A Nuclear Free Middle East?Siddharth Ramana

As the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon) progresses this month, an initiative which was raised in the 1995 RevCon is starting to receive increasing voices of support- A nuclear free Middle East. It is interesting to note that while the present RevCon is clouded by the blatant violations to the NPT by one of its signatories- Iran, the focus of attention has been shifted to a country which has not signed the treaty-Israel. Arab countries including Egypt and Algeria have raised the specter of the Israeli nuclear program as being detrimental to the prospects of peace, while relegating to the background the Iranian nuclear program. The United States, a major strategic ally of Israel too has joined the chorus calling for Israel to join the NPT, much to the chagrin of Israel supporters within the country. The Security Council has further compounded to the voices supporting the resolution of a nuclear free Middle East.

Would Israel declaring its nuclear arsenal and signing the NPT really contribute to the peace in the region? The arguments towards this end are as tenuous as the belief that the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict would contribute to an immediate end to the purported legitimacy derived by Islamic groups engaging in terrorist activity against Israel’s allies. A better understanding of the nuclear posture in the Middle East would illustrate the differences of the suspected Israeli and Iranian nuclear programs.

Greater international scrutiny of the Israeli nuclear program, based in Dimona, Southern Israel, was brought to fore with the disclosures of Mordechai Vannunu. Vannunu, a former Israeli nuclear engineer employed at the plant. The plant which was constructed with the help of the French under Protocol of Sèvres agreements was completed between the years 1962-1963. The importance of nuclear ambiguity, as Israel’s declared policy towards its nuclear weapons status, came to the fore during the most devastating war it had to fight in 1973. Israel suffered serious losses in the initial stages of the war, which had practically threatened the existence of the state. If the reverses were not countered, the Israelis would have been forced to use nuclear weapons. Arguably, if it were not for the Israeli threat of using tactical nuclear weapons, the war would have had a different outcome especially with the delayed assistance of the Americans in the war, which helped alleviate some of the pressure on Israeli resources.

The need for nuclear weapons for Israel’s defenses would have been acutely felt during the formative years of Israel’s strategic deterrence. Contrary to popular belief, the United States has not been an ally to the state of Israel since the birth of the Jewish state. The United States leaned towards the Arab states, and American aid to Israel was minimal till 1967. American opposition to Israel’s military power in the region can be gauged from the fact that it opposed the Anglo-French-Israel offensive against Egypt, during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. It was only in 1967, when the primarily Israeli ally France broke ranks with it, thereby paving way for the alliance between the US and Israel that we see today. It would therefore be strategically viable that while the Israelis achieved the regional military superiority only in the aftermath of the 1973 War, the existential threat it faced from its adversaries justified its belief in developing nuclear weapons, and contributed to the nuclear doctrine it has since safeguarded.

Arguments against Israel’s nuclear program cannot be placed on par with the covert nuclear activities of states such as Iran, and Syria. Despite the conventional military superiority possessed by Israel, the level of threat its interests have faced since the 1967 War have not diminished. During the 1970s and 1980s, Israel which was embroiled in a war in Lebanon also had to face continuous terror threats sponsored by Arab regimes. The development of nuclear capabilities by Iraq, which most notably supported among others, the terrorist group Abu-Nidal, was a direct threat to Israeli interests. Israel’s vehement opposition to the development of nuclear regimes goes well beyond the Middle East. It is widely reported that the Israeli secret service had approached their Indian counterparts in an effort to stem Pakistan’s nuclear program.

While Israeli commentators had assessed that the notion of the “Islamic bomb” developed by Pakistan in 1998, would not contributed to joy in the streets of Palestine, as opposed to an Iranian or Iraqi nuclear bomb, the development of the bomb brought the Middle East closer to overt nuclear testing. An opinion piece carried in the Israeli daily Haaretz on June 1, 1998, argues that while the Pakistani test did not make an Arab nuclear state, it contributed to the Islamic pride through the terminology “the Islamic bomb”. This is something which would bolster the pride of Islamic movements including groups such as Hamas. The commentary turned out to be prophetic, especially in light of the proliferation scandal run by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program, and his linkages to developing the nuclear capabilities of states such as Iran and North Korea. In addition, Dr. Khan’s associates were linked to terror groups such as Al-Qaeda.

The concept of nuclear terrorism, which entails the transfer of nuclear material to terrorist groups for use, figured in the Israeli security psyche much before the matter was raised in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The steps taken by Israel in countering the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region should be commended and not criticized as it has been subjected to. These have included the timely military strikes against the Osriak reactor in Iraq (1980) and the strike on a covert nuclear facility in Syria (2007). Israel also remains the country which pioneered developing its home front command against nuclear threats, both conventional and unconventional since the end of the Cold War drills. Israel’s unique status in the region warrants special understanding of its security considerations which have been repeatedly undermined in the multilateral forums it engages in. While arguments against the Israeli nuclear program have been repeatedly raised in the Arab and Islamic press, especially since it operates outside the NPT regime, a comparison to the Iranian nuclear program is logically unviable and derogatory.

The Iranian nuclear program which has violated the very terms, to which it is a signatory, has also been peppered with virulently violent threats against Israel. Raising controversial statements against the Israelis, the Iranian regime has gone to the extent of denying the holocaust in an affront to the memories of the victims of the Nazi regime. The underlying theme of such denials is to deny legitimacy to the grievances of the Jewish people who have been victims of persecution in exile throughout documented history, thereby denying their right to a homeland. Furthermore, the documented nature of support to destabilizing regimes in the Middle East including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip have made the country a leading cause of instability in the Middle East. The two mentioned groups are known terrorist outfits which have been ostracized by the International regime; while other instances of Iranian sponsored groups attempting to destabilize states can be seen in the support to the Moqtada Al-Sadr sect in Iraq, and the affront to the sovereignty of Bahrain, by declaring the country a province of Iran.

To further understand the dichotomy in the arguments for Israel to sign the NPT, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak articulated that “Israel has never threatened to annihilate countries and peoples, while Iran today, and in the past Syria, Libya, and Iraq, who signed this treaty, have systematically violated it with explicit threats to Israel”. The non-proliferation treaty which consists of three pillars non-proliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use, should be further understood.

According to Scott Sagan, in his paper ‘Why do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb’, “States will seek to develop nuclear weapons when they face a significant military threat to their security that cannot be met through alternative means”. To apply this logic to Iran, some defenders of the Iranian program have cited the regional nuclear powers including Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and the increasing presence of the United States military in the Persian Gulf as factors contributing to the uneasiness of the Iranians. However, the Iranian nuclear program initiated violations suspected of contributing to their weapons program well before the Pakistanis and Indians weaponized their nuclear arsenal. It was also well before the Americans entrenched themselves militarily in the Gulf, during the First Gulf War and accentuated their presence since the Second Gulf War. According to Iranian admissions to the IAEA, Tehran “produced uranium dioxide (UO2) targets, irradiated them in the Tehran Research Reactor, and then separated the plutonium from the irradiated targets”. It acknowledged that the plutonium separation experiments were conducted between 1988 and 1993 using shielded glove boxes at the Tehran Nuclear Research Center.

The primary threat to Iran would have been from Iraq and not Israel, with which it enjoyed cordial relations till the Islamic revolution in 1979. The Iraqi-Iranian tensions came to a front during the 1980-1988 War between the two countries, with even Iran attempting to destroy the Iraqi nuclear facility in Osirak, a facility it viewed with great concern during the war. With the decline of the Iraqi power in the early nineties and the end of the Cold War, the Iranians did not have any major power adversary to concern themselves with unconventional military capabilities. The pursuit of nuclear weapons can then only be traced to its revolutionary roots in the late 1970s. The Iranian revolution which deposed the Shah of Iran and established Ayatollah Khomeini as the head of the Iranian state, resulted in an outlook of regional hegemony and contributed to reigniting fault lines which presently afflict the region.

According to Khomeini, the revolution in Iran was to be mirrored in states all over the world, as put across in his words “We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry `There is no God but Allah’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle”. Towards this end, Iran fomented civil unrest in its neighboring states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait during the 1980s. These incidents include support for a coup in Bahrain (1981), terrorism in Kuwait (1983) and uprisings by Shiite followers during the annual Hajj Pilgrimage in 1987. Iranian backed groups have also been accused of terrorism in the bombing of the Saudi Khobar towers in 1996.

Interestingly, murmurs of the Israeli nuclear weapon have done little to unite the Arab states in staunch opposition. Perceptions that the common enemy among both Shiite and Sunni states being Israel would unite them under the same umbrella have fallen through. Developments such as the 1991 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, the diplomatic recognition between Israel and Arab states such as Jordan and Mauritania (withdrawn since 2008) have indicated that the concerns of the Arab community are greater towards the rise of the Shiite crescent than the unconventional capabilities of Israel. These sentiments have led the Arab governments to feel divided in their support to groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which are now essentially arms of the Iranian military. Arab fears of the Iranian nuclear program have even lead to rumors that the Saudis would have allowed over flight rights to Israeli military planes to counter the Iranians. Official Arab positions on the Iranian nuclear program are evidentiary of their concerns that a nuclear armed Iran contributes greatly to the detriment of stability of the Middle East compared to Israel.

The Iranians officially claim that they are not violating the NPT and that their nuclear program is peaceful, and that they abhor nuclear weapons. However, if the NPT were to be studied in further, the contradictions between the Iranian position and the truth can be understood. The essence of the NPT can alternatively be seen in the Israeli position. The NPT consists of three pillars which have been elucidated as follows.

The first pillar states that the Primary nuclear weapon states are “not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) to acquire nuclear weapons (Article I). NNWS parties to the NPT agree not to "receive,” “manufacture” or “acquire” nuclear weapons or to “seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons” (Article II). Since Israel is not a member of the NPT, article II is not applicable to it, while Israeli actions since the 1960s till date have shown that despite not being a member of the NPT, it has contributed actively towards stemming the proliferation of nuclear technology. Furthermore, a study conducted by the American Federation of Scientists in 2000 have assessed that since the 1970s, the Israelis have not increased their annual production of plutonium. The NPT came into force on 5 March 1970; therefore, it can be argued that they have maintained provision to the key element of the treaty without being a signatory.

The second pillar of the NPT deals with disarmament, and article VI clauses “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” Israel could arguably be considered to violate this norm, owing to its low support for the nuclear resolutions. However, as articulated earlier, the uniqueness of the Israeli nuclear program lies in achieving strategic deterrence, especially against countries which are much larger and operate unconventional forces against Israel. As a result, the Israeli ambivalence on articulating its position on nuclear matters should be considered.

The third pillar of the NPT deals with peaceful use of nuclear energy. Israel has long advocated that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region, and its nuclear ambiguity towards this end have been combined with a responsible behavior towards counter-proliferation efforts and refusal to declare an offensive intended use of nuclear weapons.

The Iranian position vis-à-vis the three pillars stand out in strong contrast. The Iranians with their support to terrorist groups, hypocritical statements against nuclear weapons, violations of the various clauses of the NPT and threats against fellow member states of the United Nations, are the ones which deserve stronger scrutiny by the international community.

Quite contrary to the popular belief, the Israelis would support universal disarmament. However, as continued violations of the NPT have shown, the treaty is in no position to fix the present proliferation rings which have contributed to the nuclear programs of the non-NPT states, and former signatories. The withdrawal from the NPT by North Korea, with minimal fuss has shown that the treaty needs to have added teeth before it can reign its members. In the security scenario of the Middle East, such a strengthened NPT is needed before Israel can possibly alter its position on the document. Therefore, even if Israel joins the NPT, the nuclear program of states such as Iran would continue unabated, and contribute further to the destabilization of the region.

To move towards regional peace, the need of the hour is to stem radical regimes from growing all too powerful, and in this light, the scrutiny of the international community should be at the treaty itself and Iran’s violations of it, and not the state of Israel, which has contributed to non-proliferation efforts despite being outside the treaty.

*Siddharth Ramana is a Research Officer for the Nuclear Security Program at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. He holds a MA in Government (Specialization in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security), IDC, Herzliya, Israel and MscEcon in Intelligence and Strategic Studies, Aberystwyth, UK. Views expressed are solely those of the author.


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