By Frank Thomas
Middle Eastern states are breaking down in an endless escalation of civil wars where Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq are collapsing. The resulting power vacuums exploited by rebel factions and demonic jihadist Islamic state are threatening the Middle East. The ancient, ongoing Sunni-Shiite mutual hatreds are afire.
U.S. foreign regime change interventions – by military engagement, funding, training insurgency groups, supporting coups d’etats, protecting regional dictatorships – have boosted instability and mayhem in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, etc. Emerging unscathed in these interventions, the U.S. departs leaving the wreckage behind to go on to the next trouble-spot.
The common enemy is ISIS. If Syria falls, ISIS will take it over. Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Europe will be the next targets. The question arises, should both Assad’s regime and ISIS be removed to restore Middle East stability? How to do this? Russia and Iran would have to agree to Assad’s removal. Capitalizing on Obama Administration’s hesitating, ineffective removal of ISIS and latter’s proxies, Russia is now inserting itself into the civil war taking no prisoners including anti-Assad rebels such as the Al Nusra /Al Qaeda alliance. Putin’s support for Assad’s government was never restricted to attacks on just ISIS
But Israel favors the Sunni ISIS and Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in fight to seek over-throw of Assad’s regime backed by Iran and Hezbollah. Israel prefers the Sunni evil over Assad. Obama has gotten himself in a corner with two stark options: continue trying to remove Assad with help of ISIS, Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists or join Russia, Iran, and the Syrian military to defeat the Sunni jihadists. This shows how complex the Syrian and regional sectarian conflict is.
Russia militarily supports the amoral dictator, Assad, in bombing ISIS and anti-Assad forces. America bombs ISIS and attacks Assad’s forces to get rid of Assad. How complicated can it get? What is the lesser evil? It’s the dilemma faced at the onset of WWII – do we join Russia in a coalition to fight with Stalin (Assad) against Hitler (ISIS) in Syria and with Russia to fight ISIS elsewhere? America did just that back then. The Syrian mayhem is so catastrophic for everyone in the region and the world, that question should be asked.
Putin’s recent words are on the mark : “Healthy common sense and responsibility for global and regional safety demand a united effort from the international community against the threat posed by ISIS.” What’s critically vital is to spark debate of counter-arguments that force engagement of constructive alternatives to quell the unending Middle East civil wars.
NUCLEAR CONSIDERATIONS COMPLICATE THINGS EVEN FURTHER
Proliferation of advanced nuclear weapons in the Middle East is another ominous complication that could end up igniting a nuclear-armed confrontation between U.S. and Russia. Distrust of Iran’s nuclear intentions is also triggering Arab states and Saudis to adapt existing and new civilian nuclear power plants with “latent” nuclear weapon capability for clandestine military nuclear program as the ultimate guarantee of existence.
Iran’s nuclear uranium enrichment program started in the 1980s. A facility in Natanz was built to install 50,000 centrifuges. This clandestine facility was exposed in 2002. Under the Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran was legally bound to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about this program but did not do so. In the past, Iran often lied about its nuclear weapons work and was not forthcoming about possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.
This started Arab states and Saudis on a path of soliciting bids from U.S. and France for nuclear power facilities. Gulf states could live with Israel’s concealed nuclear weapon capability but were fearful of nuclear weapons coming into Iran’s hands and disturbing the balance of power. Since 2002, Washington and Paris have been providing nuclear power plant infrastructure know-how and aid to Arab states and Saudis. Nuclear power technical assistance has also been sought from China and Russia and provided.
Increasing Arab investments in nuclear power is telling Iran that Arab states and Saudis can also convert civilian nuclear power technology to nuclear weapons – thereby holding Iran at risk should it be caught enriching uranium in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) accord. The accord reduces Iran’s installed centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000. For 15 years, it limits uranium enrichment to 3.67% and ceases enrichment at the Fordow facility. Changes at several Iranian facilities will be made to prevent them from being used to create nuclear weapons.
If this “cap and constrain” deal had not been reached, Iran might well be emboldened to risk development of a nuclear weapon arsenal. Are there still some weak conditions in the JCPOA accord? Yes. These include:
- Iran can continue running nuclear centrifuges at an underground site once suspected of housing illicit activities.
- Iran says inspectors will be removed if they try to enter sites Iran considers “sensitive.”
- Iran is permitted to keep many of its controversial military sites closed to inspections.
- Iran can delay inspections of disputed facilities for at least 24 hours which gives time to sanitize the site.
- Iran can only use IR-1 centrifuges but has begun using IR-8 centrifuges that enrich uranium 20 times faster than IR-1 centrifuges.
Can Iran still cheat? Yes. Will it inevitably be detected in time? Yes. Why? Unlike North Korea which China now reports has 20 nuclear warheads – a tough regime of IAEA inspections plus close observations of U.S. and Israel make it highly improbable any cheating by Iran is not timely spotted. Will the repercussions for cheating be severe? Yes. To avoid (or greatly limit) a regional nuclear arms race, is it worth the risk to test whether Iran will abide by the JCPOA accord, restricting Iranians to civilian nuclear power and conventional weapons capabilities? Yes.
Why is it that Iran is inciting a major counteraction of Arab civilian nuclear power proliferation when Israel – the arch enemy of Arab states in two major wars – started developing nuclear weapons and an atomic bomb 40 years ago and has since had an active military posture without inciting a counteraction?
Arab states are accelerating investments in nuclear power plants and modern, longer-range ballistic missiles. This is creating a latent nuclear weapon capability – coming from the spread of plutonium produced by civilian nuclear power reactors, easing the ability to technically transition to deliverable nuclear weapons fast. The more nuclear power plants and plutonium produced, the more latent nuclear weapon proliferation – enhancing the risk of future small nuclear wars and nuclear terrorism.
So again, why is Iran’s civilian nuclear power program seen as a more acute future threat than Israel’s advanced nuclear weapons program and atomic bomb capability?
Israel’s nuclear weapon capability was initially seen and is still seen as being a deterrent strategy, for defense only and not for aggressive expansion of its territory. So bombing Iran’s nuclear power facilities, ongoing occupation of West Bank, wars of 2008-09 and 2012, the Gaza slaughter, buying of U.S. Arrow ballistic missiles and Iron Dome anti-rocket systems (and possibly cruise missile submarines) qualify as self-defense for Israel. On other hand, Arab States and Saudis automatically see the JCPOA accord as inherently dangerous, opening the door for Iranian territorial aggression and regional hegemony.
Iran’s support of Shiite factions in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq adds to Saudi Arabia’s grossly overstated fears of being permanently encircled by Iran. As most experts agree, Iran is not controlling events in the region. It is mostly reacting to them. Like the U.S., it is filling trouble spot holes but not with the intention of taking over land territory.
Nevertheless, Arab states, Saudis and Israel view Iran as a potential military and nuclear weapons adversary despite following deterrents :
- JCPOA accord forbidding Iran under strict protocols and inspections from embarking on uranium enrichment or reprocessing technology.
- added security measure of Arab states and Saudis to match the dual-use feature of Iran’s civilian nuclear power capability enabling a possible conversion to producing nuclear weapons in distant future
The civilian nuclear power push by Iran’s Arab neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, is a security hedge to provide a means for nuclear weapons if Iran does not cease its uranium enrichment activities. Given these this deterrent force, why would Iran be so recklessly stupid as to invite unfathomable military destructive retaliation by getting aggressive territorially or by being caught covertly developing nuclear weaponry or an atomic bomb capability?
Iran’s priorities are to renew its infrastructure and spur broad economic growth. But eventual resurgent Iranian competition, wealth and economic progress helped by vast oil reserves sparks fears of Iran’s growing regional influence. This bolsters the Gulf States to match Iran’s latent nuclear capability and thus reinforce their own security and influence.
Nuclear plant equipment and weapon sales are booming, profitable businesses. American, French, Russian, Chinese and others have long been selling their nuclear power wares and technical assistance for billions of dollars annually to Middle Eastern states. The West, notably U.S., has been aggressive in selling high-performance aircraft that can be adapted to carry nuclear warheads. The Pentagon has just completed a $1 billion weapons deal with Saudi Arabia. China and Russia are capable of offering modern ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. Russia’s military presence in Syria might lead to the setting up of missile defense systems against Western aircraft missions.
U.S. failed regime change policies, huge weapon inflows have affected the falling apart process in Syria, Iraq and Libya, Egypt. Such policies and the vacuums created have advanced ISIS’s rise. Middle East violence has forced 11 million Syrians to flee their homes, over 4 million of whom have fled their country to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and in huge waves to Europe. Refugees are not admitted into Saudi Arabia and Qatar – countries that funded ISIS’s birth, oblivious to the ‘evil incarnate’ they were creating for the world. One has to question also Israel’s choice of ISIS and Al Nusra over Assad.
Upgraded military weapon flows and contiguous civil wars are bringing the Gulf States closer to seeing nuclear weapons as the ultimate security guarantee of their existence – Israel’s long-held position. Ever more sophisticated military weaponry in the Middle East capable of having nuclear warheads risks touching off a human Holocaust of calamitous global dimensions. Einstein warned, “I know not with what weapons WW III will be fought, but WW IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Hopefully, a subtle, slow wave of nuclear weapons proliferation and a widening arms race can be contained. China, India, and U.S. know the importance and their dependence on Middle East stability to ensure the free flow of oil. Good things could happen if an east-west coalition powers could come together on securing regional security by other means than ‘scorched earth’ military bombing that’s exterminating, mutilating innocent families, children and inciting the most massive refugee flight since WWII.
Will the U.S. follow Russia’s lead to work together in a broad coalition to resolve the Syrian conflict? If not, Russia will go its own way with all the cold war paranoia and concerns that will bring.
Frank Thomas – the Netherlands, Oct. 7, 2015