Arabs might seek nuclear and missile parity with Iran
Dubai - The anticipated nuclear deal between the United States and Iran might trigger a missiles and nuclear arms race in the Middle East that Washington can only prevent if it takes the concerns of its Arab Gulf allies into serious consideration.
This is what a group of Gulf Arab scholars and analysts concluded at a one-day, off-the-record round-table discussion recently at a European capital. They say a nuclear deal with Iran will only delay Tehran’s timetable to acquire nuclear weapons and will provide it with much-needed financial resources to continue its expansionist scheme in the Middle East. Experts say Arab Gulf leaders will request more than a simple qualitative military edge vis-à-vis Iran. “Some of these countries, especially Saudi Arabia, might request nuclear parity with Iran and also seek a green light from the West to build ballistic and cruise missiles,” one of the participants said. Those attending the conference requested anonymity.
Arab Gulf leaders are worried the talks between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States) plus Germany — known as P5+1 — and Iran will not deprive Tehran of its ability to produce nuclear weapons, but will only delay that capability for a few years. Arab leaders are concerned that the West, especially the United States, has not done enough to curb Iranian meddling in Arab affairs and agitating sectarian tension.
“Saudi and Emirati officials will probably push to have the same nuclear capabilities as Iran, namely the ability to enrich uranium and possess advanced nuclear research facilities,” one participant said. “The Arab side must have the same breakout capability as Iran’s.”
The United States might offer its Gulf Arab allies an extended nuclear deterrence to face off any potential future nuclear threat from Iran. However, Gulf Arab countries are not enthusiastic about the idea.
“It is highly doubtful the US Congress will accept such a treaty and, if it does, now what guarantees would the Arab side have that Washington would be able to honour such an agreement in the future and use nuclear force for the sake of an Arab state?” an Arab participant said.
Some Arab experts suggested the United States should consider giving Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members the same treatment it gave to its Asian allies, such as South Korea and Japan, to ease their worries over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
“The West must transfer the needed technology to enable the GCC countries to build cruise and ballistic missiles the same way it discretely allowed South Korea to ignore the MTCR and build ballistic and cruise missiles after North Korea went nuclear,” said one Arab military analyst.
MTCR — the Missile Technology Control Regime — is an informal and voluntary association of Western countries plus Russia and few other industrial states aimed at strengthening the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by banning the export of technologies used in building cruise and ballistic missiles.
“GCC states were not allowed to import such missiles or their technologies from the West while Iran received assistance from China and North Korea to assemble a formidable arsenal of missiles, some of which can reach the edges of Europe,” the Arab military analyst said. “Now with Iran allowed to possess its nuclear programme, GCC States must be allowed to build their own missile capabilities.”
In short, GCC countries, led by Saudi Arabia, will seek their own deterrence capabilities without dependence on an American nuclear umbrella. In other words, the nuclear deal with Iran will possibly lead to the proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies in the region, which will defy the objective of the P5+1 talks.
The United States and its Western allies will likely reject Arab demands for nuclear and missile parity with Iran. However, they will not be able to stop their aspirations to achieve such parity by seeking other providers of such technologies — such as China and Pakistan.
GCC leaders are concerned they are not on the same page as Washington with respect to the nature of the threat posed by Iran.
“The US is giving priority to Iran’s nuclear programme while the Arab states regard Iran’s expansionist policy as the more pressing threat and want it dealt with simultaneously with the nuclear issue,” said one analyst.
“The US cannot continue to treat GCC states as a piggy bank by selling them arms on the one side to confront the Iranian expansionist threat while, at the same time, it signs a deal with Iran that would allow it to become a much stronger power and possibly a nuclear state one day,” the analyst added.
According to a former US official, one way Washington can ease GCC anxieties and reduce the threat of nuclear and missile proliferation in the region would be by embedding the Iranian nuclear deal within a wider strategy with Tehran that will include Arab concerns. Although this might complicate the current process with Iran, it would be much better than unleashing the nuclear genie in the Middle East.