Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khalid al Attiyah threw his hat into the nuclear arena in Geneva last week reaffirming his nation’s commitment to a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.
‘So what?’ I hear you all say. Of course it doesn’t take a deep knowledge of foreign affairs or Gulf geography to realise that Qatar will never become a nuclear weapons state. The only likely possibilities for regional nuclearisation are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, of which Saudi Arabia with its vast geographical size and strategic depth affording it the potential for dispersed delivery sites and ‘second strike’ capability is a serious option.
So what is Qatar doing adding its name to the club of voices involved in the nuclear debate seeing as it has seemingly little role to play in any future proliferation scenario? Well the answer is worth exploring. The installation of the X-band radar system in Qatar in July 2012 ties Qatar intimately into the ever improving Ballistic Missile Defence capacity of the Gulf states, which by extension links Qatar into the regional security debate on proliferation and nuclearisation.
The upgrading of BMD capacity serves a dual purpose of defending the Gulf states from conventional and nuclear attack by missiles, whilst simultaneously negating their need to nuclearize in response to perceived threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran. As such, the system serves to buy the region a little more space to think about what to do whilst Iran plays games with the P5+1 concerning its enrichment programme.
Should the Iranians decide to go for a nuclear weapon (a decision which they will surely put off until the last possible moment before negotiations with the P5+1 stall and when they have as much latent nuclear capability as possible), then the ballistic missile defence shield becomes a vital component for buying extra time in preventing the region from quickly descending into mass panic. Getting a bomb is one thing, but finding a way to deliver it, and accurately is quite another.
Currently Iran lacks terminal guidance capability on its missiles, and is not estimated to reach such levels of accuracy for another ten years. Given that Iran (should it decide to weaponise) could only place a small crude device onto an inaccurate missile in the near future, it does not threaten world peace in quite the way some would make out. Furthermore the development of advanced BMD technology from the Gulf states (with American backing) would severely lessen this already weak offensive potential.
What does threaten world peace is the transition to accurate delivery systems that would allow Iran the ability to strike strategically sensitive targets, such as Saudi’s Ras Tanura oil export facility, or regional Gulf population centres. The timing of the transition is important here. If we assume that Iran cannot reach this stage for another ten years, then we can better see the role that the Gulf states play in buying the world some time to deal with this issue, given of course that they still require American assistance for the operation and support of their main deterrence capacity.
The really important role for Qatar in this whole game is its relationship to Saudi Arabia. Specifically how it can provide a role in restraining Riyadh from taking any rash decisions should the Iranians surprise us all and end up with a bomb, notwithstanding a potential Israeli or US strike. Qatar has many options it can explore in this regard, offering its territory as a site for offensive conventional missiles which it could no doubt purchase with its ample wealth from any supplier it so wished, may be perhaps the most useful.
Qatar would of course make itself a target for Iranian ire by doing this, but it is already a target by virtue of the American military base situated just to the south-west of Doha. The location of offensive missiles targeted at sensitive Iranian military sites would allow the Qataris a bargaining chip with Riyadh to say, ‘hold off on any plans to go nuclear, we can handle this conventionally’. Thus what initially seems a highly destabilising Qatari move could potentially prevent a regional catastrophe.
Furthermore Qatar refuses to allow its American airbase to be used as a launching pad for a strike against Iran should Israel or the US decide to go in. This causes the US some headaches with regard to scenario planning and logistics, which certainly adds to the restrain factor that is so badly needed at this point in time. The higher and more difficult the cost of the US deciding to join Israel in an attack, the less likely it is to happen. This can only be a good thing.
So Qatar has a number of ways in which it plays in the regional nuclear debate, and should it feel necessary, a number of options to attempt to mitigate the threat of cascading regional destabilisation should Iran decide to attain the ultimate weapon. Ultimately the Qatari strategic position may be overruled by the whims of greater powers, but when Qatar says it wants a region free of nuclear weapons, do not scoff: it plays a more nuanced and complex role than many think.