Nukes in the Neighbourhood

01 August 1998


In the early 1960s, when nuclear proliferation loomed much more ominously than it did more recently until May 1998, the American satirist Tom Lehrer wrote a song called "Who's Next?" It began with the US bomb, and traced the efforts of other countries to match Washington's nuclear capacity:

First we got the bomb, but that was good
'Cause we love peace and motherhood.
Then Russia got the bomb, but that's okay
'Cause the balance of power's maintained that way
Who's next?

Lehrer went through a litany of the French and Chinese nuclear bombs, and then he got to a key point. Imitating faux-Arabic music on his piano, he sang:

Egypt wants to get one too, just to use on you know who...
So [switch to Israeli folk tune] Israel is getting tense,
Wants one in self-defense,
The Lord's our shepherd says the psalm,
But just in case, we better get a bomb!

Tom Lehrer was prescient. Nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East emerges as a serious potential consequence of the recent Indian and Pakistani tests. After all, they're practically in the neighborhood. While some Pakistani officials have spoken of their "Islamic bomb," the reality is that Islamabad's nuclear capacity is no more Islamic than India's represents a "Hindu bomb" or (rarely spoken of) Israel's is a "Jewish bomb." Bombs have no religion, only victims. But nonetheless, the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is now, after the South Asian tests, a much greater danger.

Political fallout may soon be felt, most immediately in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Israel, but more broadly throughout the region.

It is no coincidence that the only two Middle East countries containing all three of the key resources required for indigenous regional power - oil, large population, and water - are the two most consistently demonized by the US, the primary global power operating in the area. Iran and Iraq remain, despite Iraq's current military and economic weakness, locked in contention for future regional hegemony. Nuclear claims, however exaggerated, can loom large in both countries' domestic political discourse.

Iraq, still reeling under the impact of almost eight years of punitive economic sanctions as well as constant and intrusive weapons inspections by the UN Special Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency, has all but been given a nuclear all-clean by the IAEA. Baghdad's sanctions-driven impoverishment will almost certainly prevent any serious nuclear efforts for years to come. But the emergence of two new nuclear states close by may well spark a popular and/or government-orchestrated call for nuclear renewal in an Iraq devastated by the sanctions and angry at the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council - not coincidentally the same countries as the Nuke Five.

Iran remains a current, if disputed, regional powerhouse. A signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Tehran continues to keep its long-standing but small-scale nuclear programs open to NPT-mandated international inspections. There has been speculation in the West for years, but no direct evidence, about Iran's secret nuclear intentions (of no small interest since the country's first nuclear program during the shah's regime was American, and its later incarnations initially French and German), that the nuclear power program has actually reached a weapons stage.

Military collaboration between Pakistan and Iran is longstanding, and Tehran would be a likely customer for Islamabad if (and this is a very big if) a decision were made to sell nuclear weapons technology or equipment. (Similar commercial-military ties exist between Iran and China, and Iran and Russia as well.)

It is significant, perhaps, that the candidate backed by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most outspoken supporters of Iran developing a nuclear option, was defeated in the recent presidential elections in Iran. But the current foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, was still the most senior foreign official to visit Pakistan immediately after Islamabad's nuclear test. Egypt has recently renewed its call for creation of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East. While Cairo had begun a nuclear program in the late 1950s, it was abandoned some years later. Even Israel's nuclear arsenal did not lead to an Egyptian nuclear response, as Egypt realized it could not challenge Israel's nuclear bombs with its own, and hope to survive. By the time of the post-Gulf War Madrid peace conference, Egypt publicly renounced its nuclear aspirations. In the Arab League and regional security fora, Egypt continued to campaign against indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty on the grounds that the US and the rest of the Nuclear Weapons States ignored their Treaty obligations to move toward nuclear disarmament. Egypt had also, for many years, attempted and failed, to force Israel to abandon its nuclear program; one of Cairo's most powerful arguments in the NPT extension debate was that all countries should have to join, including nuclear-armed Israel.

But Cairo's financial dependence on the US (to the tune of almost $2 billion a year in aid) proved an insurmountable obstacle to Egypt's principles. In the run-up to the 1995 diplomatic conference on extending the NPT, Egypt joined India, Mexico, South Africa and other countries to challenge the Nuke Five. But quickly Egypt's president overruled the foreign ministry's efforts, and Egypt ultimately signed the NPT as a non-nuclear signatory. The danger now is that public opinion in Egypt could begin to shift, to demand that the government renew its long-abandoned nuclear program. With a collapsed economy, massive unemployment, growing discontent, and a growing Islamist insurgency, Cairo could ill afford to simply ignore this kind of political pressure. If the government reshapes its currently general call for a NWFZ in the region to include a specific demand for Israel's nuclear disarmament, the mounting pressure may be deflected.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, even in the wealthy and usually quiescent Gulf states, anger is growing at the latest version of the nuclear powers' double standards: the willingness to overlook Israel's powerful nuclear arsenal, while imposing harsh and unforgiving sanctions on other Middle Eastern countries' efforts to catch up.

It is crucial to remember that there is currently only one Middle Eastern nuclear power, and that is Israel. Since 1979, when the Israeli Defense Forces and the South African government jointly tested a low-yield nuclear weapon off the South African coast, Tel Aviv's then 15-year-old nuclear capacity has been semi-acknowledged in the context of Israel's "strategic ambiguity": creating a nuclear arsenal while maintaining the fiction (unchallenged by the West) that "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region." Two years later, of course, Israeli jets destroyed Iraq's relatively primitive Osiraq nuclear reactor near Baghdad. By 1986, when Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu went public with photographs and detailed descriptions of the long-hidden nuclear plant at Dimona, in the Negev desert, the world learned that Tel Aviv's nuclear arsenal, with at least 200 high density nuclear bombs, was the sixth largest and most powerful in the world. But the conspiracy of nuclear silence continued, and Israel was never challenged, punished, or even held to account either for its nuclear weapons or its refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Vanunu, moved to the general prison population in spring 1998 after 12 years of solitary confinement, was recently denied parole. India's nuclear test in May 1998 was carried out by the BJP, a right-wing Hindu nationalist party with extensive and growing ties to Israel. Claiming a link by virtue of both India and Israel being "surrounded by Muslims," the BJP is moving to consolidate and hasten the shift away from India's longstanding support for Palestinian rights to a new strategic partnership with Israel. While it may be some time before that nascent association reaches the level of Israel's economic, political and strategic/military/nuclear ties to apartheid South Africa, the possibility of a nuclear alliance between the BJP and Bibi Netanyahu's right-wing Likud coalition remains very much a serious threat.

However alarmist or premature the call may have been, it should not be ignored that when Pakistani intelligence agencies called for US support against unidentified fighter jets sighted near its nuclear facilities shortly after Islamabad's nuclear tests, they raised the suspicion that the planes were Israeli fighters more advanced than any in India's air force. (The State Department position was that it doesn't think the incident happened, and that if it did it wasn't dangerous.)

Since the entry of India and Pakistan to the nuclear club, the danger looms that Israel may feel emboldened to attempt a strategic escalation in the size and/or power of its already formidable nuclear arsenal. Given its level of absolute and uncritical defense of Israel (in the halls of international diplomacy, the consultations of world financial institutions as well as in strategic military and nuclear calculations), it is not unlikely Washington would quietly endorse such a move. The consequences of such an escalating double standard, and its resulting, eminently understandable Arab and Iranian rage, would further threaten unchecked nuclear proliferation throughout this already volatile neighborhood.