Declare Middle East nuke-free

Persian Gulf monarchies are petrified by the anticipated Iran nuclear deal, being negotiated in Geneva. Last week Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates threatened to try to acquire nuclear weapons technology if they didn’t get one of two things from the Iran deal.

One, they wanted the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment program shut down completely. Iran would never agree to that. Secondly, if the program is allowed to continue, albeit at a reduced level, the United States should sign a security pact with them. In practical terms, that would mean insuring the security of their thrones from external and internal threats.  These Arab rulers know that the Iranians have better things to do than lurch into a military adventure. On the other hand, domestic threat to their regimes has heightened since the Arab Spring.

The Obama administration knows that too, and the president recently said so publicly. He said the real security threat facing the Gulf Arab monarchies could come from their disenfranchised and “alienated” public. In recent weeks the administration let the Gulf Arab governments know that while America would be willing to defend their countries against external aggression, it wouldn’t intervene in their domestic feuds and unrest. The message left the Arab royals mopey and grumpy.

The White House had invited all six monarchs of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to meet the president on Wednesday to discuss the Iran deal and their security concerns. Led by the Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, four of the six kings declined the president’s invitation, sending in their surrogates, instead. Obama apparently ignored the snub and made the best of the occasion. He reiterated to his guests America’s “ironclad” commitment to defend their countries against any “external” aggression.

Meanwhile, some American media pundits and others have voiced concern about the possibility of Saudi Arabia following up on its vow to seek the nukes. If it does, the Pakistanis would find themselves in a thorny dilemma. The Saudis underwrote Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with the apparent understanding that Islamabad would supply them with the nuclear technology if they need it. Moreover, the kingdom has been a generous benefactor to Pakistan for decades. In fact, because of the late Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, the current Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is alive today. Then Pakistani military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who had overthrown then Prime Minister Sharif in a 1999 military coup, was bent on killing him. Fahd pressured Musharraf into sparing Sharif’s life and sending him  to exile in Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, it would also be very hard for Islamabad to defy the inevitable American pressure against sharing its nuclear knowhow with the Saudi kingdom. The Sharif government’s – and top Pakistani generals’ – decision to let the Americans kill Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan showed the efficacy of Washington’s clout over Pakistan. (The United States demanded Pakistani cooperation in the U.S. Navy Seals raid on the bin Laden compound after a Pakistani intelligence officer had tipped off the CIA station chief in Islamabad about the Al Qaeda chief’s whereabouts in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.)

All the same, the whole brouhaha about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is a smokescreen around the root cause of the bugaboo: the Israeli nuclear arsenal. Americans would let Israel hold on to its more than 200 sophisticated nukes and then try to keep Arabs and Iranians from pursuing nuclear weapons capability. America’s prodigious exercise to keep Iran from approaching a nuclear “breakout” is meant to deprive the Iranians of a deterrent against Israeli nukes, if they wanted one.

Iranians and Arabs have long been calling on the international community to declare the Middle East a “nuclear-free zone.” That would be the best and most effective nonproliferation program for the region. But Israel and America wouldn’t heed their call because such an arrangement would require Israel to abandon its nuclear weaponry.

It’s about time Americans reviewed their perilous policy on the Israeli nukes to forestall the danger of proliferation in that increasingly unstable region. Washington should get  the U.N. Security Council to designate the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.

  • Mustafa Malik, a columnist in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom’ (http://beyond-freedom.com).