KUWAIT CITY -This tiny Gulf country is increasingly nervous — as are some of its neighbors — about Iran’s controversial nuclear program, right across the water. But heading into a key summit, Arab leaders are divided, and publicly squabbling, over how to defuse a crisis that has caused the West to haul Iran before the U.N. Security Council.
Countries close to Iran, including Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have focused on safety issues, the threat of a possible regional arms race and the possibility that a crisis with the West could spill onto other nations. Iran’s nuclear program “still poses a big worry,” Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nayyan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, said this month.
But Arab countries farther away from Iran have insisted that the United States and Europe should not pressure Iran over its program unless they also push for an end to Israel’s nuclear program.
In January, the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, an Egyptian, quarreled publicly with the Emirates’ foreign minister after Moussa sent a message to the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, urging the leaders of the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar to focus on Israel, not Iran.
Moussa repeated his stance last month, saying at one Arab meeting: “We should avoid double standards.”
Israel maintains ambiguity over its nuclear program but is widely believed to have hundreds of nuclear warheads.
The United States accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But Iran says its nuclear program aims only to generate electricity and has insisted it has a right to carry out uranium enrichment, a process that can develop either fuel for a reactor or material for a nuclear weapon.
As they head into next week’s Arab League meeting in Sudan, both Iran’s program itself — and the fight over it — have many in the Gulf nervous.
“Accidents happen in developed countries. What would reassure us that they won’t happen in a Third World country?” asked Kuwaiti strategist Sami al-Faraj.
His Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies is advising the Kuwaiti government — as well as the secretariat-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council — on how to prepare for any nuclear accidents in Iran, he said. The country’s first nuclear reactor, expected to go online this year, is in Bushehr in southern Iran, just 150 miles across the Persian Gulf from Kuwait.
Iran is seismically unstable, and an earthquake could cause an accident that would be more disastrous for Gulf countries than for Iran.
“A catastrophe that kills 200,000 people could mean wiping out half of Bahrain,” he noted.
In addition, any pollution of the Gulf would shut down the six water desalination plants on the Arab shore, he said.
But it’s not just safety issues that concern the Gulf states. Leaders also worry about a possible regional arms race, and fear the dispute with the West might prompt U.S. or Israeli airstrikes against Iran — something sure to rile Shiite Muslim communities in the largely Sunni Muslim Gulf countries.
During a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in December, a government-run think tank, the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies, warned Gulf states against maintaining “silence” over the nuclear issue, saying they “will pay the price for any escalation between Iran and the West.”
“Gulf nations utterly refuse any idea that Iran should own a nuclear weapon, and they want Iran to stop uranium enrichment … except under international control,” said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi Arabian analyst.
And he said a nuclear-armed Iran would be a “justification” for foreign countries to keep their forces in the Gulf longer to protect their oil interests.
Washington has maintained a military presence in the area since a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. Kuwait was the main launch point for the American-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and U.S. naval and air forces have bases in Bahrain and Qatar.
Al-Shirian said any military confrontation between Iran and the West would trigger a response in Iraq that could lead to Shiite-Sunni sectarian tensions across the region.
Iran and southern Iraq embrace the Shiite sect of Islam, while Gulf countries that are ruled by Sunni families have Shiite minorities.
In January, Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric in Iraq, said his militia would defend Iran if that country were ever attacked, an apparent message to the West that Tehran has allies who could make things difficult for U.S. forces in the region.
“They are our neighbors,” one former Kuwaiti lawmaker, Ahmed al-Rubei, said recently of Iran. “Their safety is our safety.”