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    North Korean Sinking of South Korean Frigate Raises Arab Fear of Nuclear Iran

    The sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan last March 26 by a North Korean torpedo has prompted some Arab Gulf officials to wonder whether this would be a scenario that they would likely face with a nuclear-armed Iran in the future. North Korea, now equipped with nuclear arms, appears to have grown bolder in its provocations of its U.S.-allied neighbor in the south and other parts of East and Southeast Asia. An international team of investigators concluded that the warship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. Seoul’s reaction has thus far been mild compared to its loss of 46 sailors in the incident. South Korea’s retaliation has been restricted to few steps: Cutting off trade ties with Pyongyang; barring North Korean ships from entering the South’s waters; seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the attack; and demanding an apology from the Northern communist state.

    Many analysts plus Arab as well as Western officials have traditionally drawn a comparison between the approach used by North Korea to build its nuclear capabilities and the one adopted now by Iran. Both have embraced a strategy of clandestine nuclear activities and exploiting the loopholes in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) system to advance the nuclear programs. North Korea has been the main supplier of ballistic missiles technology to Iran, which today builds medium-range missiles. Both countries are under some form of international sanctions and isolation. However, Iran, an Islamic Republic, has much more resources than its North Korean ally, especially oil and gas, which has made it more immune than Pyongyang to effective international isolation or sanctions. And both authoritarian regimes share strong animosity to the United States and the West.

    Iran’s Arab Gulf neighbors to the West have traditionally felt threatened and intimidated by their large Persian neighbor. Although they did not have any direct military conflict with Iran, they however supported Iraq in the 1980-88 war with Iran. Iranian naval boats have often had skirmishes with Arab Gulf fishermen. Iran has ongoing border disputes with a number of these states and is accused by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of occupying three of its islands (Greater and Smaller Tunb and Abu Mousa). The U.S.-allied Arab Gulf States have voiced concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and objected to Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. Some Iranian officials and politicians make statements questioning the sovereignty of some of the Arab Gulf States, and even threatened to attack them if the U.S. or Israel carried out any military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. The sectarian tension in Iraq and Lebanon has also strained ties between the predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran with the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab States.

    “Iran without a nuclear bomb is now trying to dominate Arab countries and harass them on many fronts (Iraq, Lebanon and Palestinian territories) and in Gulf waters without care to Arab or international reaction, so imagine how Tehran would behave when it possesses nuclear weapons,” said one Arab official who asked not to be named. “What could Arab countries or even the United States do if submarines or gunboats of a nuclear-capable Iran attack and sink a Saudi or UAE frigate? Nothing more than simple words of condemnation,” he added. Another Arab Gulf politician said that Tehran would not differ much than Pyongyang in its behavior with its neighbors and the international community when it becomes a nuclear power. “Iran would likely become the absolute power-broker and dominator in the region because nobody, even the U.S., would be in the mood of escalating a military conflict with a nuclear power especially in an area rich with energy resources like the Gulf,” he said. Although Tehran has continuously asserted that its nuclear program was for peaceful uses, the United States, Israel and the West believe it conceals a military program. Most Arab people and officials believe Iran is seeking to build a nuclear arsenal.

    Observers believe if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, some Arab countries would try to do the same to achieve an effective balance of power with Iran as well as Israel – another regional nuclear power. The Gulf states are now watching Pyongyang’s neighbor’s South Korea and Japan especially– to see whether they can rely on the U.S. and/or international community to deter future hostile North Korean actions. This issue raises an important question: Can non-nuclear states stand up to nuclear states who bully their neighbors?

    Riad KAHWAJI

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