Nukes for Tehran—and Riyadh?

What the foreign papers are saying.
Sept. 19 2003 6:57 PM

Nukes for Tehran—and Riyadh?

Baghdad temperatures still regularly break 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but it's Tehran that generated the real heat this week as Iran's nuclear ambitions continue to fuel global controversy. Tehran was in the papers throughout the week after the International Atomic Energy Commission set an Oct. 30 deadline for the regime to allow unannounced nuclear inspections. On Tuesday, just ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to the United States, Washington accused Russia of selling advanced weapons to Tehran. And as if Iran's nuclear ambitions weren't enough, Britain's Guardian ran a surprising story alleging that Saudi Arabia is also seeking to develop a nuclear program.

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Iran has been sparring with the West over its nuclear ambitions for years, but international pressure on the rogue state  has increased since Bush declared it a member of the "axis of evil" in January 2002. An op-ed in Pakistan's Nation placed the recent IAEA ultimatum in context, noting America's growing antipathy to Iran as its Middle East commitments expand, since "the United States has repeatedly accused Iran of infiltrating armed men into southern Iraq in a bid to support Iraq's shia population." The article went on to explain why Washington and Tehran make such good enemies, citing Iran's opposition to U.S. forces in the Gulf, its refusal to endorse the U.S.-led road map for peace, and its disagreement with U.S. policies in Iraq.

This last point may be the most crucial for American policy-makers, since Iraq's increasingly hostile Shiite population naturally gravitates toward Iran's religious sphere of influence. An op-ed in Egypt's Middle East Times made the same point: "With Iran already supporting an anti-US proxy war in Afghanistan, what is to stop this neighboring country from interceding in the Shia majority areas in Iraq?" An article in the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly noted that the recent IAEA declaration "marks a qualitative shift in the escalating international campaign against Iran." If the October deadline is not met, the situation could be put before the U.N. Security Council, which could lead to sanctions and intervention as in Iraq. The piece criticized Iran for arguing about technical aspects of the inspections instead of the "abundantly obvious political dimension." Iran didn't help itself any more by going on to argue "that it is Israel's nuclear capabilities, not Iran's, that pose the major threat to regional peace and security." The piece concluded by alleging that Washington has hired a San Diego-based Internet security company to break the regime's censorship laws and "bombard the Iranian public with a daily barrage of e-mail messages hostile to the regime in Tehran."

European papers also noted that America's longstanding animosity toward Iran has led it to try and isolate the regime internationally, and in particular to distance Tehran from its old Cold War partner Moscow. The announcement of sanctions against a Russian government-owned arms firm for selling high-tech artillery shells to Iran was, according to a Guardian report, largely political, since the company does no business with the United States. "Normally Washington would impose sanctions on the entire country for such a breach. But in this instance it has decided not to cancel the millions of dollars aid it gives Russia annually because it regards the disposal of the former Soviet Union army's nuclear arsenal as vital to national security." The story, which was also covered by the Moscow Times, is part of a larger battle over Russia's pledge to build a nuclear reactor in Iran. Washington fears the deal will give Iranian scientists advanced knowledge they could use to accelerate their nuclear program. Russia insists it can minimize the program's risks by making Iran return the new reactor's spent nuclear fuel, which could otherwise be processed into nuclear weapons material. The Russians claim not to understand all the fuss—the Guardian quoted a Russian official noting that "[i]n Russia we have very strict export controls. It is difficult to understand what their motivations are."

Another Guardian report, which the Glasgow Herald claimed to corroborate with U.S. intelligence sources, asserted that Saudi Arabia may consider buying nuclear weapons of its own—a story the Saudis quickly denied. The Herald noted the move would be an indicator of the growing rift between Saudi Arabia and the United States, coming soon after U.S. forces were pulled out of the kingdom last month: "Washington has never quite forgotten the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11 al Qaeda suicide hijackers were Saudis." Saudi Arabia might also seek out its own nuclear weapons as a defense against the atomic ambitions of neighboring Iran.

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.