Iran deal could spark Gulf nuclear arms race

The Iranian nuclear deal and growing fears among Gulf states of a weakening US position on Tehran could spark a new nuclear proliferation race.

Arab officials are anxious over the US-led negotiations with Iran on its nuclear enrichment programme and have warned that any advances made by Iran will be matched, according to a report in the New York Times.

At a recent conference in South Korea, former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal, said that Riyadh would match Iran's nuclear programme step for step.

US president Barack Obama yesterday concluded a summit with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council at Camp David, near Washington, where Iran was high on the agenda.

A US-GCC joint statement said that the parties agreed that a "comprehensive, verifiable [nuclear] deal" was in the interests of both parties.

The agreement reached by international negotiators in Lausanne last month reduced the number of nuclear centrifuges installed in Iran by two-thirds but allowed Tehran to continue its uranium-enrichment programme, albeit at a slower pace.

According to Torbjorn Soltvedt, deputy head of Middle East North Africa (MENA) at global security analysts Verisk Maplecroft, the deal could have the adverse effect of actually increasing nuclear proliferation in the Gulf region.

"If the US can't ease the fears of Gulf states over the deal, it could spark a race to acquire more sophisticated nuclear capabilities," says Soltvedt.

The Saudi ambassador to the US has previously failed to rule out the acquisition of nuclear weapons and Riyadh could have a ready-made stockpile in regional ally Pakistan. Western intelligence agencies believe the Saudis may have subsidised up to 60% of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, which is believed to have produced up to 120 nuclear warheads.

Soltvedt also highlights Turkey and Egypt as having the economic capacity and regional status to become involved in any nuclear proliferation race.

Measures agreed at the Camp David summit included greater cooperation between the US and GCC in areas of counterterrorism, cybersecurity and missile defence systems, as well as the fast-tracking of arms sales. However, there was no formal defence treaty signed.

The participants, which only include two heads of state after several leaders including King Salman of Saudi Arabia dropped out, also discussed regional conflicts where Iranian interventionism is rife, including Syria and Yemen.

Daniel Nisman, president of Middle East-based security consultancy the Levantine Group, says Saudi Arabia in particular is liable to up its nuclear programme as it tackles Iranian threats from Tehran and Yemen.

"Saudi Arabia is increasingly threatened by Iranian proxies. They are going to see what Iran is doing in nuclear terms and are quite serious about advancing their own nuclear ambitions," says Nisman.

In spite of any positive intentions coming from the west, Nisman says the only reason Iran is striking a deal is to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the US presence in the Middle East.

"Iran has absolutely no intention or ambition to have any sort of positive relations with the US other than getting them out of the region," he says.

Five states - the US, the UK, France, China and Russia - are officially recognised by the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty as possessing nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan are not signed up to the treaty but are known to possess warheads, while Israel is also believed to have nuclear arms despite never declaring so. North Korea is also suspected to have nuclear warheads but it is unclear how advanced Pyongyang's programme is.