by Frank Thomas
Middle Eastern states are breaking down in an endless escalation of civil wars where Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq are near collapse. Deeply complex, sectarian conflicts, historically long in the making, have evolved in a region acutely divided along Sunni vs. Shiite lines. The instability and power vacuums created are exploited by military factions and radical jihadists, like ISIS – igniting sectarian wars and threatening most of the Middle East. Ironically, Iran has evolved as one of the most effective regional opponents of ISIS whose original funding came from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
U.S. counterproductive regime change interventions – by military engagement, funding, training insurgency groups, supporting coups d’etat, protecting regional dictatorships – have intensified instability and conflagrations in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Afghanistan. Emerging relatively unscathed in these interventions, the US then leaves the wreckage behind and goes on to the next trouble-spot intervention.
On the positive side, Iran’s recent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) accord – signed with China, France, Russia, UK, US plus Germany (P5+1) – presents a good chance to improve Middle East security and make it a safer place. While not perfect, this nuclear weapon non-proliferation accord sets exacting constraints on Iran’s nuclear programs. But distrust and fear of Iran’s nuclear intentions and striving for regional hegemony are triggering counter-reactions by the Saudis and others.
Nuclear Considerations Complicate Things Even Farther
Arab states and Saudi Arabia now feel pressed to provide existing and new civilian nuclear power plants with a "latent" nuclear weapon capability for clandestine military nuclear programs. All to create a nuclear deterrence and military balancing of power with Iran. As one Middle East authority stated, Iran must know that the Gulf states and US will not allow the JCPOA accord to become a cover for Iran’s own aggression. But tragically this is giving rise to relying on nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantee of existence – which seems counter to strategic logic knowing that ISIS is the Common Enemy.
But the only answer is a credible, workable strategy that contains nuclear weaponry proliferation and reins in the growing sectarian wars in the Middle East. This will require exceptional restraint, judgment and cooperation. More military destruction, human mutilation and slaughter is not the solution. Four years of Western bombs have not stopped the Common Enemy - ISIS.
If Syria falls, ISIS will likely take it over. It has no limits on targets. Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Israel, Europe, and the US will be next. This raises the question, should Assad’s regime and ISIS be removed to restore Middle East stability as some suggest? Of course, Russia, China and Iran would have to agree – a reminder of just how complex the Syrian apocalyptic development is.
Russia militarily supports the amoral dictator, Assad. America bombs ISIS in Syria and wants to get rid of Assad. What is the lesser evil? It’s the dilemma faced at onset of WWIl – do we fight with Stalin (Assad) against Hitler(ISIS)? America did just that back then. The Syrian mayhem is so catastrophic for everyone in the region and the world that that question should be asked.
But Vladimir Putin’s words this week surprisingly hit the nail on the head: "Healthy common sense and responsibility for global and regional safety demand a united effort from the international community against the threat posed by ISIS." What’s critically vital is to spark debate of counter-arguments that force engagement of alternatives to quell the unending Middle East civil wars. (see: "U.S. Policy Towards the Middle East After the Iranian Nuclear Agreement," by Kenneth M. Pollack, 07-05-2015)
Iran's nuclear uranium enrichment program started in the 1980s. A facility in Natanz was built to install 50,000 centrifuges. Under the Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran was legally bound to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about this program but did not do so. In the past, Iran often lied about its nuclear weapons work and was not forthcoming about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. Iran's clandestine centrifuge program at Natanz was exposed in 2002.
This started Arab states and Saudis on a path of soliciting bids from the US and France for nuclear power facilities. Gulf states could live with Israel's concealed nuclear weapon capability, but they were fearful of nuclear weapons coming into Iran's hands and disturbing the balance of power. Since 2002, Washington and Paris have been providing nuclear power plant infrastructure know how and aid to Arab states and the Saudis. Nuclear power technical assistance has also been sought from China and Russia and provided. Both countries are seeking strategic footholds to counter US hegemony in the Middle East. Russia helped Iran complete its Bushehr nuclear power plant.
Increasing Arab investments in nuclear power are telling Iran that Arab states and the Saudis can also convert civilian nuclear power technology to nuclear weapons – thereby holding Iran at risk should it be caught enriching uranium in violation of the JCPOA accord. The accord reduces Iran's installed centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000. For 15 years, it limits uranium enrichment to 3.67% and ceases enrichment at the Fordow facility. Iran has agreed to make changes at several facilities to prevent them from being used to create nuclear weapons.
But are there still some weak conditions in the accord? Yes. These include:
Iran can continue running nuclear centrifuges at an underground site once suspected of housing illicit activities.
Iran says inspectors will be removed if they try to enter sites Iran considers "sensitive".
Iran is permitted to keep many of its controversial military sites closed to inspections.
Iran can delay inspections of disputed facilities for at least 24 hours which gives time to sanitize the site.
Iran can only use IR-1 centrifuges but has begun using IR-8 centrifuges that enrich uranium 20 times faster than IR-1 centrifuges.
Can Iran still cheat?
Yes. Will it inevitably be detected in time? Yes. Why? Unlike North Korea which China now reports has 20 nuclear warheads – a tough regime of IAEA inspections plus close observations of US and Israel make it highly improbable any cheating by Iran is not spotted in a timely manner. Will the repercussions for cheating be severe? Yes. To avoid (or greatly limit) a regional nuclear arms race, is it worth the risk to test whether Iran will abide by the JCPOA accord, restricting Iranians to civilian nuclear power and conventional weapons capabilities? Yes.
Why is it that Iran is inciting a major counteraction of Arab civilian nuclear power proliferation when Israel - the arch enemy of Arab states in two major wars – started developing nuclear weapons and an atomic bomb 40 years ago and has since had an active military posture without inciting a counteraction?
Arab states are now accelerating investments in nuclear power plants and modern, longer range ballistic missiles to compensate for their conventional military shortcomings and to deter Iran from violating the JCPOA accord. The upsurge of Arab interest in nuclear power plants creates a latent nuclear weapon capability. The spread of plutonium produced by civilian nuclear power reactors produces latent nuclear weapon proliferation – the ability to technically transition quickly to deliverable nuclear weapons. The more nuclear power plants and plutonium produced, the more latent nuclear weapon proliferation is produced. The dangerous downside is undermining regional non-nuclear proliferation and enhancing the risk of small nuclear wars and/or nuclear terrorism.
So again, why is Iran's civilian nuclear power program seen as a more acute future threat than Israel's nuclear weapons program and atomic bomb capability?
A key reason is that Israel's nuclear weapon capability was initially seen and is still seen as being a deterrent strategy and for defense only, not for aggressive expansion of its territory. So the bombing of Iran’s nuclear power facilities, the ongoing occupation of West Bank, the wars of 2008-09 and 2012, the Gaza slaughter, the buying of US Arrow ballistic missiles, Iron Dome anti-rocket systems and possibly cruise missile submarines all qualify as self-defense for Israel. On the other hand, Gulf States and Saudis automatically see the JCPOA accord as inherently dangerous and opens the door for Iranian territorial aggression and hegemony in the region.
Iran's support of Shiite factions in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq spawns Saudi Arabia’s overstated fears of being permanently encircled by Iran – that Iran is on plan to 'take over' Yemen on Saudis' southern border and Iraq on Saudis' northern border. But, as most experts agree, Iran is not controlling events in the region. It is mostly reacting to them. Like the US, it is filling trouble spot holes but not with the intention of taking over territory.
Nevertheless, Arab states and especially Saudi Arabia view Iran as a potential military and nuclear weapons aggressor despite following deterrents:
recent non-proliferation accord prohibiting Iran (under strict protocols and inspections) from undertaking uranium enrichment or reprocessing technology
added security measure of Arab states and Saudi Arabia to match the dual-use feature of Iran's civilian nuclear power capability that could serve as an intermediate step to nuclear weapons capability in the distant future.
Can Saudi Arabia Be a Deterrent to Iran?
As noted, the civilian nuclear power push by Iran's Arab neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, is a security hedge to provide a means for nuclear weapons if Iran does not cease its uranium enrichment activities – thus a latent nuclear weapons deterrent. This hedge helps counterbalance Iran's regional influence and any aggressive attempts at extended territorial reach. Iran will realize it cannot achieve a unique civilian nuclear power status – that produces latent nuclear weapon capability – without being regionally challenged.
Given these countervailing forces, why would Iran be so recklessly stupid as to invite unfathomable military destructive retaliation if caught covertly developing nuclear weaponry or an atomic bomb capability?
The JCPOA accord prohibits uranium enrichment by Iran for 15 years. If no such 'cap and constrain' deal had been reached, Iran might indeed be emboldened to risk developing a nuclear weaponry deterrent.
Despite the "death to Americans" propaganda by Iran's radical right groups, Iran's 'must-priorities' now are to renew its infrastructure and spur broad economic growth. But resurgent Iranian competition, wealth and economic progress, supported by vast oil reserves, add to fears of Iran's increasing regional hegemony – bolstering Gulf States and the Saudis to match Iran's latent nuclear capability, thereby bolstering their own political and economic influence in the region.
Arabs states and the Saudis are the world’s largest importers of armaments. University nuclear science and engineering programs are being offered for talented people to run nuclear reactors and keep pace with Iran. Gulf states are relying on France, US, China, Russia, among others for technical assistance to install their civilian nuclear power facilities and make them operational. As stated, the technical competence subsequently acquired makes it possible to redirect nuclear power technology to the military – should that for security reasons become a necessity.
Nuclear plant equipment and weapon sales are commercially booming, profitable businesses. American, French and other foreign firms have been selling their nuclear power wares for billions of dollars annually to Middle Eastern states for years. The West, notably the US, has been aggressive in selling high performance aircraft that can be adapted to carry nuclear warheads. The Pentagon has just completed a $1 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia.
China and Russia are capable of offering modern ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. Russia, like Iran, is strengthening its military presence in Syria. This might lead to setting up missile defense systems against invading Western aircraft missions. Will Russia or China be lured to break international restrictions and provide cruise missiles with nuclear warheads if Arab states and Saudi Arabia show interest?
US regime change policies and Western weapon inflows have exacerbated the falling apart process in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt, not to mention Afghanistan. This strategy has invariably backfired and facilitated the rise of ISIS. The Middle East destructive violence epidemic has forced 11 million Syrians to flee their homes, over 4 million of whom have fled their country, escaping to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and in huge waves to Europe. Refugees are not welcomed nor admitted into Saudi Arabia and Qatar – the very countries originally funding ISIS's birth, but now know the world monster they have helped create.
Upgraded military weapon flows and contiguous civil wars are bringing the Gulf States closer to seeing nuclear weapons as the ultimate security guarantee of their existence – Israel’s long-held position.
But plowing ever more sophisticated military weaponry into the Middle East chaos, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, risks precipitating a human Holocaust of calamitous global dimensions. Einstein warned, “I know not with what weapons WWIII will be fought, but WWIV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Hopefully, the potential for a subtle, slow wave of nuclear weapons proliferation and a widening arms race can be contained. The US, China and India acknowledge how dependent they are on Middle East stability to ensure the free flow of oil. Amazingly, good things could happen if these and other great powers, e.g. Germany, UK and Gulf state producers came together to secure regional stability by other alternatives than 'scorched earth' military bombing missions mainly exterminating innocent families and children.
Following are words from a speech made before the Middle East Policy Council: “Responding to Failure: Reorganizing U.S. Policies in the Middle East,” by former Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.), March 10, 2015.
"The results of our efforts to coerce political change in the Middle East are not just failures but catastrophic failures. Our policies have nowhere produced democracy. They have instead contrived the destabilization of societies, the kindling of religious warfare, and the installation of dictatorships contemptuous of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.
Frankly, we have done a lot better at selling things, including armaments, to the region than we have at transplanting the ideals of the Atlantic Enlightenment there. The region’s autocrats cooperate with us to secure our protection, and they get it. When they are nonetheless overthrown, the result is not a democracy or rule of law but a socio-political collapse and the emergence of a Hobbesian state of nature in which religious and ethnic communities, families, and individuals are able to feel safe only when they are armed and have the drop on each other. When we have engineered or attempted to engineer regime change, violent politics, partition, and ethno-religious cleansing have everywhere succeeded unjust but tranquil order. One result of our bungled interventions in Iraq and Syria is the rise of Daesh (ISIS). This is yet another illustration that, in our efforts to do good in the Middle East, we have violated the principle that one should first do no harm.
Americans used to believe that we could best lead by example. We and those in the Middle East seeking nonviolent change would all be better off if America returned to that tradition and forswore ideologically motivated hectoring and intervention. No one willingly follows a wagging finger. Despite our unparalleled ability to use force against foreigners, the best way to inspire them to emulate us remains showing them that we have our act together. At the moment, we do not.
In the end, to cure the dysfunction in our policies toward the Middle East, it comes down to this. We must cure the dysfunction and venality of our politics. If we cannot, we have no business trying to use an 8,000-mile-long screwdriver to fix things one-third of the way around the world. That doesn’t work well under the best of circumstances. But when the country wielding the screwdriver has very little idea what it’s doing, it really screws things up."