Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2007, pages 40-41

Arab Press Review

The Nuclear Wave: Arab World Caught Between Israeli Hammer, Iranian Anvil

By Peter C. Valenti

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (r) meets with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (l) in Riyadh, March 3, 2007 (AFP photo/Hassan Ammar).

The Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh was witness to a surprising meeting on March 4, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad convened with Saudi King Abdullah. While the two leaders seemed happy to see each other, and media coverage showed them holding hands, in typical Middle Eastern fashion, make no mistake—this was a gritty summit of rival Gulf superpowers. The avatar of the waxing “Shi”˜i Crescent,” Ahmadinejad not only has raised hackles in the White House, but has kept various leaders in the region bristling with anxiety—not the least of whom is Abdullah, the most important member of what some in Washington have dubbed the “moderate Arab states.”

Little more than a month earlier, in a Jan. 27 interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Seyassah,Abdullah had issued a thinly veiled threat to Iran about “interference,” cautioning that “Saudi leaders and the Saudi state have always known their limits in dealing with nations, east and west, and they have not overstepped these limits. I explained this principle of Saudi practice to [Iran’s envoy] Ali Larijani and advised him to pass it on to his government and its followers...”

Given tensions this high, and the fact that Iran already has stepped over the tripwire in Iraq and Lebanon, what was the impetus for the March 28 and 29 summit in Riyadh? It may just be the biggest threat of all: a Middle Eastern nuclear race.

The two Middle East news stories inundating the U.S. media in recent months have been the chaos in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear gamble. Meanwhile, a whole series of important and unprecedented events that have been unfolding since September have virtually flown under the radar. Certainly the U.S. public has been kept well informed—perhaps forewarned—about Israeli and White House concerns in regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This situation affects more than just these three countries, however.

Following a Sept. 24 meeting of Egypt’s energy council, government spokespeople announced that the country would restart its nuclear energy program, frozen for more than 20 years. In late September, unconfirmed leaks to the press reported that Saudi Prince Bandar ibn Sultan had met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Amman, Jordan, ostensibly to discuss Iran. Then, at the conclusion of a two-day summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh on Dec. 10, the GCC released a statement saying, “The states of the region have a right to possess nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.” The GCC’s member states are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Clarifying the GCC decision, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal explained, “We are announcing our intention to pursue the ownership of nuclear technology for peaceful [purposes].

“It is not a threat,” he added. “It is an announcement so that there will be no misinterpretation of what we are doing. We are not doing this secretly. We are doing it openly.”

The next day, in an interview by German television network SAT 1, Olmert’s comments on Iran included an interesting revelation: “Israel is a democracy, Israel doesn’t threaten any country with anything, never did...The most that we tried to get for ourselves is to try to live without terror, but we never threaten another nation with annihilation. Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they [Iran] are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?”

This is considered to be the first official acknowledgement of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, despite the subsequent backtracking of government spokespeople. Thus, after decades of Israeli “strategic ambiguity” on this topic, the proverbial cat is out of the bag.

And finally, in a Jan. 20 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, King Abdullah II of Jordan acknowledged his initiatives to establish a nuclear program, arguing that “the rules have changed on the nuclear subject throughout the whole region. Where I think Jordan was saying, ”˜we’d like to have a nuclear-free zone in the area,’ after this summer, everybody’s going for nuclear programs. The Egyptians are looking for a nuclear program. The GCC are looking at one, and we are actually looking at nuclear power for peaceful and energy purposes. We’ve been discussing it with the West.”

“Original Sin”

This unfolding nuclear drama provides another clear example of how decades-old U.S. policies in the Middle East are perceived as hypocritical and as fundamentally avoiding core political issues. Discussing the GCC’s nuclear plans, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal articulated, “We want no bombs...Our policy is to have a region free of weapons of mass destruction...This is why we call on Israel to renounce [nuclear weapons].”

Since Israel was the first to establish a nuclear program for the purpose of producing weapons decades ago, yet Washington has never pushed it to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty—or even to acknowledge it has nuclear weapons—Saud al-Faisal lamented that the “original sin” was Israel’s.

If the perceptions of a double standard are not clear enough, Jordanian King Abdullah II explained in his Haaretz interview “I personally believe that any country that has a nuclear program should conform to international regulations and should have international regulatory bodies that check to make sure that any nuclear program moves in the right direction.” Since he was speaking to an Israeli paper, the audience was clear.

When asked if he meant that Israel should sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Jordanian monarch replied, “What’s expected from us should be a standard across the board. We want to make sure this is used for energy. What we don’t want is an arms race to come out of this. As we become part of an international body and its international regulations are accepted by all of us, then we become a united front.”

It should be noted that most in the Arab world see Olmert as having made a “calculated slip of the tongue” regarding Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. As the main editorial of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi wondered on Dec. 13, “the question does not revolve around whether Israel possesses nuclear armaments or not, but rather the reasons which drove Olmert to risk this dangerous admission, and at this precise moment.”

Quick to the chase, the editorial assessment was that, “First and foremost Olmert wanted to direct a warning to Iran, as a preliminary step to using nuclear weapons against it in the event of Tel Aviv’s fulfilling its threats to destroy Iranian nuclear reactors.”

The sensitivity of the rest of the Middle East—indeed, of the global community—to the fact that Washington repeatedly gave Israel a free pass on its nuclear weapons is among the reasons that Israeli critics of Olmert’s “gaffe” have been quick to react. According to a report on Israeli army radio, former Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, a right-wing Likud member, admitted, “This causes great harm to Israel. We are in the midst of a huge [diplomatic] onslaught against Iran’s attempts to make a nuclear bomb...[while] we always face the same question which our enemies ask: ”˜Why is Israel allowed to [have a bomb] and not Iran?’”

Two points should be made. Despite the wishful thinking evinced by Abdullah II, it has, essentially, become an arms race, at least on the part of Israel and Iran. Secondly, in typical fashion, U.S. policy vis-à-vis Israel has inadvertently strengthened Ahmadinejad’s argument regarding his nuclear ambitions, which were the catalyst for many in the region to reconsider their own nuclear status (whatever use they may ultimately put it to) and then, it seems, Olmert was only reacting in his turn.

The Nuclear Imam

Regardless of GCC statements, its newly found nuclear ambition is not necessarily for domestic consumption alone. In tandem with the GCC’s endorsement to coordinate the development of the Peninsula Shield—a joint GCC military force designed to defend the Gulf region—the GCC’s target audience is clear. For some in the Arab world, especially in Iraq, Tehran represents the revolutionary Shi”˜i revanche in the Middle East, whereas for others, it is Iran’s role as a regional superpower contender that is most worrisome.

A few in the region do not want to highlight Iran as the main motivation for the GCC move. This is evident in al-Riyadh’s Dec. 12 editorial, which argued, “We should not place this matter in a field of competition with Iran or any other country, but rather we should pursue it as an end unto itself.”

Fear of Iran, in and of itself, by Gulf Arabs is matched by the ratcheting up of the war of words between Iran and Israel. The Dec. 16 editorial of Saudi Arabia’s al-Riyadh demonstrates this thinking: “The near future is making an inevitable fact visible to us—that we are placed in between two strong nuclear pliers, Israel and Iran, and each has historical regional ambitions, and the Arab buffet is ready, and the signs [of these ambitions] are evident in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine...”

Many in Saudi Arabia saw good reason for the March 4 summit between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Rhetorically asking “Is Saudi Arabia playing with fire?” Tariq al-Hamid argued in his March 6 op-ed in Asharq al-Awsat that the summit was a matter of “keeping your friends close but your enemies closer.” Yet regardless of how King Abdullah views Iran—and this is not quite clear—al-Hamid inferred from this mini-summit that Abdullah, no matter his differences with Tehran, still understands the meaning of diplomacy.

Engaging with Iran is critical. According to al-Hamid, Saudi Arabia “cannot leave Lebanon a breeding ground for political gangs that assassinate, and want to dominate the resources of the country, and return Lebanon to the great fire, that is, civil war. And it is not possible that Riyadh can leave Palestine a commodity in the hands of Iran, nor is it possible for fresh air to blow in Baghdad without Tehran...”

Peter C. Valenti, a free-lance writer and translator, teaches Islam and modern Middle East history at New York’s New School University.