The Middle East nuclear arms race may not happen

Sunday 19/06/2016
A 2015 file picture shows the construction site of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, southern France.

Washington - Arab countries and Tur­key are unlikely to de­velop atomic weapons options despite threats to counter the Iran nu­clear deal with matching capabili­ties and regional tensions between Sunni Arab countries and the Is­lamic Republic, US policy analysts said.
“None currently have the in­frastructure or the material and if there’s nothing you can use as ex­pertise or material, then it’s very difficult to turn it into weapons,” said Elena Sokova, deputy direc­tor for the Centre of Nonprolifera­tion Studies at the Monterey Mid­dlebury Institute in California. She added that the lack of capabilities means that such countries could not pursue the nuclear option for at least ten years.
“If one of these countries wanted to jump-start a nuclear programme now, there would be a time lag be­tween making a decision and put­ting down the infrastructure and it would be very difficult to conceal such a plan, even in a clandestine operation.”
Sokova’s assertions are similar to those of a recent study published by the Brookings Institution, a Wash­ington think-tank. It examined in detail whether potential capabili­ties and a political will currently exist among Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, specifi­cally Sunni Muslim governments, in reaction to the Iran nuclear deal.
“We conclude that none are in a position to pursue nuclear weapon capabilities in the foreseeable fu­ture,” said Robert Einhorn of the Arms Control and Non-Prolifera­tion Initiative at Brookings, refer­ring to the Gulf states, Egypt and Turkey. Einhorn was a top adviser to US President Barack Obama on the Iran agreement.
Einhorn dismissed rumours that Saudi Arabia had been seeking help from Pakistan to enrich uranium.
“Saudi Arabia knows they have no choice but to rely on the US for their security and that pursuing a nuclear option will jeopardise their relationship with the US,” he said, adding that the same applies to the United Arab Emirates.
One of the main objections raised by the Sunni Arab states against the nuclear deal was that, even if Iran complies with the agreement, Tehran might emerge stronger eco­nomically and politically when the agreement expires in 15 years. Iran could then pursue the nuclear op­tion from a stronger position.
Some US defence experts say any hint of Iran’s deviation from the agreement should be met with a swift response by the United States, including a military option.
Richard Nephew, a scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University who is af­filiated with the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, said the United States must maintain a strong military presence in the re­gion as a constant deterrent and it must be better prepared than it was when Obama took office in 2009.
“The US military was not in tip-top shape. It had atrophied and we cannot let that atrophy happen again,” Nephew said.
UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba said, short of a military option, policies to­wards Iran must “reward good behaviour and punish bad behav­iour”.
“We need to see a combination of carrots and sticks,” he said at a Brookings’ event. “I have two young kids, and if one of them does something wrong and I don’t pun­ish them, guess what? They’re go­ing to keep doing it.”
The Iran deal, or the Joint Com­prehensive Plan of Action, allows Iran to participate in international research and in efforts to develop nuclear energy for peaceful objec­tives, such as the ongoing Interna­tional Thermonuclear Experimen­tal Reactor (ITER) in France.
Iran is eager to participate in the multibillion-dollar initiative, which aims to replicate the nuclear fusion that powers the sun, an ambitious endeavour shown to work on paper but that has never worked in a reac­tor because no facility exists with the appropriate size and resilience to heat.
A source close to the programme said some US lawmakers were try­ing to prevent Iran from becoming a partner in ITER.
“Some members of Congress do not want Iran to become a member of ITER and some are threatening to cut funding to ITER all together to appease the oil and fossil fuel lobby,” said the source on condition of anonymity.
Proponents of the Iran deal see its participation in ITER as a posi­tive step. Iran’s nuclear scientists have much to offer towards build­ing the reactor because they have fresh and recent experience doing just that. Participation would also engage Iran’s existing nuclear ex­pertise and capabilities in devel­oping nuclear energy for peaceful means and away from efforts that might subvert the nuclear deal.