Saturday, November 02, 2013

Strategic Implications of WMD Proliferation in the Middle East


Ali-Asghar Kazemi[1]


Keywords: Middle East, arms race, WMD proliferation, Non-Proliferation Treaty, Israel’s WMD capability, Iran’s nuclear project, CWC and BWC Conventions.


The problem of arms race and military competitions in the Middle East is not a new subject. During the cold war and before the revolution in Iran, we experienced harsh rivalries between oil-rich states. Western great powers, which were the main source of arms deals, also competed among themselves to sell more arms to the region. The pretext in those days was to counter the communist threats. But, during the years of bloody hostilities in the region[2], those arms and military equipment were used by Moslems against Moslems.

Today a new kind of rivalry is shaping in the Middle East. This is mainly due to deep-rooted hostilities in the region and the increasing concern about the stockpiles of WMD in the Israeli arsenal. Adding Iran’s endeavor to acquire nuclear technology to this strategic equation, many of the Middle Eastern states are showing growing interests to acquire some kind of WMD. Considering the fact that acquisition of nuclear weapons is almost impossible under the present circumstances, interests for highly lethal but easier to acquire substances for use in chemical and biological weapons, are rising. Besides that, the Middle East continues to be on the top of the list for acquisition of conventional weapons and missile delivery systems.

How far WMD proliferation and arms race in the Middle East are due to Iran’s endeavor to acquire nuclear technology and long-range missile capability? How much Israel’s quest for building a hegemonic power through the acquisition, construction and possession of unconventional weapons or long–range missiles is susceptible to prompt other oil rich states of the Persian Gulf and the larger Middle East to embark on an arms race in the region? What are the consequences of such competition and rivalry for the overall Middle East and the entire international community?

The main arguments in this paper are:

  • There is no consensus in threat perception in the Middle Eastern and thus each state has its own motives and incentives to go for WMD,
  • It seems that Israel’s WMD capability is the main source of concern in the Middle East,
  • Iran’s endeavor to acquire nuclear technology is only marginally affecting arms race in the region,
  • Non-proliferation initiatives have proved ineffective in the Middle East,
  • Great powers are themselves inducing competition and arms race in the Middle East region.

A number of policy options are suggested at the end of this paper for further thoughts and consideration.

The Proliferation Security Initiative

The problem of WMD proliferation in the world in general and in the terror-ridden Middle East, has now become a major preoccupation of the international community. Ever since the September 11th unprecedented terrorist attacks on American targets in the heart of commercial and political centers of the United State in New York and Washington, the issue of terrorist using WMD has become a strategic obsession for security experts and policy makers. [3]

In May 2003 a number of states, with the United States at the lead, launched what is known as “The Proliferation Security Initiative” (PSI) with the objective to prevent the spread of WMD through a combination of legal, political, and security means.[4] The center of the attention in this modus vivendi is the interdiction and prevention of unconventional weapons, including biological, chemical and nuclear, from states and regimes which are known to have some kind of dubious links or sympathy with terrorist groups around the world. The implicit perception in this initiative is that with the emergence of fundamentalist movements, radically at odd with the prevailing norms and order, the world is becoming a too dangerous place and all peace loving nations are morally obligated to cooperate against the proliferation of these weapons. The initiative even went as far as to permit the use force in order to prevent or intercept any such weapons wherever they are smuggled, including the territorial waters, airspace and land territory of the PSI member states. [5]

The Proliferation Security Initiative seems to be based on the assumption that the conventional regulatory instruments and regimes on non-proliferation of WMD, including the NPT and its additional protocols, have not been responsive to world expectation due to a number of limitations and bottlenecks. The most recent examples of such preoccupation may be related to attempts by Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Iran to acquire nuclear technology through third parties and international black market.[6] In the domain of chemical and biological weapons the problem is much more subtle and confused. Because a vast number of substances used in these fields have dual utilization as pesticides in agricultural uses and bug killer at home. Therefore, it is very difficult to prohibit the export or imports of these agents merely on the assumption that they will be used for hostile purposes.

Causes and Incentives for WMD Proliferation

Experts in arms race and proliferation, particularly chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East, believe that one important cause of competition and rivalry in the region is Israel’s possession of a nuclear arsenal. Given that Israel has so far refused to acknowledge the fact, it is rather hard to pass a realistic judgment on the matter[7]. Nevertheless, the strategic implications of such phenomenon are quite important. It is believed that the pursuit of chemical weapons development in the Middle East was originally prompted when it became known that Israel worked on nuclear weapons. Countries such as Syria and Egypt, with limited economic and technological capacity to counter Israeli threat, would eventually prefer to have a much cheaper and accessible deterrent capability, such as chemical weapons in their munitions stores. [8]

It is not a secret that Middle Eastern states fear Israel’s military capability, and believe that it has not only nuclear but also chemical and biological weapons as well as very accurate delivery systems, which altogether constitute “the ultimate guarantor of its survival.[9]” Of course, the prerequisite to have such deterrent capability is the vehicle or the long-range missile system capable to carry the WMD warhead to the opponents. In this respect, Israel has been very active since the 1960’s and it is believed that it has developed a range of missiles even more sophisticated than those in use in the West.[10]

It is interesting to note that from a legal point of view, contrary to widespread publicity with respect to the overall WMD regime, Iran has acceded to the NPT in 1970 and [11] has been periodically subjected to inspections by the IAEA. While Israel still refuses to sign this document. Israel has been more ambiguous than Iran in declaring its nuclear status and strategy. As regards the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological and Toxin weapon Convention (BWC), while Iran has ratified both, [12] Israel has only signed (but not yet ratified) the first but refuses to sign the second.[13]

Syria and Egypt are two other important states of the region whose approach and status with respect to the WMD are worth to be considered. Syria has signed the NPT in 1968 and ratified it in 1969, but so far has refused to sign or ratify the CWC. Egypt acceded to the NPT in 1981 and has been implementing the comprehensive safeguards under the IAEA inspection regime since 1982. However, since the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, Egypt has been one of the NPT’s most vocal critics. Irritated by Israel’s ambiguous nuclear status, Egypt is frustrated by the international community’s inability to pressure or punish Israel for refusing to sign the NPT.[14]

Iran’s Ambiguous Nuclear Strategy

Despite the current belief that Iran is perceived as a potential threat to the region because of its nuclear ambitions and pursuit of long-range missile technology, concrete facts fall short of proving the truth of the contention. As a non-Arab state situated in a hostile environment with bitter memory of long hostilities with its neighbors and outside powers, Iran’s strategic preoccupation for the survival of the Islamic regime should not surprise anyone. Furthermore, there is no tangible indication that increasing incentive for WMD in the Middle East is to any extent related to Iran’s military posture in the region. With respect to the overall balance of power and defense expenditure in the Middle East, statistics bear witness that Iran has been lagging even much behind the smaller states of the Persian Gulf.[15]

Far from trying to be apologetic of Islamic regime’s controversial behavior, we should realize that this country is totally encircled by nuclear powers; Pakistan and India in the East, Israel in the West, Russia in the North and Americans, including their allies, in the South. Iran is indeed in a very delicate geo-strategic position which should rationally dictate its strategic and security posture vis-à-vis its neighbors and foreign powers. This is to say that even if Iran had the slightest intention of acquiring nuclear capability in such a fragile strategic setting it would be a legitimate cause. As a member of the NPT, there is no explicit indication that Iran’s nuclear endeavor has any place in its overall military strategy, while controversial statements by high ranking political figures about Iran’s future plans have put the whole matter in the shadow of ambiguity and suspect.

Furthermore, Iran’s intransigence to forego its pursuit of nuclear capability, claimed to be for peaceful purposes, along with other threatening declarations by the new-conservative hardliners, is becoming a source of anxiety in the Middle East and in particular for small, traditional and strategically vulnerable states in the Persian Gulf. Other states such as Israel and Turkey which are strategically tied through some sort of defense pact also are becoming more and more alert of the Iranian endeavor. Iran’s recent arms deals with Russia[16] and some other countries[17] have been received with concern in the region and elsewhere in the world.

The suspicion that Iran might be developing nuclear capability under the guise of peaceful technology for the purpose of power generating plants, has created an atmosphere of distrust in the region on the real intention of Iranian policy makers and strategic planners. Since the time Iran’s nuclear undertakings have been revealed by opposition groups, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a number of leading world powers which, not coincidently happen to have monopoly in nuclear capability, have pressured Iran, as a member of the NPT, to suspend all activities and give up a number privileges which according to the text of this treaty are legitimate rights of all member states.

During the progressive administration, some negotiations have taken place between Iran and the European Union (EU3) and an accord was reached in which Iran agreed to suspend voluntarily and temporarily its nuclear activities for the purpose of confidence building. However, with the coming into power of the hardliners new-conservatives in Iran, the whole perspective suddenly changed and the previous negotiating team was accused of selling out the country in the negotiations and therefore a new strategy was adopted by the new president and his new appointees.

Since I have examined elsewhere the development of the nuclear issue after the new government took charge and the position of the IAEA and other interested parties, there seems to be no need to repeat the matter here.[18] What is important to remember is that the new hard line administration in Tehran seems to have opted for a strategy of challenge and confrontation instead compliance and confidence building. [19] Obviously, this strategy would not help to alleviate the atmosphere of mistrust. It could even lead to the point of sparking further regional arms race, and pave the path for a concerted action against Iran in the U.N. Security Council in the weeks and months to come[20].

Policy Options for WMD Restrictions

As said in the introduction of this paper, arms race and military rivalry are perennial issues in the Middle East. During the past three or four decades we have witnessed many wars and armed conflicts in this region. The existence of huge oil reserves and resources in the Middle East has contributed to its vital geo-strategic importance and thus its vulnerability. Religious, cultural and ethnic variances are also significant factors that exponentially augment the fragile strategic environment of the region.

Given that various schemes have so far failed to bring about peace and quiet in this hostile strategic region, future policy options should be aimed at a more realistic and pragmatic direction; otherwise idealistic decisions, accords or security map may be unproductive and abortive. To this end the following suggestions are just outlined here for the purpose of further thoughts and assessment. Some of these options may nonetheless seem naïve and impracticable, but we should not leave them aside without attempting to approach their examination. [21]

· Settlement of Palestinian conflict with Israel through bilateral and multi-lateral efforts,

· Establishment of a WMD free zone in the greater Middle East and adjacent regions,

· Prohibition of arms sales ( conventional major equipments and weapons of mass destruction and related materials) to all states of the region through existing or new international agreements,

· Imposition of severe sanctions and enforcement measures against states, multinational corporations and companies that violate rules and regulations regarding WMD proliferations,

· Promotion of democratic values compatible with indigenous norms, culture and beliefs,

· Abstention to intervene in the internal affairs of states and gradual withdrawal of all foreign forces from the region,


[1] Ali-Asghar kazemi is Professor of Law and International Relations at IAU, Science and Research Branch, Tehran-Iran

Tehran, Iran. See:

[2] For example: Iran-Iraq war which lasted 8 years; Iraqi aggression against Kuwait and other hostilities and armed conflicts in the region.

[3] Containment or prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is not a new issue. However, the increasing prominence of international, organized terrorism and the use of WMD by international terror - have converted the perception of terrorism and use of WMD into a global strategic threat. The very fact of potential use of WMD by terrorists, as well as the increased need for development of military capabilities to defend against extreme nations’ anticipated capacity for employment of such systems (i.e., the evolving US global missile defense system), speak volumes of the limitations on effectiveness in countering proliferation over the past decade. A prominent example in this regard is the “Missile Technology Control Regime” (MTCR) instituted by the United States and its allies in 1987. The MTCR is an informal export control system aimed at preventing transfer of technology and equipment meant for development of delivery systems for WMD, yet it has had no more than partial success in stemming development of such programs by regimes regarded as dangerous. Another clear example of failed containment policies is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as starkly demonstrated recently in the case of Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons program despite its supposed adherence to the NPT rules. See: Craig D. Kugler , The Proliferation Security Initiative: The Middle East Context

[4] PSI was initially launched in May 2003 by eleven nations: with the US initiative, together with Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the UK. Its goal is to prevent the spread of WMD,; “weapons of mass destruction” are regarded under PSI as comprising not only nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, but extending also to their delivery systems and related materials. The legal means sought by PSI center on enactment and implementation of laws by countries to prevent the use of their territories, vessels, and airspace for the transport and dissemination of WMD. The political means are aimed at enlisting the greatest possible support in the international community for PSI. The uniqueness of PSI is in its security means. See: : Craig D. Kugler , The Proliferation Security Initiative: The Middle East Context

[5] In September 2003, the PSI group issued its “Statement of Interdiction Principles”. The Statement revolves around the need for cooperation in interdicting WMD and determines, broadly, the manners in which interdiction will be accomplished. “Interdiction” means simply “interception”. The PSI countries have agreed to cooperate in the use of force so as to intercept the transfer of WMD, not only in their own territorial waters, airspace and landfalls, but also outside of them - that is, where they do not themselves exercise “sovereignty”. PSI seeks to implement a common legal framework that will support their efforts, and to institute interchange of information on suspected proliferation activity, all geared to the centerpiece of its activity: interdiction of WMD. See: Ibid.

[6] One important reason for U.S. military intervention in Iraq was indeed the dubious intelligence regarding Saddam Hussein’s procession of WMD, which finally proved to be incorrect. At the moment, Libya has given up altogether its nuclear ambitions and North Korea is in the negotiating process with the United States and other interested parties, including China, in order to terminate its military nuclear project. Iran is the last on the list who so far has not given up its nuclear activities. Western nations suspect that Iran is developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian program, although Iran categorically rejects the contention and insists it is intended only for peaceful electricity generation.

[7] According to numerous sources, Israel has made a strategic decision in the mid-1950s that, surrounded by hostile Arab countries; it needed a nuclear bomb as a deterrent. Now it is estimated to have 100 to 200 warheads. Intelligence sources say Israel also has chemical weapons, which arms control experts say provide Israel with a less drastic deterrent than a nuclear bomb. See Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce:The Mideast Arms Race Sources: Arab nations spurred by Israel,” In-Depth Coverage , Newsday (New York) April 20, 2003

[8] Arms control experts say Syria, as well as Egypt, Iran and Iraq began to develop chemical weapons only after it they found out that Israel had developed a nuclear capability "the bomb." They believed that Israel would be deterred from using nuclear weapons on Cairo, Damascus or Baghdad if it knew they could respond with a chemical attack against Tel Aviv. Ibid.

[9] According to an analyst, “The Israeli security strategy is to have a full spectrum of responses and to insure that Israel would always be able to provide a more devastating response than any potential adversary. Egypt and Syria are thought to have developed chemical weapons as a deterrent force against Israel. Despite intense U.S. pressure on these countries, they have abstained so far to sign an international treaty banning development or use of chemical weapons as long as Israel continues to refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Cf. Ibid

[10] Israel has been developing missiles since the 1960s. Its extensive and comprehensive missile capabilities include cruise and ballistic missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the Arrow theater defense missile system. By 1973, it had successfully developed the first-generation ballistic missile with a 500 km range, the Jericho-1. Israel first launched the 1,500 to 3,500 km-range, intermediate-range, two-stage ballistic missile—the Jericho 2—in 1986. It is also rumored to have completed the 4,800 km-range Jericho-3 and its improved space launcher the Shavit-1. See: Gitty M. Amini, “Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) Monterey Institute of International Studies February 2003

[11] . It has apparently cooperated with the inspectors and the IAEA has not found evidence of Iran’s supposed violations of NPT restrictions. However, the IAEA and Iran have been in discussion since the latter half of 2002 and will continue to conduct talks in 2003 to address the IAEA’s request for an additional safeguards protocol given suspicions of Iran’s accelerated nuclear efforts.

[12] Iran ratified the CWC in 1997 and the BWC in 1973.

[13] Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1993, but has yet to ratify it. Also Israel has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and is considering ratification. Israel is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), but has pledged to follow its guidelines.

[14] Egypt refuses to sign or ratify the CWC but has acceded to the BWC in 1972. However, given the weak nature of the BWC’s enforcement mechanisms, its compliance with the terms of the BWC is not assured. All of the above information are taken from: Gitty M. Amini, “Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) Monterey Institute of International Studies February 2003.

[15] Iran is, in fact, lagging behind considerably, a fact well documented by the various authoritative studies on arms transfers, including the annual reports by the Congressional Research Service and various editions of World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers. These studies show that, for example, the total arms acquisitions by the six countries of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) during the period 1987-1998 was in excess of 52 billion dollars, compared to 2.5 billion dollars for Iran. To give another example, during 1995-1998 period, whereas the Saudis purchased close to 8 billion dollars of arms, Iran’s figure stood at 1.4 billions. See: Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, “Iran’s Military Modernization and the Regional Arms Race.”

[16] Just recently it was revealed that Iran has purchased a number of anti-missile systems from Russia. Specialists believe that these systems have been procured in order to counter eventual American or Israeli strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites.

[17] The sale of some 800 Hs50 sniper rifles by Austria to Iran last year has been objected by the United states and this country imposed sanction against nine companies from China, India, and Austria for supplying Iran with military equipment and technology. The sanctions ban these companies from doing business with US companies, base on the Iran Non-Proliferation act of 2000. These companies have been providing Iran with various equipment in the field of: chemical, missile and aviation technology The companies involved were: China National Aero-Technology import Export Corporation ( Catic), missile builder China North Industries Corp.( Norinco); the chemical equipment group Zibo Chemet Equipment Corp., Hongdu Aviation, Ounion International Economic and Technical Cooperative Ltd. Limmt Metallurgy and Minerals. Two Indian chemical groups were also among the companies subject to sactions: Sabero Organics and Sandhya Organics. . See: Iran Daily, December 29, 2005. p.1.

[18] See my papers: Ali-Asghar Kazemi, “Iran’s New President and the Nuclear Issue,” August 2005; “ Iran: The Price of going Nuclear,” October 2005; and “ Iran and the Nuclear Trap,” November 2005.” See also Ali-Asghar Kazemi, “Iran’s Quest for Regional Hegemony,” All of these papers are accessible from

[19] John Chapman, director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told a news conference it was unlikely that diplomatic pressure from the European Union would stop Iran developing its nuclear enrichment program. He further said if Iran ended up with a confirmed, deployed nuclear capability, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would "reconsider their positions." In his view "It would be desirable for regional states, especially the [Persian]Gulf Arab states, also to express more openly their known concerns about how Iran's possible acquisition of a nuclear capacity would change strategic perceptions and the regional balance of power

See “Iran’s Bomb could fuel Middle East arms race,” October 25, 2005, IISS( Reported by Reuters from London) .

[20] White House spokesman recently said that the United States military action against Iran was not on the agenda but that President George W. Bush would not rule out any option while the international community pursued diplomatic means. It is worth to be noted that Russia and China oppose the referral of Iran to the Security Council saying that uranium conversion is a step short of the actual enrichment needed to produce weapons. See ibid.

[21] The following sources might help researchers for further studies: Lawrence Scheinman ,Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East Threaten the International Community; Michael Donovan, Iran, Israel, and Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East (Center for Defense Information, February 2002); Anthony H. Cordesman, Proliferation in the “Axis of Evil”: North Korea, Iran, and Iraq (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2002); Anthony Cordesman, Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2001); Anthony M. Cordesman, National Developments of Biological Weapons in the Middle East (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2001); Shai Feldman, Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in the Middle East (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997); Khidr Abd Al-Abbas Hamzah, Saddam’s Bombmaker: the Terrifying inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda (New York: Scribner, 2000); Mehmood-Ul-Hassan Khan, Emerging Geo-Strategic Trends in Middle East and Its Implications for USA and rest of The World

February 25, 2004; John Loftus and Mark Aarons, Another View Of Nuclear Israel And The Middle East Arms Race. Also see the following Websites:

-Center for Strategic and International Studies;

-Institute for Science and International Security.

-CNS, Middle East Resources.