Nuclear knock-on

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The Times – Leading articles: North Korea’s recent nuclear test has forced the world’s attention towards East Asia and the danger of an arms race in the region. That is disturbing enough, but there is the risk of a yet more intensive nuclear drive in the Middle East if Iran becomes a nuclear power. The Times

Leading articles

If Iran acquires the Bomb, its neighbours will inevitably respond

North Korea’s recent nuclear test has forced the world’s attention towards East Asia and the danger of an arms race in the region. That is disturbing enough, but there is the risk of a yet more intensive nuclear drive in the Middle East if Iran becomes a nuclear power. As we report today, four major Arab states — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria — have told the International Atomic Energy Agency of their intention to develop civil nuclear power programmes. Two more, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, are thought to be interested in taking the first steps in that direction. Others, notably Kuwait, could soon follow their neighbours.

These countries are perfectly within their rights to explore this option. It does not necessarily mean that they have an express intention of moving from a peaceful nuclear industry to obtaining material that may have a military purpose. There are many nations that have built nuclear power stations with the aim of broadening their supplies of energy and with no malign plans whatsoever. That so many Arab states have decided almost simultaneously to adopt this course, even though a number of them have oil reserves that will last for decades, appears more than a coincidence. It suggests, at a minimum, the desire for an insurance policy against Iran.

That aspiration is quite understand- able. The Iranian regime may insist that its nuclear intentions are entirely honourable, while issuing provocative rhetoric in the direction of Israel. Yet the countries that know Iran best, its regional neighbours, are suspicious of its true intentions.

They believe that the Iranian regime is determined to establish itself as a regional superpower and to press the claims of the minority Shia branch to exercise leadership over the Islamic world. They conclude, correctly, that a nuclear Iran would be more aggressive in border disputes and politically assertive inside Opec.

Iran’s behaviour over the past few days will reinforce that impression. A series of short and medium-range missiles have been successfully tested in the Gulf and the Sea of Oman. Tehran has boasted that this exercise confirms its expertise in the mass production of weapons with one military commander calling this capacity “a present to all Muslim nations”.

It is a present that Saudi Arabia and Egypt would plainly prefer not to see unwrapped. Yet if the United Nations Security Council and Russia, in particular, continue to talk about Iran but not to act in any meaningful manner, other Arab states will inevitably seek to protect themselves by taking the early steps towards a nuclear capacity. The European Union appears, finally, to have realised that Iran is not serious about negotiations. Others, alas, have yet to be convinced.

Much of the coverage of this issue in recent years has framed it in terms of Iran versus America. That was always a spurious notion but it should be seen as a ludicrous construct now. It is not the United States whose boundaries and interests would be directly affected by a nuclear Iran, but Arab nations. Americans might, in any case, become weary of their role as a world policeman (which wins them precious little thanks). That would leave a very dangerous void in arguably the most volatile part of the world. It is not too late to prevent a destabilising nuclear arms race in the region, but time is becoming a scarce commodity.

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