The specter of an Iranian nuclear bomb is unacceptable to the majority of Americans. According to an October Pew Research poll, 61 percent of Americans believe Iran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, even if it requires preventive military action. Given Iran’s support for terrorism worldwide since its 1979 Islamic Revolution, an Iranian nuclear weapon could be used to attack America or its allies.
Iran, however, is not the only Middle East state with nuclear aspirations. Faced with the threat of a hostile Iran armed with a nuclear arsenal, Tehran’s Sunni Arab neighbors have been scrambling to respond. According to the recent Senate testimony of Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official who spent a decade working on nonproliferation, no less than 15 Middle Eastern countries have announced either their intention to begin a nuclear program, or to reinitiate suspended programs, since 2006. And while these states all insist that their programs are strictly for civilian purposes, the trend is a cause for concern in a region already beset by conflict and instability.
The Race Is On Again
Pursuit of nuclear power is not new to the Middle East. In 1965, Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt began to shop around for nuclear power, probably in response to reports that Israel had developed nuclear weapons with the help of France in the early 1950s. Egypt, under Anwar al-Sadat, continued the search (albeit unsuccessfully) in the 1970s and 1980s.
Egypt was not alone in its nuclear aspirations. In 1988, the Arab League created the Arab Atomic Energy Agency. Members included Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and, after 1993, the Palestinian Authority. Morocco and Tunisia also launched feasibility studies. In every case, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, these states failed to build a program for lack of funds or technology.
Whereas Arab states once appeared resigned to a region without nuclear energy, the high-profile Iranian program has caused the region’s leaders to rethink their positions. In the words of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, “The rules governing the nuclear issue have changed in the entire region.”
In recent years, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all announced agreements to create nuclear programs in cooperation with either France or the United States (and in some cases with both).
Leading the charge is the UAE, whose nuclear program has been lauded as an example of “transparency and… high standards of safety.” United Press International (UPI) reports that the small Gulf state’s first nuclear reactor could be up and running as early as 2015.
Shifting to Weaponization
While the aforementioned Arab states insist that they seek to harness the power of nuclear energy to increase their domestic electricity capacity, and to maintain their petroleum supplies for export purposes, many have also expressed concerns that a nuclear arms race might begin if Iran’s progress towards nuclear weapons is not halted.
In September 2009, for example, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit stressed to the Associated Press that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, it would cause unease, and likely a nuclear arms race in the region.
Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), concurs. He stated earlier this year, “Pretty soon… you will have nine weapons states and probably another 10 or 20 virtual weapons states.” Virtual weapons states are those that have the capacity and technical know-how to produce nuclear weapons and would require only the political decision to do so.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies, in a report titled “Nuclear Programs in the Middle East in the Shadow of Iran,” describes a scenario in which Saudi Arabia or Egypt would make a push for nuclear weapons to counter Iran:
Most officials and opinion leaders in Turkey and the Arab states say that they would not themselves seek nuclear weapons, but would find other ways of responding to a nuclearized Iran. Yet many believe that other countries in the region would respond with nuclear-weapons programs. The Turks point to Egypt and Saudi Arabia as most likely to seek their own nuclear weapons. The Egyptians say they would not, but surely the Saudis, being more vulnerable, would look for a nuclear-weapons option.
The report’s theories are not unfounded. Saudi Arabia has a history. During the 1990s, Saudi defector Mohammed al-Khilewi alleged in the pages of Middle East Quarterly that Saudi Arabia “would pay anything to acquire a nuclear weapon,” and that it had participated in the funding of Iraqi nuclear weapons research. In 2003, The Washington Times reported that Pakistan had agreed to cooperate with the Saudi kingdom on a nuclear program in exchange for cheap oil. Three years later, in 2006, the German news magazine Cicero echoed these findings, alleging that Saudi Arabia had received nuclear assistance from Pakistani scientists in 2003 and 2004.
While the Saudis have denied these claims, reports have surfaced about other Arab states’ desire for nuclear weapons. It is reasonable to assume that these efforts will continue under the shadow of the threat of a nuclear Iran.
An Uneasy Alliance
Washington’s efforts, thus far, to reassure Arab states that the United States will not allow Iran to get its hands on nuclear weapons have done little to ease fears in the region. Indeed, the Arab world was unmoved when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in July that, were Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, the United States would seek to upgrade the military capabilities of the Gulf states, and extend the U.S. “defense umbrella” to include the Arab states.
Clinton was presumably referring to the so-called “nuclear umbrella”—the stated policy under which a nuclear strike against an American ally results in American nuclear retaliation. However, given the widespread suspicion and contempt that the Arab world holds for the United States, it is hard to imagine a scenario whereby the Arab states feel comfortable telling their populations that they are lumped into the same alliance with Washington as Japan, South Korea, and Germany.
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, for example, explicitly rejected Clinton’s offer in an August 17 interview with the Al-Ahram newspaper. “Egypt will not be part of any American nuclear umbrella intended to protect the Gulf countries,” he said, adding that it, “would imply accepting foreign troops and experts on our land—and we do not accept that.”
Mubarak, whose country has been at odds with Iran since signing a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, also emphasized that such an alliance would “imply an implicit acceptance that there is a regional nuclear power—we don’t accept that either.”
The suspicion is mutual. A September 2009 Rasmussen poll showed that only 23 percent of Americans considered Saudi Arabia to be an ally, while only 39 percent considered Egypt to be an ally. Astoundingly, nearly two-thirds of Americans indicated that Saudi Arabia should not be defended in case of attack.
Of course, polls don’t dictate policy. These polls, however, underscore the fact that an alliance between the U.S. and Arab states would be a wobbly one.
Arming the Arabs?
Some might argue that if the Arab world doesn’t want U.S. protection, Washington might provide it with the means to defend itself. This is a non-starter, but worthy of a brief response.
In the shifting sands of the Middle East, one’s “allies” today may not be allies tomorrow. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, are weak regimes that could one day be toppled by Islamist opposition groups. Advanced weapons in the hands of leaders thought to be moderate today could wind up tomorrow in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or even factions aligned with al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia.
The Key to Prevention
Civilian nuclear power is not, in and of itself, a proliferation threat. However, such programs can provide cover for a nuclear weapons program. Allowing the Sunni Arab states to create civilian programs will only open the door to the possible creation of new weapons programs. Iran is the poster child of this phenomenon.
The current Administration has invested substantial political capital in non-proliferation policies, including President Obama’s chairing of a special international disarmament summit in September. Yet, the Administration is unwilling to take every necessary measure to prevent the Mullahs from acquiring the bomb. Indeed, the failed policy of continued dialogue without imposing strong financial sanctions has only emboldened Tehran.
The key to preventing the “Sunni bomb” is preventing the Shiite one. If the Obama administration does not take more meaningful and immediate steps to prevent the Iranian bomb, there may soon be a nuclear bomb, or a nuclear program, in every tent in the Middle East.
Sarah Stern is the Founder and President of The Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) and Kyle Shideler is EMET’s Senior Research Fellow.