Iran has started a mideast arms race
States throughout the region are looking to establish nuclear programs.
In the capitals of Western nations, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the man regarded as the father of the Pakistani atom bomb, is regarded as a maverick with a criminal past. In addition to his well-documented role in developing a nuclear device for Pakistan, he helped Iran and North Korea with their nuclear programs.
But since his release from house arrest a month ago, Mr. Khan has entertained a string of official visitors from across the Middle East. All come with messages of sympathy; and some governments in that region are looking to him for the knowledge and advice they need to fast track their own illicit nuclear projects.
Make no mistake: The Middle East may be on the verge of a nuclear arms race triggered by the inability of the West to stop Iran's quest for a bomb. Since Tehran's nuclear ambitions hit the headlines five years ago, 25 countries -- 10 of them in the greater Middle East -- have announced plans to build nuclear power plants for the first time.
The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates [UAE] and Oman) set up a nuclear exploratory commission in 2007 to prepare a "strategic report" for submission to the alliance's summit later this year. But Saudi Arabia is not waiting for the report. It opened negotiations with the U.S. in 2008 to obtain "a nuclear capacity," ostensibly for "peaceful purposes."
Egypt also signed a nuclear cooperation agreement, with France, last year. Egyptian leaders make no secret of the fact that the decision to invest in a costly nuclear industry was prompted by fears of Iran. "A nuclear armed Iran with hegemonic ambitions is the greatest threat to Arab nations today," President Hosni Mubarak told the Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia two weeks ago.
Last November, France concluded a similar nuclear cooperation accord with the UAE, promising to offer these oil-rich lands "a complete nuclear industry." According to the foreign ministry in Paris, the French are building a military base close to Abu Dhabi ostensibly to protect the nuclear installations against "hostile action," including the possibility of "sensitive material" being stolen by terrorist groups or smuggled to Iran.
The UAE, to be sure, has signed a cooperation agreement with the U.S. forswearing the right to enrich uranium or produce plutonium in exchange for American nuclear technology and fuel. The problem is that the UAE's commercial hub, the sheikhdom of Dubai, has been the nerve center of illicit trade with Iran for decades, according to Western and Arab intelligence. Through Dubai, stolen U.S. technology and spent fuel needed for producing raw material for nuclear weapons could be smuggled to Iran.
Qatar, the smallest GCC member by population, is also toying with the idea of creating a nuclear capability. According to the Qatari media, it is shopping around in the U.S., France, Germany and China.
Newly liberated Iraq has not been spared by the new nuclear fever. Recall the history. With help from France, Iraq developed a nuclear capacity in the late 1970s to counterbalance its demographic inferiority vis-à-vis Iran. In 1980, Israel destroyed Osirak, the French-built nuclear center close to Baghdad, but Saddam Hussein restored part of that capacity between 1988 and 1991. What he rebuilt was dismantled by the United Nations' inspectors between 1992 and 2003. But with Saddam dead and buried, some Iraqis are calling for a revival of the nation's nuclear program as a means of deterring "bullying and blackmail from the mullahs in Tehran," as parliamentarian Saleh al-Mutlaq has put it.
"A single tactical nuclear attack on Basra and Baghdad could wipe out a third of our population," a senior Iraqi official told me, on condition of anonymity. Since almost 90% of Iraqis live within 90 miles of the Iranian border, the "fear is felt in every town and village," he says.
Tehran, meanwhile, is playing an active part in proliferation. So far, Syria and Sudan have shown interest in its nuclear technology, setting up joint scientific committees with Iran, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. Iranian media reports say Tehran is also setting up joint programs with a number of anti-U.S. regimes in Latin America, notably Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, bringing proliferation to America's backyard.
According to official reports in Tehran, in 2006 and 2007 the Islamic Republic also initialed agreements with China to build 20 nuclear-power stations in Iran. The first of these stations is already under construction at Dar-Khuwayn, in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan close to the Iraqi border.
There is no doubt that the current nuclear race in the Middle East is largely prompted by the fear of a revolutionary Iran using an arsenal as a means of establishing hegemony in the region. Iran's rivals for regional leadership, especially Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are aware of the propaganda appeal of the Islamic Republic's claim of being " the first Muslim superpower" capable of defying the West and rivaling it in scientific and technological fields. In that context, Tehran's development of long-range missiles and the Muslim world's first space satellite are considered political coups.
Mohamed al Quwaihis, a member of Saudi Arabia's appointed parliament, the Shura Council, warns of Iran's growing influence. Addressing the Shura Council earlier this month, he described Iranian interferences in Arab affairs as "overt," and claimed that Iran is "endeavoring to seduce the Gulf States, and recruit some of the citizens of these countries to work for its interests."
The Shura devoted a recent session to "the Iranian threat," insisting that unless Tehran abandoned its nuclear program, Saudi Arabia should lead the Arabs in developing their own "nuclear response." The debate came just days after the foreign ministry in Riyadh issued a report identifying the Islamic Republic's nuclear program as the "principal security threat to Arab nations."
A four-nation Arab summit held in the Saudi capital on March 11 endorsed that analysis, giving the green light for a pan-Arab quest for "a complete nuclear industry." Such a project would draw support from Pakistan, whose nuclear industry was built with Arab money. Mr. Khan and his colleagues have an opportunity to repay that debt by helping Arabs step on a ladder that could lead them to the coveted "threshold" to becoming nuclear powers in a few years' time.
Earlier this month, Mohamed ElBaradei, the retiring head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has become a blunt instrument in preventing a nuclear arms race. Meanwhile, the U.S., France, Russia and China are competing for nuclear contracts without developing safeguards to ensure that projects which start as peaceful undertakings are not used as cover for clandestine military activities.
The Obama administration should take the growing threat of nuclear proliferation seriously. It should try to provide leadership in forging a united response by the major powers to what could become the world's No. 1 security concern within the next few years.