December 23, 2011

Islamic Bomb and Iran

Author:  G Parthasarathy

Bhutto dreamt of Pakistan's bomb contributing to the glory of the ‘Islamic civilisation’. Now there are others treading that path.
On December 6, Prince Turki Al Faisal, the powerful Intelligence Chief of Saudi Arabia, asserted, “Our efforts and those of the world have failed to convince Israel to abandon its weapons of mass destruction, as well as Iran. It is, therefore, our duty towards our nation and people to consider all possible options, including the possession of nuclear weapons”. Saudi Arabia currently has plans to build 16 nuclear reactors over the next two decades at accost of $80 billion. Prince Turki’s assertion came in the aftermath of the latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear programme, which has predictably produced a hysterical American reaction, leading to moves for  the imposition of further banking sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Tensions between the UK and Iran have also escalated after Britain unilaterally announced new and stringent financial sanctions it was imposing on Iran.
Most analysts agree that it would take Iran anywhere from three to eight years to build a nuclear weapon. In the meantime, key Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in Tehran and the ‘Stuxnet’ computer virus which was mysteriously introduced into Iran’s nuclear facilities resulted in their being crippled for several months. The widespread belief is that these developments have evidently been engineered, jointly and separately, by the US and Israel. Matters have now again come to a head with the recent IAEA report alleging that a foreign scientist had helped Iran to develop and design a nuclear explosive device. The IAEA report alludes to information provided by unnamed foreign intelligence agencies, quite evidently from the US, the UK and Israel. Its credibility and accuracy have been widely questioned. It is also evident that both Russia and China will oppose any move by the US and the UK to impose any further economic sanctions on Iran.
American journalist Seymour Hersh has pertinently observed that the “carefully hedged” IAEA report has raised concerns merely about the “possible existence” of undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran. Observers have not failed to note that it was precisely such ‘unverified’ information about Iraq’s alleged nuclear facilities that provided the excuse for the American invasion in 2003. The recent IAEA report oddly states that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device “may still be ongoing”. Interestingly, a rattled Iran had almost immediately agreed to suspend its nuclear enrichment programme and to stringent IAEA inspections soon after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ever since then, it has been a cat and mouse game between the Americans and Iranians on the entire question of Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme. Iran recommenced its uranium enrichment in 2005 and the IAEA declared that it was in violation of its obligations as signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Australian academic Ramesh Thakur pertinently observes, “Iran can no more prove a negative than Iraq could in 2002-2003: That it does not have hidden proliferation activities.”
While there is no evidence to establish that Iran is on the verge of developing nuclear weapons, the very fact that it appears to be moving towards developing nuclear weapons capabilities has brought together an alliance of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia to sound alarm bells about a country that has rather provocatively called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” outrageously denied Hitler’s genocide of Jews and supported radical movements in the Arab world, raising concern in several ‘moderate’ Arab states. Moreover, Shia-Sunni rivalries and differences have assumed greater salience across the Gulf and West Asia. There is little doubt that the Saudis would be delighted if the Israelis chose to act to decapitate Iran’s nuclear programme.
While explaining the rationale for Pakistan’s nuclear programme, its then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had noted that while the “Christian, Jewish and Hindu” civilisations had nuclear weapons capability, it was the “Islamic civilisation” alone that did not possess nuclear weapons. He declared that he would be remembered as the man who had provided the “Islamic civilisation” with “full nuclear capability”. Bhutto’s views on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons contributing to the capabilities of the “Islamic civilisation” are shared by that country’s nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mehmood who, along with his colleague Chaudhri Abdul Majeed, was detained shortly after the terrorist strikes of 9/11. Mehmood has described Pakistan’s nuclear capability as the property of the ummah. It is precisely such ideological leanings that prompted the commencement of Pakistani assistance to Iran’s enrichment programme over two decades ago. Iraq and Libya sought similar Pakistani assistance. The nuclear ambitions of both these Arab states were thwarted by Western pressures and invasions. The Iranians are, however, made of a different mettle.
Given growing Shia-Sunni rivalries in the oil-rich Gulf region, how will Saudi Arabia respond in the event of Iran going nuclear? Saudi Arabia lacks the manpower and technological skills of Iran. The only Islamic country that can provide the Saudis with a nuclear deterrent is Pakistan whose nuclear arsenal is rapidly exceeding what it needs for its own security. Saudi Arabia’s Defence Minister Prince Sultan was given unprecedented access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities at Kahuta in March 1999. AQ Khan thereafter paid a visit to Saudi Arabia at the invitation of Prince Sultan in November 1999. Khan’s visit was followed by a visit to Pakistan’s nuclear facilities by Saudi scientists who had been invited by him.
Given these developments and the fact that China has supplied long-range CSS 2 missiles to Saudi Arabia, there is interest about the precise directions that nuclear and missile collaboration between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia could take. Pakistan could, for example, justify deployment of nuclear weapons and missiles on Saudi soil by asserting that it was akin to the deployment of American nuclear weapons and missiles on the soil of its Nato allies. It does not, therefore, constitute a violation of the NPT. The only alternative for the Saudis would be an American nuclear umbrella whose reliability would be questionable, especially given growing American unpopularity in the Islamic world.
Despite Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s dreams of Pakistan’s bomb contributing to the glory of the “Islamic civilisation,” his cash strapped and growingly dysfunctional country may end up being drawn into the rivalries between Shia Iran on the one hand and the Sunni Arabs on the other. What he described as the “Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilisations” can only watch this unfolding drama, if and when it is played out.

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