Regional destabilization

Regional Destabilization

The Greater Middle East is the most dangerous, explosive region in an increasingly treacherous world. Not only is there the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, but there is also tension among the Middle East’s Muslim nations including conflicts between Shia and Sunni nations played out in places such as Iraq and Lebanon. Iran is the leading state contributing to this regional instability, sending arms and material support to various guerilla and terrorist groups. Already, Iran’s military posture has led to increases in arms purchases by its neighbors. If Iran goes nuclear, it could very well spark a nuclear arms race that would further destabilize the region. This would threaten the viability of the American and world economies as any major instability or conflict in this region would interrupt essential energy supplies. In several meetings, leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, have urged Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions, with GCC Secretary General Abd Arahman Attiyah saying [in Arabic] at a November 2005 council meeting, "The Iranian nuclear program does not have any justification. . . . We call on the international community to make the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction."

Iran is a Major Contributor to Regional Instability. Iran is a consistently destabilizing force in an explosive region rife with ancient ethnic and religious rivalries. Iran interferes in the Iraqi political process and fuels the bloody insurgency by providing money, training and weapons to Shia extremists. Iran has also trained hundreds of Taliban insurgents to kill NATO forces in Afghanistan by mounting complex ambushes and laying improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Iran’s leaders incite hatred against Israel with extremist rhetoric and disrupt the Arab-Israeli peace process by providing support to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups. Iran provides extensive financial and military support to Hezbollah, which poses a grave threat to Israel as well as to the democratic process in Lebanon. Nearly all of Iran’s Arab neighbors have a hostile relationship with the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia suspects Iran of stirring up the Shiite minority in its eastern provinces. The United Arab Emirates accuses Iran of illegally occupying three islands in the Persian Gulf. Egypt has not had regular diplomatic relations with Iran since a street in Tehran was named after the assassin of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Jordanian King Abdullah II warns against the establishment of a "Shiite crescent" between Iran and Lebanon. And Kuwait, fearing Iranian aggression, installed the U.S. Patriot air defense missile system in 2010.

An Iranian Nuclear Weapon Could Spark a Dangerous Regional Arms Race. According to a February 2008 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, “[a]n Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon or a nuclear weapons capability would dramatically shift the balance of power among Iran and its three most powerful neighbors-Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. This shift in the balance of power could spark a regional nuclear arms race as Iran’s neighbors seek to redress the new power imbalance.” Experts believe that Saudi Arabia poses a particularly high risk due to the religious and political dynamics of the region. According to the Senate report, the “Sunni-Shia divide would represent a major incentive for the Saudis to respond to an Iranian nuclear weapon by pursuing one of their own.” The report concludes that development of a Saudi weapon “represents one of the most serious and most likely consequences of an Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.In July 2010, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, candidly and tellingly statedcandidly and tellingly stated that “A military attack on Iran by whomever would be a disaster, but Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a bigger disaster… We cannot live with a nuclear Iran. I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the U.A.E.””

Interest in Nuclear Power Growing Across the Region. Several nations in the Middle East are aggressively pursuing civilian nuclear power programs. Since December 2006, Saudi Arabia and the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – have been pursuing a joint nuclear power program. In October 2007, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak initiated a program to build nuclear power stations in Egypt. 2010 saw an increase in nuclear activity in the Middle East, as many Arab nations acted on increased power needs, and civilian nuclear power ambitions. In April 2010, France and Kuwait signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement. This followed a $20.4 billion December 2009 deal between the UAE and the Korea Energy Company to develop the UAE’s civilian nuclear program, starting with four nuclear reactors. Saudi Arabia also announced that it was building an atomic and renewable energy “city.” According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, these developments have expanded the list to 14 countries in the Middle East that have announced new plans for nuclear power stations since 2006. Given that 2006 was the year that Iran began enriching uranium on a large scale, the timing of this flood of nuclear programs is quite significant.

Iran Refuses to Suspend Work on its Uranium Enrichment Program. Iran continues to enrich uranium in defiance of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. According to the November 2010 IAEA Quarterly Report, Iran has almost 8,500 centrifuges at its uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. Iran says it ultimately aims to operate more than 50,000 centrifuges at Natanz. The IAEA report also revealed that Iran has enriched 33 kg uranium to a level of 20 percent purity in a Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz. Furthermore, the report states that despite inquiries by the IAEA into Iran's announcements in February 2010 and April 2010 that it possessed laser enrichment technology and was developing “third generation centrifuges” with greater enrichment output, Iran has refused to provide the Agency with information regarding this development. The IAEA is also still awaiting a "substantive response" from Iran regarding its announcement of plans for ten new uranium enrichment facilities.

Tehran is Pursuing Plutonium. Iran is continuing its construction on a heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak. This is of particular concern since the spent fuel from a heavy-water reactor is better suited for nuclear weapons than the plutonium produced by light water reactors like the one the Iranians are building at Bushehr. The November 2010 IAEA Quarterly Report states that Iran continues to refuse to provide the Agency with access to the Heavy Water Production Plant, the heavy water stored at the Uranium Conversion Facility, or any other location in Iran where heavy water projects are being carried out. Iran says it will not separate the plutonium from the spent fuel and that the reactor will be used for the civilian purpose of producing medical isotopes, but there is good reason for skepticism. Iran already has a research reactor with unused capacity that is capable of producing medical isotopes and experts have pointed out that the Arak facility is much larger than necessary for that purpose.

Iran Continues to Stonewall International Inspectors. The Iranians are withholding several important pieces of information about their nuclear program. The November 2010 IAEA Quarterly report addresses the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant near the city of Qom, which, despite evidence that work began in 2006, was not declared to the IAEA until September 2009. This facility is currently under construction, and is being built to contain approximately 3,000 centrifuges. Additionally, according to the report, since August 2008 Iran has refused to discuss outstanding issues with the Agency or to provide any further information or access to locations and people necessary to address the Agency’s concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program. According to the IAEA report, Iran has not been fully forthcoming about studies it may have conducted on uranium conversion, high explosives testing, and missile re-entry vehicles for delivering nuclear warheads. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said, “Iran is a special case because, among other things, of the existence of issues related to the possible military dimensions to its nuclear program. Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

Iran is Quickly Becoming Capable of Building a Nuclear Bomb. “In unusually blunt language, an International Atomic Energy Agency report (February 2010) for the first time suggested Iran was actively pursuing nuclear weapons capability, throwing independent weight behind similar Western suspicions. The IAEA seemed to be cautiously going public with concerns arising from a classified agency analysis leaked in part last year which concluded that Iran has already honed explosives expertise relevant to a workable nuclear weapon.” The November 2010 IAEA Report stated that Iran has amassed enough enriched uranium to construct at least two nuclear weapons. Iran also now has a “possible breakout capacity.” According to nuclear experts, Iran now could, if it chose to, enrich its stockpile of low enriched uranium to a higher level, and convert the material into a nuclear weapon within three to six months. The official American estimate is that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015. According to former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, by failing to suspend uranium enrichment, “the message Iran's leadership is sending to its neighbors, as well as the rest of the world, is this: We could build the bomb in a relatively short amount of time, if we decided to do so.”