When Israel calls for stripping Iran of all but a few symbolic centrifuges or kilograms of enriched uranium, it warns that is necessary not just because a nuclear Iran presents an existential threat to the Jewish state, but because an Iranian nuclear program could trigger a regional arms race with the Sunni Persian Gulf states.
“Iran want[s] to remain a nuclear threshold state ... but this time with global approval,” said Israeli Minister of Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Yuval Steinitz at a recent briefing in Jerusalem. “This will encourage many other Sunni countries to seek and to demand the same status.”
But those fears may be overblown. Regional analysts say that Sunni Gulf states are unlikely to amass nuclear arsenals of their own unless Tehran actually acquires a nuclear bomb.
Thus, while they share Israeli concerns, they are looking not so much for certain limitations on Iranian centrifuges or percentage of uranium enrichment, but rather for a way to preserve the balance of power between the region’s two heavyweights – Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“Israel has a different agenda than the Gulf states,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). “We live next to Iran, and we’re more aware that Iran is ... the other pillar of [regional] security.”
What Gulf states seek
Gulf states – including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain – are seriously concerned about Iran’s nuclear program. If Iran obtained nuclear weapons, it would disrupt the delicate balance of power that has prevailed for more than three decades, supported by the US provision of conventional weapons and an umbrella of military support to balance out Iran’s power.
A bomb would change that.
“Weapon by weapon, missile by missile, and this would take them into a new round of arms race,” says Professor Abdulla. “This is going to be a huge burden for everyone.”
But there’s also a subtext behind Gulf opposition to Iranian nuclear power: the fear that after decades of international isolation following its severing of diplomatic ties with the United States in 1979, Iran could shed its status as a rogue state, reestablish ties with the US, and rise to new prominence in the region. Sunni states, which have benefited massively from US military support and arms deals, are worried they could lose their edge.
“For 35 years, [Gulf] countries have capitalized on US-Iranian tensions, and if those tensions are reduced and if Iran is once again welcomed into the fold of nations ... then I think these countries feel they’ll lose some of the leverage they’ve been able to capitalize on,” says Mehran Kamrava, director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. “And of course they cannot say that. So what they’re going to object to are the various facets of the [Iran nuclear] deal.”
'More than just the will of leadership'
Even if Gulf states decided they wanted nuclear weapons of their own, the task of building up an arsenal could take years.
“Developing nuclear capabilities requires more than just the will of leadership. There is a whole infrastructure, a whole knowledge base that you need to develop,” says Abdullah Baabood, director of the Gulf Studies program at Qatar University in Doha. “I think the best they could do ... is perhaps they can purchase some nuclear [warheads], either from Pakistan, where they have good relationship,... and maybe even North Korea.
“But even that is quite remote.... I think they realize that this is beyond them, at least for the time being.”
Many point out that Israel’s development of nuclear weapons decades ago never triggered a nuclear arms race in the region, despite Arab states’ enmity toward the Jewish state and the threat it poses to their security.
While Iraq and Syria both built nuclear reactors, they were destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in 1981 and 2009 respectively, and no Sunni state in the Middle East is known to have a nuclear weapons program today.
There are also bigger threats to Gulf security than Iran’s nuclear exploits, says Professor Kamrava, such as the emergence of collapsed states.
“If we have an implosion of central authority in Iraq, along with an implosion of central authority in Syria, then we are looking at a completely fundamentally changed geostrategic situation in the Middle East,” he says, calling such weak states “petri dishes” for jihadist groups. “The centrifugal forces unleashed by the lack of central authority in Iraq and Syria will become extremely difficult to contain,” he says.
The chaos poses a threat to Iran, too, and thus could help bridge the divide with Gulf states.
“It appears as if there’s some tangible reason for all these different contentious parties to come together, set their differences aside, and cooperate over Iraq,” Kamrava says.