Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Libya's Nuclear Turnaround: Perspectives from Tripoli

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Libya's Nuclear Turnaround: Perspectives from Tripoli

Article excerpt

This article examines Libya's nuclear rollback in light of sources that have emerged since December 2003. These sources offer new perspectives on the Libyan regime's motives for pursuing nuclear weapons, why it concluded that the effort to acquire nuclear weapons was becoming a threat to national security, and how this reflects on Libya's security policy under Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi. It will be argued that this particular case illustrates a recent trend towards post-revolutionary realpolitik in Libyan foreign and security policy.

Libya's decision to end its long-standing pursuit of nuclear weapons came as a double shock to the international community. Not only was this a surprising move by the eccentric Libyan leader, Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi, but few had realized how far Libya had progressed in acquiring resources for a nuclear weapons program. Before the announcement of Libya's nuclear rollback in December 2003, the outside world had substantially underestimated Libya's progress in obtaining nuclear weapons capabilities. Since then, more technical information has emerged about Libya's nuclear weapons program but less is known about the regime's reasons for pursuing and then abstaining from these weapons capabilities. Sources that have emerged since 2003 offer more insight into several aspects of the evolution of Libya's nuclear weapons project and why it came to a halt. This article examines these new sources and supplements them with the author's interviews with key Libyan officials.

This study examines three main questions. First, what led the Libyan regime to pursue nuclear weapons? Second, why did the Libyan regime come to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that its pursuit of a nuclear deterrent had become a security threat? Third, what does this tell us about Libya's evolving national security policy under Colonel Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi?

With one notable exception, there is no literature on the Libyan regime's decision making in the field of security.1 The literature on policy-making processes in the Libyan regime consists of a few groundbreaking studies that point to the need for further detailed and updated analyses.2 Libyan scholar Amal Obeidi argues that "there are problems and obstacles related to the security studies field in Libya in particular. Because of the sensitivity of these topics scholars have been reluctant to deal with or explore such areas."3 What is known, however, is that regime survival remains the Libyan regime's first priority.4

So far, Libya's nuclear policy turnaround has largely been explained in terms of external developments and influences associated with the post-9/11 security agenda. Analysts have pointed to increasingly robust non-proliferation measures since 2001, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and/or the trilateral negotiations between the United States, Libya, and the United Kingdom as the causes of Libya's policy change.5 While American and European governments stressed either punitive measures, increasing the risk of nuclear proliferation, or the facilitating role and incentives associated with international diplomacy, academics have more persuasively pointed to the successful combination of carrots and sticks in the American and British efforts to persuade Libya to discontinue the pursuit of nuclear weapons.6 Others, in turn, have argued that Libya's seeming volte-face was rooted in a reorientation of Libyan foreign and security policy dating back to the mid-1980s.7 What is largely absent from these attempts to explain Libya's nuclear rollback is the perspective from Tripoli on the internal processes and developments that led to this policy change. In particular, the changing relationship between Libyan grand strategy and the objectives driving the pursuit of nuclear weapons has been missing from the academic debate. By incorporating these perspectives into the analysis, a richer explanation of Libya's nuclear rollback can be developed.

This article posits that Libya's reasons for pursuing nuclear weapons reflected the regime's changing foreign and security policy priorities. …

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