Nuclear arms race in the Gulf?

HOW far are the Gulf States from a nuclear race in the region? This is a legitimate question given the decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) in December 2006 to establish, for the first time, a nuclear research programme.

By Nicole Stracke

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Published: Fri 2 Feb 2007, 9:52 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:08 AM

Up to this point, the GCC States had never seriously considered the use of nuclear energy. The majority of the states are signatories to the major nuclear non-proliferation treaties such as the NPT, the safeguard agreements and the additional protocol. Five of the six have qualified for the Small Quantity Protocol (SQP) status, which implies almost zero nuclear activity. Therefore, the decision to initiate a nuclear research programme marks a major departure from traditional GCC policy and indicates a changing attitude in response to the changing political and security environment in the Gulf. The expansion of Iran’s nuclear programme, coupled with the Iranian government’s belligerent attitude, has generated deep concern among the GCC leadership. As a consequence, it has started looking for its own regional initiatives to counter the possible threat from an aggressive neighbour armed with nuclear weapons.

The decision to establish a GCC nuclear programme must be taken seriously by the international community: It was taken at the highest leadership level and has the full support of each of the governments. Second, since it is a joint programme among all the six member states, logistical and financial support for the programme will not be a problem. Third, the decision was reached out of necessity – the GCC countries felt they can no longer stay behind Iran and accept the continuing widening nuclear technology gap and the long-term possibility of Iran emerging as a sub-regional hegemon intent on changing the geo-strategic status quo. Therefore, given that the regional security environment is likely to remain unstable, these states will push for the implementation of the decision and divert the necessary financial and human resources in order to realize the project. The GCC intention is not to enter a ‘nuclear race’ with Iran; rather it is a strategic decision and a clear signal to its belligerent neighbour that it will not duck and hide while Tehran builds up its nuclear capability, interferes in Iraqi affairs and demonstrates eagerness to change the geo-strategic alignments in the region in its favour.

That the GCC States underlined their sincerity about avoiding a confrontation with Iran has been made clear by offering engagement incentives since 2005. At the Abu Dhabi summit, GCC Secretary-General Abdul Rahman Al-Attiyah announced for the first time the GCC initiative to declare the Gulf region as a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ), which includes Iran, Iraq and Yemen.

The idea of a WMDFZ in the Middle East is not new. What is new is an initiative that is based on the sub-regional to regional approach; starting from security cooperation among the nine Gulf States and potentially leading to the expansion of the project to the entire Middle East region, including Israel.

The idea for sub-regional cooperation originates from the assumption that the GCC threat perceptions differ from those of other Arab states. The GCC threat perceptions have evolved out of the regional conflict with Iran or the current situation in Iraq. While the GCC States, which are geographically close to Iran, would perceive it as a direct threat, Egypt or Morocco views Iran’s threat as less imminent. Therefore, the GCC States feel that security cooperation is more effective among states that share common interests and threat perceptions.

The GCC States’ intention is not to undermine the WMDFZ in the Middle East. On the contrary, the GCC leadership assumes that once a WMDFZ in the Gulf is established it could be the cornerstone for a broader multilateral regional security arrangement which other Arab states could join.

At the same time, the GCC announcement about pursuing nuclear research is also not in contradiction with the Gulf WMDFZ initiative. In fact, such an approach allows nuclear research as well as development and use of a peaceful nuclear programme while providing a legal framework and assurances to all the member states of the zone that there is no military agenda. The GCC States want to make clear that it is not the Iranian nuclear programme per se that is being criticised by them, rather it is Iranian behaviour and the lack of security assurances that is undermining the GCC’s trust in Iran. After all, doubts arose about Iran’s intentions after discovering that it was working secretly on the development of sophisticated nuclear facilities and that it had provided the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with false information.

The Gulf States are still interested in cooperating with Iran and including it as a key member of the WMDFZ in the Gulf if the regime provides full transparency and cooperates with the IAEA. Iran has officially declared its willingness to explore this initiative. However, the credibility of such an announcement remains doubtful. While the Gulf States initially accepted a sub-regional initiative hoping that Israel can be convinced to join a larger Middle East at a later stage, Iran does not agree to such a condition. During the ongoing Track II negotiations, Iranian officials made the nuclear disarmament of Israel a pre-condition for Iran’s membership in the Gulf-WMDFZ knowing fully that such a pre-condition would lead to a deadlock. But, the point is that if the Gulf States are ready to explore the possibility of a sub-regional security arrangement, then why not Iran? It can only be assumed that Iran does not have a serious interest in such an arrangement. Paradoxically, Iran loudly demands “comprehensive confidence-building measures” and “non-interference of foreign powers” as pre-conditions for any regional security architecture, while undermining the same conditions.

Iran insists on going ahead with its nuclear programme; it is threatening the GCC States of closing the Strait of Hormuz in case of a US attack on its nuclear facilities; and it heavily interferes in Iraqi affairs. At some point the GCC States will begin to wonder why they should further engage with a regime that talks about cooperation, but ends up doing nothing to contribute to regional security.

Nicole Stracke is a researcher in the Security and Terrorism Programme at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai

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