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Gawdat Bahgat

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Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East

Summary: Recent political instability and civil wars in some Middle Eastern countries have intensified the debate regarding nuclear proliferation. This essay provide a brief analysis of nuclear proliferation in Israel, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The study calls for renewed efforts to make the Middle East nuclear weapons free zone.  This essay examine the proliferation of nuclear weapons in four Middle Eastern countries: Israel, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The first three have signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), but have yet to ratify it and the fourth (Saudi Arabia) has not joined the Treaty yet. Taking into consideration that Israel is the only one outside the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

A paper by:  Gawdat Bahgat

Since the end of World War II, the Middle East has had its share of military conflicts and political instability. The Arab-Israeli wars and the conflicts in the Persian Gulf can be seen as both causes and symptoms of widespread instability. In such an environment, several Middle Eastern governments have sought to utilize WMD to settle disputes with their neighbors and even with domestic opponents. This essay will examine the proliferation of nuclear weapons in four Middle Eastern countries: Israel, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The first three have signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), but have yet to ratify it and the fourth (Saudi Arabia) has not joined the Treaty yet. In addition, Israel is the only one outside the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Since the late 1960s, Israel has been considered the sixth nation in the world and the first in the Middle East to have acquired a nuclear weapons capability. An accurate assessment of Israel’s nuclear program is almost impossible, given that the Israeli government has never acknowledged making nuclear weapons and has never published any account of its nuclear activities. Thus, most scholarly work relies on non-Israeli sources. These sources give various estimates of the actual size and composition of Israel’s nuclear stockpile, but the overall consensus is that Israel possesses an extensive arsenal of nuclear devices and an array of medium-range missiles that could deliver them.

The state of Israel was created shortly after the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazism. Naturally, the tragic experience of the Holocaust had shaped the security perception of the new state. The Holocaust meant, among other things, that the physical survival of the Jewish people was threatened. This conviction has led to the conclusion that Israel should possess the military prowess that would prevent the repetition of such a tragedy. This meant the capability to inflict intolerable pain on its adversaries. In addition, several parameters of the nation’s military doctrine have been articulated. First, Israel’s conventional military power should be qualitatively superior to that of its adversaries, individually or collectively. Second, these adversaries should be denied the nuclear option. Israel should apply all means to prevent Iran or any Arab state from acquiring a nuclear capability.

Israeli leaders contend that nuclear weapons constitute the ultimate insurance policy against an existential threat. As long as there are hostile neighbors who question the Jewish state’s mere existence, they argue, Israel will not consider relinquishing the nuclear option. Israeli officials and analysts believe that the nation’s nuclear weapons have been a major factor convincing the Arabs to rule out war as an option for settling the conflict and to choose to make peace with the Jewish state. Thus, nuclear weapons serve as a stabilizing factor in the Middle East.
The argument for maintaining nuclear capability is repudiated by some scholars on several grounds. First, some Arabs have been willing to recognize the Jewish state and have negotiated peace agreements with it since the early 1950s, before Israel made the bomb. Second, Israeli national security has steadily and substantially improved since the early 1980s. The Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the 2003 Iraq War, and the so-called Arab Spring have all contributed to the polarization of Arab policy. The gap in military capability between Israel and its adversaries has expanded. As a result, Israel probably has never been more secure from external enemies. This symmetry of power suggests that a war between some of all Arab states and Israel has become a practical and rational improbability. Third, Israel is more threatened by terrorist attacks and the increasing proliferation of WMD in the Middle East. Ironically, the argument goes, Israeli nuclear weapons provide incentives to the Arabs and Iranians to acquire a nuclear capability or at least chemical and biological weapons.

In the early 1950s, Egypt has strong incentives to “go nuclear.” In the three decades following World War II, the Egyptian government perceived Israel as a sworn enemy and engaged in major military confrontations with Tel Aviv in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Besides these major wars, the two nations were involved in other military skirmishes and broad economic and diplomatic warfare. These security concerns were further heightened by the fact that Israel was developing nuclear weapons capability. Another motive for Egypt to pursue nuclear weapons is leadership and prestige. Egypt is the most populous Arab country and has always claimed, with strong justifications, a leadership role. This perception is based on demographic, political, economic, and cultural factors. But this supposed leadership status has been challenged by Cairo’s nuclear inferiority to Israel and to other regional potential proliferators such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

For the sake of security and prestige, Egypt should have vigorously sought to acquire nuclear weapons. This, however, is not the case. Rhetoric aside, there are no indications that the Egyptian leaders have ever made a strong commitment to pursue such an option. Building a nuclear weapons program takes a long time and requires substantial resources, however. These investments have to be backed by strong determination. The Egyptian case suggests that this determination was lacking. Instead, it seems that the Egyptian leaders have never been convinced that acquiring nuclear weapons would serve Egypt’s national interests. Consciously or not, it seems that they believe a nuclear option would be too costly and that the benefits would be inadequate. Accordingly, after some unsuccessful efforts to build a nuclear weapons program in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Egyptian leaders abandoned this strategy.

Since then, the Egyptians have pursued several options that might improve their security and enhance their national prestige. These include building a strong conventional weapons capability, stockpiling chemical weapons, and championing the call for making the entire Middle East a nuclear weapon-free zone. Furthermore, Egyptian leaders have always asserted that they will acquire nuclear weapons if the need arises. These assurances seem to satisfy domestic public opinion more that to reflect real military capability. Egypt’s interest in nuclear power started in the mid-1950s. Initially Egypt sought nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and tried unsuccessfully in the early 1960s to develop nuclear weapons capability. Egyptian nuclear strategy changed following the 1967 war. Since then, Cairo has shown very little interest, if any, in acquiring nuclear weapons.

The discussion of Egypt’s stand on nuclear weapons capability since the early 1960s suggests that Egyptian leaders have never assigned a great value to nuclear weapons in the overall military strategy. Accordingly, no serious commitments were made to build such capability. Limited economic resources and close relations with the United States have reinforced this perception of the low utility of nuclear weapons. Equally important, Egypt’s security environment has changed drastically since the late 1970s. Egypt seems committed to making peace with Israel. Despite the so-called cold peace (i.e. small volume of trade and little cultural interaction), the peace treaty between Cairo and Tel Aviv has survived serious challenges. There is no reason to believe that this will change.

Since 1979, Egypt has enjoyed a prolonged period of peace. The government maintains a strong army, but Egypt has not been involved in a large-scale war since the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel. It is hard to imagine a scenario under which Egypt might need nuclear weapons. Egypt has been at peace with all its neighbors for decades, and even if this peace were to collapse, there would not be a need for nuclear weapons to settle a conflict with Israel in the east, Libya in the west, or Sudan in the south.

Since the mid-1980s, Israel, the United States, and other western powers have accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons capability. Iranian officials have categorically denied these accusations and claimed that their nuclear program is designed for civilian purposes, not military ones. In the early 2000s, these accusations and denials had been intensified due to the revelation of previously unknown nuclear activities. Eventually, the International Atomic Energy Agency referred Iran to the United Nations Security Council and comprehensive economic sanctions were imposed on Tehran. These economic sanctions, along with the technological advances Iran has made, paved the ground for signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union. All sides started implementing the JCPOA in January 2017.

The roots of Iran’s nuclear program go back to the mid-1950s when it signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. In developing its nuclear capability, the Pahlavi regime relied on the United States and other western countries. As part of his plan to modernize Iran, the Shah was determined to start and expand an ambitious nuclear program. This cooperation came to an end with the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

Since the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016 the future of the JCPOA and indeed the entire Iran’s nuclear program is uncertain. The Trump Administration has threatened to withdraw from the Agreement while Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union have all confirmed their adherence to the nuclear deal. On its part, Iran has stated that if all parties live up to their commitment, Tehran will. It is important to point out that the JCPOA is a multilateral agreement between global powers and Iran, not a bilateral one between the latter and the United States. It is hard to speculate on the future of the nuclear agreement, but, one can conclude that after investing substantial resources, Iran has acquired nuclear expertise and experience.

Saudi Arabia
Despite the fact that no evidence points to Saudi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, some analysts argue that the kingdom has both the strategic incentives and the financial capability to pursue a nuclear option. Saudi Arabia is an important player in the volatile Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East. Powerful neighbors have the capability to threaten Saudi national security. In short, Saudi Arabia is rich and vulnerable. Under these circumstances, nuclear weapons would deter aggression and provide Riyadh with a retaliatory capability if this aggression materialized.

Two geostrategic characteristics have played a significant role in shaping Saudi Arabia’s security environment. First, the kingdom is the largest country on the Arabian Peninsula and one of the largest in the Middle East. This vast country, however, is mostly uninhabited sandy desert; the Saudi population is smaller than that of its rivals in the Persian Gulf region, Iran and Iraq. Second, with its huge proven reserves and production, the kingdom is, by far, the dominant power in the global energy market. The combination of these two characteristics suggests that the kingdom is seriously vulnerable to threats from its more populated but less affluent neighbors. Political instability in Iraq in the last few decades has changed the nature of security threats to the kingdom. On the other side, several conflicts in the Middle East (i.e. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen) reflect the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

In addition to the regional dynamics, the global system has impacted Riyadh’s strategic choices. For more than seven decades, Saudi Arabia has been one of the United States’ closest allies in the Middle East and the Islamic world. Several economic and strategic interests are at stake in the relationship, including oil supplies, Persian Gulf security, and the containment of militant Islam. United States’ strong commitment to defend Saudi Arabia against external enemies has been a crucial factor in eliminating any consideration by the Saudis of a nuclear option. This policy has worked for the last several decades and there is no reason to doubt its effectiveness in the future. To sum up, despite growing security uncertainties in the Middle East in the past few decades, Saudi Arabia should not be considered a serious nuclear proliferation threat.

Conclusion: The Way Forward
The proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is complicated by domestic, regional, and international dynamics. Civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen have contributed to political instability. Some countries have accumulated an extensive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and the means to deliver them (e.g. ballistic missiles.) Furthermore, India and Pakistan, two large nations on the periphery of the Middle East, have developed nuclear capabilities but have not yet signed the Non-proliferation Treaty.

To end this nuclear uncertainty, several diplomatic, economic, and military options have been considered and some have already been implemented. The list includes prolonged negotiations, economic sanctions, military strikes, and attempts to make the entire Middle East a nuclear weapons free zone. This last option should be revived, given the serious security challenged the entire region faces.


* Paper presented at the 8th Session of the Nuclear Forum held by the Arab Institute for Security Studies and its partners. 


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