The Persian Gulf presents a difficult challenge for global efforts to control weapons of mass destruction (WMD).Two of the countries of greatest proliferation concern-Iran and Iraq-are located in the Gulf region. Any ambitions these two countries may have to build nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons are particularly troubling given Iran and Iraq’s long history of rivalry and the fact that Iraq did not hesitate to use chemical weapons in its war against Iran. In addition, international disapprobation appears to have had little, if any, effect to date on ambitions to develop WMD in the region.
In the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, revelations regarding the extent of Iraq’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons alarmed the world. Information about Iraq’s capabilities emerged only gradually as Iraqi officials repeatedly hindered international efforts to fully uncover and destroy Iraq’s WMD and long-range missile programs. Although more details may yet be revealed, international inspectors have determined that Iraq had pursued multiple methods for enriching uranium, launched a crash nuclear weapon program, and made substantial progress toward developing and even deploying chemical and biological weapons. The defection of an Iraqi general in 1995 made clear that Iraq had continued to withhold substantial amounts of information, deepening international concern that Iraq’s ambitions to obtain arsenals ofWMD remained strong.
In the case of Iran, the country’s ambitions have been more of a concern than its actual capabilities. The United States, wary of the precedent set by Iraq, has argued that nuclear-related trade with Iran must be halted, despite Iran’s adherence to full-scope safeguards under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unlike Iraq, Iran has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, but the United States and others remain suspicious of its intentions. Additionally, Iran has an incipient capability to manufacture missiles and reportedly has made repeated attempts to import missile technology from North Korea and Russia. If Iran is successful in acquiring longer-range missiles, it would have the capability to strike Israel and other countries in the Middle East.
For both of these Persian Gulf states, attitudes toward WMD are intricately linked to internal politics, regional security concerns, and leadership aspirations in the Gulf. Efforts to address proliferation in the Persian Gulf therefore will need to take into consideration a broad array of issues.
In his study, “Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Persian Gulf Case,” Shahram Chubin looks at the role of WMD in the Persian Gulf and the obstacles to eliminating mass destruction weapons in the region. In Chubin’s view, the motivations for proliferation can only be understood within the context of the broader security dynamics of the region, including relations between Iran and Iraq, and between the Arab states and Israel. Since the perspectives of the states in the region differ widely and are influenced by many domestic, regional, and international variables, a “multilevel” approach to WMD proliferation is recommended. While regime changes in Iran and Iraq could improve the chances for progress toward elimination, Chubin observes, a change in leadership or regime alone would not resolve the tensions in the region nor end either country’s desire to obtain WMD capabilities. Tensions and conflicts in the Persian Gulf and broader Middle East region have long historical roots, and are likely to outlast the regimes currently in power. Attitudes toward WMD and arms control also will be affected by changes-or the lack of change-in the international arena. For example, a devaluation of nuclear weapons by the major powers and steps to make international structures more representative, Chubin argues, could lessen the desire of both countries to acquire WMD.
Bilateral confidence-building measures should accompany arms control efforts, Chubin notes. Moreover, “arms control will not lead but, rather, must develop in parallel to, or follow, progress in the political domain.” In addition, Chubin suggests that more progress will be made in the near-term by focusing on specific types of measures, for example, naval confidence building, rather than on attempting to craft an overarching framework addressing all regional tensions. In conclusion, Chubin stresses the need for “change on several levels,” and notes the benefit that increased interaction and normalized political relations between and among states in the region could have on efforts to eliminate WMD from the Persian Gulf.
This case study is the second in a series that examines the role of weapons of mass destruction in regional politics and security. Using a common framework of analysis, these regional studies seek to assess the utility of WMD from the perspective of the states in the regions and determine the obstacles to pursuing policies aimed at eliminating mass destruction weapons. The studies are authored by experts with extensive understanding of non-proliferation issues and, importantly, of the domestic and regional politics of the countries under review. Other studies in this series examine the regions of the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia.
This series is part of the Henry L. Stimson Center’s Project on Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction, which seeks to encourage a national and international debate on the long-term nuclear future. The project is based on the premise that the end of the Cold War, dissolution of the Soviet Union, and grave dangers of proliferation provide both reason and opportunity to reexamine fundamental assumptions regarding the relative benefits and risks associated with weapons of mass destruction. Through research and public education efforts, the Center seeks to explore the obstacles to, and implications of, the progressive elimination of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons from all states, and to consider measures that might bring all states closer toward that goal. A central focus of the project’s research efforts are evolving national and international perceptions of the benefits, costs, and risks associated with weapons of mass destruction. Understanding the motivations for proliferation in the post-Cold War environment is essential to this task.
The Stimson Center is grateful to the Ford Foundation, whose funding makes this work possible. We are particularly grateful to Christine Wing of the Ford Foundation for her continued support. We also wish to thank Howard Kee and Christine Wormuth for their comments, and editorial and administrative support.