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Will Iraq Join a Middle East Nuclear Arms Race?

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

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.”

Acknowledging Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities: “Beyond Zero Enrichment: Suggestions for an Iranian Nuclear Deal,” Matthew Bunn, Belfer Center, Harvard, Kennedy School; “The Paradox of Iran’s Nuclear Consensus,” Kayhan Barzegar; World Policy Journal.

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Concluding that there is “virtually no chance that Iran will agree to zero enrichment,” Matthew Bunn of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, recommends that acquiescing to a limited Iranian enrichment program is the “least bad option” for the United States.  His conclusion was based on an assessment that economic sanctions would not stop Iran’s enrichment program and that a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be unproductive, and after the dust settled, probably compel Iran to develop a bomb in covert sites. He recommends agreement on a near-nuclear capability, where Iran would continue to enrich uranium but not actually build a bomb. Blunn recognizes the drawbacks in this scenario. But he believes that possessing the threat that Iran could quickly assemble a bomb if need be would satisfy significant factions within Iran’s foreign policymaking establishment. The “carrot” of expanded trade, investment and other benefits would strengthen the so-called moderates, bring other voices into Iranian decision-making (eg. finance or oil ministers), and raise the political threshold when deciding to build a bomb. Iranian hardliners would be further undermined with a U.S.-Iran agreement which reduced Iran’s perceived security threats.

Blunn’s conclusion that Iran will not give up totally its enrichment program was seconded by Kayhan Barzegar, a research fellow at the Belfer Center and an assistant professor in Tehran’s Islamic Azad University. He quickly squelches any suggestion that Iran will become more accommodating in the aftermath of its recent turbulent presidential election. Political divisions within Iran may exist on a number of foreign policy issues but they “will not,” says Barzegar, “severely impact the previous consensus around the nuclear issue as a matter of national and geostrategic pride.”  Underscoring this consensus was that Ahmadinejad’s presidential rival – Mir Hossein Moussavi – supported Iran’s nuclear development.

Recent opinion polls confirm popular support for Iran’s on-going uranium enrichment. Asked whether they would favor an agreement whereby the current sanctions would be removed and Iran would continue its nuclear energy program but agree not to enrich uranium, only 31% of those surveyed favored the idea, while 55% were opposed and 14% did not give an answer. Significantly, the poll found that two thirds of Iranians would agree not to build nuclear weapons and permit IAEA inspectors full access to nuclear facilities in exchange for lifting current sanctions – but one third would consent only if Iran’s enrichment program was permitted to continue.

Barzegar predicts that Iran’s nuclear program will progress independently of any future nuclear negotiations. He suggests that the extent of the program will significantly depend on whether Israel continues to threaten preemptive attacks and whether Washington persists in its efforts to delegitimize the regime. Barzegar offers compelling reasons why Iran’s leaders would find weaponization to be “untenable, unnecessary, and unwise.” But faced with threats from Israel and the United States, “it is hardly surprising that the Iranian government views an independent nuclear fuel cycle as interchangeable with deterrence.”

Three possible end games are envisioned: a verifiable Iranian nuclear fuel cycle subject to international monitoring following Washington’s guarantee not to disturb Tehran’s security and legitimacy; an independent nuclear capability not aspiring to weaponization resulting from the failure of negotiations to assure Iran’s security; or, development of a nuclear weapons program in the face of mounting, credible threats. Barzegar suggests that Ahmadinejad, having consolidated his power and backed by the Supreme Leader, would be willing and capable to engage in substantive negotiations with the U.S. and Western leaders, so long as Iran is treated as equal, the negotiations are devoid of threats, and accompanied by a “genuine change” in attitude toward the Islamic Republic.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Green Peace and the Middle East

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

The Carnegie Endowment completed in April a wide ranging conference on nuclear non-proliferation entitle “The Nuclear Order – Build or Break” which included a short analysis by Dr. Sameh Aboul-Enein, Deputy Head of Mission at the Egyptian Embassy in London.  Dr. Aboul-Enein urged the formation of a summit for a Nuclear Free World as an avenue for achieving universal compliance with the non-proliferation treaty (NPT).  He noted that a 1995 NTP Review Conference resolution called on the Middle East to be a nuclear weapons free zone, that all states in the region acceded to the NPT and that all nuclear facilities be placed under full IAEA safeguards. He urged that the 2010 Review Conference appoint a Special Coordinator to implement the resolution by facilitating a dialogue leading to a conference in the Middle East addressing regional security and a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

Talk of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East typically often is seen as a canard by Israel and its supporters to strip Israel of its nuclear weapons. A tremor went through Israel in May when the U.S. assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance stated at a U.N. meeting that Israel should join the NPT.  This suggested that the Obama administration may no longer be willing to continue the traditional U.S. policy of acquiescing to Israel’s noncompliance with international nuclear safeguards. But such concerns may have been overblown.

Widespread concern over Iran’s nuclear program inevitably has raised fears of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East; ignoring Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile is no longer a credible policy for NPT advocates. Greenpeace has taken a leading position within the nongovernmental community on calling for realistic steps to turn the Middle East into a nuclear free zone.  Its 2007 position paper outlined general steps that could begin this process.  The proposal dovetailed with another Greenpeace policy statement on sustainable and clean energy in the Middle East.

Modernity vs. Non-Proliferation: Nuclear Energy in the Middle East

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Some provocative observations based on a recent international conference on nuclear energy and nuclear proliferation, hosted by the Jordan based Arab Institute for Security Studies, is posted on Written by Geoffrey Forden, an associate at MIT’s Science, Technology & Global Security Working Group and a conference participant, it offers a quick insight on how differently the nuclear haves in the West and the nuclear have-nots in the Middle East view non-proliferation.  The former sees the need to control tightly the supply of nuclear enrichment facilities; the latter understands such control to be the suppression of technology required to boost their flagging economies.  That a “nuclear renaissance” may be obligatory in the area was illustrated by Jordan’s plight: when oil jumped to $70 per barrel, the Kingdom was devoting 15% of its GDP to purchase oil; in contrast, the US was spending 3.6% of its GDP on oil.

Forden points out that the two sides talked at, or past, but rarely to, one another. He observes that current non-proliferation efforts will need to “reinvigorate the bargain inherent in the NPT—nuclear technology and know-how in exchange for verifiable renunciation of nuclear weapons—with fresh ideas and new, inventive types of safeguards, but it will also have to give up its belief that nuclear weapons are safe in some hands but not in others: all nuclear weapons are dangerous.”  The spirited commentary afterward is also a worthwhile read.

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