The Middle East and the Nightmare of Nuclear Proliferation

Article excerpt

IRAN has established a string of remote-launching missile bases capable of unmanned precision attacks on Israeli and American targets to deter a projected strike against its nuclear development facilities. Israel has ordered nuclear-capable submarines from Germany dedicated to an advanced second-strike role hitherto untried in the Middle East. Egypt and Turkey have announced new national atomic power development plans essential for joining a nuclear arms race with Iran in order to maintain regional stability. All this is pushing Saudi Arabia towards its long-pending decision to build or purchase the Bomb.

The Middle East has woken up to the nightmare principle of mutual assured destruction (MAD) invented during the bleakest days of the Cold War that ended with the demise of the Soviet Union less than two decades ago. The idea was that the chief antagonists and their allies invest enormous and escalating resources in the arms race to ensure that their adversaries dare not attack them for fear of precipitating their own certain peril. This fattened the armaments manufacturers and brought humanity closer to destruction during the twentieth century than at any other time since the Ice Age. There were hopes after the Cold War that the squandered resources could now be invested to the good of humanity in a form of 'peace dividend'. Instead, the world economy, which had been dominated by a voracious military-industrial complex present in all countries, plunged into recession because it could not cope with a prolonged absence of huge renewed armament orders.

Three bloody, lucrative, American-led wars--two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan--have changed that. US defence spending this year is over $550bn, half more than the budget inherited from the Clinton Administration in 2001 and almost as large as the combined military expenditure of all the other countries of the world. These Middle East wars and the ill-defined, widening 'war on terror' that feeds from them have also upset the delicate Shi'a/Sunni divide of the region. They have destroyed the Sunni powers of the Taleban in Afghanistan in November 2001 and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in April 2003, hitherto the greatest regional rivals of Shi'a Iran.

Israel's conflict on two fronts in June-July 2006 against the Palestinians in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon has added to the regional dimensions of this instability. The Palestinian dream of statehood has receded further. Iran's influence has increased hugely--it now rivals that of the United States as the main gatekeeper at the crossroads between the Middle East and Asia.

Much of this is explored in a landmark analysis published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London. The study--Iran, its Neighbours & the Regional Crisis--has been compiled by an outstanding team of specialists. Some aspects of the work have already been overtaken by events because of the quick pace of development of the drama. But it may well remain for some time a trusted source of advice and basic reference to politicians, investors and students of the troubled region.

The study concludes that a prospective American-sponsored military strike to prevent Iran from building the bomb would be devastating for that country, the Persian Gulf and areas beyond. Iran warns that any such attack would provoke a terrible retribution meted out on Israel. The Chatham House analysis observes that a military conflict involving Iran must be global in scale because of the economic interdependence binding that country with the world's principal hydrocarbon importers.

Iran's nuclear ambitions date back to the pre-revolutionary era of the Shah in the 1960s. The country's present rulers insist that their programme is entirely legal and peaceful. But they have built two long-range missiles with a reach of up to 2,000km capable of hitting much of the Middle East including Israel and some of Europe. …