As the big powers prepare for next week’s talks with Iran on its nuclear program, there is a sense of frustration and impotence in the very region which would be most affected by the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
There have long been complaints that the P5+1 — the five UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany — should involve the Middle East more closely in negotiations with Iran. Arms-control experts in countries such as Egypt have said that it would make sense for Cairo to join the process. The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — are also saying that they should play a role.
At a conference on Nuclear Non-Proliferation in the Gulf in Doha, Qatar, late last month [March 21-22], organized by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), there was grumbling from regional participants who resent being confined to the role of diplomatic spectator.
“If military action happened, we have no control over it,” said Mustafa Alani, Program Director for Security and Terrorism Studies at the Gulf Research Center. “We can’t raise a veto. Nobody listened to us about Iraq when we said it was wrong.”
Alani added that the Gulf states “believe very strongly” that Iran’s intention is to build a nuclear weapon despite Iranian denials. The Iranian public has been conditioned to support the program by such actions as placing the atomic symbol on the Iranian currency, he said.
The Iranian nuclear program, according to Bahrain’s Undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry, Abdulla Abdullatif Abdulla, “is a matter of national pride” for Iranians.
Still, much of the conversation at the conference focused not on the challenge to the international community presented by Iran, which does not yet have nuclear weapons and is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but by Israel, which possesses but does not acknowledge that it has a nuclear arsenal.
Arab countries have long complained about a double standard: Why should Iran be punished for exercising its treaty rights to enrich uranium whereas Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, continues to be shielded?
Israel is seen by Arab states as an aggressor determined to preserve a nuclear monopoly by stamping on would-be competitors. The Israelis have taken unilateral action twice to destroy nuclear reactors in the region; their military bombed Iraq’s Osiraq facility in 1981 and a Syrian site in 2007.
At the same time, there is widespread skepticism that economic sanctions will compel Iran to comply with UN resolutions, and concern that war is a real possibility.
“We don’t want it,” Alani said. “We want it as a last resort, and we think the time is not right now for military action.”
Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the transit point for about 20% of the world’s crude, and disrupt shipping to global markets in the case of any military strikes. But experts differ on whether Iran has the capability to shut the Strait. Oil-trading analyst Jim Ritterbusch said that such Iranian retaliation would be “a low-probability event. And in any case, it could be reopened.”
Ritterbusch, president of the Illinois-based Ritterbusch and Associates, said that the Gulf states’ fears about a war were likely to be more broad-based. “They wouldn’t want greater instability in the region. Things are bad enough as it is,” he said, referring to the political turmoil of the Arab Spring.
Alani argued that Gulf states were opposed to Israeli military action because it would allow Iran to portray itself as a victim of Israeli aggression, and would be unlikely to inflict really serious harm on the Iranian program. He also suggested that the Israelis may act “to embarrass the Americans, or to bring America into the war.” Alternatively, he said, “the Israelis think the Iranians would make some sort of stupid mistake,” which could be seen as a casus belli.
It would seem only fair to closely involve the GCC countries in the search for a solution to a crisis that has already led Washington to step up weapons sales to its Gulf allies. In a move apparently aimed at allaying regional concerns, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discussed the Iran crisis with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia last weekend.
But the lingering lack of trust between the conservative Gulf states and the Obama administration cannot be underestimated.
According to one Western diplomat who asked not to be quoted by name, the administration’s withdrawal of support in February last year for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “caused a lot of damage” in relations with the region. “Now they may think that the US would strike a deal with the Iranians behind their back that could be detrimental for them,” the diplomat said. “They may worry about America being a fair-weather friend.”
For Adnan Shihab-Eldin, director-general of the Kuwait Foundation, the question is “how to change Iran’s calculus.”
Israel had been “very successful” with its policy of nuclear ambiguity, a model that the Iranians were trying to emulate, he said. “But the Iranians will fail, because there is the evidence that at one point in time they were pursuing these [military] activities.”
Anne Penketh is Program Director of the British American Security Information Council.