Edition 11 Volume 5 - March 14, 2024

Iran and the nuclearization of the Middle East

Regional reactions and responses -   Dr. Emily B. Landau

Resistance to Israel is hindering coordination to contain a serious regional threat.

The nuclear card in a volatile region -   Saad Hattar

While Jordan and other states acknowledge Iran's right to obtain nuclear technology for civilian purposes, they fear Iran is out to impose its agenda on the Arab world.

New wave of nuclear development -   Jalil Roshandel

Egypt and Iran are vocal in their wish for a nuclear free Middle East, but neither wants to forego its nuclear program.

Regional reactions and responses
 Dr. Emily B. Landau

From 2024 until late 2024, with international concern about Iran's nuclear file at a record high, the reaction in Arab states to Iran's activities might best be described as a resounding silence. As the international community grappled with the implications of the emerging threat and the means to convince Iran to back down, Arab states in Iran's neighborhood were not voicing any real concern. At times they even supported Iran, as witnessed at the NPT Review conference of 2024 when Egypt stood by Iran's attempts to deflect attention from itself in favor of greater emphasis on Israel.

The assessment in these states was most likely that the US and Europe were working hard to curb Iran's nuclear activity and would hopefully take care of the problem for them. This would enable them (especially in the Gulf) to avoid making the kind of statements that might antagonize their powerful neighbor. Added to this was the impact of the double standards argument that is so widespread in Arab societies, according to which criticism of any nuclear activity in an Arab or Muslim state is frowned upon as long as Israel is granted relative immunity in the nuclear realm.

What changed toward the end of 2024 was the growing realization that efforts to stop Iran were not succeeding and that the race against time might end with a victory for Iran. With the prospect of a nuclear Iran becoming more real, the Gulf states in particular began to more openly express their opposition and fear. But the question is whether their increasingly open criticism of Iran means that we will see a real shift in their behavior as well.

The ability of these states to directly confront Iran or convince it to change course is actually quite limited, especially when one considers all that is being attempted by the much stronger international community. Moreover, the Gulf states have for years depended on the US to ensure their security. Nevertheless, these same states presented in late 2024 the idea to create a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Gulf. This was an important variation on the well-known proposal to create such a zone for the entire Middle East; it highlighted their intention to focus on Iran in particular, at least in the initial stage. The idea did not gain momentum, and one of the constraints was the double standards argument regarding Israel.

One way of attempting to confront the direct security threat of a nuclear Iran is for these states to enhance their own military capabilities. In the conventional realm, Gulf states have in recent months been uncharacteristically vocal about their arms acquisitions and the need to create a military deterrent against Iran. Deterrence could also be bolstered by parallel nuclear capabilities. In fact, reports over the past six months have identified quite a few states in the Middle East--including Egypt, Jordan and the GCC states as a group--that have made known their intention to develop a civilian nuclear program. Not surprisingly, these reports have sparked concern that the true aim behind these programs is a nuclear weapons capability reflecting fears linked directly to Iran.

But while the fear of additional proliferation in the Middle East is prevalent, for most states a nuclear capability is not likely to materialize anytime soon. The nuclear route is very costly in both economic and political terms (as demonstrated by the case of Iran itself). Nevertheless, many in the region would like to get the message across that they are not content to simply sit back and watch as Iran becomes a nuclear state.

Following the Lebanon war last summer, regional states are also looking at Iran's nuclear activity in geopolitical terms. The war emphasized and underscored the nature and extent of Iran's regional hegemonic designs, namely its desire to call the shots not only in the Persian Gulf but in the wider Middle East as well. A nuclear capability would give these designs a significant boost.

Understanding this central concern with respect to Iran's nuclear activity brings into sharper focus another direction for responding to Iran: political activity to counter its enhanced regional power. Saudi Arabia is most concerned with Iran's growing influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestinian politics and has recently taken clear steps to counter it by bolstering its own regional role--including by hosting the Hamas-Fateh meeting in Mecca. With his visit to Saudi Arabia, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad seemed to be hoping to defuse this uncomfortable competition, and to project the image of two states that are actually partners in resisting imperialist plans to divide the Muslim world. But Saudi Arabia continues to criticize Iran's nuclear ambitions and to advocate its own right to a nuclear program.

There has also been talk of forging a coalition of moderate states in the Middle East in order to confront the radical camp led by Iran. The idea is that status quo Arab states and Israel have a common interest to curb radical forces that want to stir up trouble in the region. There was some initial movement in this direction in the immediate aftermath of the Lebanon war, but anything more substantial would be difficult to sustain over the long-term, especially with Israel involved. A breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian front might be a facilitating factor, and while that does not seem to be on the short-term horizon, there could be some movement on reviving the Saudi peace initiative in coming weeks.

In sum, Iran's nuclear activities have sparked new and more vocal concerns in the region and could engender dangerous arms races and even nuclear proliferation down the road. There are political options that can be pursued to counter Iran's hegemonic ambitions, but it needs to be recognized that normative resistance to Israel is hindering coordination that could build on the common interest to contain a very serious regional threat. A revived peace initiative could help.- Published 15/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Emily B. Landau is senior research associate and director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. She is the author of the recently published Arms Control in the Middle East: Cooperative Security Dialogue and Regional Constraints (Sussex Academic Press, 2024).

The nuclear card in a volatile region
 Saad Hattar

From Libya to Egypt to fuel-strapped Jordan, Arab countries have signaled their desire to develop nuclear power, even amid a concerted US attempt to tighten the noose around Iran lest it join the nuclear club. These new players are entering a nuclear race in an unstable zone, dominated by two regional powers, Iran and Israel.

Jordan, whose oil bill devours 20 percent of its GNP, has been seeking US, Pakistani and Russian expertise to build a civilian reactor after the discovery of uranium in its southern desert. Libya and Egypt--with possible Saudi funding--have floated similar projects.

The Arab quest for nuclear know-how remains restricted to international conditions and the terms of suppliers. But dangers lurk from two directions that are already on a collision course.

Iran is pressing ahead with is nuclear program despite western concerns it is enriching uranium in order to build nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, unofficial estimates put Israel's nuclear arsenal at 200 warheads at least.

While Jordan and other states acknowledge Iran's right to obtain nuclear technology for civilian purposes, they fear Iran is out to impose its agenda on the Arab world. This fear has become especially acute in view of Iran's growing influence over a vanquished Iraq. Arab states will never accept Iran becoming a nuclear power unless it provides cast-iron guarantees that its nuclear technology is for power generation only alongside an Iranian acknowledgement of national Arab interests, boundaries and the common interest to live in a stable region.

But Iran's controversial President Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad continues to project an intent to dominate the region. Arab countries are awaiting a clear signal that Tehran, so influential over Shi'ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon amid growing sectarian strife as well as Sunni groups in the Palestinian territories, will not pursue an expansionist policy.

The same conditions may be said to apply to Israel as far as Arab countries are concerned. There are two important differences, however. Unlike Iran, Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In addition, the country has already imposed a de facto situation ever since Israel obtained its nuclear technology from France in the 1960s.

It is in this context that the rather coy leaks and press statements of Arab governments regarding their pursuit of nuclear technology should be read. These statements are primarily aimed at Israel and Iran and are a warning that the two powers must heed the interests of the countries that lie in the middle of their power struggle. It is an Arab nuclear "policy" undertaken in the full realization of the limitations of the post-Soviet reality of a single pro-Israel world superpower.

The hidden hatchets in Tel Aviv and Tehran and the US-Iran standoff are a major source of anxiety for neighboring Arab states, especially the self-styled "moderate quartet" of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Not all Arab countries are on the same page. Qatar and Syria are playing a rather dubious role if western diplomats are to be believed. Both countries remain indifferent as to the looming confrontation over the nuclear file. They even appear willing to spark further upheavals across the region to reshuffle the cards in light of America's descent into the Iraqi quagmire.

Jordan lies at the heart of the turmoil, given Iran's increasing strategic and intelligence role in occupied Iraq, once the Hashemite Kingdom's fortified "eastern gate". Jordan's quest to build a nuclear reactor is limited to civilian purposes, according to King Abdullah II, who maintains it has long been on the national agenda as a substitute fuel source. But sandwiched between two arch foes armed to the teeth, Jordan is seeking guarantees against an ever-nearing precipice, with Washington pursuing an aggressive policy vis-a-vis Iran in an already boiling region.

Arab countries--already reeling under the Iraqi quagmire, Lebanese imbroglio and stalemate on the Palestinian-Israeli tracks--are weary of the tempo of war, now reverberating across the region. There is growing fear that the US might yet spark a war with Iran, three and a half years after the invasion of Iraq.

Such a notion would be a recipe for disaster. Iraq's wounds are still open. Lebanon is sliding into civil war. Hope is fading for a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict--the region's core crisis.

If the US strikes Iran, Iraq's "organized chaos" is likely to spill over into neighboring countries. Moreover, the growing Shi'ite-Sunni schism within this war-torn country could erupt across already volatile communities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and even in Kuwait.- Published 15/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Saad Hattar is deputy editor of Jordan's al-Ghad newspaper

New wave of nuclear development
 Jalil Roshandel

A quick evaluation of nuclear capabilities in the Middle East makes it clear that the region is hosting one major military nuclear state, Israel, and one major nuclear-ready state: Iran. However, the list will be inconclusive if we do not consider that in the course of the past 40 years a longer list of states have at some point aspired to some sort of nuclear capability: Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey,

Most recently (December 2024), the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates approached a team of IAEA experts and talked about their plans for a joint civil nuclear program. The Saudis were in this business much earlier than other Persian Gulf states. When the Pakistanis tested their nuclear bomb in 1998, there were rumors that they might have received Saudi money and may want to help the Saudis develop a nuclear capability. In view of the relationship Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan established with Iran and North Korea, we cannot rule out the same kind of deal with the Saudis.

The question is whether we are facing a chain reaction phenomenon in this region of turmoil and uncertainty, or is it simply an energy phobia that is driving nations toward nuclearization. Is it because of serious concerns about the future of energy supplies in the region? Is it a reaction to Israel's military nuclear capability or a reaction to the Iranian nuclear program? The answer is probably all of the above. (One can see the same type of relationship in the South Korea-Japan-North Korea triangle.)

When it comes to the aspiration for a nuclear free Middle East, in principle no one disagrees. Some 15 years ago, at the end of the Cold War, this seemed more likely, but today nuclear technology acquisition is the hottest topic among Middle East nations--even among those that had previously abandoned their plans. For instance, Egypt and Iran are vocal in their wish for a nuclear free Middle East, but neither apparently wants to take any step to forego its nuclear program. On the contrary, progress by one provides the other with even more incentive to seriously follow up. Several additional states in the Middle East are trapped in a chain reaction competition while hiding under the umbrella of a "non-nuclear Middle East".

Scholars agree that a nuclear-free zone is less likely to emerge where there already exists more than one nuclear state. In the Middle East, obviously, there is only Israel. The rest are looking for a peaceful nuclear capability, but when confronted by disapproval from the international community they all point to one state, Israel. The question is why nations with peaceful nuclear intent need to point to Israel--which evidently and by all standards has no peaceful nuclear capability at all.

The Pakistani nuclear bomb (though Pakistan is not in the Middle East) did not have a major impact on Iran's determination to persist in its nuclear program. Perhaps having Pakistan's technological support through the A. Q. Khan back channel was the main reason not to see Pakistan as a threat, even though the two countries were at odds about the Taliban and in the conduct of their foreign policy, particularly regarding their relations with the US.

Iran has never said its nuclear program is to counterbalance the Israeli military nuclear capability in the region, but it has always criticized the IAEA and other international organizations for their double standard and discriminatory behavior in comparing Iran with Israel. One can assume that Iran's nuclear program cannot be a rational reaction to an already existing military capability because when the Iranian program started under the Shah it had a green light even from Israel. It is fair to say that the Islamic Republic of Iran became heir to the Shah's nuclear program and then fell into a nationalistic pattern to justify the plan. We can live with this justification as long as Iran's nuclear program does not enter a military phase.

But what justifies other Middle Eastern states' nuclear aspirations? We should probably look for an alternative logic.

The Saudis are approaching the Russians to seek nuclear military and energy cooperation; President Vladimir Putin has apparently already offered the kingdom Russian expertise in the field. Russia is of course prepared for such an endeavor and would probably get it done much faster than its pending contract with Iran. No one blames the Russians, who after all are trying to restore the power and influence of the glorious Soviet past. In those days, the Arab world always used the Soviets for its own strategic goals--so why not try Russia now? In the 1960s and 70s, the Kuwaitis would approach the Soviets in order to exercise pressure on the Americans to sell them the arms they badly wanted.

Turkey is another interesting case. Despite being a NATO ally and enjoying the advantage of NATO's nuclear umbrella, Turkey too is interested in nuclear adventures. To no one's surprise, the Turkish media reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in his February 2024 visit announced Tehran's willingness to cooperate with Ankara in various fields, including nuclear energy production. This case also shows that Iran has no problem with the idea of nuclearization of the region "for peaceful purposes" and will even cooperate if asked. Egypt, too, has already restarted its nuclear program. Back in September 2024 the Egyptian government announced plans to build a nuclear plant on the Mediterranean coast.

Thus several states in the Middle East are either restarting or getting involved in fresh nuclear programs. The Iranian nuclear standoff appears to be sparking a new wave of nuclear development in a region that is already overwhelmed by complex problems. Whatever the motivation, the decision by a group of states in the region to go nuclear could be disastrous if at some point they decide to entertain military options.- Published 15/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Jalil Roshandel is associate professor and director of the Security Studies Program at the Political Science Department of East Carolina University. He is currently working on a book project (with Dr. Alethia Cook): US-Iran Relations: Policy Challenges and Opportunities.

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