Mideast WMDs: A case of when, not if?

All in all there is an estimated 16,300 nuclear warheads held by nine states

Chris Doyle

Published: Updated:

How many people picked up on the letter from 120 senior diplomats, politicians and military figures from across the globe who warned that the international community is being complacent about the risks of a nuclear war? In terms of warnings, this one surely rates as one of the direst, yet strangely barely registered a tremor. There were no minor officials either, including the former NATO deputy supreme allied commander Europe, a former chief of the defense staff in Britain and a former vice-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

All in all there is an estimated 16,300 nuclear warheads held by nine states.

The letter’s signatories argue that too many of these nuclear weapons are vulnerable and ready to launch on short notice. “Tensions between nuclear-armed states and alliances in the Euro-Atlantic area and in both South and East Asia remain ripe with the potential for military miscalculation and escalation.” Given the U.S.-Russian tensions and the Ukraine crisis surely they have a point. There were genuine fears of an India-Pakistan war only in 2002, and today Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear weapons program in the world. As for the Kim dynasty in North Korea, it is hard to imagine a less responsible, more foolhardy nuclear-armed power. Then again the main nuclear powers have had 13 instances of near use since 1962. Infamously President Francois Mitterand of France and Jimmy Carter in the U.S. left their launch codes at home in their suit pockets.

Wracked by civil wars

Yet what about the Middle East wracked by civil wars, crises and polarized along ethnic and sectarian lines like never before. The international community seems to have conveniently forgotten that U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 that was used as a pretext for the 2003 Iraq war, declared “the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons.” A conference to address this scheduled for 2012 was indefinitely postponed.

Extremist groups including ISIS and al-Qaeda are also still interested in WMDs

Chris Doyle

Israel has the bomb and like India and Pakistan, has not signed up to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). To the north in Syria there are still strong suspicions that the Syrian regime maintains a residual chemical weapons arsenal. It was only in October that the U.N. reported that Syria had owned up to four additional chemical weapons sites. The Iran-P5+1 talks get extended and extended but many within the Iranian regime harbor dreams of Iran breaking into the elite nuclear club. Gulf states would almost certainly react perhaps by purchasing their own. The reality is that they see that Israel is not using its nuclear capacity for offensive purposes but fear that Iran would. A whole new nuclear map would be drawn up and the non-proliferation system would collapse. Two nuclear-armed states would soon become three, four or five.

What in part makes this worse is the belief that the United States is pulling back from the region. Key American allies, including Israel, fear that security guarantees from Washington have been devalued. Regional hegemons are facing off against each other in all the regional disasters. Will these states look to other options to “secure” their futures?

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty is due once again for its review in 2015. As ever Israel’s Middle East nuclear monopoly will be the focus of attention. Already the U.N. General Assembly has overwhelmingly voted by 161 to 5 for Israel to renounce possession of nuclear weapons and put its nuclear facilities under international oversight.

Israel’s acquisition of the bomb

Israel will not do this and the sponsors know it. Yet the story of Israel’s acquisition of the bomb holds many warnings relevant to today. It was born through a mixture of determination, deception, subterfuge and theft. Nuclear materials were stolen, the Dimona reactor was initially called a “textile factory” and Israeli technicians even tried to fool U.S. inspectors touring Dimona with fake control rooms and bricked up entrances. Most alarming was that Israel even offered to sell the nuclear bomb to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Iran is just as capable of adopting the Israeli playbook. Ultimately if Iran or another state is as determined as Israel was to get the bomb, it probably will.

Extremist groups including ISIS and al-Qaeda are also still interested in WMD, and only in July, ISIS seized control of Muthanna, a huge former chemical weapons facility north of Baghdad which contained degraded chemical agents.

But given the ever-worrying state of the region, is there not a stronger case than ever for a regional security apparatus that includes Iran, Israel, Turkey as well as the Arab states. Leave aside the public stance of many Arab states on Israel, there are already significant and growing contacts with Tel Aviv. Iran must not be excluded. Such a mechanism should be used in a responsible fashion to calm tensions and put in conflict prevention measures. Israel and Iran will never give up their arsenals without major security guarantees. Such a body might also be eventually used to share information specifically on militant extremism and intelligence on non-state actors trying to obtain Weapons of Mass Destruction. If it did reduce conflict, then perhaps it might even aspire to resolve some of the outstanding crises and even longer-term challenges such as jobs, water and energy.

Next year will be 70 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any future repeat would be far more catastrophic. The Middle East remains one of the most likely theatres where WMD may be used again. The very reasons – lack of trust, rivalry and animosity - why key states refuse to cooperate on this are the very reasons they must do so. The region requires genuine leadership to extricate itself from its own disasters without always looking for a Washington-led bailout.


Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

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