Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Iranian Nukes: Neighbors Nervous

Amir Taheri, The New York Post:
BETTER late than never! This is the thought that comes to mind after studying the communique issued by the leaders of the Arab states of the Gulf at the end of their extraordinary summit in Riyadh last weekend.

The summit was called to establish a common Arab position in the crisis over Iran's controversial nuclear program. The summit did not do away completely with diplomatic double-talk - but it nevertheless highlighted Arab concerns about the Iranian program on grounds both of safety and security.

"We appreciate Iran's efforts to reassure the region over its program," United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan told reporters after the summit. "But for the sake of stability and to avoid any environmental disaster, there needs to be more Iranian guarantees, and we are trying to ensure this." READ MORE

The concern expressed by the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman - is not hard to justify. Apart from Saudi Arabia, the bulk of the population of those states is concentrated along the coast - just opposite Iran's nuclear power station on the Bushehr Peninsula. Since the peninsula is known as part of the most active earthquake zone on earth, a nuclear center there is not exactly reassuring. Worse still, Iran plans to build at least seven more such plants, also on the coast or close to the Gulf, in the next decade.

It is also not surprising that the GCC states would want to know what happens to the nuclear waste produced in those plants and to the water used for cooling them. The Islamic Republic answer on those issues consists of a single-page statement of 677 words designed to obfuscate rather than clarify. Iran has also declined to allow the GCC to visit the sites concerned, to interview the scientists involved and to commission a series of tests by neutral and mutually accepted experts.

"We hope this crisis will be brought to an end through peaceful dialogue and [Iran] cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)," GCC Secretary-General Abdul-Rahman al-Attiya said after the Riyadh talks.

The GCC meeting was important for a number of reasons.

First, it sent a strong signal to the people of Iran that their neighbors are worried about a program that has never been explained to them and never even properly debated in the Islamic Consultative Assembly.

The official media in Tehran claim that virtually the whole world is happy, even jubilant, about Iran becoming a nuclear power, the few exceptions being the United States and Britain plus a few "ill-intentioned individuals and groups." Foreign leaders are quoted out of context to create the impression that the whole world sees the Islamic Republic as a plucky little David standing up against the American Goliath.

For example, the Tehran media have been quoting Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan as saying that he recognizes Iran's right to use nuclear power to generate electricity. But they leave out the part of his statement in which he calls on Iran to satisfy the demands of the IAEA.

Secondly, the GCC initiative should encourage Iran's other neighbors to also speak out, and by doing so encourage those inside Iran who are asking for more transparency regarding the issue and, more importantly, an open and serious debate on he whole issue.

Finally, the GCC position shows that, contrary to what Tehran says, this is not a quarrel between the Islamic Republic and the United States. The destruction of a nuclear power plant in Bushehr in an earthquake wouldn't directly affect America. But it could make parts of the Gulf region uninhabitable for centuries.

And, if and when Iran becomes a nuclear-armed state, it would need decades to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles to reach America with a direct nuclear attack - but the threat to Iran's neighbors, whether of bullying or direct use of the weapons, would be immediate.

The GCC leaders also take into account the risks involved in this crisis regardless of its future course. If the U.N. Security Council ends up by imposing sanctions on Tehran, the countries likely to feel the impact almost immediately are those of the GCC. If military action is taken against Iran, the GCC nations again would suffer the real and metaphorical shrapnel effects.

The GCC leaders were also wise to reject recent feelers put to them, especially by Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of the Islamic Republic, for a possible mediation with the United States. Since this is not a bilateral Irano-American problem, any mediation by the GCC, or anyone else, would have been misplaced, to say the least.

During his election campaign last summer, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters that he couldn't take the GCC nation seriously because they were "petrol stations, not nation-states." Paradoxically, it is still the GCC that can help get the Islamic Republic off a hook of its own making.

Last March, at least one GCC state proposed that Tehran announce a moratorium on the controversial aspects of its nuclear program, resume full cooperation with the IAEA, close down its plutonium plant at Arak and accept a series of independent studies of the entire chain of the Iranian program.

Tehran's answer so far has been a dense silence, leading to suspicions that it has something to hide. That "something," whatever it is, makes Iran's neighbors uneasy. The first public statement of that unease has come from the GCC. Now wait for others to indicate their fears about Tehran's apparent decision to provoke a conflict.

Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.