In the current issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, Richard L. Russell, a professor at the National Defense University, portends a Middle East on the verge of a nuclear arms race. His prognosis is based on the many Arab states, plus Turkey, that have expressed an interest in acquiring or reinvesting in nuclear power to meet their future energy needs. Russell fears that peaceful nuclear power in the Arab world inevitably will lead to clandestine nuclear weapons development.
Russell faults Iran for prompting the likelihood of a nuclear arms race but he also recognizes that the Islamic Republic is not the only contributor to a regional nuclear arms race. Russell identifies five factors influencing the acquisition of nuclear weapons in the region: “to deter adversaries, compensate for conventional military shortcomings, fight wars, garner domestic political power, and win international political power, especially to leverage against the United States.”
Russell warns that “given this powerful array of determinants for nuclear weapons present and pervasive in the Middle East, the current Western push to market and sell nuclear power infrastructure and capabilities to the region is dangerously short-sighted. These capabilities could well be converted for military nuclear weapons programs in some shape or form in the next generation.”
Absent from Russell’s review is consideration of war-torn Iraq, a significant omission in light of an in-depth study published by the U.S. Army War College. Authored by Dr. Norman Cigar, a former senior Pentagon Middle East analyst, the report concludes that Iraqi political elites are determined to reconstitute their country’s nuclear program, including the possible development of nuclear weapons. Cigar readily acknowledges that forecasting Iraq’s future is unpredictable but concludes that “one should expect in Iraq the same movement toward nuclear power as in the rest of the Middle East, at least in the civilian sector.” He relates how as early as 1993, Iraqi nuclear scientists were urging a resumption of a nuclear program and that “virtually everyone in [Iraq’s] informed public” view nuclear power as “quintessentially emblematic of scientific and intellectual progress.”
The Iraqi Shi’a community, Cigar found, was largely supportive of Iran’s nuclear endeavors and some viewed a nuclear armed Iran as a shield against threats from neighboring Sunni countries, Israel or the United States. In contrast, Iraqi Sunnis and secular leftists viewed Iran’s nuclear proclivities with alarm. But generally, “within the informed [Iraqi] public opinion,” Cigar found a “domestic and intellectual and political environment that is receptive to the notion of nuclear weapons as a useful and legitimate instrument of national power.”
Iraq has begun to reestablish its nuclear program by reintegrating itself into the Arab world’s official nuclear research mainstream, asking France to help build a nuclear reactor in Iraq, and seeking Italian investment in its nuclear industry. The government is also trying to reconstitute the country’s scientific community – Cigar’s sources estimate that some 5,500 Iraqi scientists were lost through emigration or assassination; of those killed, 350 were nuclear scientists.
Cigar concludes that a near-term resumption of an Iraqi military program is unlikely, although how Iraqi leadership views regional threats could change that prediction. He implicitly takes issue with Russell’s thesis in JFQ that rejected any suggestion that Israel’s nuclear weapons play a role in the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Cigar asserts that a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict “would create an environment that is less conductive to consensus for the need of nuclear weapons” and recognizes that “a continuing fear of Israel’s nuclear intentions … spurs and justifies calls for proliferation of nuclear weapons as a counterweight.” He also identifies the double standard on which the U.S. and the international community judges Israel’s nuclear weapons and those of other regional states as a cause for proliferation. Lastly, the former Pentagon analyst recommends that the United States and its allies avoid “threatening regimes such as Iran’s with forcible change.” He counsels that such intimidation only “make regional rulers defensive, putting a premium on acquiring a nuclear deterrent as a buttress to regime security, thus sparking a cascade effect.”