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’ (



Barhain atop democratic ‘volcano’

By Mustafa Malik

 For the United States, the Bahraini uprising is more worrisome than most others now swirling in the Middle East and North Africa.

America’s stakes in Bahrain was underscored to me this past Jan. 13 by a researcher in Manama, the Bahraini capital. “The Al Khalifa rulers are sitting on a volcano,” said Numan Saleh, who was affiliated with the Bahrain Center for Studies and Research. “When the volcano erupts, would the [U.S. Navy’s] Fifth Fleet remain anchored in Juffairare [near Manama]? Would America and the West take their [Persian Gulf] oil supply for granted?” Little did I know that many of us in America would be asking on these same questions in four short weeks.

The recent Cabinet reshuffle by Bahraini regime and its gift of $2, 650 per family have been pooh-poohed by protesters; they left the monarchy with absolute power. A dialogue with the opposition, called for by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, either. Yet the Obama administration is having a hard time recognizing the reality that Al Khalifa despotism is fast becoming history. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently she hoped that “a national dialogue can produce meaningful measures that respond to the legitimate aspirations of all the people of Bahrain.”

Holy cow! How would American revolutionaries have felt if Friedrich-Wilhelm III, then king of the Prussian Empire, had told them that a dialogue with the British King George III would satisfy their “legitimate aspirations”?

More ominously for the United States and Saudi Arabia, the Shiites are about 15 percent of the Saudi population, living mostly in the kingdom’s eastern Al Hasa region. Al Hasa is soaked with the world’s largest oil fields and used to be part of historic Bahrain. The Shiites in Al Hasa, as elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, are systematically discriminated against by their Sunni government, and many of them nurture fellowship with the repressed Bahrain Shiites at the other end of a 15-mile causeway.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as all other west Asian states except Iran, were created artificially by British, French and local rulers less than a century ago. The citizens of these states are more deeply rooted in their old sectarian and ethnic communities than in state institutions foisted on them overnight from above. Hence the Shiites in Bahrain and the whole Arabian Peninsula feel affinity with the Shiite Iran, forming the so-called “Shiite Crescent.”

Abdul Karim al-Iryani, then Yemeni foreign minister, anticipated today’s Arab upheaval and the American dilemma two decades ago. In October 1991 al-Iryani, a Ph.D. from Yale, told me in the Yemeni capital of Saana that “when the tide of freedom and democracy comes, the current American [Gulf] security structure will become untenable.” The autocrats that were pillars of that structure would be “gone or have their wings clipped.” I asked him what the United States could do then to ensure continued supply of Gulf oil and its strategic ties to the region.

“Flow with the tide,” he replied.

The Yemeni statesman was a decade off on his prediction for the arrival of the democratic tide, but his caveat to America seems to be on target and timely for today’s U.S. policy makers. It’s perilous for the United States to be known by tomorrow’s democratic or populist Arab governments as the nation that tried to save the skin of their repressive autocrats. The administration should embrace the democratic “tide.” It should call on the Bahraini king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, to retire; unless a democratically elected government wishes to keep him as a constitutional monarch.

The United States, too, needs to reassess its pointless confrontation with Iran. It’s clear that America (or Israel) can’t stop Iran’s nuclear program through military strikes, which, on the contrary, would trigger an anti-American conflagration throughout the Middle East. That would perhaps mark the beginning of the end of the U.S. domination of the region and send oil prices through the roof, plunging industrialized societies into deeper recession. Instead, the Obama administration should engage Tehran in a meaningful strategic dialogue with Iran, which would have the best chance of preserving much of American security and economic interests in west Asia.

Mustafa Malik, host of the blog Beyond Freedom,  is a columnist in Washington. He covered the Middle-East as a journalist and conducted field research on U.S.-Arab relations as a senior associate for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.