With Eyes on Iran, Arab Countries May Pursue Nukes

By Ori Nir

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — As the White House struggles to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran, Israeli security officials and American experts are urging the Bush administration to prevent other Middle Eastern countries from developing nuclear weapons.

Developments in Iran could end up fueling nuclear pushes in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkey, according to Israeli and American observers. Yet, so far, American attention appears fixated on Iran and Al Qaeda.

America’s nonproliferation efforts in the region are “totally focused on Al Qaeda and the usual cast of usual suspects,” said Richard Russell, a professor at the National Defense University and a former political-military analyst at the CIA. In the process, he said, the Bush administration is ignoring the longer-term danger of others in the region — including American allies — attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

This risk is viewed with particular concern in Jerusalem. Last month, the head of Israel’s Mossad spying agency, Meir Dagan, told the Knesset’s Security and Foreign Affairs Committee that Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons might be fueling such ambitions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Although none of these countries is known to be pursuing a nuclear weapons program, he reportedly said, there are signs that all three are toying with the idea.

By the end of this year, Dagan said, Iran will reach “the point of no return” in its ability to manufacture nuclear arms.

The chairman of the Knesset committee, Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, said, “Other Arab totalitarian regimes are looking at Iran and saying two things.”

“First, they may have to deter the Iranians, who under a nuclear umbrella may be unstoppable in their efforts to export the Islamic revolution,” he said. In addition, Steinitz said, several Arab countries see themselves as jockeying with Iran for a position of leadership in the Muslim world. “Iran is perceived in the Arab world as participating in the competition for Arab hegemony, and therefore others who aspire for such hegemony — Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Syria — don’t want to lag behind” on the nuclear front, Steinitz said. “We already see signs of that.”

According to Steinitz, Israel’s impression is that “countries in the region assume that America and its European allies will eventually surrender to Iran and won’t prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, which is why they may be making first steps in order not to lag behind Iran.”

England, France and Germany are currently negotiating with Tehran, offering a package of economic and diplomatic incentives to convince the country to forgo its nuclear program. Pending the outcome of talks, Iran has agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities.

Israeli diplomats said that they share the view of critics who think America should have done more to investigate the so-called “A.Q. Khan network,” a reference to the activities of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Last year, Khan admitted to selling nuclear components to Iran, Libya and North Korea. But Khan is known to have frequented Arab countries in recent years, as well, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, nuclear experts said.

Israeli diplomats are nervous that any regional approach adopted by the United States and the international community would lead to pressure on Israel to abandon its nuclear program. But the developments in Iran and in parts of the Arab world have Jerusalem looking for a more aggressive, wider American approach on the issue of nuclear proliferation.

At his Knesset briefing last month, Dagan told Steinitz’s Knesset committee that Israel has “suspicions” of a clandestine nuclear project in Syria. Damascus runs three nuclear research facilities, including a research reactor constructed by China and a Belgian-made cyclotron like the one that Iran is suspected of using to enrich uranium. Syria is negotiating with Russia over upgrading its nuclear research program. Last year, Syria responded to international American-led pressure to relinquish its weapons of mass destruction program by declaring that it will do so when Israel does the same.

In addition to the situation in Syria, developments in Egypt are begging to attract the attention of those concerned about nuclear proliferation in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

For years, Egypt, with two small research reactors, attempted to obtain a nuclear power-generation capability, but gave up in the face of international pressure.

A serious debate over developing nuclear weapons has not taken place in Egypt since the 1970s. But the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a statement last month, which said that several Egyptian scientists conducted nuclear experiments during the past three decades — which they failed to report to the United Nations nuclear watchdog. If the allegations are true, they will represent a violation of the U.N.’s nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. According to some press reports, these experiments included attempts to produce components of uranium.

Saudi Arabia has no known nuclear facilities, but it has plenty of motives to pursue a military nuclear option in the future, as it attempts to obtain parity with Iran, Israel and other regional players, Russell said. “The Saudis could potentially look to the nuclear weapons option as a quick fix” for its security concerns, he said. It already has long-range CSS-2 ballistic missiles that it secretly bought from China in the 1980s, which could serve as a delivery vehicle, he added.

“There is a mindset here in the United States that the Saudis are our allies and security partners,” Russell said. “That is true, but it doesn’t prevent them from pursuing their own interests as they did with the purchase of the CSS-2 missiles.”

Such developments throughout the region would undermine international non-proliferation restraints and strain American relations with most of its friends in the region, said Henry Sokolsky, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington-based think tank. “We certainly need to think about these potential cases more than we do,” he said.

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