Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

Containing a Nuclear Iran

January 19, 2010

Last Friday, published an op-ed piece by Michael Singh in which he discusses the implications of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.  Mr. Singh makes the following arguments:

1. There is no possibility of a rapprochement between the US and Iran similar to the one President Richard Nixon achieved when he went to China in the early 1970s.

2. Iranian leaders might use nuclear weapons because their rationality is open to question.

3. There is a significant chance that Iran would give atomic bombs to terrorist allies like Hezbollah or Hamas.

4. Iran becoming a nuclear power would fundamentally change the security situation in the Middle East.

5. Arab states would respond to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by building their own.

6. The US could not contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

It appears that Mr. Singh is correct in asserting that a major diplomatic breakthrough between the US and the Islamic Republic is unlikely at the present time.  Hardliners in Tehran remain vehemently anti-American and they continue to view the US, which has surrounded their country with its military forces and expressed sympathy for Iranian dissidents who are calling for democratic reforms, as a threat to their regime.  Moreover, they face no strategic threat from a third party that would compel them to seek an alliance with the US for counterbalancing purposes.

Mr. Singh’s suggestion that Iran might launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel or other nations is absurd.  He observes that the certainty of massive retaliation would probably dissuade them from doing so, but he says that the possibility should not be discounted because Iranian leaders might be irrational.  Although some political elites in Iran have railed against Israel and leveled threats against it, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.  The West should not react hysterically to their rhetoric; after all, Nikita Khrushchev said his country would “bury” the US, but neither he nor other Soviet leaders intended to attack the US with nuclear weapons unless they were attacked first.

A similar counterargument can be used to discredit his warnings that Iran might give the Bomb to terrorist groups.  If groups like Hezbollah or Hamas detonated a nuclear device in Israel, Israeli policymakers would assume that Iran was behind the assault and they would respond by destroying Tehran and other sites with their atomic arsenal.  Once again, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.

Whether Iran “going nuclear” would fundamentally change the security situation in the region is highly questionable.  Mr. Singh says that Iran would act more aggressively and give more weapons to militant groups, but they are already doing that in Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Iraq, and they do not need nuclear weapons to do such things without suffering serious consequences.  Arab states like Egyt and Saudi Arabia would certainly be very concerned about their Persian rivals having the Bomb, but they would not necessarily create their own arsenals if the US extended a nuclear umbrella over them; America promised to protect Japan and Germany from their nuclear-armed adversaries and successfully prevented proliferation in those two countries. 

They idea that Iran could no longer be contained if it joins the nuclear club is unfounded.  The US has the capability to thwart a conventional attack against is allies in the region and prevent Iranian naval forces from closing the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time.   Nuclear deterrence still works for reasons mentioned above, and Iran would not have a greater ability to aid terrorist groups because atomic bombs are not the type of weapons that a state would want to pass on to extremists.  Despite what Mr. Singh claims, America and its partners could still contain a nuclear Iran and protect their interests much like they contained Russia during the Cold War.

A US Defense Umbrella in the Middle East

July 23, 2009

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that the US would extend what is often referred to as a “defense umbrella” or a “nuclear umbrella” over the Middle East if Iran developed nuclear weapons.  This strategic concept entails assuring other countries that the US would retaliate militarily if a hostile nation attacked them with atomic bombs.  The purpose of the policy is to deter other powers from attacking or coercing US allies and to dissuade those allies from developing nuclear weapons of their own, thereby minimizing potentially destabilizing weapons proliferation .  Since the beginning of the Cold War, America has extended its nuclear umbrella over parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America.

During a town hall meeting in Bangkok, Clinton argued that Iran should not pursue nuclear weapons, which Western officials believe the Islamic Republic is doing, by saying “We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment, that if the US extends a defense umbrella over the region…it’s unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon.”

Another important American objective is to reassure US allies in the region, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular, and to convince them that they do not need to acquire the Bomb to protect themselves from Iranian aggression.  Many Arab states, which are predominantly Sunni Muslim, perceive Iran, which is predominantly Shiite Muslim, as a rival and a security threat, which is why they might be inclined to counter Iran’s nuclear developments with their own without a security guarantee from the US.

The Obama administration’s umbrella extension policy is unlikely to deter Iran from developing an atomic arsenal, which Iranian leaders apparently believe to be an important strategic asset and a way to deter the US from attacking their country in the future.  However, the strategy might be effective when it comes to limiting nuclear weapons proliferation in the region if history is any indicator.  Thus far, America has dissuaded major powers like Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy and new NATO members in Eastern Europe from pursing such weapons, and there is no apparent reason why nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia would not make similar decisions.

The State of Political Islam

July 15, 2009

Below are links to two contrasting articles about the state of political Islam.  The first is David Ignatius’ piece titled “This is for Real,” which was published in the Washington Post (Jun. 19, 2009).

 The second is Nate Field’s piece titled “The End of Political Islam?,” which was published  in World Politics Review (Jul. 15, 2009).

Traces of Uranium Found in Egypt

May 7, 2009

The International Atomic Energy Agency found traces of highly enriched uranium at a nuclear research site in Egypt, according to a report released this week .  The IAEA, which is investigating the matter, did not say if the uranium had been enriched enough to be used in an atomic weapon.  The Egyptian government said that the uranium could have been inadvertently brought into the country by contaminated radioisotope transport containers that were hauling materials to be used in medicine and agriculture.

The uranium finding raises concerns that Egypt might try to develop nuclear weapons if Iran does so.  Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Cairo to reassure America’s Arab ally of US support as the Obama administration tries to improve relations with Iran, a nation that Western intelligence believe is trying to acquire the Bomb.  Egypt is widely concerned to be a barometer for attitudes in the Arab world, and some worry that if Egypt tries to “go nuclear” then other states in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, might follow suit and thereby undermine attempts to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Gates Meets with Arab Allies

May 6, 2009

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.