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In nuclear crisis with Iran, GCC has a duty to be heard   

The National - 25 March, 2012
Author: Anne Penketh

In a university room filled with policymakers and experts in Doha's ever-expanding Education City, the subject is Iran's nuclear programme, but the talk is of Israel.

You might think that seen from Qatar, the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would trump any considerations about Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal. Yet at a two-day conference on nuclear non-proliferation in the Gulf last week, organised by the British American Security Information Council at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar, the long-standing regional grievances about the nuclear powers' perceived double standards were front and centre.

In particular, the nuclear powers in the UN Security Council are accused of hypocrisy for punishing Iran over its nuclear programme while extending unparalleled diplomatic and military support to Israel, which developed nuclear weapons clandestinely while remaining outside the international treaty framework. The question was all about fairness: why should Iran be forcibly prevented from exercising its treaty rights to enrich uranium whereas Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, continues to be shielded?

Israel - which has ignored appeals to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - is seen as an aggressor determined to preserve its "nuclear veto" in the region by stamping on would-be competitors. The Israelis have taken unilateral action twice to destroy nuclear reactors in the region; they bombed Iraq's Osirak facility in 1981 and a Syrian site in 2007. There is a pervasive sense of fatalism that if Israel were to act against Iran there would be nothing the region could do about it.

"If military action happened, we have no control over it. We can't raise a veto," Dr Mustafa Alani, programme director for security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Council, told the conference. "Nobody listened to us about Iraq when we said it was wrong."

Dr Hans Blix, the former chief UN weapons inspector for Iraq, and an adviser to the UAE's nuclear energy programme, pointed out that under a 1977 additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, attacks on nuclear power stations are prohibited, if such attacks risk releasing "dangerous forces" that endanger large numbers of civilians.

He said that while the article is not broad enough to ban attacks on uranium enrichment plants, it would appear to protect the Iranian Bushehr nuclear power plant, which is in operation and contains nuclear fuel that could be dispersed and cause danger to civilian populations. Governments need to be reminded that the bombing of this power plant would be a terrible precedent.

Indeed, after the June 1981 Osirak bombing, a unanimously-approved UN resolution not only condemned Israel's action but called "upon Israel to refrain in the future from any such acts or threats thereof".

And with the threat of Israeli action already hanging over Iran in 2010, the NPT review conference adopted an article, clearly targeting Israel, urging "all states" to abide by a decision adopted at the IAEA general conference in September 2009 prohibiting "armed attack or threat of attack against nuclear installations, during operation or under construction". (While Israel is not a member of the NPT, it is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency).

So it's clear that an Israeli bombing of Bushehr would be illegal under international law. Yet this issue is surely a red herring. In any Israeli raid, the target is unlikely to be a civilian plant where damage would poison the water of populations for generations to come, but rather military sites and known nuclear facilities with military potential.

What can the Gulf states do in this situation? While unable to prevent an Israeli attack, minds should now be focused on seeking a negotiated outcome to the showdown, as the big powers grouped in the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) prepare for a new round of talks with Iran. The six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council have the right to contribute, and not only by seeking reinforced firepower for themselves from the Americans in a region which is already bristling with military hardware.

Of course there is a range of opinions within the GCC, with the Saudi leadership having privately urged Washington to "cut off the head of the snake" while others, such as Qatar and Oman, want to preserve their relationship with Iran. What is certain is that the military option would benefit none of the GCC states, while ensuring that Iran would bolt from the NPT and race towards building the bomb in a country where there is already strong public support for the nuclear programme.

The parameters of a bargain with Iran are already clear. Despite several rounds of ever-tightening UN and unilateral sanctions, Iran has refused to suspend its sensitive uranium enrichment activities and is amassing a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 per cent. It's still a long way from the 93 per cent enrichment required for weapons grade, but it has made the critical jump in mastering the fuel cycle by moving from the 5 per cent required for civilian reactors to the 20 per cent needed for medical isotopes.

Any deal with Iran would have to preserve its right to enrich uranium on its own soil - under safeguards. The Americans will have to convince the Iranians that their goal is not regime change. The Iranians will have to satisfy the International Atomic Energy Agency about questions relating to their earlier weapons programme and that their current intentions are purely peaceful. And the sanctions should be lifted.

It will take time, and that's also where the GCC can play a role. For with tensions running high, and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeping up a steady drumbeat of war - whether to raise the diplomatic pressure on the Iranians or to build support for inevitable military strikes remains to be seen - there is a need for cool heads in the region.

A failure of the P5+1 talks could trigger a war. If the GCC states can speak with one voice, they have a right to be heard. Not only is it their right. It is their duty.

Anne Penketh is Programme Director, Washington, of the British American Security Information Council
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