Fundamentally Freund: The price of Washington's obsession with the Palestinians

Not only is Iran on the brink of having atomic weapons, but now the entire Arab Mideast is going down the nuclear path.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
While the West fiddles, the Middle East threatens to burn. Recent months have seen a renewed surge in American efforts to jump-start the political process between Israel and the Palestinians, as a stream of high-level officials have made their way to the region. We've had visits by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice looks set to be upgraded to "platinum" in whatever frequent flyer program she takes part in. The Secretary of State has already been to Israel twice this year, and it's only March. Of course, these labors have thus far failed to achieve anything, other than to send a message to the Palestinians that they can continue to use violence against the Jewish state while hoping to wring out still more concessions at the negotiating table. But there is a much deeper, and even greater, cost involved in all the American time and energy that are being expended on cajoling the recalcitrant Palestinian leadership. For just as there are a finite number of hours in the day, so too there are a finite number of issues that senior US diplomats can grapple with. And the more time they spend banging their heads against the Palestinian wall, the less they have to devote to a far more pressing matter, one which threatens to shake the foundations of the entire region - the growing danger of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Indeed, by focusing so incessantly on the Palestinian issue, American officials seem to have dropped the ball on containing Iran's drive toward nuclear supremacy, and this is having far-reaching consequences. Make no mistake. The West's failure to shut down Iran's nuclear program has sent shudders throughout the neighborhood, prompting Arab states from the Persian Gulf to North Africa to begin to seek ways of maintaining strategic parity. Whether you are a Bahraini living in Teheran's shadow, or a Moroccan policymaker in Rabat, the very thought of the ayatollahs with their fingers on the trigger is nothing less than a nightmare scenario. THE ARAB leadership knows full well that an atomic Iran would transform the strategic dynamic in the region, further boosting radical Shi'ite fundamentalism and revolutionary triumphalism. It would give Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unprecedented leverage with which to threaten the entire Middle East. Moreover, if Iran does become a nuclear power, it will compel the Arab states to adopt even more extreme anti-Israel and anti-Western positions, as they seek to placate the ayatollahs. Fearful that America and the West do not have the will to stop Iran, the Arab states, as expected, are now embarking on nuclear programs of their own. Several have already announced plans to build nuclear power plants, and others will undoubtedly do so as well out of fear of being left behind. Take, for example, Egypt, whose president, Hosni Mubarak is in Moscow this week, where he is expected to sign a bilateral deal that would pave the way for Russia to construct nuclear reactors for Cairo. The Egyptian government is currently facing violent unrest at home, as they can not afford to provide enough subsidized bread to feed the poor. But that isn't stopping them from proceeding down the costly road to nuclear power out of fear of Iran. Likewise, on Monday, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that it was establishing a government agency, the Nuclear Energy Implementation Organization, to look into developing nuclear assets. And in an interview earlier this month with the Qatari newspaper Al-Sharq, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud boasted of the "eagerness" of various Gulf Arab states, including his own, to make use of nuclear energy. All told, 11 Arab countries have declared an interest in nuclear technology. They are: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, the UAE, Yemen, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt. HOW'S THAT for a threat to the stability of the region? Sadly, though, American officials seem to have been spending more time rifling through mini-bars in Ramallah hotel rooms in between meetings with Palestinians, than in tackling the growing spread of nuclear ambition in the Middle East. Sure, the Arab states all say that their intentions are "peaceful," and that they seek nuclear power only for the sake of generating cheaper electricity. But this excuse is as transparent as it is feeble. We all know from the case of Iran just how easy it is to keep one's nuclear progress, and intentions, under wraps. After all, Teheran's nuclear program was revealed in 2002 only after an Iranian exile group held a press conference and disseminated photographs and data regarding the country's covert nuclear installations. It turned out that Iran had been working in secret for 18 years (!!!) on its nuclear program, which it had concealed from the international community and repeatedly lied about its existence. What would stop a tightly-controlled dictatorship such as Riyadh from doing the same? Moreover, there is little reason to believe that oil-rich Arab states awash in petrodollars are truly in need of finding cheaper sources of electricity. It is not too late to stop this regional rush toward nuclear proliferation, which is still in its initial stages. Tackle the Iranian threat head-on, strip them of their nuclear program, and the Arab states' "excuse" to pursue atomic energy fizzles away. But if the Bush administration continues to fritter away its remaining months in office, instead expending precious political and diplomatic capital on the bleak prospects of a Palestinian about-face, it runs the risk of turning this region into a dangerous nuclear powder-keg. So the choice before Washington is really very simple. Keep focusing on the Palestinians if you wish, but then don't be surprised if you wake up one day to discover a nuclear Middle East.