Stop the race

If Iran can enrich uranium now and go even farther in the next decade, why can’t other countries in the Middle East?

S-300 air defense system (L) and Iran's Fordow nuclear plant  (photo credit: GOOGLE/REUTERS)
S-300 air defense system (L) and Iran's Fordow nuclear plant
(photo credit: GOOGLE/REUTERS)
Of all the flaws of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, perhaps the most glaring was the danger it would set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Proponents of the nuclear deal, such as former US president Barack Obama, insisted that it would not weaken nonproliferation efforts in the region. But none of them was able to answer a simple question: If Iran can enrich uranium now and go even farther in the next decade, why can’t other countries in the Middle East? What makes Iran so special? This is a country responsible for the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq, a supporter of terrorist organizations in Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip, an aggressor that has vowed to “wipe Israel off the map” and that is now entrenching itself in Syria.
By awarding Iran, instead of punishing it, the nuclear deal encourages Iranian aggression. And Iran’s enemies will not stand idly by while it prepares for nuclear capability.
Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman raised the specter of a nuclear arms race breaking out in the Middle East in a rare interview with a US news outlet. Asked by CBS’s Norah O’Donnell whether Saudi Arabia needs nuclear weapons to counter Iran, Muhammad said that if Iran were to develop nuclear bombs, “we would follow suit immediately.”
The prince also compared Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Hitler. “Many countries around the world and in Europe did not realize how dangerous Hitler was until what happened, happened. I don’t want to see the same events happening the Middle East.”
The full interview is scheduled to air Sunday on 60 Minutes.
It is no secret that the Saudis oppose the nuclear arms deal, at least in its present form. They are particularly rankled by the preferential treatment the deal affords the Iranians.
This came up during negotiations last month between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia for contracts that are worth billions of dollars with US atomic energy companies.
During the negotiations, the Saudis asked why they had to adhere to the restrictions of US Atomic Energy Act Section “123 Agreements,” which allow access to US technologies on condition the Saudis refrain from enriching uranium, while the Iranians are permitted to operate thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium.
And the Saudis are not the only ones questioning Iran’s preferential treatment. The United Arab Emirates entered into a Section 123 agreement with the US in 2009, one of the strictest ever reached. When the Iran deal was finalized, the Emirati ambassador to Washington told Congress his country “no longer felt bound” by provisions preventing the UAE from enriching.
The Trump administration, which has inherited the Iran nuclear deal from Obama, is now faced with a potential nuclear arms race. Preventing one entails addressing the concerns of the Saudis, the Emiratis, and others. Israel happens to share these concerns as well.
There are four main issues, some of them included in the nuclear deal, some not, that need to be addressed: early expiration dates on some nuclear restrictions; lax inspection rules for Iranian military sites; Iran’s development of ballistic missiles; and Iran’s destabilizing activity in countries around the Middle East from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to Yemen, where the Saudis are directly involved.
Germany, France and Britain must be convinced of the need to tighten restrictions on Iran and use the threat of renewed sanctions as a means of deterring its aggressive expansionism.
If the US continues to give Iran preferential treatment with regard to its nuclear activities while demanding strict adherence to nonproliferation from others, the Saudis and Emiratis will turn to Russia and China, countries that have no qualms about providing nuclear know-how for the right price.
Trump’s decision to appoint CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Rex Tillerson’s replacement at the State Department is a positive sign. Pompeo shares Trump’s dislike of the Iran nuclear deal and will be a more effective advocate of revamping it.
Failing to place more restrictions on Iran will only push countries like Saudi Arabia into a nuclear arms race that could have dire consequences.