On My Mind: Building nuclear bombs amid Arab turmoil

As US, Europe assess, respond to political quakes in key countries, they shouldn't lose sight of repercussions of an atomic breakthrough.

Amano 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Amano 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Muammar Gaddafi’s abandonment of Libya’s nuclear weapons program in 2003 may, in retrospect, be a blessing for the region. However Libya’s tragic saga ends, Gaddafi’s last stand will not involve the first use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Yet the nuclear threat is very much alive elsewhere. Popular uprisings across the Arab world have diverted the attention of policy-makers and media from what until only a few months ago was considered the major security threat – Iran’s nuclear program.
For the fallen Mubarak regime, as well as for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, an Iran with nuclear capability was seen as a strategic threat greater than the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The international community largely concurred, as economic sanctions were imposed by the US, European and other countries, and the UN Security Council adopted four resolutions against Tehran.
Now, Arab governments have shifted their sights to deal with the demands of their own citizens yearning for reform. As Washington and European capitals assess and respond to the political earthquakes in key Arab countries, they should not lose sight of the repercussions of a nuclear breakthrough.
Iran and Syria top the agenda of the International Atomic Energy Agency board meeting in Vienna this week. IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano has already demonstrated – in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Mohamed ElBaradei – real concern about Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the need to press Syria to reveal its nuclear ambitions.
Iran continues to produce uranium “steadily, constantly,” Amano told The Washington Post last month. In other words, despite the increasingly stringent sanctions, the reportedly harmful impact of the Stuxnet worm and the mysterious murders of Iranian nuclear scientists, Tehran is staying the course.
Intelligence agencies may continue to debate (as they have for years) when exactly Iran will cross the nuclear threshold, and when its first atomic weapon will be ready, but there is international consensus that Iran intends to complete its nuclear mission no matter what.
LAST SEPTEMBER, the IAEA called Iran’s refusal to cooperate an “urgent matter.” It said it cannot “confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities” because Tehran has refused to provide information requested, forbidden access to nuclear sites and barred two IAEA inspectors from entering the country.
Syria’s lack of cooperation is similarly urgent. Its secret program came to light after Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor in 2007. The IAEA dispatched an investigative team to Syria the following year. That was the last time President Bashar Assad allowed IAEA inspectors to visit. Meanwhile, Syria has reconstructed the destroyed al-Kibar nuclear site, and has built at least one more.
The defiance of Iran and Syria – both signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which requires cooperation with the IAEA – is enormously frustrating for Amano. As he told The Washington Post, he is determined to be “the guardian of nonproliferation.”
Amano’s goal aligns with US President Barack Obama’s call in 2009 for “a world without nuclear weapons.”
Confronting the obvious proliferation efforts under way in an increasingly unstable, yet economically and strategically vital region is essential to this goal.
Others in Washington have also raised concerns. “If we’re going to keep America and our allies safe, we need to know the status of Syria’s nuclear activities, and Syrians need to know that there will be consequences if they are engaging in illicit nuclear activities,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and cosponsor of a bipartisan congressional letter to Amano urging inspections of Syria’s nuclear program.
Iran, a radical Shi’ite theocracy, and Syria, a Sunni nation ruled by its Alawite minority, may not appear to be natural allies. But both regimes share a penchant for dictatorial, repressive rule, in which the abuse of human rights and the denial of free expression are the norm. Both support Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations. Both love interfering in the affairs of other countries, notably Lebanon, where the Iranian-Syrian alliance with Hezbollah forced a bloodless coup. Both threaten Israel and other US interests. Last month’s visit of Iranian warships to Syria is further evidence of this tightening relationship. If either goes nuclear, changing their views or policies will become even more difficult.
The US should reassert leadership and step up coordinated international efforts to persuade Damascus and Tehran to desist. If either country truly wants a purely civilian nuclear program, then the United Arab Emirates’ deal with Washington may be a model.
Otherwise, whatever direction political changes across the region take, the nuclear threat will continue to hover dangerously.
The writer is director of communications for the American Jewish Committee.