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ICG Risk Blog - [ When Tehran goes nuclear, will Riyadh's bomb be American, Chinese, or Pakistani ]

When Tehran goes nuclear, will Riyadh's bomb be American, Chinese, or Pakistani


Despite the vitriol emanating from Tehran towards Israel, where Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called the Holocaust into question and suggested that Israel be struck off the planet (along with the US), and in 2001, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani "speculated that a Muslim state that developed a nuclear weapon might use it to destroy Israel," I maintain that the major target of Iranian nuclear and military might are regional Arab, and mostly Sunni, states rather than Israel.

I've previously noted that "I think that the parallels of China and Iran as two proud ancient states now seeking to restore what they perceive as the historic spheres of influence has much merit. In the case of Iran, I agree with the opinion that its nuclear weapons program is aimed not at Israel but at its Arab and Muslim neighbors." I've also signaled my deep respect that I have for Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed [sometimes translated as Rashid], general manager of Al-Arabiya television. Here al Rashed speaks to Iranian targeting:

[Al Rashed] reflected the concerns of some Arab commentators who still regard Iran as a traditional foe and perceive the reconciliatory tone adopted by the Iranian reformist wing headed by Khatami with suspicion. In "Is Iran serious about attacking Israel?" Abdel-Rahman Al-Rashid rejected the notion, expressing worries that Iran's weapons might be directed towards its Arab neighbours instead. Al-Rashid wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat on Thursday that Iran's history does not support the view that the weapons it is amassing are for fighting Israel. He listed confrontations Iran had had, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Iraq. He concluded that Iran's presumed nuclear capability was aimed at targeting neighbouring countries, basing his assumption on the fact that there has never been a single clash between Israel and Iran. Iran does not share borders with Israel and has had no direct conflict with it. It supports forces that are against Israel although its weaponry cannot be sent to these parties. "Then who is at the receiving end of these [Iranian] sophisticated weapons? There is only one logical answer: [Arab] neighbouring countries."

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is described as a member of "ideologically conservative veterans of the Iran-Iraq war" who are attempting to create a political force apart from older "hard-liners." Ahmadinejad is "resurrecting the priorities of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, chastising the West at every turn and striving to forge a distinctly anti-Western national identity while re-establishing Iran's revolutionary influence across the Muslim world." In this world, the US is now the "world oppressor" rather than the Great Satan. He is "looking beyond Iran, seeking to fashion himself as a pan-Islamic leader [influenced by a mentor, Muhammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi], much the way Ayatollah Khomeini did."

Ahmadinejad certainly has the capacity for incandescent oratory that has an ability to incite the disenfranchised and the pious while exciting nearly all other regional heads of state, notably Sunnis. Whereas Iranian MehrNews spoke of Ahmadinejad's presence at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Mecca in glowing terms, that "the ground has been prepared for upgrading the already extensive level of cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia," Ahmadinejad's comments of day two of the summit that "the Holocaust might not have taken place and that Israel should be moved to Europe" infuriated the Saudis and made a hash of Riyadh's effort to place a moderate face on Islam:

Three senior Saudi officials complained in private that the comments completely contradicted and diverted attention from the message of tolerance the summit was trying to project. One Saudi official compared Ahmadinejad to ousted Iraq president Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, whose renegade statements frequently infuriated other Arab leaders and have targeted the Saudis in particular. "The Iranian president seems to have lost his direction," said Gilan al-Ghamidi, a prominent commentator in Saudi media. "Iran should be logical if it wants to receive the support of the world. The president didn't score any points. He lost points."

The Saudis have much to fear from a resurgent Iran now that the US has done what a decade of Iraqi-Iran war could not; humble Baghdad:

Iran’s population at 70 million is three times that of Iraq’s and it has one of the youngest populations in the world. Iran’s standing army is estimated by the CIA to be 520,000-strong, but each year 817,000 17-year-old Iranian boys are potentially available for military service. That is an awful lot of martyrs or suicide bombers. The Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, a consideration entirely absent from most neoconservative analyses of Iran’s supposed weakness. Persian imperial dynasties date back to Cyrus the Great, around 530BC, and Xerxes, 486-465BC, who plagued the Greeks. Unlike the chaotic Arab shambles of Saddam’s Iraq, Iran remains a hierarchical society where the vast majority live in rigid terror of the authorities above them, religious or imperial, and will utterly obey their commands.

Iran is trying to "become a regional superpower seeking to fill the void left by the collapse of Arab nationalism and by the absence of any one dominant nation [especially Iraq]." In the words of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: "The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently the axis of a tireless international identity, which relies on religious faith and challenges the global arrogances":

"If Iran acted like an Islamic power, just Islam without Shiism, then Arabs would accept it as a regional Islamic power," said Sheik Adel al-Mawada, a deputy speaker and member of the Sunni fundamentalist Salafi bloc in the parliament of Bahrain. "But if it came to us with the Shia agenda as a Shiite power, then it will not succeed and it will be powerful, but despised and hated." Bahrain has a restive Shiite population.

The concept of a unified Arab world is often called into question when leaders gather for Arab League meetings, which seem to highlight their differences. Stepping back, the suggestion that one Islamic Middle East could unite behind a set of social, political and economic goals becomes even more far-fetched especially when the net includes the Iranians... 

"As a gulf area, we don't want to see Iran as the major power in the area," said Muhammad Abdullah al-Zulfa, a member of the Shura Council of Saudi Arabia. "And we don't want to see Iran having this nuclear weapon where it will be a major threat to the stability of the gulf area and even to the Arab world altogether."

"If Iran developed a nuclear power, then it is a big disaster because it already supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, then what is left?" said Essam el-Erian, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. "We would have the Shiite crescent that [King Abdullah II of Jordan] warned against." 

I concur with those Iranians that believe that if Iran "goes too far and builds a bomb... that it could set off a regional arms race and push states like Saudi Arabia to make their own bombs."

Short of a sustained series of military strikes on Iranian facilities or, more attractive, a series of Gerald Bull-style targeted assassinations against the development and enrichment human assets (a more forceful variant that the manner that Israel used to dissuade German scientists from working in Egypt on surface to surface missiles), the Iranians will build a fissile package. My question is then, who will deliver the opposing bomb to Riyadh? (For many reasons, I do not see the Saudis building their own.) My first three candidates are the US (over Israeli objections), the Chinese or the Pakistanis.

Bizarre as it may seem, I also toy with the idea of an Israeli nuclear umbrella over Sunni states against a Shi'ite threat. Think of it; what a stroke of diplomatic gain by Tel Aviv to protect Sunnis against the Shia.

Iran the Great Unifier? The Arab World Is Wary
New York Times
February 5, 2006

A New Face in Iran Resurrects an Old Defiance
New York Times
January 30, 2006

Iran leader's comments attacked
BBC News
Last Updated: Thursday, 27 October 2005, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK

Profile: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
BBC News
Last Updated: Thursday, 27 October 2005, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK

Text of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Speech [The World Without Zionism]
Speech to an Islamic Student Associations conference on "The World Without Zionism."
Iranian Interior Ministry, Tehran
October 26, 2006
Text in Persian at the
Iranian Student News Agency
Translation by Nazila Fathi, The New York Times Tehran bureau
Bracketed explanatory material from Nazila Fathi
October 30, 2006

Ahmadinejad draws ire of Saudis, Iranians, West over Israel remarks
Compiled by Daily Star staff
Daily Star (Lebanon)
December 10, 2005

Ahmadinejad, Saudi king hold high-profile meeting
MECCA, Dec. 9, 2005
MehrNews (MNA)

A million martyrs await the call
Kevin Toolis
The Times
November 19, 2005

Mortal man
26 August - 1 September 2004
Issue No. 705

Project Babylon Supergun / PC-2
Global Security

Dr. Gerald Bull: Scientist, Weapons Maker, Dreamer
CBC (Canada)

Iran's Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era
By: Daniel Byman, Shahram Chubin, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, Jerrold D. Green
RAND, 2000
ISBN: 0-8330-2971-1
Chapter Four, Major Security Institutions and Their Composition

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  Terrorism Public  


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