refuses to surrender its nuclear program and the United States or Israel do attack its facilities, Tehran's retaliation could have a major impact on the stability and the security of the Arab world. In Lebanon, an attack on Iran would lead Tehran to encourage Hezbollah to cause more militant action against Israel, inflaming that organization's hostility toward Israel and the United States, which has grown significantly since the July 2006 war. Even if U.N. forces continue to control southern Lebanon, Hezbollah remains a threat to Lebanon's government and Israel's security, as it maintains large quantities of surface-to-surface missiles capable of reaching Haifa. (See "U.S. Says Hezbollah Still Strong After War with Israel.")

In Palestine, a preemptive military attack on Iran could inflame Hamas and Islamic Jihad to challenge Israel and by extension, the United States. After the 2005 election that put Hamas in power, Iran welcomed the group's victory and congratulated [in Arabic] voters for choosing "to continue the struggle and resistance against occupation."

As for Iraq, Iran could greatly affect violence there by encouraging [in Arabic] Shiite militants--namely the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigades--to rise up against U.S. troops in southern Iraq, a Shiite area. Iran's Revolutionary Guards could help with this insurrection, as they've proven to be adept at helping insurgents destabilize countries, having trained and equipped Hezbollah for its defense of southern Lebanon against Israel. Its proximity to Iraq would help immensely. Tehran could easily provide the Shiite insurgency with armaments and personnel, crisscrossing both across the long Iran-Iraq border.

Nor should Iran's ability to impact the Arab oil market be overlooked. Tehran has joint control over the Straits of Hormuz, from which nearly one-half of the world's oil is exported. In January 2008, five Iranian patrol boats were allegedly delivered by Tehran's Revolutionary Guards to provoke U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz, which held their fire. (See "Iran Confirms Incident with U.S. Ships: Agency.") The incident happened a few days before President George W. Bush visited the Middle East to promote the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis and discuss the Iranian issue with Arab allies in the region.

During a November 2007 conference on peace in the Middle East, the Arab states discussed ways in which to isolate Iran and curb Tehran's influence in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and the Arab oil market. Specifically, Saudi Arabia wants to protect its standing as a key country in the region. Although Riyadh typically prefers to act behind closed doors, in recent years, its diplomacy has become more and more public. In February 2007, it hosted the leaders of two Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, in hopes of halting inter-Palestinian hostilities and promoting unity within the Palestinian government. Saudi Arabia has also amplified its presence in Iraq, supporting the Sunni minority to re-establish itself in the new Iraqi government.

What Riyadh and the other Arab nations fail to realize is that they can't ignore Iran's place in the Middle East. Therefore, their concerns about the Iranian nuclear program should serve as the organizing factor around establishing a new relationship with Tehran based on confidence and mutual respect. To start the process, Iran should renounce its interest in exporting the Islamic Revolution and its support for Islamic militants. For their part, the Arab countries should find ways to diminish their political and military dependence on the United States, while also pursuing political, economic, and social reforms. The result would be a much more secure Middle East.