By Abbas Djavadi — Will Iran’s uranium-enrichment work, which has provoked much alarm that Tehran could be seeking to build nuclear weapons, trigger a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East?
So far, the answer is no. Since 2005, more than a dozen countries in the region have announced new or renewed interest in building nuclear power plants for civilian use. But no serious voices in Cairo, Ankara, Riyadh, or other capitals have been urging the development of nuclear weapons as a way to counter the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Turkey, Egypt, and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (the GCC comprises Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates) are among those considered desirous of civilian nuclear energy. Experts and politicians in these countries have argued that they need to diversify their sources of energy, in part to increase electricity production or run seawater desalination plants. Other countries lack either the technological and human infrastructure for such an undertaking or are too instable domestically to consider it.
But for many in the countries that are pushing toward nuclear technology, the quest has become a matter of national pride, a way of boosting the political prestige and influence of a country and its leadership. In the case of the GCC countries, their oil wealth bolsters the argument that what they are really after is political capital. In Egypt, the proposed nuclear project has become a major subject on the domestic political agenda of Gamal Mubarak, who reportedly seeks to succeed his father as president.
Turkey and other Middle Eastern states have urged Iran to cooperate openly and fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations. However, they oppose harsh sanctions against Tehran and view Iran’s nuclear program in the context of the entire region.
Israel is the only country in the region believed to possess nuclear weapons. It has refused to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has never confirmed or denied that it possesses such weapons.
However, when Middle Eastern leaders are asked about Iran’s nuclear program, they often raise the topic of Israel’s. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan often raises this matter and criticizes “the West’s silence about it.”
Egypt too, although much more suspicious of Tehran than Turkey is, rejects pressuring Iran while ignoring Israel’s purported weapons. “Success in dealing with Iran will depend to a large extent on how successfully we deal with the establishment of a nuclear-free zone” in the Middle East, Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Maged Abdelaziz was quoted as saying in the run-up to the NPT review conference in New York this week.
Likewise, Saudi Arabia takes a regional approach to nuclear issues and advocates a nuclear-free Middle East. But Riyadh is the most vehement opponent of Iran’s nuclear program in the Middle East (after Israel) and feels more directly threatened by Tehran than any Arab state.
Claiming leadership of the Sunni-Arab world against Shi’ite Iran and engaged in regional competition with Iran in countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia cannot be expected to do nothing if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold. According to unconfirmed Israeli intelligence reports, the Saudis might consider allowing Pakistani warheads to be stationed on their territory in response to an Iranian weapons test.
Iran The De-Stabilizer
But is it “good news” for Iran that other Middle Eastern countries have adopted this regional approach and link Iran’s nuclear program with Israel’s? Not necessarily, since these countries also realize that continued suspicions about Iran’s nuclear program could lead to a devastating war with Israel (and, perhaps, the United States) with unforeseeable consequences for the entire region.
They also realize that an offensive nuclear program could increase Tehran’s leverage throughout the Middle East and further destabilize some of the more vulnerable countries of the region, including countries where Iran is already deeply engaged through its support of organizations like the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) and Lebanon’s Hizballah.
However, if Iran fails to allay suspicions about its nuclear program, countries in the region — particularly those around the Persian Gulf — will likely step up efforts to bolster their own security. A nuclear-armed Iran might not provoke a proliferation cascade — Israel’s suspected acquisition of nuclear arms in the 1950s did not — but it could prompt an uptick in spending on conventional arms and missile defenses.
So far, Iran’s caginess about its nuclear program has not boosted its global or regional prestige or influence. The Tehran regime has acquired a reputation for intransigence and subterfuge rather than for transparency and cooperation. It is seen as a source of increased tension and conflict, rather than as a facilitator of dialogue and compromise.
And, of course, it is the people of Iran who are paying the highest price for Tehran’s inability to find a productive place in the international order. That is why one of the most popular slogans of the mass opposition demonstrations in Iran over the last 10 months has been: “Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon — my life is devoted to Iran.”
(This commentary is based on remarks presented at a conference of the German Marshall Fund and the Center for European Studies on May 5-6 in Brussels.)