Reversing the Middle East Nuclear Race

by Yezid Sayigh
published in MER177

“The Middle East has entered the nuclear age,” said Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens in October 1991, as he surveyed the region’s strategic environment in the aftermath of the Gulf war and just days before the opening session in Madrid of the Arab-Israeli peace talks. [1] Arens may merely have been reflecting on a reality that needs to be addressed. Or he may have been staking out a preemptive position in advance of demands for arms controls and territorial concessions, by seeking to make the Israeli nuclear monopoly an explicit component of the regional strategic equation. Between the two interpretations lies the key to the impact of non-conventional weapons proliferation on Middle East stability.

The current strategic balance in the Middle East is in transition as the region seeks a new equilibrium, an equilibrium which has been in constant flux over the past three decades. The Arab-Israeli conventional arms race began in earnest in the mid-1950s. It was not long before Israel launched its nuclear and missile development programs, making Arens’ observation seem a bit tardy. Egypt plunged into chemical and missile programs a few years later. The strategic dimension that resulted has become part and parcel of disequilibrium ever since.

The 1970s saw a sharp escalation of the conventional arms race, prompted by the 1973 war and fueled by the subsequent boom in oil revenues and external assistance, as the major states in the region searched for strategic advantage by expanding their conventional power. They soon started to reach the limits of their technological and financial capabilities, however, prompting greater interest in non-conventional arms -- as suggested, for example, by Israeli nuclear cooperation with South Africa and the beginnings of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

The state of flux in the Middle East strategic equilibrium became especially acute and prompted intensive counter-moves on all sides from the late 1970s onwards, following the withdrawal of Egypt from the Arab-Israeli conflict and the rise and collapse of the Shah’s military ambitions for Iran. The consequences were not long in coming: Iraq’s invasion of Iran, Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor and invasion of Lebanon, and Syria’s acquisition of SS-21 missiles, among others. The acceleration of the Middle East non-conventional arms race in the second half of the 1980s reached a crescendo in the spring of 1990 with the exchange of threats between Iraq and Israel and then the invasion of Kuwait.

The question now, in the aftermath of the second Gulf war, is to assess the impact of non-conventional weapons on the region. (Non-conventional weapons, or weapons of mass destruction, refer primarily to nuclear, biological and chemical arms, and ballistic missile systems.) As long as international sanctions and controls are in operation, Iraq is neutralized as a regional contender with long-range non-conventional capability. It may be within the capability of the global powers (the US, first and foremost) to prevent Iraqi rearmament in the foreseeable future, but for how long can the resultant strategic imbalance in the Gulf be maintained? Iran has apparently restarted its own nuclear, chemical and ballistic missile programs at various times since 1984. Iran’s neighbors might not respond directly as long as their external allies uphold the existing strategic balance -- with bases and navies in and near the Persian Gulf -- but that option carries its own risks. Not least is that “freezing” the balance as it is masks any mounting disequilibrium, and makes future disengagement by the external powers that much more problematic.

The situation is further complicated by the emergence of Pakistan as a potential nuclear power, affecting the strategic balance with India and consequently with China. We are witnessing a convergence of the Middle East and South Asian-Chinese “security complexes.” [2] Obvious examples are the negotiations in late 1991 over the sale of an Indian nuclear reactor to Iran, which has already received Chinese assistance in this field, and US reports concerning Chinese nuclear assistance to Algeria, Syria and Pakistan. [3] Another recent development is the emergence of independent, nuclear-armed republics out of the former Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan in Central Asia (though this may change again if the transfer of all nuclear weapons to Russia proceeds in the meantime). This may bring additional elements into the Middle East strategic balance, making it far more difficult to achieve stability (let alone arms controls). This can occur even if the former Soviet republics play no active part in regional politics, and confirms the view of the UN Experts’ Report that once states are in actual possession of nuclear weapons, it becomes very difficult to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone. [4]

In the Middle East, two tiers of states are emerging: one with advanced, non-conventional capability, and one without. Israel sits squarely in the former category and is likely to be joined, in the wider regional context, by Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Iran. Some Arab states possess limited chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs, but these remain modest in size and potential, suggesting that the Arab states are set to occupy the tier of states without non-conventional weapons capability. With the Missile Technology Control Regime in force and the Chemical Weapons Convention close to being signed, this conclusion is practically inescapable.

This may encourage the smug feeling that at the end of the day both the US and Israel can, singly or jointly, “manage” the situation without fear of nuclear and other non-conventional proliferation on the Arab side. This would mean a continuation of the current US policy of “no policy” with regard to the Israeli nuclear program. The Arab states badly need to cut military expenditures, but they are unlikely to submit to the strategic imbalance indefinitely. Should US policy start to shift, though, Israel might feel under siege and react provocatively, almost certainly prompting Arab counter-moves. Thus the Middle East strategic balance faces the prospect of continued strains that lead to shifts in the military capabilities of the various states, particularly as non-conventional weapons become part of the equation.

Regional Complexity

The presence of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East context is especially dangerous; their use would be highly irrational. [5] Local decision-makers have nonetheless concluded that such weapons might be useful not only as ultimate strategic deterrents but also for battlefield uses in wars that do not threaten national survival. This implicit assumption that non-conventional conflict is wageable has already led to subtle shifts in the policies and doctrines of some states, and reflects a perception that possession of these weapons confers powers of compellence as well as deterrence.

The Middle East, for the purposes of this discussion, includes the Arab states, Israel, Iran and Turkey. The multiplicity and diversity of regional actors render the region highly vulnerable to external influences, especially given the relative proximity of southern Europe, the states of the former Soviet Union, and Pakistan and India. The US is a regional actor by virtue of its global reach, residual Cold war dynamics and declared interests.

Despite the enormous expanse of some countries, the critical “conflict areas” are relatively small and tend to comprise the borders of several states. Concentrations of population, administration, economic activity and infrastructure in rival states are often in close proximity. The distances separating the main sub-regions are not great. With the proliferation of intermediate-range ballistic missiles and mid-air refueling for combat aircraft, most of the states in the region possess the means to threaten the other key states. Iraq, by 1990-1991, was effectively extending its strategic reach into the Gulf and Arab-Israeli theaters. Israel has demonstrated its reach through ballistic missile and satellite launches and by bombing targets as far apart as Baghdad and Tunis. India’s nuclear capability and Pakistan’s recent declaration that it has become a “nuclear power,” not to mention Iran’s weapons programs, can affect the strategic posture and security not only of Iraq and the Gulf but also of Syria and Israel (and ultimately Egypt).

The strategic and political linkages between sub-regions and regional issues were driven home by the US-led coalition effort against Iraq: first when the US secured the active involvement of Egypt and Syria (and Arab states as far away as Morocco) and deployed allied forces to Turkey as well as the Gulf; and second when the US moved in the post-war period to promote an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Middle East states have built on these linkages in the past, with Israeli offers of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to Iran in the 1970s and Iraqi-Egyptian collaboration on ballistic missile development in the 1980s. [6]

There is a marked asymmetry of military capabilities among individual states. A majority do not possess non-conventional weapons, have little prospect of acquiring or developing them, and have little interest in doing so. Still, ballistic missiles and other advanced conventional weapons and munitions will likely enter a growing number of arsenals in the region (or in its periphery) in the foreseeable future, adding areas of asymmetry.

Is this asymmetry necessarily destabilizing? In Europe the strategic balance had been upheld by two distinct blocs that between them accounted for almost all states in the northern hemisphere. Given the complexity of Middle Eastern state systems, some argue that the emergence of a handful of “hegemons” might establish a stable balance that would curb tendencies to open confrontation. A few have even argued that a monopoly of strategic power by Israel, nuclear-armed only for ultimate survival and under the restraining influence of the US, could enhance stability and even facilitate Israeli territorial concessions in a settlement with its Arab foes. [7]

The instability of the region is not reducible to balance versus asymmetry. Conflict arising from territorial disputes and exacerbated by social and economic factors is the root cause of the regional arms race. It is in this context that non-conventional weapons exert a strongly destabilizing influence, due to their own intrinsic features -- especially their perceived utility for launching surprise “demonstration” attacks. The distinction, partly contrived, between “tactical” and “strategic” -- can encourage the view that these weapons can be employed in situations that fall short of a war of survival. That such weapons are considered relevant to the conduct of war at the operational level was made evident by Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iran during the first Gulf war and ballistic missiles against a nuclear-armed Israel in the second one. For Israel, which fears losing its conventional and technological superiority over the Arab armies, nuclear weapons have offered a means since 1967 of constraining Arab war plans. The strategic limitation influenced the choice of operational tactics, but did not prevent war in October 1973: Both Egypt and Syria resorted to air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missiles when they considered Israeli strategic bombing to have exceeded certain “red lines.”

More recently, Arab anxiety has grown that the Israeli “defensive shield” provided by non-conventional weapons can now be used assertively, as a strategic cover for conventional operations. The fear is that with its extensive first- and second-strike nuclear capability, long-range delivery systems and evolving reconnaissance assets (including satellites), Israel is even in a position to wage an offensive non-conventional war yet remain relatively immune from counterattack. Reinforcing this view is the Israeli effort to acquire or develop anti-tactical ballistic missiles (ATBMs) that could complete the defensive shield, enabling Tel Aviv to make this transition in posture and strategy. [8]

Doctrinal Shifts

Arab fears are not far-fetched. There has been a distinct blurring of conceptual boundaries concerning the function of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the doctrines governing their use. This increasing ambiguity has already led to the battlefield uses previously cited, and subtle outward shifts in Israeli doctrine and policy have been reflected in concrete changes in force structure and deployment, incorporating non-conventional capabilities in force structures and operational war-waging doctrines.

Doctrinal shifts became apparent as long ago as the October 1973 war, when Israeli nuclear-tipped missiles were put on alert and deployed in their firing positions. The Arab adversaries lacked the means to observe this move; it was intended instead to prompt the US to accelerate its aerial resupply effort and, possibly, to persuade the Soviet Union to exert pressure on its Arab allies to limit their offensive. In this case, the nuclear deterrent was in fact used as a compellent. Israel used a similar demonstrative deployment following the Iraqi Scud attacks during the 1991 Gulf war, apparently to exert leverage on US conduct in its anti-Scud hunt. [9]

The compellent aspect of Israeli nuclear power, or at least the assertiveness it imparts to Israeli conventional force projection and inter-state relations, are evident in other ways too. The range achieved by Israeli ballistic missiles in test launches, coupled with the space program and efforts (overt and covert) to obtain US intelligence data, suggests that Israel was seeking actively to target the Soviet Union. [10] This may partly have been an extension of the “last resort” option, a particularly dangerous one at that, but it was also an example of the compellence or leverage that Israel sought to exert in relations with the US. [11]

It is reasonable to infer that possession of non-conventional power has reinforced certain directions in the strategic thinking of Israeli leaders. Former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s grand design of the early 1980s, in which he saw Israel’s area of strategic interest as extending throughout the Arab world and into South Asia, is a case in point. While some have argued that Israeli non-conventional capability can be a stabilizing factor since it deters attack, and thus allows greater diplomatic flexibility, it seems at least as plausible to assume that this capability has underpinned past refusal to contemplate political and territorial concessions.

Whether due to the habituating effect of constant leaks or to the official US policy of “no policy” on the matter, Israeli non-conventional weapons and means of delivery are regarded tacitly as part of the regional background. Complacency carries its own dangers. More pertinent is the extent to which nuclear weapons have apparently entered Israeli force structure and operational thinking. [12] With artillery battalions reportedly armed with nuclear shells for 155mm howitzers (and possibly 203mm guns) and nuclear mines planted on the Golan Heights, according to one account, such weapons are no longer merely of last resort. [13]

It may be nearly meaningless to distinguish too firmly between tactical and strategic non-conventional weapons in the Middle East context, where distances are so short between rival capitals. The taboo on crossing the nuclear threshold applies as much to tactical warheads as to strategic ones. Nonetheless, there is a clear tendency for technological developments and institutional inertia to proceed at their own momentum and so exert pressure on policy and doctrine from within. Other factors may reinforce this trend, including the pressure of financial constraints on conventional force build-up, operational difficulties in a saturated Arab-Israeli battlefield and the development of Arab military and technological capabilities. [14]

The issue is not so much that Israeli leaders might come to believe that a war fought with non-conventional weapons is winnable, though there is such a risk. Nuclear warheads might not be used to destroy the enemy utterly. It is more likely that a nuclear state would detonate a single weapon demonstratively, to halt an enemy offensive at an early stage and abort it before it poses a threat to national survival. While some elements in the Israeli space and ATBM programs might be construed as primarily defensive in purpose, the effort also lends itself to an evolving doctrine of controlled non-conventional applications, backed by real-time satellite intelligence and anti-ballistic missile defenses. In all cases the risk is one of “tacticizing” strategy, to use Yehoshafat Harkabi’s term: When wars are waged as if they were battles, perceptions of specific weapons use shift accordingly. [15]

Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iran was intended to have a demonstrative effect, at least initially, as were early launches of ballistic missiles against Iranian cities. The means proved insufficient to the purpose. Ironically, the second Gulf war has probably reinforced Arab interest in ballistic missiles and other standoff weapons: The precedent of Scuds landing on Israeli cities left a deep impression on Arab decision-makers and strategists, even in Egypt.

This suggests that the various Middle East states will be increasingly attracted to what they perceive as the “lower range” of non-conventional weapons, so defined either because they are categorized as “tactical” (fallacious as the notion may be) or because they are sub-nuclear. The fact that they can still “pack a punch” in the restricted Middle East arena makes them useful for both deterrent and “blackmailing” purposes. As the “red line” on non-conventional proliferation drops lower, it may reach a point at which advanced conventional weapons technologies become part of the strategic equation. Two processes would then meet: the tacticization of strategy and the operationalization of its means.

Using Linkages

With the region in a state of transition at all levels -- strategic, political and economic, and ultimately structural -- the view that proliferation of non-conventional weapons might lead to greater stability based on the “balance of terror” is erroneous and dangerous. [16]

A more farsighted response is to recognize that the wider linkages throughout the Middle East all converge at the political level. The basis for moderating the impact of proliferation, containing and reversing it, is to address the political causes of conflict and militarization. The most practical course to achieve regional arms control would be to embark on a policy that utilizes the linkages between the political and military and the non-conventional and conventional spheres. [17]

Building on linkages does not necessarily mean making movement in one dimension conditional on progress in all others, nor does it imply a particular sequence. The parties should still seek negotiations on specific areas of arms control or political disputes independently of the other dimensions. Prospects for success in this endeavor will remain modest and vulnerable to reversal, however, without sustained efforts to resolve the other outstanding issues.

Progress along some tracks and convincing evidence of intent to move along the others would help encourage many in the region to delink certain issues in order to cut military spending and address other priorities. The outside powers, by acknowledging linkages and utilizing them, would thus encourage local powers to delink some issues, at least provisionally. If progress is made in resolving the central political conflicts, new dynamics could alter the way in which governments perceive and manage the components of stability and security. It would become easier to negotiate single issues, such as chemical weapons or ballistic missiles, if the parties acknowledged the relationship with other non-conventional weapons and agreed in principle on the need for comprehensive and mutual disarmament.

In practical terms, all aspects of arms control must be addressed, but this may be done in varying sequences. One option, more reassuring but less likely to happen, is for the various tracks to be pursued in parallel, along with discussion of political issues. An alternative is to “stagger” negotiations and agreements, such that the separate tracks are dealt with consecutively. In any case, it is vital for the parties to express complete clarity and commitment regarding the subsequent stages of negotiations and their broad end results. This would apply to the order in which conventional and non-conventional arms controls are taken up, and also to separate items within each category. An example is to deal with nuclear and chemical weapons separately, on the understanding that both are to be eliminated from the region at different, agreed intervals.

The alternatives of parallel or staggered negotiations would also apply to the wider question of how to coordinate peace talks and regional arms controls, especially in the Arab-Israeli context. Specific proposals and timetables for conventional and non-conventional weapons reductions, and ultimately for disarmament and zones free of nuclear and other non-conventional weapons, should be pursued independently and presented as an integral part of political negotiations.

Such an overall structure and timetable should make it more possible to obtain asymmetric concessions at different times, knowing they would be matched later. In particular, the scale of Israeli conventional force reductions could be less than that of Arab neighbors, and nuclear disarmament and the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone could be delayed until the conventional threat was removed. Different kinds of concessions would be reciprocated in the interim. The cumulative result would be a stable balance.

In formulating detailed proposals, it is important to take note of the fact that non-conventional weapons are far more destabilizing in a dense conventional weapons environment. This is partly because the former might provide strategic cover for offensive operations, and partly because the threat to use nuclear weapons arises primarily in the context of large-scale conventional attack. In both cases, it is the war-waging capability of conventional weapons that presents the foremost risk; the added threat is that non-conventional weapons are increasingly drawn into that capability.

Conversely, if conventional force levels are capped or reduced, then the justification for non-conventional weapons is reduced commensurately. The aim should be to bring conventional power down to a level that ensures balanced defense, while seeking to remove all non-conventional weapons categories entirely. Differences in capabilities and material circumstances mean different security needs and defense policies for individual states. [18] This should not include possession of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons -- but all the more reason for a multi-layered and multifaceted concept of balance.

Asymmetry can be integral to the final balance without causing disequilibrium or instability, so long as reciprocity and a high degree of mutuality apply. Offensive capabilities would be constrained by force reductions, deployment limitations, and observation and verification measures. [19] These arrangements should also extend to indigenous research and development, and production capabilities, and to the critical role of external suppliers of military technology. [20] Indeed, all arms control agreements should be underwritten by clear limitations on supply, deployment or other military intervention in the region by out-of-area powers.

Conflict resolution and arms control can be galvanized by restructuring and reordering the substantive issues, allowing breakthroughs of a scale and scope previously considered impossible. Weapons proliferation in the Middle East has taken place against a background of unresolved political disputes and active military conflict. The instruments to bring the spread of weapons of mass destruction under control are still missing: the fact that the US had to bomb Iraq’s non-conventional weapons infrastructure in 1991, ten years after Israel bombed the Osirak reactor, reveals not only the inadequacy of the earlier attack but also the need for more effective means of control.

In the aftermath of the second Gulf war, there is an opportunity to effect more sweeping arms controls in the Middle East in an incremental or staggered manner. Movement on the political issues is crucial, though, because of the need to anticipate renegotiation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995, and to finalize and implement the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions before then. Discussion of proposals for the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East should be revived now that Israel and the Arab states have begun direct negotiations. Separate treaties governing the control of specific weapons could be negotiated in parallel, and even mainly symbolic acts, like test curbs, would be useful as confidence-building measures.

The US has a particular role to play in this context, though to do so it will have to revise its standing policy of ignoring Israeli nuclear capability. [21] The United Nations would provide the most appropriate umbrella for such initiatives. A Middle Eastern version of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) could be the framework in which the various political, military and economic dimensions are brought together, and in which the needs and circumstances of different states can be articulated in a coordinated manner.

Failure to achieve a formal Arab-Israeli peace, with concomitant nuclear and chemical weapons disarmament, represents the worst-case scenario. Arab counter-efforts are then inevitable, however piecemeal or delayed, inviting further escalation and tension and leading to armed conflict or external intervention. A similar approach must also be applied in the Persian Gulf.

Middle East states bear primary responsibility for resolving regional problems, but so do their external supporters and suppliers. Ultimately, the international community as a whole has a role to play and a price to pay when it comes to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.


[1] Cited by former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, Yediot Aharonot, October 25, 1991.
[2] This convergence is discussed in Anoushiravan Ehteshami, Nuclearization of the Middle East (London: Brassey’s, 1989), pp. 151-2 and 154-6.
[3] International Herald Tribune, November 16-17, 1991.
[4] “Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Region of the Middle East,” Report of the Secretary-General, UN General Assembly Document A/45/435, October 10, 1990, p. 26. (Hereafter referred to as the UN Experts’ Report.)
[5] Frank Barnaby, The Invisible Bomb: The Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 1989), pp. 64-69.
[6] The Israeli offer is cited in Seymour Hersh, The Samson Option: Israel, America and the Bomb (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 274.
[7] This is the central thrust of the argument by a number of Israelis, such as Shai Feldman, Israeli Nuclear Deterrence: A Strategy for the 1980s (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
[8] An Egyptian military analyst and retired general places ATBMs within the non-conventional category in the Middle East context. Ahmed Abdel Halim, “The Unconventional Arms Race and the Role of Arms Control Talks in Reducing the Risk of War,” talk given at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, reproduced by the National Center for Middle East Studies, September 1990, p. 5.
[9] According to various sources, Israel test-fired a nuclear-capable missile into the Mediterranean during the war as a signal of its readiness to use nuclear weapons against Iraq. Jerusalem Post, June 10, 1991.
[10] Hersh, pp. 287 and 290.
[11] This is clearly alluded to in Anthony Cordesman, Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East (London: Brassey’s, 1991), p. 173. Ironically, some US officials and lobbyists were arguing that the US should not raise the nuclear issue with Israel, so as not to lose American leverage over that ally. See Janne Nolan, Trappings of Power: Ballistic Missiles in the Third World (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1991), p. 100.
[12] One Israeli analyst argues that there is a level of conflict at which Israel should confront Arab conventional strength with non-conventional means, and that the Israeli order of battle should be adjusted accordingly. Avner Yaniv, Deterrence Without the Bomb (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987), p. 256.
[13] Hersh, p. 276. The subtle shift in perception of what level of conflict should trigger nuclear defense is evident in the suggestion by Avner Yaniv that there should be a significant lowering of the “invisible threshold” for such use (p. 256).
[14] Discussed in Yezid Sayigh, “al-Jidal al-Nuwawi fi Isra’il: al-Dawafi‘ wa al-Qadaya (The Nuclear Debate in Israel: Incentives and Issues),” Shu’un Filastiniyya 189 (December 1988).
[15] Israel’s Fateful Decisions (London: I. B. Tauris, 1988), p. 16.
[16] Though not actually endorsing this view, Gen. Abdel Halim suggests that one option for discussion is for the Middle East states to possess a specific number of WMDs by common permission (p. 5).
[17] A perceptive and coherent outline of the perquisites for Middle East arms control is in Cordesman, pp. 167-172.
[18] As argued in Geoffrey Kemp (with Shelley Stahl), The Control of the Middle East Arms Race (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1991), p. 88.
[19] In addition to signing parallel treaties, some measures are suggested by the UN Experts’ Report, pp. 42-43.
[20] This is particularly important because, despite the impressive indigenous research and development capabilities of countries like Israel, all Middle East states remain highly dependent on technology transfer from advanced industrialized countries. See Nolan, p. 40; and Robert Harkavy and Stephanie Neuman, “Israel,” in James Katz, ed., Arms Production in Developing Countries (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1984), pp. 214-215.
[21] US policy on this point is criticized by several commentators. For example, McGeorge Bundy, “Nuclear Weapons and the Gulf War,” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1991), pp. 92-93.

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