Nuclear Debate in Davos

DAVOS, Switzerland-- Here at the World Economic Forum in Davos, there was a debate, sponsored by pan-Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya, called “What if Iran Develops a Nuclear Weapon?”

Of course, as with much of the conversation here this week, the subject quickly shifts to events in Egypt and Tunisia.

One reporter asked Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal if the Arab world feels more threatened by the prospect of Iran with a bomb, or by democracy.

Prince Turki replied, “I don’t know. We don’t have a nuclear weapon. And we don’t have democracy.”

In the wake of the Wikileaks revelations that many Middle East leaders would be relieved if the United States took out Iran’s nuclear facilities, it could be expected that Arab and Muslim voices in this debate would come out critically of their neighbor Iran.

They did not. So were the Wikileaks about Arab feeling about Iran not representative of the Arab mood? It may just be that there is a gulf between what can be said publicly and in private.

From Prince Turki to Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey Ali Babacan, the line they stressed was not as much Iran being prevented from developing a bomb, but more the Middle East needing to be a weapons of mass destruction free zone.

Babacan was not direct, but he was clear about his position on Israel.

“In our region, we have countries who have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and are suspected of having nuclear weapons.”

Prince Turki was blunt.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always stood for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. The elephant in the room is Israel. This must be included in the discussion. Israel with a nuclear weapon is dangerous.”

Richard Haas, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, said Israel would probably not consider abandoning its nuclear program until it feels secure in the region. Prince Turki disagreed, saying that Israel might be willing to disarm, but America and the West did not want it to.

Some in the audience alleged that only U.S. allies are allowed to have nuclear weapons. Haas pointed out that the worry about Iran is primarily that Iran is a different kind of political actor.

And he said that Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism.

He said, “Iran is not a status quo power. It is an imperial power.”

Haas later pointed out:

“If Switzerland, it turned out tomorrow, turned out to be in the advanced stages of a nuclear program, it would be different.”

The moderator, Hisham Melhem, asked the Arabs in the group what they are doing—or whether they are just waiting for outside powers “to deliver us from this nightmare?”

Babacan of Turkey said nations have a right to nuclear power, but the region needs to be a nuclear free zone.

Both Haas and Prince Turki are of the opinion that the current mix of sanctions and diplomacy are not working.

Haas said, “I don’t think any diplomatic initiative on its own has the possible of succeeding.” Iran, he pointed out, as many others have, uses the occasions for dialogue with world powers as a way to buy itself time. “Iran,” Haas said, “is not sincere about meeting its international obligations in the nuclear realm.” He also said sanctions, which by many accounts are starting to work, have not been tough enough.

Haas pointed out that there could be a change of government in Iran before it reaches the much feared conclusion of its nuclear program. He said this Iran with certain capabilities would be different from a different sort of Iran with certain capabilities.

Haas said that a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities could not be ruled out. There has always been concern about how the “Arab Street” would react to an attack on a Muslim neighbor. There was a time when the prospects of destabilizing reaction might have been overrated. Now, in the wake of events in Egypt and Tunisia, the street has a different dynamic and has demonstrated an ability to thoroughly mobilize itself.