North Korea Sinking Of South Korean Frigate Raises Arab Fear Of Nuclear Iran


Many analysts plus Arab as well as Western officials have traditionally  drawn a comparison between the approach used by North Korea to build its  nuclear capabilities and the one adopted now by Iran.

By Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA

The sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan last March 26 by a North  Korean torpedo has prompted some Arab Gulf officials to wonder whether  this would be a scenario that they would likely face with a  nuclear-armed Iran in the future. North Korea, now equipped with nuclear  arms, appears to have grown bolder in its provocations of its  U.S.-allied neighbor in the south and other parts of East and Southeast  Asia. An international team of investigators concluded that the warship  was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. Seoul’s reaction has thus far been  mild compared to its loss of 46 sailors in the incident. South Korea’s  retaliation has been restricted to few steps: Cutting off trade ties  with Pyongyang; barring North Korean ships from entering the South’s  waters; seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the  attack; and demanding an apology from the Northern communist state.

Many analysts plus Arab as well as Western officials have traditionally  drawn a comparison between the approach used by North Korea to build its  nuclear capabilities and the one adopted now by Iran. Both have  embraced a strategy of clandestine nuclear activities and exploiting the  loopholes in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) system to  advance the nuclear programs. North Korea has been the main supplier of  ballistic missiles technology to Iran, which today builds medium-range  missiles. Both countries are under some form of international sanctions  and isolation. However, Iran, an Islamic Republic, has much more  resources than its North Korean ally, especially oil and gas, which has  made it more immune than Pyongyang to effective international isolation  or sanctions. And both authoritarian regimes share strong animosity to  the United States and the West.

Iran’s Arab Gulf neighbors to the West have traditionally felt  threatened and intimidated by their large Persian neighbor. Although  they did not have any direct military conflict with Iran, they however  supported Iraq in the 1980-88 war with Iran. Iranian naval boats have  often had skirmishes with Arab Gulf fishermen. Iran has ongoing border  disputes with a number of these states and is accused by the United Arab  Emirates (UAE) of occupying three of its islands (Greater and Smaller  Tunb and Abu Mousa). The U.S.-allied Arab Gulf States have voiced  concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and objected to Tehran acquiring  nuclear weapons. Some Iranian officials and politicians make statements  questioning the sovereignty of some of the Arab Gulf States, and even  threatened to attack them if the U.S. or Israel carried out any military  strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. The sectarian tension in  Iraq and Lebanon has also strained ties between the predominantly Shiite  Muslim Iran with the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab States.

“Iran without a nuclear bomb is now trying to dominate Arab countries  and harass them on many fronts (Iraq, Lebanon and Palestinian  territories) and in Gulf waters without care to Arab or international  reaction, so imagine how Tehran would behave when it possesses nuclear  weapons,” said one Arab official who asked not to be named. “What could  Arab countries or even the United States do if submarines or gunboats of  a nuclear-capable Iran attack and sink a Saudi or UAE frigate? Nothing  more than simple words of condemnation,” he added. Another Arab Gulf  politician said that Tehran would not differ much than Pyongyang in its  behavior with its neighbors and the international community when it  becomes a nuclear power. “Iran would likely become the absolute  power-broker and dominator in the region because nobody, even the U.S.,  would be in the mood of escalating a military conflict with a nuclear  power especially in an area rich with energy resources like the Gulf,”  he said. Although Tehran has continuously asserted that its nuclear  program was for peaceful uses, the United States, Israel and the West  believe it conceals a military program. Most Arab people and officials  believe Iran is seeking to build a nuclear arsenal.

Observers believe if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, some Arab countries  would try to do the same to achieve an effective balance of power with  Iran as well as Israel – another regional nuclear power. The Gulf states  are now watching Pyongyang’s neighbor’s South Korea and Japan  especially– to see whether they can rely on the U.S. and/or  international community to deter future hostile North Korean actions.  This issue raises an important question: Can non-nuclear states stand up  to nuclear states who bully their neighbors?


INEGMA is a Free Zone Limited Liability Company based in Dubai Media City, in the United Arab Emirates. Established in 2001, INEGMA was set up to provide media organizations, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, militaries and governments of the Middle East, and international private companies with various services related to military and strategic affairs.

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