Prior to the emergence of the Iranian nuclear crisis in 2002, Arab states had followed a common policy regarding the nuclear issue. This policy was designed to undermine Israel on the international stage by fostering the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free Zone in the Middle-East. Consequently, the Arab league endorsed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and for years has rejected nuclear proliferation.
This policy has been challenged by Iran. Its acquisition of nuclear weapons would strongly affect the regional balance of power to the detriment of the Arab states and would ensure Iranian strategic hegemony over the region. This shift in the Middle-Eastern balance of power has led several scholars and various experts to express their fears that Egypt and Arab Gulf states would react by breaking their commitment to the NPT. It appears that neither Egypt nor Gulf states intend to launch military nuclear programmes at present. Rather than changing their traditional stance, they have changed their approach to nuclear issues by developing specific policies designed to respond to the Iranian project without violating the international rules.
The possession of nuclear weapons could become a major asset in the regional rivalry between Arab states and Iran. For decades Arab-Iranian relations have been antagonistic for strategic and ideological reasons. Firstly, this rivalry is based upon the strategic interests shared by Arab Gulf states and Iran in the Persian Gulf, particularly the control and transit of hydrocarbons. Furthermore, while Egypt now has diplomatic relations Israel, Iran has replaced it as Israel’s major opponent, notably through its support to Hezbollah and Hamas. Finally, Iran and its Islamic revolution are competing with Wahhabism, the religious doctrine spread out of the Muslim world by Saudi Arabia as a tool of power. This is a vital issue for the internal affairs of Arab Gulf states because of the important Shiite minorities in their territories.
Arab states wish to avoid the destabilising effects of Iran confrontation with the international community as Iran is quite popular in many countries in the region. The has led these nations to only feebly criticised the Iranian nuclear programme. Even so, several policies have been implemented, but they are scattered. One of the main responses has been the enhancement of military conventional capacities by Gulf states. Their armament purchase has regularly increased over the decade. Moreover, Arab countries have invested in high standard armaments (e.g. aircraft Eurofighter, Air defence system THAAD) to answer the Iranian threat. These states have also sought to diversify their strategic partnership, trying to get closer to NATO and western powers, especially Turkey and France. If Egyptian military expenditure does not seem to be particularly linked with the Iranian threat, Egypt has implemented a "nuclear diplomacy" based on the right for every state to own nuclear capacities for peaceful purposes. By launching a domestic nuclear programme without breaking its commitment to the NPT, the Egyptian regime wished to strengthen its position in the Middle-East and its prestige in the face of Iran. Egypt probably hoped to be the leader of this policy on the Arab stage. Nevertheless, several Arab states, like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, launched similar programmes, but they did it separately without real dialogue.
One of the main results of Arab attempts to address the Iranian threat has been the end of common policies on the nuclear issue in the League of Arab States framework. Egypt in particular has not succeeded in maintaining its leadership. Nevertheless, it prefigures a new field of rapprochement between the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Egypt. Egyptian should implement its policy of promoting domestic nuclear programmes in conjunction with the GCC to which Egyptian adhesion is currently discussed. This would allow Arab states not to appear timid in front of Iran. Influencing Iranian nuclear policy would entail the combination of unified action on nuclear domestic programmes and more outspoken criticism of and proposal for the settlement of the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Baudouin Long is currently a postgraduate student in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London. He holds a postgraduate degree in International relations and Politics from the Institute for Political Studies in Aix-en-Provence (Sciences-Po Aix).
This piece is a shorter version of the research piece The Impact of Iranian Nuclear Ambition on Nuclear Policies of its Arab Neighbours.
Related Material from Atlantic Community:
- Parag Khanna: A Future Without Borders
- Greg Randolph Lawson: The Golden Age of Proliferation is Here to Stay
- Shazad Ali: Carrots for Pakistan, Sticks for the Gulf States