Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s announcement of his visit to Baghdad on March 2 hammered another nail in the coffin of the foreign and defense policies embraced by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors to cope with Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon.
The announcement came one day after Iran was discovered to be processing small amounts of enriched uranium suitable for nuclear warheads with ten advanced IR-1 centrifuges.
Ever since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf governments have exercised huge efforts to prevent Tehran and Baghdad from ever coming together. This week, they were dismayed to discover that this long-held key objective had escaped them.
In their inner councils, Saudi King Abdullah and the Gulf rulers blame the Bush administration for letting this development get away from them, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf experts note that the difficulty runs deeper. Their conservative foreign and defense policies have been looking archaic for some time as well as irrelevant to the upheavals besetting their sensitive world region. Until recently, they could shelter under the American wing for protecting their national security and territorial integrity, while maintaining a steady course between radicals and moderates on the Arab and regional scene.
When faced with threatening elements, they turned to appeasement.
This delicately-balanced strategy has been thrown awry by America’s failure to bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, the US National Intelligence Estimate’s reversal of truisms about the Iranian nuclear threat, and the vanishing American military option for pre-empting a nuclear-armed Iran.
All these fundamental upsets are compounded by the radical changes in the White House augured by the US presidential primaries. The meteoric rise of Barack Obama is making Saudi and Gulf rulers giddy. All they hear is calls for change and the need for dialogue with America’s enemies, i.e. Iran.
Torn between a do-it-yourself bomb and finding a nuclear patron
The traditional rulers of the Gulf region watch in terror as American domestic and foreign policies look like swerving into unknown territory. They see the United States forfeiting its big power strength and abandoning its role as their safety shield. For now, they are scrambling for a global nuclear umbrella that will keep the region safe and defend their territorial integrity.
The king and the emirs also are also plagued at home by the rising strength of Islamic fundamentalists, which too sends them in search of external anchors. The United Arab Emirates was easily persuaded to allow France to set up a naval base in Abu Dhabi, under a pact signed during French president Nicolas Sarkozy‘s tour of the region in January.
He arrived there from Saudi Arabia, where he was invited to address the majlis a-shoura, an unprecedented honor which was not extended to President George W. Bush when he arrived a few hours after Sarkozy’s departure.
Hanging like an ominous cloud over the Gulf is Iran’s nuclear program which forges ahead steadily regardless of international sanctions. The Gulf rulers typically translate their fears into appeasement – hence Ahmadinejad’s invitation to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Qatar meeting in December and his welcome to the hajj in Mecca.
Their situation will deteriorate further when Iran attains a nuclear weapon. Tehran will then be in a position to dictate the entire region’s oil policies as well. This dire prospect has prompted talk around the Gulf about the urgency of acquiring a nuclear umbrella or patron – even from the Middle East’s standard pariah, Israel.
In November, 2007, the Saudi London-based al Hayat ran an article by Jihad al-Khazen calling on the states of the region to develop their own nuclear military resources against Iran and Israel. While the Saudis have tried for some years to acquire a nuclear capability of their own alongside the American shield, the rest of the Gulf did not nothing except talk.
Domestic Islamist force prey on their governments’ fears
American sources believe that Riyadh has entered into a form of nuclear cooperation with Pakistan based on a secret treaty signed in 2003. Islamabad then contracted to provide the Saudis with nuclear technology and, if the oil kingdom were to come under threat from a third party, a bomb. These sources are convinced that Saudi flight crews had been training with the Pakistan Air Force on systems for delivering nuclear weapons.
However the political turbulence in Pakistan and the danger of the Pervez Musharraf government’s overthrow by Taliban and al Qaeda have proved even that reed to be too weak to support Riyadh. The Saudis and the Gulf rulers are again on the hunt for nuclear do-it-yourself short cuts or international protectors against a prospective nuclear-armed Islamic Republic.
These uncertainties are affecting the internal stability of these traditional-minded Arab governments.
The ruling Kuwait al-Sabah dynasty is undergoing a bad shaking from rising Islamist forces and may not offer the strong and stable leadership for withstanding more turmoil.
In Saudi Arabia, the religious forces are facing fierce attacks at home but are yet biding their time for a sign of weakness in the House of Saudi before they again assert themselves.
In Bahrain, the Shiite population is gaining strength against the central government.
As their fears of Tehran gain ground, these governments can be expected to redirect their huge oil profits away from development and economic growth and sink them into the expansion of their military capabilities and the appeasement of hostile elements, such as Iran. The less they spend on creating jobs and wealth for the population, the stronger the fundamentalist and jihadist elements will become and the greater their threat to stable government in the Gulf region.
Tehran’s overture to Baghdad amid Iraq’s struggle for political equilibrium will promote Shiite domination of the country backed by Iran. The Sunni-dominated Gulf oil sheikdoms are already shuddering at the prospect of being hemmed in by two powerful Shiite-dominated allies with expansionist designs.