US Foreign Policy

The Arab Gulf states and the Iranian nuclear challenge

in Program

This commentary appeared in the Daily Star on January 15, 2005.

For those who worry about Iran’s nuclear aspirations, there is something deeply disconcerting about the absence of any Gulf Arab involvement in the negotiations aimed at stopping, or at least slowing, Iran’s nuclear progress. Many criticize the United States for staying on the sidelines while the Europeans negotiate agreements that are doomed to fail if Iran’s security concerns are not addressed, and rightly so. But the silence of Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbors is troubling and cannot be good for the future of Gulf stability. Some Arab Gulf experts, such as Abdallah Bishara, the former secretary-general of the GCC, have voiced their angst at the prospects of a nuclear Iran, but the official reaction has been muted so far.

Of course, expecting the worse from a nuclear Iran is counterproductive and probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, Iran’s historic regional ambitions, its support of Shia movements in the 1980s, and the sense that Iran feels emboldened by the instability in Iraq are powerful reasons why Arab Gulf countries should care about Iran going nuclear.

Arab states undoubtedly prefer a non-nuclear Iran but they are unwilling to take on the costs of negotiations or confrontation with Iran. The existing asymmetry of power between Arab Gulf states and Iran, combined with the Gulf Arabs’ lack of political options, complicate the situation. It is unclear what issues could be tackled during potential negotiations. If Gulf states decide to talk to Iran, Iran will almost certainly ask them to expel the US military from its bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. For states that rely on the US security umbrella, this is a non-starter. Likewise, because they remember Iran’s eagerness to export its revolution in the 1980s and the instability that ensued, Gulf sheikdoms will likely rebut any Iranian call to address the political and social needs of their oppressed Shia communities. Gulf monarchies are very suspicious of Shia political demands, and insist that political reforms be incremental and managed in such a way as to ensure the survival of their regimes.

Arab Gulf states might evaluate that antagonizing Iran by siding with the United States now will result in more tensions in the future. Tehran probably does not identify Arab Gulf states as a major threat to its security. Its rationales for acquiring a bomb have to do with strategic considerations as well as ones related to prestige. Tehran perceives threats from other nuclear actors in the region, including the United States and Israel. Squeezed between these giants, Arab Gulf states want to minimize the risks to their internal and external security. Not alienating Iran is therefore required.

Many Arab and Western analysts are convinced that Tehran is set on its course and nothing except a grand bargain, improbable as it is, with the United States will change its strategic rationales. The key question is when Iran will acquire all the components necessary to build a bomb and if it will actually build it or will prefer to maintain some ambiguity about its nuclear status. If the assumption is that Iran will go nuclear regardless of what happens, GCC states could understandably question the wisdom of using their political capital for nothing or little in return. On the other hand, Gulf states could expect Iran to reward, or at least remember, countries that remained less aggressive during the crisis.

Arab Gulf regimes reason that Iran will not use its nuclear capabilities in the future. Arab assessments of Iran’s nuclear intentions seem to suggest that Iran will behave as a rational state and will use its nuclear capabilities for deterrence. Should Tehran decide to make use of its nuclear arsenal, it can expect massive retaliation from the United States or Israel. Because Iran is far from acquiring a second-strike capability, this view seems valid and logical. But given the absence of an official Iranian nuclear doctrine, combined with uncertainty as to who will control the nuclear arsenal given Iran’s fragmented leadership, one cannot rule out bad surprises. As evidenced by the tragic history of the past two decades, the Persian Gulf is prone to miscalculations and misperceptions. Controlling nuclear risks and understanding the risks of nuclear escalation will therefore be key to ensuring the region’s stability. The mullahs in Tehran have proven shrewd players on the international scene, but possessing nuclear capabilities might render them even more prone to brinksmanship. Moreover, military commanders sometimes do not appreciate the implications of using nuclear weapons. There is a risk that Iranian military leaders, especially in the Revolutionary Guard, now a prominent actor in Iranian politics, will feel emboldened by their country’s possession of nuclear capabilities or in times of crisis, ask “why not use it since we have it?” Of course, this remains speculation at the moment, but there is too much uncertainty and ambiguity in Iran’s behavior to exclude these scenarios.

Given these factors, the Arab Gulf states’ position becomes more comprehensible: they have little leverage over Iran, they are unwilling to pay too high a price in what they consider a losing battle, and they calculate that Iran is really interested in the economic benefits and security guarantees that only the United States and Europe can provide. In this situation, what they can do amounts to little: they praised Iran for its wisdom when it agreed to a deal with the Europeans, a way to minimize friction and please the Iranians.

But this is not enough: even in the unlikely event that Iran’s nuclear program is intended only for peaceful purposes (i.e. energy production), there is a real environmental risk that Gulf states should not underestimate. The nuclear technology that Iran has acquired is not state-of-the-art. The Russian-built Bushehr reactor is located on the Iranian coast, only 250 kilometers from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and 350 from Qatar, with only the sea in between. A Chernobyl-type catastrophic incident would inflict considerable human and economic damage to these countries, not to mention Iran. Security and maintenance of the nuclear installations is therefore essential, and Arab Gulf states should talk to Iran about this dimension of the problem.

Also, involvement in the negotiations can take other forms. Arab Gulf states could apply pressure on the United States to get involved in European efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They could also associate themselves with the European initiative by offering extra benefits that enhance the E3 negotiating power.

If the crisis escalates into diplomatic confrontation, Gulf states will have to decide whether the threat to the region comes from a nuclear Iran or from US and European attempts to contain and deter it. Arab monarchies will understandably worry that a diplomatic standoff at the IAEA or at the UN Security Council will only heighten the risks of military confrontation and that they would suffer from a potential conflict. An aggressive US attempt to prevent Iran from going nuclear might affect domestic stability in the Gulf if Iran decides to resort to non-conventional means such as terrorism.

In sum, Arab Gulf states, as relatively bit players in a drama that pits Iran against the West, have no easy options. They are profoundly affected by all the possible outcomes, but their silence suggests that they believe involvement today entails only greater risks. As history has shown, they sometimes wait too long for others to act on their security requirements.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices