Some Arab countries warily eye Iran’s nuclear programme

KUWAIT CITY — This tiny Gulf country is increasingly nervous — as are some of its neighbours — about Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, right across the water. But heading into a key summit, Arab leaders overall are divided, and publicly squabbling, over how to defuse a crisis that has caused the West to haul Iran before the UN Security Council.

Countries close to Iran, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have focused on safety issues, the threat of a possible regional arms race and the threat of a crisis with the West that spills over. Iran’s nuclear programme “still poses a big worry,” Sheikh Abdullah Ben Zayed Al Nahayan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, said earlier this month.

But Arab countries farther away from Iran have insisted that the United States and Europe should not pressure Iran over its programme unless they also put pressure on Israel to end its nuclear programme.

In January, the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Musa, an Egyptian, quarrelled publicly with the Emirates’ foreign minister after Musa sent a message to the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, urging the leaders of the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar to focus on Israel, not Iran.

Last month, Musa repeated his stance, saying at one Arab meeting: “We should avoid double standards.” The Jewish state maintains ambiguity over its nuclear programme but it is widely believed to have hundreds of nuclear warheads.

The United States accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But Iran says its nuclear programme aims only to generate electricity and has insisted it has a right to carry out uranium enrichment, a key process that can develop either fuel for a reactor or material for a nuclear warhead.

As they head into next week’s Arab League meeting in Sudan, both Iran’s programme itself — and the fight over it — have many in the Gulf nervous.

“Accidents happen in developed countries. What would reassure us that they won’t happen in a Third World country?” asked Kuwaiti strategist Sami Farraj.

His Kuwait Centre for Strategic Studies is advising the Kuwaiti government — as well as the secretary general of the GCC — on how to prepare to deal with any nuclear accidents in Iran, he said.

The country’s first nuclear reactor, expected to go online later this year, is in Bushehr in southern Iran, just 250 kilometres across the Gulf from Kuwait.

Iran is seismically unstable and an earthquake could cause an accident that would affect the small populations of Gulf countries more than it affects areas in Iran itself, he said.

“A catastrophe that kills 200,000 people could mean wiping out half of Bahrain,” he noted.

In addition, any pollution in the Gulf waters would shut down the six water desalination plants on the Arab shore, he said.

But it’s not just safety issues that have the Gulf worried. Leaders also worry about the chance of a regional arms race, and fear that the sharp dispute with the West could degenerate into possible US or Israeli air strikes against Iran — something sure to rile up Shiite Muslim communities in the largely Sunni Muslim Gulf countries.

In December, during a GCC summit, an Emirates government-run think tank, the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies, warned the Gulf states against maintaining “silence” over the issue, because it will be them who “will pay the price for any escalation between Iran and the West.”

“Gulf nations utterly refuse any idea that Iran should own a nuclear weapon, and they want Iran to stop uranium enrichment… except under international control,” said Dawood Shirian, a Saudi Arabian analyst.

He said Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would simply be a “justification” for foreign countries to keep their forces in the Gulf for longer to protect their oil interests.

Washington has maintained military presence in the area since the US-led coalition fought the 1991 Gulf War that liberated Kuwait from a seven-month Iraqi occupation.

Kuwait was the main launch for the American-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and US naval and air forces have bases in Bahrain and Qatar.

Shirian noted that any military confrontation between Iran and the West would trigger a response in Iraq that could lead to Shiite-Sunni sectarian tensions across the region.

Iran and southern Iraq embrace the Shiite sect of Islam, while Gulf countries that are ruled by Sunni families have sometimes-restive Shiite minorities.

In January, Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr said his militia would defend Iran if that country were ever attacked, an apparent message to the West that Tehran has allies who could make things difficult for US forces in the region if Iran’s nuclear facilities are attacked.

“They are our neighbours,” one former Kuwaiti lawmaker, Ahmed Rubei, said recently. “Their safety is our safety.”

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