The Middle East is a much safer place if Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons. And I’m not just talking about Israel.
Forget Israel for a moment and you’ll see that the region is far from being united on the Iranian nuclear issue. Don’t believe for a second the hype over the “Muslim bomb.” It has nothing to do with “Muslim” and everything to do with “Arab” and “Persian,” and more to the point, “Sunni” and “Shi’ite”.
Various Arab leaders have made their disdain for Iran clear over the past few years - from Jordan’s King Abdullah’s warning of the “Shi’ite Crescent” to Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak who claimed last year that Shi’ite Muslims citizen of Arab countries were more loyal to Iran than to their home countries.
Ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia – home to a much-maligned Shi’ite minority comprising at least 10 percent of the population – and Egypt have been competing over who can insult Shi’ite Islam more. Iran has hit back hard, naming a street after one of the soldiers who assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. (In Egypt, you can guarantee yourself an interrogation at State Security headquarters by visiting either of two countries: Israel and Iran.)
As far as most Arab leaders are concerned, Iran is the winner in Iraq. That translates into Shi’ite control of a country that for decades was a stalwart of the Sunni triangle of power in the region – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
So beyond the grumbling Arab headlines over U.S. threats to Iran – and of course it would be a disaster if the U.S. actually made good on any military threats against Iran – the Arab world is at a loss over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It’s torn on the one hand between standing up to the U.S. and defending itself against Iran on the other hand, or at least matching Iranian nuclear ambitions.
Ask the tiny Persian Gulf states around Iran how they feel. To begin with, they’d seriously take offense at “Persian” as a prefix for the Gulf. The U.A.E. and Iran have been locked in a dispute for years over islands in the Gulf that both countries claim. Those are the same Gulf emirates and kingdoms that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates exhorted to band together to force Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program. Easy for him to say.
Every now and then, Iranian officials visit those same Gulf emirates, Iran’s much smaller and richer neighbors, and ask them to help Iran stand up to the U.S.. The Iranian officials assure them that Iran doesn’t present a danger to them. Again, that’s easy for Iran to say.
Those tiny Gulf emirates and states remain far from assured, and realize to their dismay that they’re caught between a rock and a hard place – otherwise known as their ally the United States and their neighbor Iran.
And ask the not-so-small Gulf powerhouse and ridiculously-rich-thanks-to-$90-a-barrel-oil Saudi Arabia, and you’ll appreciate the regional proliferation race that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have jumpstarted. Saudi Arabia wants a program and has the money for it. Egypt wants a nuclear program too. Who doesn’t want one?
Let me state clearly here that I’m against all nuclear weapons, including Israel’s. And in a region as volatile as the Middle East, it doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up a few consequent disasters. An Egyptian journalist asked me in Cairo in November whether Egypt should have a nuclear program. I told him all I could think of was Chernobyl. Bird Flu has spread throughout Egypt like that proverbial wildfire and we’re tragically familiar with unnecessary train accidents and various other disasters resulting from our government’s negligence. Who can trust them with nuclear anything?
A nuclear arms race in the region benefits no one except those providing the hardware and the ingredients.
It’s bad enough that the Gulf in particular has become a U.S. arms bazaar. Every year, U.S. officials sell weapons worth millions to countries that have never fought wars. This summer’s $20 billion arms package to Saudi Arabia and its tiny neighbors was but one recent example.
So yes, for the sake of the Middle East, a nuclear-free Iran is better for us all. Standing up to America is not reason enough to start a dangerous proliferation race.
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