Gates Meets with Arab Allies

On Monday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to Cairo to reassure Egptian leaders that the US would continue to stand by its Arab allies even while it extends in olive branch to Iran, which Western officials believe is trying to develop nuclear weapons.  He did the same thing in Riyadh on Tuesday. 

Gates said “Any kind of outreach to Iran will not be at the expense of our long-term relationships with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states that have been our partners and friends for decades.”

The US hopes prevent Arab nations from pursuing nuclear weapons if Iran succeeds in building an atomic bomb.  Many Arabs, who are Sunni Muslims, are hostile to Iranians, who are Shiite Muslims.  Arab leaders are concerned abouut Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region, which may compel them to develop their own nuclear deterrent.

Thus, the Obama administration is not only worried that Iran, which has been hostile to the US for the past three decades, will become a nuclear state; it also fears that such a development will spur further nuclear proliferation.  History justifies US concerns in this regard.  The US began the Manhattan Project after learning that Nazi Germany was working along similar lines.  Soviet leaders launched their own crash program when they found out that the US had one.  The Russian acquisition of the Bomb led European countries, such as Britain, to build their own nuclear weapons.  China went down a similar path to deter the US and the Soviet Union from attacking it.  India and Pakistan, bitter rivals, simultaneously developed atomic arsenals; two other nations, Argentina and Brazil, headed in that direction but ultimately abandoned their fledgling programs after reaching an accord.

Israel’s reaction to Iran’s nuclear program is also of great concern.  Some worry that Israel, which already possesses atomic bombs, will launch a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities as it did against Iraq in the 1980s; the consequences of such an assault could be disastrous for the US and the region.  An Israeli leader once said that Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East but it will not be the second, which likely means that Israel will publicly declare that it has an atomic arsenal if a hostile Iran tests a nuclear device; such an announcement might put additional pressure on Arab governments to acquire Bombs. 

Perhaps the Obama administration can persuade Iranian leaders not to develop nuclear weapons.  The next best option is to convince other countries in the region that they do not need such weapons because of American security guarantees.  If the US fails on both counts then a destabilizing nuclear arms race could ensue in an already volatile area of the world.

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