The Middle East nuclear arms race may not happen
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.