Iran Flexes Its Muscles
Iran has been a thorn in the side of Middle Eastern and Western countries for several years, especially because of its nuclear intentions. Nuclear programs are relatively rare in the Middle East, but more countries are starting their own to balance Iran's.
The new programs starting in the Middle East may be more for individual countries’ self-protection against Iran than for practical purposes. Conversely, Iran's more developed program is as much a provocation as it is a tool for providing energy to the country. It is akin to Iran's deployment of navy ships through the Suez Canal in 2011 for the first time since 1979. Such tactics are used to keep other Middle Eastern countries off balance and guessing at what Iran's next provocation might be, such as forming “unholy” alliances with nations normally outside of its sphere of influence.
In recent years Egypt worked out a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia; France promised to help Morocco begin a nuclear energy program; and Syria and Turkey announced the development of a joint energy company that includes nuclear power plants. Saudi Arabia, Libya, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman are also launching nuclear programs.
Iran and Venezuela
Over the past several years, the presidents of Venezuela and Iran have pursued strong economic and political ties between their countries. Their meetings have led to numerous agreements to cooperate in projects such as oil and gas, trade, and construction.
The relationship between Iran and Venezuela is predicated on their leaders’ mutual distrust of the West and their opposition to international sanctions and threat of military action against Iran over its nuclear program. The alliance is a factor in Iran's relations with Middle East countries as well, most of which do not have strong ties with Venezuela outside OPEC.
Iran, China, and North Korea
Iran has also formed ties with North Korea and China to help develop its nuclear program. China blocks sanctions imposed by Western countries on Iran, while North Korea provides technological aid and weapons assistance.
One of the Middle East's concerns is that Iran is forming alliances with countries that increase its military, nuclear, and economic power globally to the detriment of the region. Moreover, it is lending assistance to Syria to upgrade that country's nuclear program.
Iran signed a $40 billion deal with China in July 2009 that allows China to refine Iranian oil. The value of the two countries’ bilateral trade that year, excluding the refining deal, was $36.5 billion, which made China Iran's largest trading partner. The figure surpassed Iran's trade with the European countries, which amounted to $35 billion, primarily in the energy sector.
Reaching Out to Syria
Syria has acknowledged that it is pursuing nuclear power programs. Israel has suggested that the Syrians are building nuclear weapons for illicit purposes, which poses a danger to its welfare. (Israel has long been secretive about its own programs. It neither confirms nor denies its nuclear arms capabilities, if any.)
Syria has refused since 2008 to let International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) inspectors look at a site destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 2007. The inspectors investigated the site after the bombing and reported that the collection of uranium particles they found there proved the Syrians were conducting nuclear activity.
Iran and Syria are working together closely on the latter's nuclear program, which, if not used strictly for peaceful purposes, can adversely affect the balance of power in the region. The growth of nuclear programs in the Middle East is something that all the countries in the region must monitor closely.