By the Blouin News World staff

In armageddon’s shadow: Iran’s nuclear ambitions unsettle region

by in Middle East.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili addresses a press conference on January 4, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ Prakash SINGH

It’s all but impossible to plumb the depths of the paranoia generated by Iran’s civilian nuclear program without visiting those who live in its direct shadow. No Iranian missile yet tested can reach the shores of the United States. But potentially within range are much of southern and southeastern Europe and the Middle East: Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, even Egypt. These are the people, the societies, the governments with the most at stake as Iran hurtles ever closer to what it claims is its sole goal — a domestic nuclear fuel cycle that its neighbors clearly fear would place the Islamic Republic one small step from a bomb.

Still, that step is one much of the Middle East and large swaths of Europe fear — despite the fervent pledges, in the form of fatwahs flowing from the holy city of Qom, made by Iran’s Supreme Leader that a nuclear bomb is antithetical to the most fundamental principles of Islam. Skeptics abound. After all, doesn’t determinedly Islamic Pakistan possess a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons?

The paranoia of Israel is quite clear and frequently expressed. All that remains to debate in that country is the tricky calculation of when and at what level the “red line” of production of highly enriched — and easily weaponized — uranium is reached and military action becomes unavoidable, from the Israeli perspective.

But other Middle Eastern nations are considerably less inclined to take up arms themselves or support such an Israeli effort. Which hardly renders any of them any less concerned. Few, of course, proclaim their fears as loudly as Israel — the only nation that Iranian leaders have publicly singled out for total destruction. Instead, many nations in the direct shadow of a nuclearized Iran are considering their narrowing array of options.

For clear allies of the United States, there is the American nuclear umbrella, long proclaimed as extending to Israel. The question in Riyadh, Cairo, and beyond is whether that umbrella might be stretched even further — far enough to provide them with bankable assurances on what is, after all, potentially an existential series of questions.

In June 2012, I spent some weeks in Saudi Arabia where the fear was all but palpable — and certainly will have been made more so by the latest intelligence that Iran has installed newer, high-capacity enrichment centrifuges in the city of Natanz and is powering them up. The only mitigating factor? They are above ground, apparently visible to satellite monitoring and certainly accessible to any future attack from the air. Which would suggest that they are intended, as the Iranian leadership has proclaimed, simply to assure the world that the Islamic Republic is able to produce domestically its own nuclear fuel, enriched only to the level where it can serve as a sure supply of fuel for its civilian nuclear reactors — and not a bomb. After all, as Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi insisted to me last fall in an interview, with the stringent sanctions regime imposed on Iran, his nation needs an assured supply of fuel to generate electric power from its peaceful reactors.

Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed and insists it continues to recognize, all that is allowed. The question, then, is what happens if (or when) the Middle East awakens to word of the first underground test of an Iranian nuclear device — in one grand gesture tossing the NPT and all those impassioned pledges from Khamenei into the dustbin of history and diplomacy. Some in Riyadh suggested to me last year that within the hour, the Saudi leadership would be on the phone to their friends in Pakistan ordering up a small arsenal of its own pre-packaged nuclear weapons.

But many Saudi specialists disagree. As Thomas W. Lippman of the Middle East Institute e-mailed me this week, “The purpose of the Pak nukes is to deter India. Hard to imagine they would reduce their own stockpile to make a nuclear enemy out of Iran, their neighbor and pipeline partner.”

Quite right. But where, then, does that leave Egypt? The politically troubled nation is hardly a close ally of the United States in the post-Mubarak era, yet scarcely close enough to Pakistan to make any demands (or even the most obsequious requests). Where Egypt may find itself, in the aftermath of an Iranian nuclear test, is in a position where it must be prepared to cut any deal necessary with Iran, a country already jockeying for position as Egypt’s new best — or if not best, than at least opportunistic — friend. Earlier in February, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid his first visit to Egypt since becoming Iran’s leader (and the first visit by an Iranian leader in three decades). Embraced by the nation’s leaders, he also had shoes flung at him by four outraged citizens — the ultimate Islamic insult. This, then, is the internal dynamic Egypt must manage if Iran joins the nuclear club.

In short, the whole power balance of the Middle East — and the stability of perhaps the most metastable region of the world — may hang on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That balance is about to be tested yet again. On February 26, representatives of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P-5+1, as the group is known in international diplomacy) are scheduled to gather in Almaty, Kazakhstan with representatives of Iran in yet another attempt to thrash out a deal that can keep the Iranian genie in the bottle, or certainly in that nation’s growing collection of centrifuges.

The ultimate question, however, is whether Iran — facing elections in June for a new president, and riven by factional conflict — is too dysfunctional to cut a nuclear deal now, or ever. No nations are watching more anxiously than its nearest neighbors.

David A. Andelman is the Editor of World Policy Journal. Previously he served as Executive Editor of Forbes.com. Earlier, he was a domestic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times in various posts in New York and Washington, as Southeast Asia bureau chief, based in Bangkok, then East European bureau chief, based in Belgrade. He then moved to CBS News where he served for seven years as Paris correspondent, traveling through and reporting from more than 70 countries. He is the author of three books, most recently, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.