The repeated hints made by the Iranian president with regards to the membership of his country to the nuclear club has shaken the Arab world despite the attempts to cover this up with diplomatic language. Some Arab political analysts went as far as describing U.S military intervention against Iranian nuclear development as wise, as this development threatens the Gulf and the entire Arab region. Others nevertheless argued that the most appropriate reaction to the Iranian nuclear program is for Arabs to work on their program because nuclear deterrence is the only real guarantee of Arab national security.
I am not so much concerned with the assessment of the actual Iranian danger that may threaten Arab national security even though I acknowledge the thorny issues that are yet to be resolved between Iran and its Arab neighbors. In this article, I will seek to examine the validity of the Iranian experiment as a model for Arab countries. Recently, there has been an increase in criticism of the Arab weakness to emulate the Pakistani and Iranian models, two successful examples of entering the era of modern advanced technology to defend and protect their supreme national securities.
It is well known that this strive for technical military advancement has been the main concern of the Arabs and Muslims since the mid-nineteenth century including the Ottoman Empire, Mohamed Ali and his sons in Egypt, the Beys in Tunisia, or the Alawites of Morocco. Back then, the elites were convinced that what separated their countries from the West were mainly their military capabilities rather than any cultural or intellectual factors. Hence, reform for them was the aim to advance military capabilities based on Western models.
After the occupation of Palestine and the eruption of the Arab Israeli conflict, nationalist revolutionary regimes became convinced of the importance of weaponry based on President Nasser’s saying that, “What was taken by force, can only be reclaimed by force.” Thus, the Egyptians worked hard in cooperation with the Soviet Union to establish a base for the development of weaponry. Nuclear power was a major pillar. Yet, the experience proved a total failure as Egypt was defeated by Israel in 1967. The defeat revealed the feebleness of Egypt’s military capabilities in comparison to Israel’s military supremacy with American support.
With the Iraq-Iran war, which erupted at the beginning of the 1980’s, the Baathist regime launched an ambitious project to build highly developed weaponry in agreement with America and Europe, which led to clear results of developed chemical and biological weapons as well as the capability of nuclear weapons. Arab media labeled the Iraqi army as the world’s fourth most powerful army. The war to liberate Kuwait, however, revealed the real limitations of the Iraqi army, which could not stand against powerful American strikes. The Iraqi Scud missiles also failed to inflict any real or serious damage to Israel. In addition, the latest invasion of Iraq has proved Iraq does not harbor weapons of mass destruction, the pretense upon which President Bush based his “project” that eventually toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.
With Libya’s decision to give up its nuclear weapon program as it came under strong pressure from America and the renewal the Non-Proliferation Treaty by all Arabs, including Egypt, which in the beginning would only sign according to Israel’s compliance, the Arab dream of a balance of nuclear deterrence with Israel had collapsed totally. This clearly coincided with the shift towards peaceful resolution with Israel, which became in effect, based on normalization for partial withdrawal rather than land for peace.
Therefore, from the statements of Arab analysts, it seems that the Iranian nuclear project has become more dangerous for Arabs than for Israel, the reasons for which are undeclared however; one may be that the framework for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is known whereas with Iran, it is unclear. Meanwhile, the issues of conflict between the Arabs and Iran, including that of the three islands of the United Arab Emirates are yet to be resolved.
The oversimplified vision of modeling Arab military technological development on the Pakistani and Iranian models has two problems of which most analysts are unaware. The first is the fact that the military will remain fragile as long as it is not backed by a complete advanced infrastructure. Without this infrastructure, the military is made up of simple and fragile imported weaponry. This will simply drain and burden the already weak Arab economies as well as empower strong military institutions, which will intrude further on the political realm. Evidently, this will cause the narrowing of political openness just as the Pakistani example has proven. Pakistan remains the exception in a region that has witnessed high levels of democratic pluralism over the past two decades.
The second problem is concerned with the fact that the new definitions of national security cannot be reduced to military force only or what is termed in political jargon as “hard power,” as this represents a limited view of the requirements for national security. National security redefined includes many essential components such as the efficiency and legitimacy of the political regime, the levels of socio-economic development, the dynamism of scientific and technological production etc. In short, the definition of national security includes all that is classified as “soft power” in accordance with this new terminology.