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    Middle East
     Oct 11, 2012

A nuclear Persian Gulf

This is the 21st article in a special series on oil and the Persian Gulf. For previous articles, please see the foot of the page.

The nuclear issue in the Middle East has focused on Iran's enrichment program, with little attention to Israel's vast nuclear arsenal and on the likelihood of wider nuclear proliferation in the region.

A nuclear Middle East is not only a danger to itself but also to a much wider region and could even be the venue for a nuclear World War III, with catastrophic human losses and the world economy thrown back to the dark ages. Before we get ahead of ourselves, some background on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Israel's position and

Iran's nuclear quest.

One of the two most significant inducements to signatories under the NPT (Iran is a signatory and Israel is not) is the promise of access to peaceful nuclear technology, including enrichment and heavy water reactors. The understanding was that signatories would disclose all their nuclear activities.

Iran failed to disclose all of its activities, and it claims that disclosing its peaceful enrichment activities would have led to the voiding of its rights under the NPT even earlier. The US argues that because of the nature of the regime in Tehran and the failure to disclose all nuclear activities, Iran has lost its right to enrichment.

From a legal standpoint, Iran has not violated the NPT and the nature of the Tehran regime is irrelevant under the NPT. Countries, not governments, have rights and obligations, and these are unaffected by changes in government. Simultaneously under the NPT, signatories could expect the support of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) for safeguards and other assistance in their quest for peaceful reactors. The IAEA's board denied Iran's request for such assistance for its heavy water reactor in Arak on November 23, 2006. The key questions are whether Iran has the legal right to enrich and to develop heavy water reactors? The answer is yes to both.

The other major inducement to signatories of the NPT was that the then existing nuclear powers would reduce and eventually eliminate their own nuclear arsenals. Have the declared nuclear powers, especially the US, fulfilled their end of the bargain under the NPT? The answer is no. They have been both slow to reduce their arsenal or have increased it, the US is developing new classes of nuclear weapons and other countries continue to test their nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have acquired nuclear weapons outside of the NPT. Both countries are now given support by the international community. The US has even embraced India's nuclear weapons program, signing a nuclear cooperation and development program that allows India to accelerate its weapons program. At the same time, Israel is estimated to have at least 200 nuclear warheads and a multifaceted delivery system (plane, missile and submarine) and openly threatens Iran with military action.

Western, and especially US, double standards have not escaped Iran's or anybody else's notice.

Even more importantly, after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, the United Nations and the West took no serious diplomatic action against Iraqi aggression, thereby failing to uphold the international rule of law. During the course of this bloody eight-year war, Saddam used US and European-supplied biological and chemical weapons to kill and maim Iranians in the thousands, while the West embargoed the sales of even conventional weapons to Iran and supplied Iraq with all its needs, including satellite intelligence.
The result was that more than 500,000 Iranians died and even more were injured, with many permanently disabled by foreign supplied weapons of mass destruction. Average Iranians, not just the mullahs, painfully learned what it was to be vulnerable to external aggression. The UN and international agreements did not provide the needed assurance and peace of mind for Iranians. The undermining of the international rule of law has consequences, although not always immediate.

As a result, Iran and Iranians (and not just those who oppose the regime) feel more insecure, victimized and bullied than at any time in recent memory. For these reasons, the nuclear enrichment program is widely popular in Iran because an integrated nuclear power (not weapons) program may be the only way they can get the security they seek as it affords them the ability to develop a deterrent in case of imminent threat. To our mind, Iran will not relinquish its capability and capacity to enrich uranium to the 20% level; and it may be even reluctant to handover its stock of 20%, or even 5%, enriched uranium. To believe otherwise is not realistic.

While nuclear proliferation is to be avoided at all cost, the dangers of its proliferation in the Middle East is even more problematic given the multitude of simmering conflicts in the region and the importance of oil to the global economy (the focus of next week's article).

If Iran's right to enrichment were fully recognized by the West, China and Russia, and Iran kept its stockpiles of 5% and 20% enriched uranium, then it is highly likely that some countries in the region would also follow suit, including possibly Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia (for itself or as a joint venture with the other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council - or GCC); and Saudi Arabia already has medium-range Chinese missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Given the GCC's vast oil and financial wealth and the fact that everything is available at a price, their acquisition of such capabilities would be more or less immediate.

Such developments would, at least for some time, spike oil prices to levels never seen before. The markets would become jittery for fear of accidental or intentional contamination of oil fields that could lead a rush to build vast storage facilities, spiking the demand for oil and safe storage facilities. The price spike would be much more significant, of longer term and have the potential of leading to global economic disaster never seen before if Iran and other countries in the region acquired nuclear warheads and the needed delivery vehicle. Even a whiff of such a possibility would spike oil prices to unprecedented levels.

What can be done to lower the temperature and forestall potential human and economic catastrophes in the region? First, let's not forget some horrible mistakes of the past that must be lessons for the future, mistakes that must not be repeated.

The founding principles of the UN must be applied uniformly, no matter who the aggressor and the victim. The global powers should not flaunt international law (supplying Saddam Hussein with internationally banned chemical and biological weapons) and expect the victim, Iran, not to take steps to defend itself. The US should not reward India, a non-signatory to the NPT, and expect others to forfeit their full options under the NPT. In short, when the powerful flaunt international law as it suits them they cannot then expect countries to believe to trust them and put their faith in the just application of international law.

Given the status quo and all that has happened in recent years in the Middle East, what is (are) the best way(s) forward? The sensible solution is to declare the whole region a nuclear-free zone. This is something that Iran and the Arab countries have all endorsed but Israel has rejected this solution.

Israel's thinking and reluctance is difficult to comprehend. Israel is by far the strongest conventional military power (with the possible exception of Turkey). Israel enjoys the full support of the US and could rely on US support in case of danger to its existence. If Israel were to use a number of its nuclear warheads in the region (with the possible exception of using them on Iran), the fallout might threaten its own existence. But even more importantly, if Israel expands its nuclear arsenal, acquires more and more sophisticated delivery systems and is at odds with the Arab world, then it is only a matter of time before other countries acquire nuclear weaponry.

When and if this happens (as Israel cannot stop the entire Arab world from acquiring nuclear weapons, something that may have escaped their thinking), then Israel, the region and the world will be threatened as never before.

If Israel will not succumb to accepting the region as a nuclear-free zone, then a second-best solution would be to accept Iran's right to peaceful nuclear enrichment with the understanding that Iran will agree to a number of safeguards (including the most intrusive inspections to date) to guarantee, as much as humanly possible, that it will not develop nuclear warheads.

This contract could serve as a model to safeguard the future of non-proliferation and is the only peaceful approach to a resolution of the nuclear standoff with Iran.

NEXT: Oil - the fuel for conflicts and wars with economic fallout far and wide

Previous articles in this series are:
Part 1: Riddle of the sands
Part 2: The sweet and sour of oil
Part 3: The driver of oil prices
Part 4: OPEC in the driving seat
Part 5: The OPEC bogeyman
Part 6: OPEC and the sanctions highway
Part 7: Oil-price shocks lie in wait
Part 8: Whose oil is it anyway?
Part 9: The dark side of oil
Part 10: Institutions matter
Part 11: Oil-rich rulers blind to the future
Part 12: 'Arab Spring' without a bloom
Part 13: Reform - or be kicked out
Part 14: Oil's toxic partner: Guns
Part 15: Islamic tools to the rescue
Part 16: Policy package for turnaround
Part 17: The old colonialism
Part 18: The new colonialism
Part 19: No clash of civilizations
Part 20: Tyrants atop a sea of oil

Hossein Askari is Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.

(Copyright 2012 Hossein Askari)


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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Oct 9, 2012)


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