Nuclearisation of the Middle East?

Toby Fenton

Members of the 89th Airlift Squadron train on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense techniques October 4, 2014 – US Air Force via Flickr

Recent developments suggest that the Middle East may be becoming increasingly “nuclearised”. Considering the region’s volatility, this is something that the international community has feared for some time. The extent of various regional actors’ actual, possible, or potential offensive nuclear capability varies, but looking at the broad regional picture helps underscore the seriousness of the nuclearisation issue (assuming, of course, that a growing nuclear weapons membership in the Middle East is considered to be less than ideal).

It is difficult to use the words “nuclear” and “Middle East” without discussing Iran. Iran began a civilian nuclear programme with US support under the Shah regime in 1957, and signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state in the 1970s. Post-1979, there has been mounting international concern that Iran’s uranium enrichment activities would approach the levels required to produce nuclear warheads, and there have been intense negotiations and international pressure on the Iranian government especially over the past few years. However, Tehran maintains its nuclear programme is for legitimate, peaceful civilian purposes, and thus is its right as a sovereign state; there is arguably little concrete evidence that Iran is moving towards, or seeks to move towards, weaponising its nuclear programme. Yet the spectre of a future nuclear armed Iran presents an acute challenge to other regional powers – most obviously Israel and Saudi Arabia. Tel Aviv understands Iran’s ruling elite to interminably seek the physical destruction of the Jewish State, with nuclear weapons capability supposedly representing the final nail in the coffin. For Riyadh, the challenge from a nuclear armed Iran includes elevating to new heights the threat from the “Shi’ite crescent” alliance of Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah – and potentially Yemen–, while undermining the Kingdom’s status as regional Islamic leader and bastion of Sunni Islam. In 2013, Iran concluded several rounds of negotiations with the “P5+1” group (comprised of the five permanent Security Council members, plus Germany) that produced an agreement on the permissible extent of the country’s programme and thus mitigated – although only temporarily – Israeli (and US) threats to militarily retire Iran’s nuclear reactors. Interestingly though, even if there exists no intention of weaponisation from Tehran, the very perception of such an intention may have the potential to further destabilise regional international relations; it is uncertain to what extent the “threat” from Iran’s nuclear programme may be more or less a product of the strategic and threat perceptions of regional powers than of any innate aggressive intent.

Similarly, any discussion of Middle Eastern nuclearisation would be incomplete without heading over to the western edge of the region and casting an eye on Israel. While Israel has never officially admitted to enjoying any nuclear weapons capability, the world has been aware of the “open secret” of the country’s nuclear weapons programme since Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu revealed it in 1986. And there have been additional disclosures of this nuclear capability over the years: earlier this year, the US declassified a 1987 report detailing Israel’s nuclear infrastructure and nuclear weapons development at the time; in 2013, former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg asserted that Israel “has nuclear and chemical weapons”, a statement following which an Israeli legal group sought a criminal investigation on the grounds that Burg was “deciding unilaterally to reveal Israel’s nuclear and chemical capabilities to the enemy, and the world”. While international politics traditionally advises Western leaders to refrain from indicating any Israeli nuclear weapons capability – they usually deftly dodge around questions on this –, nowadays it is effectively an established assumption that Israel possesses an arsenal of nuclear warheads. Despite varying estimations from multiple sources, a 2014 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists suggested that, based on an assessment including analysis of satellite imagery and of the number of nuclear warhead-capable delivery systems in Israel’s military, “the most credible [nuclear warhead] stockpile number is on the order of 80 warheads for delivery by aircraft, land-based ballistic missiles, and possible sea-based cruise missiles.” The country is also estimated to possess a quantity of fissile material sufficient to produce up to 190 nuclear warheads. But Israel’s possible nuclear weapons ambitions or intentions are difficult to consider, as few to no statements nor rhetoric come from Tel Aviv that acknowledge the existence of such weapons.

Foreign Ministers of P5+1, EU, and Iran at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, after the group concluded negotiations about Iran's nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013 – US Department of State via Flickr

Foreign Ministers of P5+1, EU, and Iran at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, after the group concluded negotiations about Iran’s nuclear capabilities on November 24, 2013 – US Department of State via Flickr

Heading south, while Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has previously advocated a nuclear-free Middle East, over the past few years the Kingdom has moved progressively closer to acquiring some sort of nuclear weapons capability – with Pakistan being the most likely source for it. In late 2013, for instance, BBC diplomatic and defence editor Mark Urban wrote that “[e]arlier this year, a senior Nato decision maker told me that he had seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery.” A primary catalyst for the Saudis’ heightened nuclear ambitions is likely found in regional rival Iran’s pursuit of its own nuclear programme. Tehran maintains the programme is for peaceful civilian purposes, yet Riyadh has made clear its fears of, and absolute zero-tolerance of, a nuclear-armed Iran; fighting proxy battles against Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite groups in Yemen and Syria, the Kingdom is increasingly looking to step up as protector of the Sunni Muslim community against the Shi’ite threat to the east. According to one Saudi official, “we prefer a region without nuclear weapons. But if Iran does it, nothing can prevent us from doing it too, not even the international community”. Similarly, one retired Saudi colonel has claimed “our leaders will never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon while we don’t… If Iran declares a nuclear weapon, we can’t afford to wait 30 years more for our own – we should be able to declare ours within a week.” (It is an interesting illustration of the relevance of the Balance-of-Threat/Balance-of-Power debate that the Sunni Kingdom’s declared nuclear intent appears to come largely in response to the development of an as-yet non-warhead-ready nuclear programme by the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran, rather than in response to the all-but-confirmed nuclear warhead stockpile of the Jewish State of Israel.) Moreover, with the US increasingly withdrawing from its role as Gulf security guarantor, Riyadh may view acquiring nuclear weapons as fundamental to its national security and regional power.

This year has seen a particularly interesting development in the consideration of the nuclear ambitions of the Islamic State (IS). Since early June, a number of news reports have written about the possibility of IS gaining access to a nuclear device – and transporting it onto American soil. Many reports draw on an op-ed published in the 9th (May) issue of Dabiq – IS’ glossy magazine – and attributed to John Cantlie, the British war photographer taken hostage in Syria in 2012. The op-ed puts forward a “hypothetical operation”: “The Islamic State has billions of dollars in the bank, so they call on their wilāyah in Pakistan to purchase a nuclear device through weapons dealers with links to corrupt officials in the region. The weapon is then transported overland until it makes it to Libya, where the mujāhidīn move it south to Nigeria. Drug shipments from Columbia bound for Europe pass through West Africa, so moving other types of contraband from East to West is just as possible.” The article explains how, in this “hypothetical operation”, IS operatives smuggle the nuclear device to South America, through the “porous borders” of Central America, and up through Mexico into the United States, after which “it’s just a quick hop through a smuggling tunnel and hey presto,” the operatives are on US soil with a nuclear device “in the trunk of their car”. However, reporting on the Dabiq op-ed has not always been accurate: an early article in Nigeria’s Premium Times – and referenced by a number of other news sites – said that IS claims “the idea of reaching the U.S. with a deadly nuclear device is not as far-fetched.” In fact, the op-ed says that while “perhaps such a scenario is far-fetched,” is it “infinitely more possible today than it was just one year ago” – the difference being subtle but qualitatively important as regards potential capability. While it would be difficult to assess the viability of Islamic State’s supposed nuclear procurement strategy, the statement of increased facility likely reflects the increased insecurity in the MENA region and IS’ growing presence there. (Incidentally, it is little comfort that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), tasked with border security among other things, has a reportedly suboptimal ability to detect hidden explosives smuggled into the country.) It is also significant that IS referenced Pakistan as their nuclear source: following the Dabiq op-ed, India’s Minister of State for Defence Rao Inderjit Singh added his voice to concern about IS’ potential nuclear acquisition “from states like Pakistan”. India’s public concern over Pakistan leaking nuclear materials to IS – which thus implicitly questions the physical security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal – is understandable given IS’ growing presence in post-war Afghanistan and infamously corrupt Pakistan, but should also be considered in the context of long-running hostilities between Pakistan and India.

Finally, although bordering the Middle East in South Asia, Pakistan requires some consideration due to its close proximity to the former region – especially if we consider Islamic State (which has a presence in both Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan) to be an actor with potential nuclear ambitions – and its abovementioned connection to nuclear dynamics in that region. Established in 1972, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme was given renewed purpose with the first nuclear weapon test of the country’s bitter (and nuclear-armed) rival India in 1974; in 1987, Pakistan conducted its own nuclear weapon test. The usual figure given for Pakistan’s current nuclear warhead stockpile is 100 to 120. According to a 2014 Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report, “Pakistan has the fastest-growing nuclear program in the world. By 2020, it could have a stockpile of fissile material that, if weaponized, could produce as many as two hundred nuclear devices.” Pakistan has also been developing additional short-range and sea-based nuclear weapons, supposedly intended to allow the country a “second strike” capability in the event of the destruction of its land-based weapons. Pakistan is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), meaning it has no real obligation to refrain from advancing its nuclear weapons capability nor from helping others to advance theirs; Pakistan is seen by many as the linchpin of Saudi Arabia’s move towards nuclear weapons acquisition (as mentioned earlier).

The potential nuclearisation of the Middle East is a complex and non-uniform development. Just outside the region’s eastern border, internally troubled Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons but cites them as defence against its neighbouring enemy (and nuclear-armed) India, and denies willingness to shift a few warheads over to Saudi Arabia, which in contrast is often relatively open about its likely benefactor. Israel possesses nuclear weapons but will not admit as such, and there is no reason to suggest its nuclear appetite will diminish. Iran does not possess nuclear warheads as yet, but is pursuing a nuclear programme that existentially frightens Israel, challenges Saudi regional power, and seriously concerns the international community. The international community is also seriously concerned by Islamic State, whose inclusion in this article derives from a claim in the group’s propagandising magazine suggesting a nuclear acquisition path leading to Pakistan. Also looking to Pakistan for nuclear weapons acquisition is Saudi Arabia, which, although having signed the NPT and having agitated strongly for a nuclear-free Middle East in the past, now appears to seek membership of the nascent regional nuclear weapons club. If current trends continue, it may transpire that other regional powers – Turkey and Egypt – also come to see nuclear weapons capability as vital to ensuring national security and regional prestige in an increasingly nuclearised Middle East.

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