Nuclear Proliferation and the Middle East

By Bahgat, Gawdat | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Proliferation and the Middle East


Bahgat, Gawdat, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


For the last several decades the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has been considered a major threat to international security. Both chemical and biological weapons are universally banned. Nuclear weapons, however, are regulated by a more complicated international regime. This essay begins with a general survey of the literature on nuclear proliferation. Specifically, in the first part the author addresses the question why countries seek to acquire nuclear weapons. To answer, the article examines five theoretical models: globalization and technological imperative; leadership/cognitive and psychological approaches; internal dynamics and domestic politics model; national pride and prestige; and security. The section that follows addresses the question of how countries are 'persuaded' or 'pressured' to give up their nuclear aspirations. Three models are discussed: change in the economic and political orientations; the international non-proliferation regime; and United States policy. Given recent development in Iraq, Iran, and Libya, references are made to nuclear proliferation and rollback in the Middle East.

Key Words: Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD); Nuclear Weapons; Non-Proliferation Treaty; Nuclear Powers; Middle East; Israel; Iraq; Iran.

For the last several decades the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has been considered a major threat to international security. The term 'weapons of mass destruction' refers to four types of destructive device. According to Article II of the Chemical Weapons Convention, chemical weapons (CW) mean "toxic chemicals and their precursors, munitions and devices specifically designed to cause death or other harm."2 More than the other types of WMD, chemical weapons had been used extensively during the First World War and to a limited extent in the second World War. In the Middle East, Egypt used chemical weapons in the Yemen war in the 1960s, Libya used them in Chad in the 1980s, and Iraq employed them against Iran and against its Kurdish population in the 1980s. Chemical weapons are much less lethal than biological and nuclear devices.

Biological weapons (BW) are designed to "disseminate pathogens or toxins in an aerosol cloud of microscopic particles that can be readily inhaled and retained in the lungs of the exposed population."3 Thus, biological weapons are unique because they involve the use of living organisms as a weapon. Despite their huge potential lethality, biological weapons have not been used on a large scale in modern wars.4

Nuclear weapons (NW) release vast amounts of energy, most or all of which derives from "fission or a combination of fission and fusion processes."5 This energy is produced by splitting the nucleus of an atom, usually highly enriched uranium or plutonium, into two or more parts by bombarding it with neutrons. Nuclear weapons were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, at the end of the second World War. Three characteristics of NW need to be highlighted. First, they are the deadliest type of WMD. Nuclear devices cause catastrophic damage due to the initial blast and the subsequent radiation. Second, they are the hardest to manufacture. They require substantial financial resources and sophisticated technical infrastructure. Third, unlike CW and BW, which are universally banned, NW are regulated by a more complicated international regime. Since 1968, the international community has acknowledged the possession of NW by five nations - China, France, the Soviet Union (Russia), the United Kingdom, and the United States. With few, but significant exceptions, the rest of the world has agreed not to seek nuclear devices.

Finally, some analysts distinguish between nuclear weapons and radiological weapons. The latter disperse radioactive substances but do not produce a nuclear explosion. The simplest radiological weapon would consist of "a conventional explosive surrounded by a quantity of any radioactive material. …

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