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Institute for the Analysis of Global Security

January 8, 2007
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The coming Sunni-Shi'ite nuclear arms race

As tension between Sunnis and Shi'ites mounts from Iraq to Lebanon another front is opening in the deepening strife between the two parts of the Muslim world: The race to acquire nuclear capabilities. Iran's uranium enrichment program en route to a Shi'ite bomb has already whetted the appetite of its Sunni neighbors to follow suit. The December meeting of the of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a new milestone on the road to a Sunni Arab nuclear capability. In the meeting, GCC leaders decided on a joint program in the field of nuclear technology for "peaceful purposes". "Possessing nuclear technology [] has economic and scientific significance," the spokesman for the Council of Ministers explained. Two weeks later another Gulf country, Yemen, announced its aspirations to acquire nuclear technology. On the African side of the Middle East, Egypt and Algeria, two Sunni nations blessed with energy resources, have also declared their intension to pursue nuclear power. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak drew roaring applause when he announced in a November speech before a combined session of the People's Assembly and Shura Council that Egypt was not "in need of anyone's authorization to develop peaceful nuclear energy".

Invoking the "economic significance" nuclear power could have for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman - six countries that together control 40 percent of the world's oil and close to 10 percent of its natural gas reserves - at a time when both commodities are sold for historically high prices is as strange as a similar rationale coming from Iran, OPEC's second largest producer and the world's second largest reserve of natural gas, for its "peaceful" nuclear program. The truth is that the rationale for Sunni Arab countries to pursue nuclear capabilities is purely strategic and has to do with the Sunni-Shi'ite battle for hegemony over the Muslim world. This split, which currently happens in Iraq, is quickly evolving into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim nations and Shi'ite Iran. A Sunni-Shi'ite nuclear arms race is only a natural progression of that cold war.

No doubt both Shi'ites and Sunnis have the hard currency reserves to fund a civil nuclear program and most likely to take it to the next step of producing a nuclear arsenal. In fact, it was Saudi Arabia that invested close to a billion dollars in helping the Pakistani nuclear program in the 1970s and 1980s. If they could afford to arm others there is no reason why they couldn't provide for their own needs.

What hinders the Sunnis' progress more than anything is their tight relations with the West. Contrary to the Iranians who decided to pursue nukes in spite of Western opposition and at the cost of international isolation, the Sunnis -- some are beneficiaries of significant U.S. economic and military assistance --are heavily constrained by their strategic commitments to the U.S. Looking to build a moral case for their nuclear pursuit, the Sunnis were recently handed two separate comments, one by Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the other by newly appointed Defense Secretary Robert Gates: both listed Israel as a nuclear power. Nothing could have given the Sunnis better ammunition in their effort to justify their nuclear ambitions as getting Israel out of the closet. Which explains why in the same session in which the GCC nuclear plan was announced the Council urged the U.S. and the international community to press for sanctions on Israel for its nuclear program.

The message coming from the Middle East is clear. With both nuclear Israel and nuclear Iran the West can no longer stop Sunni Arabs from pursuing an insurance policy against their staunchest enemies. This message is not only another reminder of the destabilizing impact of a nuclear Iran but also that a dispute between the Americans and Europeans and their Sunni allies over the nuclear issue is in the cards.

The U.S., which by virtue of the Iraq War took the Shiite genie out of its bottle where it was locked for over a millennium, will likely offer security guarantees on par with the deterrent power of nuclear weapons in exchange for a Sunni commitment to forego its right to go nuclear. But such offers are most likely to be declined. Clearly, increased U.S. military presence in the Gulf is the last thing Sunni regimes want. As it is, they are under heavy criticism by domestic radicals for permitting the existing U.S. presence in the region. Nor will they trust the U.S. to provide a credible guarantee against Iranian hostility. Besides, nuclear power is a salient source of national prestige which cannot be replaced with anything the U.S. can offer.

What is at stake today is not just a nuclear Iran but a full blown nuclearization of the world's most dangerous region. With this in mind the U.S.' and Europe's strategy should go beyond just preventing Iran from acquiring nukes. As this battle may already be lost, the focus now should be on the next wave of nuclear hopefuls. This will require the development of a fresh set of carrots and sticks as well as a candid dialogue which includes not only Sunni Arabs who desire nukes but also Russia, China and Pakistan, the countries most likely to provide them with the technology they need to meet their ambitions.

As the world transitioned from the Cold War to the war on radical Islam former CIA director James Woolsey said: "We have slain a large dragon. But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes." If subsequent to a failure to prevent a Shi'ite bomb comes another failure to prevent a Sunni bomb this unsavory jungle will be populated in no time with some of the worst of dragons.

Gal Luft is executive director of the Washington based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.

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