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Security Implications of the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East

Authored by Dr. Sami G. Hajjar. | December 1998

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This monograph focuses on the proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The weapons and their means of delivery are referred to collectively as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The author argues that the Arab-Israeli conflict and the lack of progress in the peace process are strong incentives for nations in the region to acquire WMD. Iran-Iraq rivalry is another incentive affecting nations in the Gulf region.The analysis assumes the theme of the inter-connectivity of proliferation issues across regional divides. Therefore, a successfully concluded peace process may not necessarily reverse the proliferation trend as Israel might continue to be concerned about Iran?s WMD capability. The inter-connectivity theme complicates U.S. efforts on behalf of nonproliferation in the region.

Relying on unclassified U.S. Government and other open sources, the author documents the Israeli, Iranian, and major Arab WMD programs. Besides outlining each nation?s WMD capabilities, he makes reference to documented use of WMD in the region, considers the reasons why the major regional powers seek WMD capabilities, and examines the nature of the proliferation dynamic in the region.

Based on interviews that the author conducted with Middle Eastern officials and scholars, the monograph offers a regional view on the problem of proliferation. These interviews revealed that the quest to achieve a balance of power, the lack of trust between Arabs and Israelis, and the perception that the United States in its regional role is not evenhanded in its treatment of local actors are the factors contributing to the vertical and horizontal proliferation trends that are making the region highly dangerous and volatile.

Given U.S. vital interests in the Middle East, stemming the proliferation trend is an important policy goal. The nonproliferation and the counterproliferation approaches are examined as they apply to the region. The author makes several recommendations designed to strengthen these efforts and to deal more effectively with the causes of proliferation. The recommended measures include a more focused examination of the capability (deployment), motivation (doctrine), and use (employment) components of the WMD threat, the abandonment of declared statements guaranteeing Israel?s military superiority, and a change in the language designating certain states in the regional as ?rogue? or ?outlaw.? Also recommended is the creation of a U.S. Central Command Middle East Center, similar to the Marshall Center in Europe or the Asia-Pacific Center in Hawaii, to focus on instruction and research in the area of security and defense issues. Such changes should create a more positive environment in which the nations of the region might be motivated to devise security regimes that could tackle the issue of proliferation.


In defiance of the 149 countries which in 1996 signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, India?s nationalist government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee conducted on May 11, 1998, three underground nuclear tests at a desert site in the northwestern part of the country. Two days later, despite international condemnations and the threat of sanctions by the United States, Japan, and other nations, India conducted two additional underground nuclear blasts.

Not to be undone by India?s ?coming out,? a week after India?s test, Pakistan conducted its own six underground nuclear tests on May 16, more than evening the score with its arch rival. Suddenly, the world had seven declarednuclear powers, with one acknowledged nuclear state? Israel?remaining undeclared.

The nuclear blasts on the South Asian subcontinent bring up a number of serious security concerns in the aftermath of the Cold War. Many international security experts believe that the absence of two rival superpowers enhances the chances for regional conflicts. Competing national, ethnic, religious, and other regional forces are now able to escalate their rivalries to higher forms of strife unhindered by superpower pressure to prevent regional conflicts from intensifying into direct superpower confrontations. The increased probabilities of regional conflicts coupled with the spread of WMD create an especially volatile international security circumstance. The obvious question is: What should (can) the international community do to avert a potential WMD-related disaster?

The India-Pakistan nuclear tests have a number of direct implications for the Middle East region. One serious question is whether Pakistan?s so-called ?Islamic bomb? provides a nuclear umbrella to various Arab countries against the Israeli nuclear threat. Another is the role that Israel was alleged to have played in the Indian nuclear program which raises the question of ?horizontal? proliferation.1 Another implication would be the perception that these tests have propelled India and Pakistan to some form of a great-power status. Given the relatively mild response of the international community to these tests, is there an incentive to other ?great-power status? aspiring nations; e.g., Iran, to pursue vigorously the nuclear option? In this sense, the ?coming out? of India and Pakistan is an incentive to other nations to get in the game of proliferation. Lastly, those in the Middle East who applauded the ?Islamic bomb? have unwittingly justified the Israeli bomb insofar as one bomb deters the other.

The geographic area of the Middle East that concerns the WMD proliferation discussion in this monograph is the Arabian/Persian Gulf, the Levant, and North Africaregions. The introductory remarks, in addition to their relevance to the topic, were designed to underscore the inter-connectivity of proliferation issues across regional divides. Because the political and security issues confronting Middle East nations, including the question of WMD proliferation, are often linked fundamentally to one another, inter-connectivity is a basic theme.

I will argue that the proliferation of WMD in the Middle East is largely linked to the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors. At the same time, however, a successfully concluded peace process may not necessarily reverse the proliferation incentive since that in turn is linked to other issues in the Gulf region involving the national aspirations of states like Iraq and Iran, or to political developments in North Africa such as the potential coming to power of a radical Islamic state. The inter-connectivity of these issues poses unique and complicated challenges to U.S. security efforts on behalf of nonproliferation, and to the U.S. military who may be called upon to engage in counterproliferation measures, or in military support to foreign consequence management operations to neutralize the effects of a WMD incident.

I will assume that the proliferation game (if it can be called such) that nations play, for whatever reason? prestige, deterrence, domestic politics, etc.?is essentially a mind game. Its essence is perceptions and beliefs irrespective of their absolute objectivity.2 For this reason, I will attempt to report on attitudes from the region. If my assumption is correct, U.S. efforts at nonproliferation face yet another challenge, that of bridging the cultural gap between the pragmatically oriented United States and an often ideologically-driven Middle East.

Finally, the focus of my analysis is on strategic security issues as they are affected by the proliferation of WMD. While factual information concerning the available WMD in the Middle East region is important, an accurate accounting is nearly impossible. The nations concerned do not revealthis type of information. Nevertheless, the question of why proliferation takes place, and not how it does or by how much, is relevant for this study?s purpose.


The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of their delivery in the Middle East is a real, pervasive, and a serious problem. The secrecy by which each nation in the region surrounds its WMD capabilities and doctrines add to the risk of conflict and the potential employment of WMD. This is because lack of credible information about an enemy?s capabilities and intentions may result in a miscalculated adventurism. The inter-connectivity of the region at a time when Middle Easterners lack a common vision of the security paradigms to shape their future means those security regimes that could effectively manage the problem of WM D proliferation are nonexistent.92 Also the risk of a nonstate actor or terrorist groups acquiring and using WMD is high in this region.

For these reasons, the WMD proliferation issue is of concern to the United States given its many interests in the region. The protracted nature of the problem requires the continuation of U.S. anti-proliferation strategy and the drive to find solutions to the regional causes of proliferation. These are theburdens of world leadership.


1. Pakistan has voiced deep concern about Israeli-Indian cooperation on defense issues and especially in the nuclear field.Pakistan also alleged that the Israeli Air Force was planning to strike Pakistani nuclear facilities from bases in India, a charge that Israel vehemently denied. See ?Pakistani Concern About Indian-Israeli Cooperation,? in Abu Dhabi Al-! ttihad, Internet Edition, in Arabic, May 31, 1998; Rahma Chellaney, ?Israel, India Cooperate on Defense Issues,? Washington Times, June 2, 1998, p. 1; and Arieh O?Sullivan, et.al., ?Israel Denies Targeting Pakistan, The Jerusalem Post, Internet Edition, June 2, 1998. In addition, the Clinton administration has voiced concern about Israeli sales of arms and military know-how to India as part of the sanctions imposed on the latter following its nuclear tests. See Arieh O?Sullivan, ?Report: Israel Won?t Stop Selling Arms to India,? The Jerusalem Post, Internet Edition, November 6, 1998.

2. For example, several months following the India and Pakistan nuclear tests, press reports suggested that both nations have exaggerated the number and size of the nuclear weapons each had detonated as part of a ?game of nuclear bluff.? See Robert Lee Hotz, ?Tests by India and Pakistan are disputed,? The Philadelphia !nquirer, September 16, 1998, p. A2.

92. See Saad Eddin Ibrahim, ?Future Visions of Arab Middle East,? Security Dialogue, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1996, pp. 425-436. In this article, Professor Ibrahim examines the four competing visions of Pan-Arabism, Pan-Islam, New Middle Easternism, and Mediterraneanism. Each of these views the boundaries of the region differently implying different sets of regional security paradigms.