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U.S. and Saudi nuclear options

Javad Heirannia

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Authors: Javad Heiran-Nia, Ramin Hossein Abadian*

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has recently pushed a plan to build seven strategic nuclear projects in the country, including a nuclear reactor in King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology in Riyadh. The make of the first Saudi research reactor is unclear since Riyadh and Washington have not reached agreement yet on this nuclear project.

Americans strongly insist that Saudi Arabia purchase all of its nuclear technology from American companies. But MbS is moving forward regardless, sending a message to Washington that it will do what it wants regardless of the outcome of the nuclear negotiations with the United States.

Saudi Arabia has several goals in pursuing its nuclear program. It wants to strengthen its human resources, make progress in the field of science and nuclear engineering, increase its power in the field of scientific research, diversify its energy resources, and boost its nuclear industry. After mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, Saudi Arabia also intends to sell this knowledge to its allies.

Saudi pursuit of a nuclear program is more for strategic than economic reasons. In an interview last March, MbS warned, “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” He made clear in this CBS interview that Saudi adherence to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty is conditional: if Iran opts for a bomb, so will Saudi Arabia.

According to Richard Nephew, who served as the lead sanctions expert for the US team negotiating with Iran ,and Robert Einhorn, who served as the US State Department special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, the Saudis are motivated to acquire nuclear weapons but “their ability to do so is very much in doubt, at least for the foreseeable future. “

One reason for Saudi interest in nuclear weapons is a declining confidence in US support. For example, Donald Trump has said that the Saudi king wouldn’t last two weeks without US support. These remarks, and other indications like the US failure to prevent the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and its inability to apply red lines in Syria as well as Iran’s activities in the region, have caused the Saudis to consider providing for their own security.

To compensate for a potential weakening in its alliance with Washington, Saudi Arabia has established military relations with Russia and, some time ago, secretly purchased missiles from China.

Saudi Arabia is also seeking to use its nuclear program to balance Iran’s military capabilities. In this regard, Richard Nephew says, “The Saudis are concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and want to ensure that they are in possession of a similarly advanced one. What exactly would be required in that—just reactors? Enrichment?—are subjects of speculation and interest of course.” Paul Pillar, who was CIA intelligence analyst for 28 years, also believes that “the Saudis have been interested all along in developing a nuclear program, and keeping pace with Iran involves part of their motivations.”

Washington is worried about the transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Even if the International Atomic Energy Agency closely monitors Saudi Arabia’s nuclear activities, it cannot prevent the country from obtaining an atomic bomb. After all, some countries like India and Israel promised the United States not to seek nuclear weapons but ultimately broke their promise.

To prevent the Saudis from building a nuclear weapons program, the United States will need to insist on several guarantees. The most important issues revolve around dual-use technologies, such as uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, which can be used for either civilian or military purposes. As Richard Nephew says, “The Saudis may not wish to give up their right to such technologies (an opinion not unfamiliar to Iranians) but this is not the same as seeking those technologies outright.” Further, Washington could insist that Saudi Arabia adopt the Additional Protocol, an agreement that provides the IAEA additional monitoring and access rights, acquisition from foreign suppliers of nuclear fuel for the entire life of the reactor, and the return of the spent fuel from the reactor to the supplier.

Of course, the United States worries that imposing more limits on the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent reactor fuel will merely push Saudi Arabia toward non-US companies.

As a model, the United States has looked to the agreement it reached several years ago with the United Arab Emirates. In that accord, the UAE agreed to forgo enrichment and reprocessing in return for receiving nuclear material, equipment, and know-how from the United States. This 123 Agreement (based on Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954) has become known as the “gold standard.”

Saudi cooperation with American companies requires such a 123 Agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia. But the Trump administration hasn’t decided whether it will insist on the “gold standard” provisions against enrichment and reprocessing, though some members of Congress and nonproliferation advocacy groups have insisted that it do so. The United States should promptly negotiate and finalize a 123 Agreement with Saudi Arabia. But it must follow the gold standard. In this way, the United States can contribute to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to modernize its economy and society and yet also ensure that Riyadh does not acquire nuclear weapons and destabilize the Middle East even further.

*Ramin Hossein Abadian is a journalist with MNA.

First published in our partner MNA

Ph.D Student of International relations in Islamic Azad niversity،Science and Research Branch (Iran) Visiting Fellow of the Persian Gulf Department in the Center for Middle East Studies

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Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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