US Foreign Policy
Policy Paper

Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East

in Program

In recent years, international concern about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East has increased significantly. The actual use of chemical agents by Iraq, the active accumulation of WMD by Iran, Iraq, and Libya, and the introduction of long range surface-to­ surface missiles (SSMs) into the region have leant greater urgency to regional and international initiativ es to achieve effective arms control measures. Yet, the prospects for creating the political conditions necessary to achieve such agreements, let alone the complete elimination of WMD in the region, remain very uncertain.

In his study, “Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East,” Yair Evron analyzes the forces driving proliferation in the region as well as the prospects for preventing or reversing the spread of WMD. For the purposes of this paper, the Middle East is defined narrowly as what used to be called the “heart” or “core” of the Middle East, viz., Egypt, the Fertile Crescent countries (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq), plus Libya. Evron begins by noting that the Arab-Israeli peace process, the decline of Pan Arabism, and the increasing role and influence of the United States in the region have altered the political and security contexts in the region profoundly, creating the potential for greater stability in the region that could, over time, help to diminish the insecurities driving the process of arms accumulation in the region. Other economic, social, and political trends, however, are less favorable to arms control efforts. Economic and demographic trends are likely to diminish prospects for development in the non-oil producing and more populous states in the region, while militant Islam and other domestic processes could weaken governments and possibly lead to armed conflict between or among states in the region. Under these conditions, Evron observes,

“. . .the salience and visibility of [WMDs in the region] have increased dramatically in the past decade.”

Regional trends in the acquisition of WMD reflect these dual pressures. Although political developments over the past two decades have enhanced the security of moderate and pro-Westem states, concern about the role of WMD and SSMs in the region persists. Among the developments Evron notes:

  • Despite its official policy of ambiguity, Israel is widely believed to possess a nuclear  weapons capability, developed as a deterrent against major security threats; the perceived threat of Israel’s suspected nuclear program, along  with  its  conventional  military capabilities, in tum affect the calculations of Arab states regarding the need for, and utility of, WMD.
  • Egypt has nuclear technology, although no nuclear weapons program, and previously had a chemical weapons capability. But Egypt’s past  abstinence from nuclear  weapons  was due to limited resources and a decision to focus more on building a conventional capability. Egyptian leaders remain concerned about Israel’s suspected nuclear program and the possibility that another country, possibly a rival, will  develop nuclear weapons.
  • Syria, engaged in serious conflict with Israel over ownership of the Golan Heights and suspicious oflraqi and Turkish intentions, has threatened to use force over the Golan Heights issue and has invested largely in developing SSMs. It is reportedly producing chemical warheads and possibly biological warheads for its SSMs.
  • By late 1990, Iraq had amassed arsenals of conventional, chemical, and biological arms and had developed an extensive nuclear infrastructure. Despite the concerted efforts of the international community to eliminate Iraq’s WMD arsenals, many observers believe that Iraq retains hidden capabilities.
  • Libya, which has engaged in past military provocations with Egypt, has SSMs and is considered to have chemical weapons.

Curbing the pressures for proliferation and rolling back existing programs will require significant political changes in the region, Evron concludes. Political relationships in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf will influence decisively the prospects for effective arms control measures, as will the policies of external players, first and foremost the United States. A breakdown in the Arab-Israeli peace process or spread of WMD throughout the Persian Gulf would undermine political and strategic stability in the Middle East, and diminish the chances for a comprehensive arms control regime encompassing the Core Middle Eastern countries (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel) and the Gulf countries. Other important factors affecting the prospects for WMD arms control include the willing ness of suppliers to participate in arms control regimes, and the viability of verification measures.

In addition, Israel is unlikely to move toward controls on, or elimination of, its nuclear capability unless it concludes that Israeli security is not seriously threatened. And Israel is unlikely to feel secure unless basic political conditions in the region change. From the Israeli perspective, formal peace with the Middle Eastern countries, and the creation of effective alternative security instruments to insure against a reversal of improving political relations, would also be necessary before a process of nuclear arms control could commence.

Under current political and strategic conditions, Evron advises small steps. A cut-off of fissile material production, he notes, “could ultimately become one of the likely topics around which initial steps towards limits on WMD could evolve.” Other partial steps that could be taken in the interim to move the Middle East toward a WMD arms control regime include “no-first-use” and “no political use” declarations, and Arab-Israeli security discussions.

This case study is the third 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 Persian Gulf and Northeast 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 S<;>Viet 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 and the Public Welfare Foundation, whose funding makes this work possible. We are particularly grateful to Christine Wing and Mahnaz Ispahani of the Ford Foundation for their continued support. We also wish to thank Susan Welsh and Adi Blum for their comments, and editorial and administrative support.

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