Iran’s Mullahs are no longer the only apparent contenders for a nuclear crown in the Islamic Middle East.
As of December 10th, six more Arab nations declared their intention to gain nuclear energy at the annual meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh. Only the day before, Iran exacerbated tensions throughout the region by announcing that it had already begun “installing 3,000 centrifuges” in the “first step toward industrial production” of “nuclear fuel.” In this context, the GCC’s actions indicate a growing perception that the U.S. is on the verge of retreating from Iraq and may negotiate with Iran in order to achieve this end, as the recent Baker report proposed. Gulf players are now beginning to act to confront the aggression of Iran in the belief that the U.S. never will, signaling even greater division in a region that edges ever closer toward a full-blown nuclear arms race.
While Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, later attempted to assuage anxiety by reasserting the council’s “peaceful purposes” in pursuing nuclear energy, Arab pundits praised the GCC’s nuke statement as a “clear, strong and courageous” response to Iran’s nuclear program and the first show of true strength among the Sunni nations toward Shiite Iran’s growing power. According to journalist Fouad al-Hashem, Sunni nations will no longer stand idly by while Shiite Iran achieves nuclear power; “with the help of [their] allies, [the Sunni nations intend to] balance the power and build [their] own reactors even if [they] don't need them.”
Gulf leaders, of course, were more diplomatic in addressing their concerns about Iran during the summit. Saudi King Abdullah opened the GCC summit with a dire warning that the “region is […] a powder keg waiting for a spark to explode.” We “do not feel threatened by Tehran,” GCC Secretary General Abdulrahman al-Attiyaha added, but we have grave concerns “about Shiite Iran’s growing role in Iraq and its standoff with the West over Tehran's nuclear program.”
The tone of the summit also revealed that the GCC nations – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman – connect Iran’s nuclear aggression with its funding of Shiite violence and terror in Iraq. In fact, a number of reports indicate that the Saudis, who are the most prominent members of the GCC and hosted the summit this year, are already involved in combating Iranian power in Iraq with “Saudi money from private donations […] being used to buy weapons” for Sunni insurgents to combat Shiia and, therefore, Iranian power in Iraq.
So far, Saudi Arabia has denied “major” involvement in the Iraq conflict, but it recently warned that it would back the Sunnis if the U.S. pulls out of Iraq. These warnings are a sign that the Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq has begun to draw surrounding Arab countries into the fighting along sectarian ties. This is why the GCC’s nuclear statement represents a major declaration that the Sunni world will not tolerate Iranian power without nuclear and military proliferation of its own.
Kamal Nawash, president of the Free Muslims Coalition, explained the mounting tensions between Sunni and Shiite power in this way: many of the Arab nations “see that for the first time in history, the tide is changing in [Shiite] favor […] there is real concern about the future. Iran is being pretty aggressive in imposing its will, and it is not even that strong now. So they are thinking, ‘Imagine if it becomes a real regional power – it could be unstoppable.’”
According to Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a new era in Mid-East politics has arisen, one in which America’s “unprecedented influence and freedom to act” in the region over the past twenty years have come to end.  The GCC’s recent declarations reveal that many believe that Haass’ assessment could indeed be true, and that we are entering an era where outside influence might have a lot less impact on the fate of the region. The fact that Israeli officials actually welcomed the GCC’s nuclear intentions reveals that new alliances are forming along Sunni/Shiite lines. Fearing that U.S. action no longer necessarily guarantees a stable Middle East, Israel seeks to buffer the Iranian threat and sees the Sunni nations as potential “allies.” Where once Sunni nations used “code words” to address Iran’s nuke ambitions, now these nations “are coming out of the closet in a big way” in their opposition to Iran, said one Israeli official requesting anonymity.
Iran is also betting that the U.S. will do nothing to curb its bid for dominance in the region. Just last week in a Time Magazine interview, Ahmadinejad’s propaganda was clear: the era of American power is over and a new one is arising. “We believe that the American government cannot do anything against us,” he announced, boastfully concluding the interview.
Notwithstanding these developments, our supposed waning influence in the Arab World is by no means assured. Despite the echoes of failure that reverberate in Washington and in our national media, America still has abundant power to curb nuclear aspirations in the Arab world. Indeed, the Sunni nuclear posture may appear like a defensive, even pragmatic option in regards to the Iranian threat, but we must not forget that America went to war to keep nuclear technology out of the hands of tyrants. To renege on this now would be to accept failure not just in our very involvement in the region, but in Iraq as well.
Not all Mid-East players wish to see the U.S. bow out either. GCC statesmen privately admit that “they could not put up a credible defense [against Iranian power] without the United States.” For this reason, the GCC Sunni nations have been very careful not to commit to a full-fledged nuclear program. All of their declarations are as-yet initial; they are bidding their time, while warning of Iran’s outright efforts to set up a state within a state in Iraq. Their hesitation to commit either to nuclear technology or to explicitly confronting Iran’s hand in Iraq means, moreover, that the U.S. has a small window to act before the race for the bomb becomes too widespread to prevent or contain.
Acting against the GCC nations’ desire for nuclear power, therefore, not only would be premature, but would serve to isolate the U.S. even more from allies – of circumstance – who wish to see America remain in the Middle East. Our ability to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Arab world remains firmly rooted in the choices we will make in Iraq and towards Iranian aggression.
The first step in reaffirming our commitment to Mid-East stability would be in rejecting the Iraq Study Group’s call for immediate negotiations with Iran based so clearly on the recommended retreat from Iraq. As Robert Kagan has recently affirmed, Jim Baker’s assumption that there is no harm in trying to make a deal with Iran is fundamentally and dangerously flawed. There can be a great deal of harm, Kagan profoundly reminds us, “when we go pandering to our adversaries from a position of weakness, begging for their help.”
More importantly, the Iraq Study Group’s call for negotiations means tacitly allowing Iran to have nuclear weapons. Besides touching off a nuclear arms race among unstable Muslim nations in the Arab world, such a development significantly increases the chances of a terrorist group getting a nuclear missile, resulting in terror on an unprecedented scale.
We must also formally recognize that Iran has already declared war on us both in word and in deed. President Ahmadinejad’s announcement last year that a “world without America and Israel is both possible and feasible” to an audience chanting “death to Israel, death to America, death to England” is nothing new, but a logical extension of a war that began in 1979 when Islamists seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran. On these grounds, we must act to reclaim the Iranian issue that we so carelessly conferred to the United Nations. Clearly, the U.S. can gain no ground by relying on such an ineffective body to impose sanctions or propose action against Tehran.
Only with the determination to follow through with our Iraq mission can the U.S. confront Iran, a confrontation that must be backed by a sober threat of a strong military option. We must be clear that we are not seeking Iran’s help – neither in Iraq nor on the nuclear issue; on the contrary, we are responding in a clear and measured way to Iran’s aggression and giving it options on how to avoid military punishment. Such warnings would not be seen as a bluff. The Mullahs have only to reflect on Saddam’s arrogance before the U.S. invasion and the fact that he presently sits in an Iraqi jail cell awaiting execution.
 Richard N. Haass. “The New Middle East.” Foreign Affairs. November/December, 2006.
Click Here to support Frontpagemag.com.