AP Interview: Saudi warns of Mideast nuclear race

January 25, 2012 - 4:05 PM

DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — An influential member of the Saudi royal family warned Wednesday that unless the Middle East becomes a nuclear weapon-free zone, a nuclear arms race is inevitable and could include his own country, Iraq, Egypt and even Turkey.

Prince Turki Al Faisal said the five permanent U.N. Security Council members should guarantee a nuclear security umbrella for Mideast countries that join a nuclear-free zone — and impose "military sanctions" against countries seen to be developing nuclear weapons.

"I think that's a better way of going at this issue of nuclear enrichment of uranium, or preventing Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction," the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the U.S. and Britain said in an interview with The Associated Press. "If it goes that route, I think it's a much more equitable procedure than what has been happening in the last 10 years or so."

Turki said establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone "deserves everybody's attention and energy, more so than other activities which we see unfolding, whether it is redeployment of fleets in the area, whether Iranian or American or British or French, whether it is the sanctions efforts against Iran."

The Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran, mainly targeting its defense and nuclear establishment, but Tehran has refused to suspend uranium enrichment and enter negotiations on its nuclear activities. It maintains its nuclear program is peaceful, aimed solely at producing nuclear energy, but the U.S. and many European nations believe Iran's goal is to produce nuclear weapons.

Turki's proposal could impose sanctions against Iran if there is evidence it is pursuing weapons of mass destruction, which include nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons. But it could also put Israel under sanctions if it doesn't come clean on its suspected nuclear arsenal.

Israel is widely believed to have an arsenal of hundreds of nuclear weapons but has avoided confirming or denying their existence.

An Arab proposal for a weapons of mass destruction-free zone was initially endorsed by the 1995 conference reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but never acted on.

In May 2010, the 189 member nations that are party to the NPT called for convening a conference in 2012. Last October, the U.N., U.S., Russia and Britain announced that Finland will host the conference this year.

Israel is not a party to the NPT and has long said a full Arab-Israeli peace must precede such weapons bans. But at the 2010 NPT review conference, the United States, Israel's most important ally, said it welcomed "practical measures" leading toward the goal of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

It remains unclear, however, whether the U.S. or veteran Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, who is serving as "facilitator" of this year's conference, can persuade Israel to attend.

Turki said his answer to American and British diplomats who say Israel won't accept a nuclear weapons-free zone is "So what?"

He said the five permanent members should make an announcement on the establishment of a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, at this year's conference in Finland.

Turki cautioned, however, that actually establishing a WMD-free zone will take negotiations in which all the underlying issues in the region, from the establishment of a Palestinian state to the future of the Golan Heights, "will have to be dealt with to make the zone workable."

"So there are incentives there for everybody to be serious about establishing an overall peace so the zone can be put in place," he said.

Turki warned that if there is no WMD-free zone in the Mideast, "inevitably" there is going to be a nuclear arms race "and that's not going to be in the favor of anybody."

The Gulf states are committed not to acquire WMD, he said. "But we're not the only players in town. You have Turkey. You have Iraq which has a track record of wanting to go nuclear. You have Egypt. They had a very vibrant nuclear energy program from the 1960s. You have Syria. You have other players in the area that could open Pandora's box."

Asked whether Saudi Arabia would maintain its commitment against acquiring WMD, Turki said: "What I suggest for Saudi Arabia and for the other Gulf states ... is that we must study carefully all the options, including the option of acquiring weapons of mass destruction. We can't simply leave it for somebody else to decide for us."