Middle East Nuclear Stability: The State of the Region and the State of the Debate

By Feldman, Shai | Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Middle East Nuclear Stability: The State of the Region and the State of the Debate


Feldman, Shai, Journal of International Affairs


How likely are nuclear weapons to spread in the Middle East? How fast might they proliferate? How would the proliferation of nuclear weapons affect the stability of the Middle East, and what situational factors might affect the region's prospects for nuclear stability? These are some of the central issues addressed in this article.

A Nuclear Middle East?

It is exceedingly difficult to ascertain the odds of a nuclear Middle East emerging any time soon. Indeed, assessments of the time it might take one or more of the region's states to obtain nuclear weapons rarely expose the difficulties entailed in making such evaluations.(1) An operational nuclear capability might be pursued today through one of two primary avenues. First, there is the "quick fix" approach, namely, the purchase of fissile material or nuclear warheads from a state that already possesses nuclear weapons. The most likely such scenario would involve the possibility of warheads or fissile material being smuggled from the former Soviet Union and sold to a Middle Eastern state.

The second avenue is the gradual development of a technical infrastructure that allows the indigenous manufacture of nuclear weapons. This could be pursued either through the production of highly enriched uranium or through the separation of plutonium from the by-pro ducts of nuclear-reactor fuel. While the former requires the construction of a uranium-enrichment facility, the latter requires the existence of a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor as well as the acquisition of a large-scale separation plant. Once fissile material is obtained through either smuggling or indigenous production, an added capability to design and produce nuclear bombs is required. If these bombs are to be fitted on the tips of ballistic or cruise missiles, which have a better chance than bombers of penetrating an adversary's air defense, the technology for reducing the size of warheads must also be mastered.

In the past few years, Iraq and Iran have emerged as the primary foci of concern about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Iraq's nuclear infrastructure was largely destroyed by U.S. bombings during the 1990-91 Gulf War and by the post-war activities of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM).(2) Yet there is every reason to believe that Saddam Hussein continues to harbor hopes of reviving Iraq's nuclear program once the sanctions applied against Iraq, in the framework of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 687 and 715, are lifted. Subsequently, Hussein may also feel confident enough to terminate the intrusive monitoring and verification regime currently applied to Iraq by the U.N.

Iraq's motivation to rebuild its atomic program may be further propelled by Iran's current efforts to reconstruct and further expand its nuclear infrastructure. Furthermore, Iraq's sense of humiliation, resulting from the contrast between the approach adopted by the UNSC toward its nuclear efforts and the willingness of the majority of states to tolerate Israel's nuclear potential, may also fuel Saddam Hussein's determination to rebuild his nuclear infrastructure.

Iraq's reconstruction of its atomic program would be based on three key assets: first, the financial resources that would be available once UNSC sanctions were lifted and Iraq had recaptured its share of the international oil market; second, the hundreds of scientists and engineers who comprised the human infrastructure of Iraq's nuclear activities until the Gulf War, and who remain largely (if not entirely) in place; and finally, the impressive talents of Saddam Hussein, demonstrated by his administration and management of the scientific and engineering dimensions of Iraq's nuclear program in the late 1980s, as well as by the successful concealment and deception exercised by Iraq in this realm. By the eve of the Gulf War, Hussein's efforts had brought Iraq quite close to the production of nuclear weapons - probably just a few years away - while deceiving all major Western intelligence agencies regarding the thrust of its nuclear program. …

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