Arab Views of a Nuclear Iran

The Arab world is watching nuclear developments in Iran closely. The outcome could disrupt the Middle East’s balance of power or, worse, provoke a regional nuclear arms race.

April 20, 2006

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The Arab world has mixed opinions about a nuclear-capable Iran. Iran’s relations with a number of Arab states are already strained, and could further deteriorate if Iran were to acquire nuclear-weapons capabilities. Some Arab leaders fear a nuclear Iran might disrupt the balance of power in the Middle East, embolden the minority Shiite populations present throughout the region, or, worse, set off a regional nuclear-arms race. But Arabs on some level sympathize with their fellow Muslims’ defiance of the United States, as reflected in opinion surveys and press accounts. They see Washington’s democracy-building policies in the region, not to mention its support for Israel and a Shiite-led Iraq, as a greater threat to regional stability than a nuclear-capable Iran. Arab leaders, in general, favor an Iran free of nuclear weapons, but publicly say they support a diplomatic solution to the current standoff with Tehran.

How are relations between Iran and its Arab neighbors?

Strained, experts say. "Their mutual resentment goes back a thousand years," says Fariborz Makhtaria, professor at the Near East South Asia Center of the National Defense University, referring to the early rift between Shiites and Sunnis over who should inherit the leadership of the Muslim community after Mohammed’s death in AD 632. In the 1960s and 1970s, Iran’s shah began to assert Iranian influence in the region and even briefly declared Bahrain a part of Iran. The overthrow of the shah in 1979 did not improve relations. Most Arab states sided with Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War to prevent a Shiite-led revolution from spreading. Others struck bilateral security agreements with the United States. Iran began to see Arab regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, as tacit supporters of U.S. foreign policy. "The Iranians have come to believe they cannot rely on Arabs even though they’re Muslims," Makhtaria says. "That’s why they want a homegrown deterrence—because Iran doesn’t have any friends in the region." Arab states, meanwhile, view Iran’s intentions in the Middle East with suspicion, particularly its interference in southern Iraq. They are concerned the United States and Iran are purposely keeping the Arabs sidelined on Iraqi negotiations.

Yet Iran and its Arab neighbors do have areas of mutual interest. Iran recently pledged, as did Qatar, to give $50 million to the Palestinians’ newly elected but cash-strapped Hamas government. Iranians and Arab leaders are both suspicious of Israel’s nuclear program. And while the Iranians and Arabs may disagree on what a future government in Iraq should resemble, neither wants to see the country slide into civil war. Nor do they want Washington pushing its pro-democracy agenda in a region run mostly by unelected monarchs or mullahs.

What concerns do Arab leaders have with a nuclear-armed Iran?

The issues vary country to country, experts say. Among them:

  • Spreading conflict. The biggest concern among Arab leaders is that a military conflict pitting either Israel or the United States against Iran could spiral outward, threaten their own grip on power, or disrupt energy markets. "They would be caught in the crossfire, facing enormous pressure from the U.S. to support measures against Iran," wrote Khalid Hroub, director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project at Cambridge University, in the Daily Star.
  • Rising Shiite influence. Recently expressed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, there are growing concerns among Arab leaders of Iran’s influence over the Arab world’s Shiite minority populations, particularly those living in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. "Most of the Shiites [in this region] are loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in," Mubarak said. His comments prompted rebuttal letters from Shiite leaders in Lebanon and Iraq. "Iran as a regional hegemon would be able to have its way and defend Shiite minorities much more," says Vali Nasr, CFR adjunct fellow for Middle Eastern Studies. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, a Sunni Arab, made headlines two years ago with his warning of a "Shiite crescent" stretching from Beirut to Baghdad. But "just because these Arabs are Shiites doesn’t mean they like Iranian Shiites," Makhtaria says. "They look at them as Persians, and Persians look at them as Arabs."
  • Iranian hegemony. Another concern of some Arab leaders is that a nuclear program might embolden Iran to pursue a more assertive foreign policy in the region. "With or without nuclear weapons, Arabs are not happy with a rising Iran because it changes the region’s balance of power that’s been in place for the past two decades," Nasr says. "[A nuclear Iran] is not an immediate military threat but it confirms its regional supremacy and that is a political, economic, and cultural threat [to Arabs]."
  • Nuclear safety issues. Some analysts from the Gulf countries point to the threat posed by a Chernobyl-like nuclear meltdown at Iran’s Bushehr reactor, built by Russians with what some critics say is outdated, accident-prone equipment. Iranian leaders respond that Bushehr, unlike Israel’s Dimona reactor, is located on firm soil near no fault lines and follows international safety standards.
  • Economic threats. Some of the more cash-strapped Arab states have economic concerns, particularly if new sanctions are imposed on Iran. Syria depends on Iran for trade and cheap energy. Billions of dollars of cash—much of it on the black market—flow between Dubai and Iran, Nasr says. And the threat of sanctions or a military strike might disrupt Arab states’ energy markets.

Is there any Arab support of Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

Yes. As a whole, Arabs outside the Gulf are not as anti-Iranian as their governments, experts say. "There are radical Islamists, including Hezbollah and Hamas, who very much welcome a more assertive Iran, at least in the short run," says Abbas Milani, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Syria is openly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program, while some Arabs say Iran’s nuclear program would provide a counterbalance to Israel’s covert program. Many accuse the United States of applying a double standard by denouncing Iran’s nuclear program but turning a blind eye to Israel’s. Others do not believe the Iranians are pursuing nuclear technology for offensive purposes, but even if they were, that such a program would not pose a direct military threat to the Arab world. After all, as experts say, Iran has not attacked another country in over two hundred years.

Would Arab leaders support a U.S. strike to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities?

Experts say such a move would receive private but not public support. "No country in the Arab world will shed any tears over Tehran’s spilled nuclear facilities," writes Claude Salhani, a political analyst with United Press International. But Arab leaders are in a delicate spot because they cannot be seen as overtly supporting a U.S. military campaign. "It would be political suicide for them, especially given America’s current unpopularity in the region," Makhtaria says. Instead, Nasr says, they must continue "to oppose the rise of a nuclear Iran but not do so in an overtly provocative way."

What is the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf?

About 2,000 U.S. troops, most of them Marines, are stationed on amphibious vessels in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. The United States runs air operations out of Qatar and stations around 400 U.S. personnel there. Many of the Arab states in the region have signed bilateral military, defense, and cooperation agreements with the United States to keep American warships permanently in the Gulf. "The de facto military power [there] is the United States," Nasr says. A major concern for these states is that the U.S. military may decide to pull out entirely, leaving these states vulnerable to a rising Iran.

Could a rising Iran provoke a nuclear-arms race among Arab states?

It’s possible, experts say. If Iran’s nuclear program were left unchecked, this might encourage its Arab neighbors either to seek nuclear capabilities of their own or to import nuclear technologies. Milani says Egypt, unlike Saudi Arabia, does not have the financial wherewithal to pursue a nuclear program. Turkey, he adds, may also choose to pursue the nuclear option, given escalating tensions between Ankara and Tehran over Iran’s ethnic Turks. Charles Ferguson, a CFR science and technology fellow, says a "lukewarm arms race" in the Middle East is possible, but adds it would take Iran—or any state in the region for that matter—decades to match Israel’s estimated 150-200 nuclear warheads. Instead, Ferguson predicts that, in response to a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran, some Arab states might "try to use the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a cover to acquire at least the capability to break out into nuclear weapons development." Repeated efforts to create a nuclear-free Middle East, including Israel, have failed to get off the ground.

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