The Arab States and the Iranian Nuclear Program

Resistance against Regional Power Plays

Despite ongoing criticism, Iran has given the green light for the resumption of the country's nuclear program. Fear of an Iranian atomic bomb is thus once again on the rise, not only in the West, but in the Arab world as well, as Frederik Richter reports

Despite ongoing criticism, the government in Tehran has given the green light for the resumption of the country’s controversial nuclear program. Fear of an Iranian atomic bomb is thus once again on the rise, not only in the West, but in the Arab world as well, as Frederik Richter reports from Cairo.

Tehran's nuclear research reactor at the Iran's Atomic Energy Organization's headquarters
Many Arab states are concerned that Iran might pursue nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear programme

​​The Iranian government plans to resume nuclear research this week, feeding anxiety in the West about the possible implications of this move. If Iran were to become an atomic power in the next few years, this would abruptly upset the already shaky security architecture of the Middle East. Other countries in the region might decide to follow suit.

Clandestine arms program in the Middle East?

"Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would at least have to reconsider their positions," remarked the Director of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), John Chipman, last October. An IISS report reveals that these nations are keeping a close watch on the development of Iran's nuclear program and might feel compelled to respond by initiating nuclear research of their own.

As recently as early October, the British newspaper "The Guardian" disclosed that it had learned from a 2003 report prepared by the British secret service MI5 that an Egyptian chemicals company had bought technology that could be used toward implementing a nuclear arms program. In the report, MI5 lists 360 companies in eight countries in the Middle East and Asia that have allegedly purchased technology for secret weapons programs.

Last February, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reprimanded Egypt for not properly registering experiments carried out in its research reactors, which allegedly went on until 2003. However, most international and Israeli experts do not suspect that Egypt is currently at work on a nuclear weapons program. Following inspections in Egypt in the spring, the IAEA gave the all-clear.

Apprehensions on the part of the Arab states

"We don't want to see an atomic power in our region. We have already been demanding for a long time that the region be freed of all weapons of mass destruction, including atomic weapons and their transport systems," stated Omar Youssef, a member of Egypt's foreign ministry.

In his opinion, the Iranian affair should be handled by the IAEA, and it makes no sense to bring the case before the UN Security Council. As it stands, the negotiation process is still underway, and the final outcome remains to be seen.

Egypt categorically refuses to condone an Iranian atomic weapons program. Cairo fears that an Iranian atomic bomb would ultimately prevent Israel from foregoing the use of its own weapons arsenal.

"If Iran produces a bomb, it would create an additional security problem instead of solving the real one, namely Israel's bomb," commented Mohammed Abdel Salama, nuclear expert at Cairo's Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "As soon as Iran has the bomb, we can forget about Israel's."

But other Arab countries have concerns besides Israel's atomic weapons arsenal. At the end of December, the Gulf Cooperation Council ordered Tehran to relocate its reactor from Busher to a site further inland.

This was probably out of fear of an environmental disaster, but, then again, the Gulf States have traditionally been wary of Tehran's regional claims and have relied up until now on the protection of the world power USA.

At the same time, however, the US military bases on the Gulf turn the states into targets for Iranian atomic weapons that would be unable to reach the US mainland.

Double messages

The Gulf States do not want to end up in the crossfire between Israel and Iran. Shortly before Christmas, they surprised the world by suggesting the creation of a nuclear-free zone expressly for the Gulf. This would include Iraq and Iran, but not Israel. Amr Moussa, General Secretary of the Arab League, protested angrily behind the scenes.

"That would weaken the Arab position versus Israel and would imply that some of the Arab states are worried only about Iran’s atomic weapons," Salama explained. Thus, each country in the Arab world seems to be watching out for its own interests first.

From the point of view of the Gulf States, the Iranian reactor in Busher is in their own backyard, right on the other side of the narrow Persian Gulf.

"They are sending a double message: our program is for civilian purposes, but we do have the capability of undertaking a military program. For the Arab world, the implications of this message are very complex."

Salama does not believe that Tehran is already conducting an atomic military program. But the necessity felt by those in charge in Tehran to always keep an ace in their pocket during the negotiations, has led the talks to take on an ominous dynamic of their own.

Nevertheless, if the threats made by the President of Iran against Israel were ever to take on an atomic dimension, the Egyptian position would be obsolete. Israel would certainly convey its ability to respond in kind. Then the Arab countries would suddenly find themselves facing two atomic powers, while today there is officially no atomic bomb in the Middle East.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry does not wish to comment on this type of speculation. "I think that Egypt's deliberations will remain on the theoretical level. After all, we were able to find a solution to the Israeli problem as well," says Salama, referring to Egypt's chemical weapons program and the modern conventional weapons in the country's arsenal, which are deterrent enough.

Development of a civilian nuclear program

Iran would initially use an atomic weapon to try to establish itself as the leading regional power. Today, Egypt views itself as leader of the Arab world, while Saudi Arabia has the leading position in the Islamic world.

The claims and prestige of both would be abruptly called into question. Salama believes, though, that, as a reaction to an Iranian atomic bomb, some Middle Eastern countries would start their own civilian atomic programs.

In Turkey and Algeria, such plans are already quite advanced. Egypt has two Argentinean research reactors at its disposal and, with them, sufficient numbers of qualified personnel.

A diplomatic insider with extensive knowledge of Egyptian-Russian trade relations claims that Russia could deliver a nuclear security gateway to Egypt that would prevent the smuggling of plutonium into the Gaza Strip. This shows the level of trust Russia places in the peaceful intentions of Egypt's nuclear agenda.

Government talks between the two countries this fall focused both on a potential free trade zone and the possibilities for cooperation in terms of the peaceful use of atomic energy, primarily in the medical field.

In the end, the influence of the USA on its allies in the Middle East will play a decisive role. Washington is exerting pressure on the Gulf States and Turkey to join in its efforts to stop Tehran.

"In my opinion, Iran is firmly resolved to acquire atomic weapons," warned the Turkish ambassador to Washington in December, calling for a dialogue between Washington and Tehran. Of all the countries in the Middle East, Turkey has the best relations with Tehran.

As far as Egypt and Iran are concerned, the two countries do not even have formal diplomatic relations. Cairo is biding its time, looking to the IAEA to solve the issue.

The Gulf States, on the other hand, do not seem averse to making a deal with Tehran. With their own energy reserves, their booming economies and the US military bases, they would certainly have enough to offer on their side of the negotiating table.

Frederik Richter

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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