Analysis from Gulf Research Center
Author: Nicole Stracke
Researcher, Security and Terrorism Program
Addressing a joint press conference in Abu Dhabi on September 11, UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan said: "We believe in the good intention of Iranians and consider their nuclear program a peaceful one." But the "Iranians have to give clear assurances pertaining to their nuclear energy and abide by them as well so as to counter the fears and anxieties of their neighbors and friends," he said.
On the same day, another statement by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General, Abdulrahman bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, urged the Arab world to join forces to push for nuclear technology in the region for peaceful purposes.
The two statements came amid Iran's suggestion that it could suspend its nuclear enrichment program for "one or two months" while the United Nations Security Council continues its discussion on a possible sanctions resolution on Iran in light of Iran's failure to abide by the August 31 deadline of UN resolution 1696.
The GCC secretary-general's statement can be interpreted either as a signal toward Iran or as a shift in the Arab countries' approach toward the nuclear issue in general, or both. The Arab countries' trust in the UN's ability to convince Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment process is certainly limited. At the same time, they do not see any plausible alternative on how to deal with the Iranian issue. The Arab countries are surrounded by countries with nuclear capabilities ? Israel, Pakistan, India and, sooner or later, Iran. It is in this context that the GCC secretary-general issued a wake-up call to the "Arab Nation" to adopt a new regional strategy on the nuclear issue by abandoning the current zero nuclear option, implying that so far, with the exception of Egypt, none of the Arab countries even have a nuclear research program.
It will certainly be difficult to implement an initiative calling for an Arab consensus to put their resources together and develop nuclear technology. However, it could be possible at a sub-regional level among the MENA or the GCC countries.
Such a wake-up call could have distinct implications for the region's position on nuclear enrichment with Arab countries rethinking their current policy of "zero enrichment" and considering their right to start research on nuclear technology. There already exists broad agreement among the Arab countries that nuclear technology could bring immense benefit in various areas including science, medicine, agriculture and industry. Nuclear technology could also provide "a third energy resource besides oil and gas (which) would go a long way in the development of the region". That certainly would fit into the agenda of several Arab countries such as Oman and Saudi Arabia to diversify their economies and energy sources beyond oil and gas.
It will certainly be difficult to implement an initiative calling for an Arab consensus to put their resources together and develop nuclear technology. However, it could be possible at a sub-regional level among the MENA or the GCC countries. For the latter, the secretary-general's call has to also be viewed within the context of the Iranian issue. The GCC countries are frustrated waiting and observing the political moves of their neighbor's nuclear program. A financial and political investment of the GCC countries in a joint project to develop nuclear technology would be valuable because of the enormous costs involved. Currently, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE are still members of the International Atomic Energy Agency' Small Quantities Protocol (SQP), which excludes any nuclear enrichment programs, including research. However, it would be possible to rethink Saudi membership in the SQP once a GCC initiative is put forward to develop nuclear technology.
At the same time, all the GCC countries have to find a balanced way to deal with Iran. While the GCC secretary-general's approach is to look for a regional Arab initiative on how to deal with the nuclear issue in general, the UAE foreign minister is following a rather diplomatic approach. The GCC countries do not have any interest in a direct confrontation with Iran over the nuclear issue. For them, Iran is not only a "variable" in the regional dynamics; it constitutes a major part in the GCC's political day-to-day life. The Iranian business community in the GCC countries has strong links with Iran. The ongoing dispute between the UAE and Iran over the islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs continues to cast a shadow of doubt and suspicion over the broader relationship between the two sides. Given the complexity of the Iranian nuclear issue in the international and regional dynamics, the statements by the two leaders can be seen as a balancing act between articulating their concern about Iran's nuclear program, and addressing their own need for security by no longer accepting an "observer status" in the crisis, but starting to look for an alternative Arab strategy.
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