Dina Esfandiary, Elham Fakhro, and Becca Wasser
Judging by their official statements, the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East ranks high on the list of policy priorities of the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As countries bordering a once-proliferating, aggressive state (Iraq); facing another suspected of seeking a nuclear weapons capability and bent on regional hegemony (Iran); and living in the vicinity of nuclear powers outside the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime (India, Israel, and Pakistan), they arguably have a paramount security interest in its rapid formation.
As with other stated policy objectives of the Persian Gulf states, however, work toward this goal is hampered by competing priorities and the resulting limits on time and resources that the countries can devote to the issue. Other constraints include enduring political and strategic considerations, such as diverging threat perceptions and the absence of a common security agenda. In recent years, the Gulf states, mostly through nongovernmental experts, have conducted significant work on the scope, reach, and implementation requirements of a regional WMD-free zone and in 2005 even adopted the idea of a subregional WMD-free zone in the Persian Gulf. Yet, attention and political investment ahead of the planned 2012 conference on establishing such a zone in the Middle East seem to be sorely lacking. Beyond the usual inertia, this reflects profound skepticism about the very feasibility of this project and the ability to involve Iran and Israel in a meaningful manner. Consequently, it is doubtful that the Gulf states see the upcoming conference as a crucial moment in their quest for security.
The Gulf states face an increasingly complex security environment, compounded by dramatic changes in the regional order in the past decade, including the still-unclear ripple effects of the Arab upheavals of 2011. They must balance their acute, immediate worry about Iran’s nuclear progress and its regional implications with Israel’s nuclear status, a more distant, less threatening but politically more constraining concern. Whether and how the search for a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone affects the Gulf states’ own regional security preferences remains unclear. In addition, they have to adapt to shifting global politics and the erosion of the power of the United States, their traditional security provider.
Options for a WMD-Free Zone
For a long time, the Gulf states were bit players in terms of WMD proliferation. Unlike their immediate neighbors Iran and Iraq, none of the Gulf states attempted to develop or acquire WMD capabilities indigenously. They were also marginal in the regional nonproliferation debate, an agenda driven by larger, strategically more powerful states such as Egypt and Iran, which jointly proposed a UN resolution calling for a Middle Eastern nuclear-weapon-free zone in 1974. UN Security Council Resolution 687, which ended the 1991 Gulf War, called for both a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone and a Middle Eastern nuclear-weapon-free zone as cornerstones of a regional security arrangement. This idea, reiterated in the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference’s Resolution on the Middle East, floundered because a readily available external security guarantee seemed more effective and politically affordable for the Gulf states in the wake of the U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Little progress was made in discussions known as the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) process. Held in parallel with the Arab-Israeli peace process, the talks broke down over differences between Egypt and Israel, two countries locked in a complex security relationship. Egypt’s insistence on discussing Israel’s nuclear status clashed with Israel’s unwillingness to do so before comprehensive peace and full normalization. Neither Iran nor Iraq was a participant in those talks; the Gulf states attended only at low levels and as marginal players.
Serious interest among the Gulf states in a WMD-free zone is more recent. It is directly linked to revelations since 2002 about Iran’s secret nuclear activity and subsequent progress in its apparent quest for a nuclear weapons capability. The states’ interest also coincided with their increased political, strategic, and economic prominence and the drastic changes in the regional order, most notably Iran’s growing regional reach and appeal. Gulf leaders struggled to articulate in public their private fears about Iran’s nuclear program. They feared that confronting a defiant and ascendant Iran whose popularity in the Arab world was growing would expose a schism between ruling elites and peoples. They also feared that it would provoke a rhetorical escalation in which the Gulf states, generally averse to posturing and public controversy, would stand accused of obedience to the West and appeasement of Israel.
Still, the Gulf states felt the need to frame Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions as a regional challenge as well as a global proliferation concern and to express their anxiety in a subtle, legitimate manner. This combination of factors provided the impetus behind an innovative policy initiative started in 2004 by the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center about a subregional WMD-free zone covering the six Gulf states plus Iran, Iraq, and Yemen.
The research center’s framework became the basis for the formal proposal for a Gulf WMD-free zone by the Gulf states. The proposal, although genuine, served primarily as a vehicle to press and test Iran and create political space for the Gulf states by deferring the question of how the Gulf states should respond if Iran were to weaponize its nuclear program. Other ways of legitimizing their concerns included recognizing Iran’s right to civil nuclear energy but stressing its international obligations, raising questions about nuclear safety in that country, and putting forward ideas for nuclear cooperation and multinational uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities.
Iran’s response to the proposal was ambiguous at best and, in the words of a Gulf official, smacked of contempt for its smaller neighbors. Although Tehran formally embraced the proposal’s principles, it linked any approval to prior Israeli nuclear disarmament and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Gulf. The former is beyond the GCC’s ability to deliver; the second is unthinkable from the perspective of countries whose external security depends for the foreseeable future on foreign security providers. Iran also dismissed the Gulf states’ environmental concerns, remained purposely noncommittal about verification and monitoring, and accepted the idea for multinational fuel banks only if Iran were allowed to keep its indigenous enrichment capabilities.
This episode further hardened views in Gulf capitals about Iran’s intentions and nuclear path. Paradoxically, it also validated the notion that the Gulf states have little to contribute to any diplomatic initiative to alter Iran’s strategic thinking.
The Planned 2012 Conference
From the perspective of the Gulf states, the strategic environment has only worsened in recent years. This includes the loss of Iraq as a bulwark, the ascendancy and deepening reach of Iran, the perceived weakening of their strategic position following the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the paralysis on the Arab-Israeli front, the rise to power of an intransigent Benjamin Netanyahu, and questions about the strategic wisdom and policy competence of their U.S. ally.
Gulf anxiety about suspected Iranian manipulation and malevolence has peaked since the beginning of the Arab Spring. This compounds the twin, worst-case assumptions Gulf leaders make about Iran: that it is not merely interested in a nuclear weapons capability but in the bomb itself and that U.S.-orchestrated international diplomacy based on sanctions and conditional engagement will slow Iran’s nuclear progress only marginally at best. The Gulf states have come to see Iran’s nuclear program as the shield that allows Iran’s sword—its proxies, ideological and religious appeal, and propaganda efforts—to penetrate the Arab world.
In fact, perhaps principally to raise urgency and keep Washington focused, the Gulf states have espoused hawkish views on Iran. In July 2010, the UAE ambassador to Washington publicly stated that the benefits of a U.S. bombing of Iran’s nuclear program outweighed the short-term costs that such an attack would impose. In a 2008 cable published by WikiLeaks in late 2010, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia exhorted U.S. diplomats to “cut off the head of the snake,” a reference to U.S. military strikes against Iran.
The debate is open in the Gulf states about whether countering the challenge of regional proliferation requires a greater abidance by and advocacy of international norms as a means of global protection or a less internationalist strategy that leverages wealth and geo-economic standing to strengthen and diversify bilateral strategic relationships. Their approach so far has involved both elements.
The Gulf states have been largely silent in the discussions to date about the 2012 conference, but as good global citizens and for their own national security interests, they can ill afford to ignore the conference. A conference that singles out Israel, whether it attends or boycotts the event, but ignores Iran would confirm their fears about the inevitability of a nuclear-armed Iran and the prospect of being squeezed between nuclear rivals. Moreover, the Gulf states want to avoid an outcome that enshrines a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone as the sole regional security architecture rather than one of its key elements. This distinction is aimed primarily at preserving the Gulf states’ paramount security relationships. Given their low expectations, they might be satisfied with an outcome in which other states, notably Iran and Israel, emerge from the conference as the culprits behind continued regional instability. Even better would be a process for overcoming the instability.
At the same time, the Gulf states want to avoid the responsibility of agenda setting and advocacy on nuclear proliferation. Except for some prior disagreements with Cairo over their backing of a Gulf WMD-free zone, they have seemed content with Egyptian leadership. Importantly, although Egypt derives prestige and influence from its nonproliferation advocacy, the Gulf states seem uninterested, preferring to focus on exploring the prospects for introducing civilian nuclear energy, as the UAE has contracted to do. Given the turmoil in Cairo and questions about Egypt’s strategic trajectory, however, it is plausible that Egypt will be unable to define a coherent, workable position and mobilize Arab support. Eyes would then turn to the Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia, for guidance.
Recently, Saudi Arabia has shown signs of distrust and displeasure with the West and the United States in particular. Saudi assertions of power have culminated in comments by a senior Saudi royal, Prince Turki al-Faisal, that a nuclear Iran “would compel Saudi Arabia . . . to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences.” This was widely understood as a threat to proliferate in kind, perhaps as a trial balloon. Curbing the likelihood of an arms race in response to Iran’s nuclear program is perhaps why the Obama administration is exploring the possibility of a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia.
Another matter of concern for the Gulf states will be the political cost associated with the conference. When the Obama administration threw its support behind the 2012 conference, it was partly out of hope that it would help create an atmosphere conducive to progress on the Arab-Israeli track. This expectation has floundered over the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The conference could well be hijacked over that issue, placing the Gulf states in a potentially embarrassing situation. Indeed, the Gulf states need political cover in order to be taken seriously in their calls for a regional security conference, and this cover comes from the peace process. By pursuing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East without a peace process underway, the Gulf states would be seen as making too many concessions to the United States without making any gains on the Arab-Israeli track.
A key divergence with other Arab states has been in the priority they assign to particular regional proliferation issues. Distance and history have convinced the Gulf states that Israel poses no immediate threat and that focusing too much on its arsenal could divert attention from the more potent Iranian challenge. It is notable that the Gulf states tied normalization with Israel to comprehensive peace with its neighbors but not to prior Israeli nuclear disarmament. (Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states that have signed peace agreements with Israel, also have not conditioned their peace treaty on disarmament, but rather on good faith negotiations in parallel to the peace process, something Israel has been reluctant to undertake.) Still, the Gulf states must show responsiveness toward what has become an entrenched Arab slogan about the need to ban nuclear weapons from the Middle East. This limits the policy options for the Gulf states and probably will keep them confined to the role of chorus at the 2012 conference. ACT
Dina Esfandiary, Elham Fakhro, and Becca Wasser are research analysts with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
1. Despite their differences on other foreign policy matters, the Gulf states seem to agree on the need for a comprehensive regional security framework such as a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.
2. The Gulf states’ view on Iran’s regional meddling is visible in the closing or public statements after their meetings. For example, in April, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) called on Iran to “cease interfering in the internal affairs of the GCC.” See GCC, “21st EU-GCC Joint Council and Ministerial Meeting Abu Dhabi,” April 20, 2011, www.gcc-sg.org/eng/index5ec6.html?action=Sec-Show&ID=322.
3. For official documents on the Gulf WMD-free zone, see Gulf Research Center (GRC), “Nuclearization of the Gulf,” Security and Terrorism Research Bulletin, No. 7 (December 2007), pp. 32–37, www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?ots591=0c54e3b3-1e9c-be1e-2c24-a6a8c7060233&lng=en&id=56136.
4. Kareem Shaheen, “Sheikh Abdullah Calls for an End to Iran Stand-off,” The National, December 8, 2010.
5. Dina Al-Shibeeb, “Iran’s Bushehr to Endanger the Gulf If Quake Hits,” Al-Arabiya, April 2, 2011.
6. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran,” IISS Strategic Dossier, May 20, 2008, ch. 2.
7. Eli Lake, “UAE Diplomat Mulls Hit on Iran’s Nukes,” The Washington Times, July 6, 2010.
8. GRC, “Nuclearization of the Gulf,” p. 10.
9. Jason Burke, “Riyadh Will Build Nuclear Weapons If Iran Gets Them, Saudi Prince Warns,” The Guardian, June 29, 2011.