UNITED NATIONS, Dec 9, 2011 (IPS) – The world's nuclear powers – both declared and undeclared – have come primarily from Asia: China, India, Pakistan and possibly North Korea.
The Middle East was dominated by a single nuclear power – Israel, which has refused to publicly declare its status.
But that domination has been threatened by Iran, which the Western powers say is on the verge of developing nuclear weapons, an assertion denied by the Iranians.
The nuclear threats from Israel and Iran have now triggered a potential competitor in Saudi Arabia, an oil-blessed Middle Eastern country which has enough riches to buy itself into nuclear capability.
Speaking at a security forum in the Saudi capital of Riyadh last week, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the United States, warned that nuclear threats from Israel and Iran may force Saudi Arabia to follow suit.
"It is our duty toward our nation and people to consider all possible options, including the possession of these weapons," he was quoted as saying.
Prince Turki's comments have taken added significance in the context of a long-outstanding international conference on a nuclear weapons- free zone in the Middle East, scheduled to take place in Finland next year.
The world's five declared nuclear weapons states, under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), are the five veto- wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
Jayantha Dhanapala, president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science & World Affairs, told IPS, "At a time when the dominant view in the world is that we should progress towards a nuclear weapons-free world, threats to leave the NPT and become a nuclear-armed state because others have done so are not only retrogressive, but they are also atavistic and a violation of the principles of international humanitarian law and the tenets of all religions."
"We know that nuclear deterrence is a false doctrine and that the possession of nuclear weapons has not earned any nation more security than others," he pointed out.
The inaugural statement of the Asian Pacific Leaders Network for Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation (APLN) issued in Tokyo last month said, "So long as anyone has nuclear weapons there are others who will want them; so long as any nuclear weapons remain anywhere, they are bound one day to be used by design, mistake or miscalculation by state or non-state actors; and any such use will be catastrophic."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Five Point Plan and the negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention is the only viable way forward to rid the world of the most inhumane weapon ever invented, said Dhanapala, a former U.N. under secretary-general for disarmament affairs.
Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Jerusalem-based Palestine-Israel Journal, told IPS it is not surprising to read Prince Turki's comments about the possibility that Saudi Arabia might seek to develop a nuclear weapons potential in the context of a regional arms race in the Middle East.
As long as Israel retained a monopoly on a nuclear weapons potential in the region, and declared that "it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East", an uneasy calm was maintained in the realm of non-conventional weapons and strategy in the region, he said.
"However, if Iran will also gain a similar nuclear weapons potential, even if it follows Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity, a non- conventional arms race in the region is inevitable, creating a severe regional instability, with potentially catastrophic consequences that would reverberate far beyond the Middle East," said Schenker, the Middle East Security Group coordinator for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East.
This situation only serves to emphasise the importance of the forthcoming 2012 conference on a nuclear and mass destruction weapons free zone in the Middle East to be hosted by Finland, he added.
"Hopefully, if planned with wisdom and foresight, it will set in motion a process that will lead both to a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, and an Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab comprehensive peace," Schenker declared.
Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute, told IPS that proliferation tensions in the Middle East are symptoms of an inadequate focus on what must rapidly become the global common purpose of all nations – a universal, legally enforceable, non- discriminatory ban on nuclear weapons.
"The aspirations of Iran to be respected while not cooperating in strengthening the verification aspects of the non-proliferation regime, the new threats posed by Saudi Arabia, and the hazard of Israel's actual arsenal are not the cause of our unacceptably unstable nuclear dilemma," he said.
"As long as Russia and the United States trade in the currency of nuclear threats, the Middle East nuclear weapons challenge will hang over our heads," said Granoff, a senior advisor to the American Bar Association's Committee on Arms Control and Nuclear Security.
"Nuclear weapons must wake us all up to the realisation that new levels of common purpose and cooperation based on the rule of law is necessary for a secure future for all and everyone," said Granoff.
Shannon Kile, who heads the Nuclear Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS Prince Turki al-Faisal's comment that Saudi Arabia could consider pursuing a nuclear weapon option in the future should be seen, first and foremost, as an expression of the growing concern in Riyadh over the unresolved questions about alleged Iranian nuclear activities with military dimensions.
"It also reflects the mounting sense of frustration in many Arab capitals about the unwillingness of Israel, which is widely believed to have a nuclear weapon arsenal, to engage in discussions about creating a weapons of mass destruction-free (WMD) zone in the Middle East," she said.
Although Prince Turki was by no means saying that Saudi Arabia intends to pursue a nuclear weapons programme, said Kile, his comment underscores the urgency of resolving the outstanding questions about the scope and nature of Iran's nuclear programme and finding a formula to make tangible progress at the 2012 conference on the Middle East WMD-free zone.
"Otherwise, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states may feel compelled to reconsider their own formative security policy choices to join the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapon states," Kile warned.