A Sunni nuclear axis with Turkey and Saudi Arabia might soon be a reality. And Pakistan would be at its forefront.
It will also find willing foot-soldiers on every inhabited continent, in the thrall of an actively preached ideology of violent expansion
A few days ago, driving through Almelo, it occurred to me that this rather nondescript town in the eastern Netherlands is the unwitting source of much of the nuclear proliferation activity in the world today. It is from the Urenco plant nearby that the Pakistani nuclear broker/salesman Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called Father of the Islamic Bomb, stole the blueprints that allowed his country to start its nuclear programme. Over the next decades, he sold, attempted to sell, and pretended to sell to North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Iran and even apparently to Myanmar.
AQ Khan’s legacy of nuclear pilferage and proliferation is about to expand and coalesce into what will eventually become a Sunni nuclear axis with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan at its pinnacle. A perfect storm of isolation and resentment is building up in these three countries, and their conspiracy-minded populations.
Turkey, after the failed coup does not look like a country where a coup has failed. Everything except the government is being overturned, including democratic traditions.
In Saudi Arabia, which has been facing a hostile global press and major economic challenges for many years now, the regime is re-evaluating its traditional alliances with the West - at a time when, in the West itself, a political churn is bringing up leaders for whom business as usual is no longer attractive.
Pakistan finds itself isolated as never before in its seven-decade history as a country. These realities are not likely to change anytime soon.
Neighbouring all three is Shiite Iran, which is rebuilding a normal relationship with all major powers after decades of US-imposed and enforced isolation; and it is doing so with persistence, largely on its terms. Tehran’s claim that it has no ambitions to weaponise its nuclear program is now validated by its agreement with the nuclear powers. This is not believed by its Sunni neighbours. The reality is that Iran’s domestic nuclear endeavour now has global legitimacy.
That cannot be said of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, which is weaponized but regarded by the world as a dangerous fait accompli. It is a programme controlled solely by the military establishment of that country, now established as a safe haven and source of sustenance for Islamist radicalism flowing into virtually every corner of the world.
But there is one lesson that the country’s generals have learned well: no matter what threat Islamabad poses in terms of terrorism exports, no one can touch it so long as that policy is carried out under a nuclear umbrella.
That lesson will not be overlooked by Saudi Arabia, one of the main sources of funds for the promotion of radical Islam (if not the main one), nor by Turkey which has facilitated the survival and victories of ISIS in the Levant. All three countries believe these policies are in their larger strategic interest.
Nuclear co-operation will be attractive to these three countries for other reasons too. In the Sunni Islamist worldview, Dar ul Harb (the realm of war) must ultimately become Dar ul Islam (the realm of peace/submission). In this worldview, all non-Muslim states are part of Dar ul Harb and are colluding against Islam, in one way or another. The current situation in which these states find themselves, in the common narrative of Imams and demagogues throughout the Islamic world, is a confirmation of that worldview.
To all three, the strategic benefits of a nuclear axis are undeniable. For Pakistan any way out of the rut is a welcome one, and to emerge as a leader of the Islamic world has always been its ambition. Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader of the Islamic World already, but it will probably be willing to share the table for a public nuclear umbrella over which it exercises some overt control. As for Turkey, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is turning the country into a quasi-Ottoman state with a strongly Sunni orientation.
What better to augment that with than de facto nuclear status?
For all three, the creation of a Sunni nuclear axis covering Turkic, Arab and South Asian Muslims – who make up the bulk of the world Islamic population – promises a powerful re-orientation from their current secondary role in the global public space. The components of power are present: substantial militaries in Turkey and Pakistan, a powerful voice in the energy sector and finance (especially Islamic finance), a massive youth population, and global spread.
In the Muslim world, Turkey is certainly in the top rank of technically enabled countries, with a solid population of social and economic technocrats. It is a capable force in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – capable enough, at least, for a belief that such an axis can be sustained. The axis will have its followers, though some will be hesitant parties; Egypt and Indonesia, for instance, unless they are brought into the axis as a leading players.
The motivations for a consolidated Sunni power bloc to emerge are clear. The question is whether those are enough to actually make it happen. Geo-politically, every indication is that these motivations will be strengthened going forward. Shiite Iran is likely to come out as a major regional player, a stable business partner, and a country that will play by the rules of the big powers, even if it appears defiantly independent rather than just uncomfortably integrated. Turkish relations with the EU and the US are going to be on the downswing in the foreseeable future. The same, in varying degrees, can be said for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Gravitation towards each other is likely, and the glue will almost certainly have a radioactive component. Co-operation in the civilian nuclear sector already exists to some extent. Whether the world likes it or not, a Sunni Islamic nuclear axis is in the making, and it will find allies and sympathisers from South East Asia to North West Africa. It will also find willing foot-soldiers on every inhabited continent, in the thrall of an actively preached ideology of violent expansion that is underpinned by a consistent reference to faith.
Even without the nuclear umbrella, faith-intoxicated foot-soldiers are on the march, so far only individually or in small groups, from San Bernardino to St. Etienne du Rouvray. As the nuclear umbrella becomes visible, the cause of a global caliphate will seem achievable and efforts to hasten its arrival will redouble. Without appropriate corrective measures, the expected outcome will be inevitable.