Iran, the Gulf and a nuclear future

Iran, the Gulf and a nuclear future
Analysis: Gulf states have cautioned about the effectiveness of the Iranian nuclear deal, leading analysts to speculate on their next move, says Khaled al-Shayea.
6 min read
07 April, 2015
Iran's nuclear programme has been under the spotlight for the past decade [AFP]

Although Gulf states have not officially made clear their views on the recent Iranian nuclear deal, behind the scenes there is said to be an atmosphere of "concern and dissatisfaction".

Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned that Iran now has the right to store enriched uranium, and will have full enrichment rights in 15 years' time.   

To allay fears, the US secretary of state John Kerry informed Gulf foreign ministers by phone about the details of the plan. He stressed that any agreement secured a guarantee from Iran that it would not be able to build or possess nuclear weapons.

Fears of the nuke

Kerry's assurances are not enough for these regimes.

A source has told al-Araby al-Jadeed that Saudi Arabia, Iran's main regional rival, is considering starting its own nuclear programme.

This should not come as a surprise.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former director of Saudi intelligence, has already made his thoughts clear on the matter. "[Saudi Arabia] will seek to get the same rights that major world powers are giving to Iran… regardless of the outcome of those negotiations, we will want to have the same [rights]," he said.

Indeed, a Saudi civilian programme would be legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it is a signatory.

In 2009, Riyadh announced that it was considering using nuclear power to meet growing energy demands in the kingdom, and reduce its dependence on hydrocarbons.

Two years later, Saudi Arabia announced plans to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years at a cost of more than $80bn. These would generate power for about 20 percent of Saudi Arabia's electricity needs. 

This month, Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum with South Korea to build two reactors over the next four years. 

It went on to add that it would have more than 16 nuclear reactors by 2030 at a total cost of $100bn.

Assurances needed

Abdulaziz Bin Saqr, head of the Gulf Research Centre, told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the Iranian nuclear agreement, in its declared form, does not guarantee the security of the Arab Gulf states in the long term.

He believes that Iran should not have been allowed the capabilities to enrich uranium, as this could lead to a possible weaponisation of the programme in the future.

"According to the declared agreement, Iran has the power to do what it wants because the agreement is about postponing rather than preventing," he said. 

     Iran has the power to do what it wants. The agreement is about postponing rather than preventing.
Abdulaziz Bin Saqr, Gulf Research Centre

"The agreement set a timeframe of 10 to 15 years, during which period the Iranian mentality is supposed to change. After this time expires, Iran will not face any obligations, unlike Iraq which was committed to an open timeframe.

"Iran can resume its activities after this period ends. Besides, the agreement does not prevent Iran from conducting research and the development (of its programme)," he added.

Bin Saqr says that Saudi Arabia's main concern about the agreement is that in principle it "makes it legitimate" for Iran to enrich uranium.

"The UAE signed an agreement that does not allow it to store uranium, whereas Iran was allowed to do so. Its programme will be kept in place. It is true that there will be a process of reduction, conditions, intense inspections, and restrictions. However, the programme remains in place - from the source of mining and enrichment in the reactor, up to when [uranium] is used to make peaceful energy."

He also believes that this agreement only postpones, rather than prevents, Iran "weaponising" its nuclear programme.

So why did the US and other major powers seek an such an agreement?

"[President Barack Obama] wants to end his term in office with an accomplishment he can talk about," Bin Saqr said.

Even now the agreement is not final and can still be rejected by the US Congress, or altered in such a way that it is unpalatable to Tehran.

Nuclear race

Abdul-Khaleq Abdullah, an associate professor of political science at UAE University, said that the ultimate goal of the agreement was only to freeze Iran's nuclear programme for the next 10 years.

"This is possible if Iran complies with the agreement. If it prevents an arms race in the region, and it turns Iran into a moderate power, then the Gulf countries would be the first to welcome it," he said.

Yet concerns remain. "But I think this is unlikely to happen because Iran cannot be trusted to fulfill all its pledges. If Iran, within 10 or 15 years, complies with the agreement then the situation will be different. We hope Iran complies because many things have changed in the region."

Abdullah believes that the Gulf states should develop their own nuclear programmes, "even if this turns the Gulf into a nuclear region".

"The Gulf states should seek to keep up with Iran in terms of what it gained through the latest agreement."

He said it was the Gulf states' right, "to keep up with Iran in terms of developing their enrichment programmes to the allowable levels ... and have the right to benefit from the (expertise of the) other advanced countries."

Abdullah says there is nothing in the NPT that prevents Gulf states from storing uranium for peaceful purposes. The treaty also gives all signatories of the agreement the right to enrich uranium by five percent.

"When the UAE signed the agreement for its nuclear programme, it decided on its own to give up its right to the enrichment of uranium. This is a model that no other country had followed before.

"It was a sovereign UAE decision, to which it showed commitment, finding that that would be better for doing it. This agreement, however, is not binding to others."

A nuclear arms race?

Despite the Iranian deal, one political science professor from Kuwait states his belief that the region will enter a nuclear arms race at some point in the future.

Fahad al-Mikrad said Gulf states had been encouraged to abandon their uranium storage rights due to the volitility of the region. But that would not stop an eventual escalation.

"Unfortunately, we have to enter into a nuclear arms race; this is how the situation will be. There will be an arms nuclear race in the region," he claimed.

Mikrad says that the 15-year timeframe set in the Iranian agreement is enough time for Gulf countries to strengthen their own nuclear power capabilities and "create a strategic balance in the region".

One good sign to come out of the agreement is Obama's invitation to Gulf states to attend the regional summit on the matter, but still he believes a nuclear arms race in inevitable.

"The Gulf states should have a strategy in the upcoming spring conference in the United States, and should protect themselves by themselves, as has been the strategy that brought a balance of power between India and Pakistan." 

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.