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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 76, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 76, March/April 2004

WMD in the Middle East:
A Diminishing Currency

Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham Jr.

Recently, both inside the Middle East and beyond, the question is being asked whether, and to what extent, there exists the possibility of major historical change in the region. One academic observer recently suggested that "a potential has been created for a truly far-reaching transformation, perhaps as great as any since the retreat of the European imperial powers in the years after World War II."1 No issue highlights the potential for historic change than attitudes and perceptions toward nuclear, chemical and biological weapons - often referred to as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or unconventional weapons - in the region.

The removal of Saddam Hussein and his regime is at the heart of this potential change. It was the Saddam regime with its pursuit of a nuclear weapon capability from within the NPT that provoked great Israeli anxiety, provoking it to attack the Osiraq nuclear rector in 1981 in an act of unilateral counterproliferation, and (at least in part) has driven Iran to seek a nuclear weapons programme. How could the Iranians not pursue nuclear weapons when their next door neighbour - the one that had launched an eight-year war and used chemical weapons against them causing tens of thousands of casualties - was seeking nuclear weapons?

With the demise of the Saddam regime, this aspect of Iran's motivation was removed. Likewise, the most flagrant user of chemical weapons in recent times, was removed from the scene. While it was often argued that concerns about Iraq's nuclear weapon programme in part provoked the first Gulf War,2 the second Gulf War rested largely on projected concerns about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons. This may have created a perception in the Middle East that the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, together with opposition to the United States and the funding or harbouring of terrorists, may be a dangerous combination for political survival.

Whether by force or persuasion, several major Middle East Islamic states that once vigorously pursued nuclear, chemical and/or biological weapon programmes, have taken steps away from these programmes. Whether or not Iraq actually possessed these weapons prior to the recent war, other regional leaders have been prompted to question the cost-benefit trade-off in their non-conventional weapon programmes. Iran, in responding to pressure from European Union leaders, has signed the new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expanded inspection protocol and "temporarily" suspended uranium enrichment activities. Finally, Libya has now openly abandoned all its WMD programmes.

Of these three cases - Iraq, Iran and Libya - the latter is the most intriguing. While it is still too early to place Libya's decision to dismantle its nuclear and chemical weapons programmes in a larger historical context, the Libyan move was the least expected of the three and, in a sense, the most unprecedented. Of course, there are previous cases of countries that decided to surrender their nuclear weapons and/or to submit their nuclear infrastructure to international inspections out of their own political will, but in all those cases the surrender was accompanied by a major regime change or at least a domestic political transformation. The Libyan transformation is probably the first case of a state's dismantling its nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programmes voluntarily without a regime change or a move toward democracy.3

It has been suggested that Gadafy's move was in response to American hegemonic policies, in particular the emphasis on preemption against states that pursue WMDs, as demonstrated in the Iraq case. However, Gadafy's decision was also not free from domestic politics as for some years he had been challenged by fundamentalist Islamic groups in Libya. Some interpreted his move as playing the Western card against domestic political opponents. Others saw Gadafy motivated by economic interests to obtain Western help for Libya's flagging oil production capability. Regardless of the specific motivation behind Gadafy's turnaround - whether it was a response to American hegemonic policies, the victory of European multilateral sanctions or a response to domestic politics - his move has potentially far-reaching significance, both in the region and the world.

One should be cautious in jumping to premature conclusions and the situation is still uncertain, but it appears that the greatest significance may have to do with changing perceptions of the value of nuclear weapon programmes as well as other mass destruction weapons among Middle Eastern states.

In the not too distant past, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction was part of the ethos of becoming a regional power. Such weapons were valued as an attractive asset in the Middle East and elsewhere. What we witness now may be a tipping point in the move to devalue weapons of mass destruction. This is precisely what happened in Argentina when that country decided it wanted to rejoin the civilized world after the overthrow of its military governments and found its unsafeguarded nuclear programme was an obstacle in the way. Similar motivations existed in South Africa and in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

The first signs of this devaluation may have preceded Gadafy's move. It now looks as if Iraq had given up its WMD programmes after its defeat in the first Gulf War, but Saddam was afraid to declare it publicly. If so, Saddam decided to dismantle much or even all of his banned weapons in response to UNSCOM's effective activities, but could not bring himself to admit it. There are now indications that the regime in Iran is beginning to understand the risks to that country, if it continues to pursue nuclear aspirations. But Gadafy is the first Muslim ruler who has expressed so directly the understanding that weapons of mass destruction programmes have lost their attraction because they stand in the way of Western economic assistance and can even provoke active hostility.

Clearly, it will take time to see whether the Libyan move is indeed the beginning of a devaluation of these programmes among leaders of the region. The impact of Gadafy's declaration must be gauged among policymakers and the elite of some key regional players - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and above all, Iran - where the process is far from being decisive. In these countries and elsewhere in the region people are carefully watching this dramatic reversal. It has the potential to trigger new regional dynamics. Not the result of a fruitful process of multilateral arms control in the Middle East, like the one that started and stalled in the 1990s, these moves may be largely a reaction to American military and economic strength.

Implementing Libya's disarmament decision and persuading Iran's fractious government to permanently abandon nuclear weapon production capabilities, however, require more than coercion. Both countries will want a phased process of reciprocal inducements, leading to a removal of US and international economic sanctions. No less important, however, Iran, Libya and other Arab states also want fairness. These states and their populations have repeatedly condemned the double standard by which Israel's possession of nuclear, chemical and perhaps biological weapons is tolerated.

Moreover, some Muslim countries in the Middle East frequently speak out against the de facto double standard they perceive in the NPT itself. In Article II of the Treaty, non-nuclear weapon NPT parties undertake not to acquire nuclear weapons and in Article III, undertake to accept IAEA safeguards reinforcing this commitment. In Article I the nuclear weapon NPT parties undertake not to assist non-nuclear weapon states to acquire nuclear weapons, in Article IV to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology with such states, and in Article VI to pursue nuclear disarmament measures aimed at the eventual elimination of their own arsenals. These are the basic NPT bargains. However, it is the perception of many non-nuclear NPT states that the nuclear weapon states have not complied with their Article VI obligations. This, combined with the toleration of Israel's nuclear weapon programme outside of the NPT (as well as its other possible unconventional weapon programmes), led Egypt, Syria, and other Middle Eastern states to oppose making the NPT permanent in 1995 and, more generally, to question the NPT regime and press for its universality.

The Libyan disarmament announcement, following the removal of Saddam Hussein and the disclosure of Iran's nuclear programme, creates a unique opportunity to augment momentum toward the ultimate goal of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Elimination of Syria's large arsenal of chemical and biological weapons should be the next target. Syria is actively seeking better relations with the United States, but unlike Libya, Syria would not give up its non-conventional weapons unilaterally. Israel would have to be part of the deal.

There is no doubt that these changes, even in the most limited fashion, constitute a net security gain for Israel. A trend towards a devaluation of weapons of mass destruction in the region is probably the best news Israel has received for years. But it is also clear that Israel's status in the process is not that of a passive observer; Israel is also a key player. Its reaction to Gadafy's move will be very important, perhaps even decisive, in determining the direction the process will take.

Some in Israel recognise that their country's contribution is essential. Israeli Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon, in what some noted as a veiled rebuke regarding governmental silence, referred publicly to the Libyan move as "serious, very serious". He noted that this could be part of a "domino effect" following the US invasion of Iraq, and that combined with Iran's agreement last month to accept additional nuclear inspections, it had created the beginnings of a changed regional landscape and lowered the strategic threats facing Israel.

Because Israel is a regional power, in fact the strongest military power in the region, it is clear that the future of any new trend on the matter of weapons of mass destruction is predicated on Israel's willingness to respond positively. Some states have already proposed that Israel make gestures of its own in the area of nuclear weapons in response to the Libyan transformations.

Indeed, over the New Year the Israeli inner cabinet was convened by Prime Minster Sharon to review these developments and to consider whether and how Israel should contribute to the dynamics. While there is a national consensus in Israel that the nuclear issue is non-negotiable at the present time -prior to comprehensive regional peace - there are voices in Israel, in and out of government, that call for the nation to join the process of controlling weapons of mass destruction in a meaningful way.4

For years, Israel has supported the idea of a WMD-free Middle East, but it always predicated it on a regional peace agreement. Until that time, says the classic Israeli position, Israel can do very little about these weapons, and the Arabs must clearly understand that with regard to the nuclear issue, this approach will not change and that surrendering its nuclear capabilities is not an option. Therefore, Israel needs to find a way to gain recognition for its nuclear status, at home and abroad, in order that it can be addressed more coherently.

Leaving the nuclear issue for a moment, Israel can otherwise contribute to the devaluation and status of WMD. It is time for Israel to ratify the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which it was one of the first to sign in January 1993. Israel has not yet even signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). This Treaty may not be enforceable because of the lack of verification provisions but it established the international norm that biological weapons are illegal. It is high time for Israel to show its good will by explicitly and fully joining the international prohibition of these two categories of weapons of mass destruction.

Of these, biological weapons are perhaps the most symbolic and potentially threatening, yet it is a type of weapon about which the public is mostly ignorant. It is not surprising that many believe that Israel has adopted a policy of vagueness on biological weapons as well as nuclear, when it has never explained to its citizens or to the rest of the world what has prevented it from acceding to the BWC,

The reason for Israel remaining outside the BWC is unclear - whether a matter of bureaucratic oversight as a senior Israeli official once suggested, or an effort to maintain a policy of biological ambiguity. Whatever the reason, Israel should not now continue with a policy that the world perceives as ambiguous with respect to these internationally prohibited weapons. Contributing to the reinforcement of the prohibition of biological weapons would be a proper response to the devaluation of WMD. The time has come for Israel to put itself squarely on the "right" side, that of the civilised world, on the issue of biological weapons.

Of course, the most difficult and sensitive item on the WMD agenda in the Middle East is that of Israel's nuclear weapons. Everybody recognises that sooner or later this issue must be addressed, and yet all prefer to defer it indefinitely because virtually no one knows how to handle Israel's nuclear exceptionalism. If anything is taboo in American foreign policy, it is the Israeli nuclear issue.

Ever since the United States discovered in December 1960 that Israel had secretly launched a large nuclear programme aimed at developing a nuclear weapons option, the issue has evolved into an off-limits subject for American foreign policy. During the 1960s US efforts to thwart the emergence of Israel as the world's sixth nuclear nation were ambivalent at heart, and self deceiving in action. In response to this situation of ambivalence on all sides Israel "invented" its unique opaque mode of going (and then being) nuclear.5

Today, this off-limits subject is still with us. For more than three decades nuclear opacity has been perceived as the only policy, both for Israel and the United States, to address the uniqueness of the Israeli nuclear issue under America's commitment to the nuclear non proliferation regime. All Israeli governments have adhered to this understanding, and likewise, all subsequent American administrations have looked the other way. This effectively leaves the United States with a policy that does not allow it officially to discuss Israeli nuclear weapons even with Israel.

This creates an oddity: while Israel's nuclear weapon programme is perhaps the world's worst kept secret - Israel is widely recognised as the world's fifth or sixth ranking nuclear power (much closer, in terms of quality and quantity, to France and the UK than to India and Pakistan) - in Israel itself the nuclear programme remains shrouded in mystery. Israel's policy of total nuclear secrecy is inconsistent with the values of democratic governance, especially the principles of accountability, oversight and the public right to know. In the absence of public debate (and public debate requires some factual information) this corruption of democratic openness only becomes reinforced and perpetuated.6

But our primary concern here is not Israeli democracy but the effects of the taboo over the Israeli nuclear issue on the health and strength of the nonproliferation regime. As long as this situation exists, and Israel, together with India and Pakistan, remains outside the NPT regime, the NPT regime can never be more than partial and incomplete. Universality of the NPT is not just a matter of regime architecture, it goes to the core of the regime's "legitimacy", including new efforts to strengthen compliance and implementation. Without enhancing the norm of universality, it would be difficult to strengthen the norm of compliance.

It is obvious that Israel, like India and Pakistan, will not become a party to the Treaty under current conditions, but this should not be a reason not to seek a way for Israel to join the nonproliferation regime. If Israel is interested in contributing to the strength and viability of this regime, it should be part of it. Ending its policy of nuclear ambiguity at this time, by becoming to a degree transparent and by associating itself with NPT regime - from which it indirectly benefits greatly - could give Israel an important element of legitimacy for its security posture. In the final analysis, both at home and abroad, Israel's policy of nuclear opacity has become a negative factor for Israeli democracy and security, and for US security and the worldwide nonproliferation regime.

Recently we have proposed that the time has come to find a way to associate the three non-NPT nuclear states with the nonproliferation regime. Recognising that amendment of the NPT to admit the three states as nuclear weapon states is a political impossibility and that the prospect of any of the three states giving up their programmes and becoming a non-nuclear weapon state is presently remote, one possibility we have suggested would be to establish some form of associate membership of the NPT regime for India, Israel and Pakistan. This could be accomplished by means of a freestanding separate agreement or protocol.

Such a protocol could permit India, Israel and Pakistan to retain their programmes, but inhibit further development. The protocol could also contain provisions such as: requiring cooperation with the international nuclear export control system, prohibiting the explosive testing of nuclear devices, calling for the phased elimination of fissile material production, prohibiting the first use and the threat of first use of nuclear weapons, as well as other provisions either in the NPT or associated with it. To symbolise this, a protocol could be signed by India, Israel and Pakistan as well as the NPT Depositary States (Britain, Russia and the United States), which accepted special responsibilities in the 1960s as the NPT's general managers.

We believe that the time has come to address the Israeli nuclear programme, along with those of India and Pakistan, in a more realistic and regime-related fashion. While the nuclear status of these three states could be acknowledged by the nonproliferation regime through some form of a new protocol, in return the three states would have to accept important and explicit nonproliferation obligations and commitments.

The time has come for both Israel and the United States to revisit Israel's nuclear aloofness. Israel cannot be left outside the nonproliferation equation; it is part of it, regionally and globally, and in its own interests cannot forever remain in this disengaged position. Further, as stated above, Israel should accede fully to the CWC and BWC, thereby responding constructively and helping to shape what could be an evolving positive trend toward the devaluation of weapons of mass destruction among all Middle Eastern states. By taking the steps outlined above, Israel would not jeopardise its security, rather it would be enhancing its security by supporting developments that would incomparably add to its international credibility and regional well being and safety in the years to come.


1. Mark Heller, "The Middle East on the Brink of Transformation?" Tel Aviv Notes, No. 100, February 19, 2004.

2. For a comprehensive interpretation of the first Gulf War as a war about WMD see Avigdor Haselkorn, The Continuing Storm: Iraq Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (New haven: Yale University Press, 1999); see also Avner Cohen and Marvin Miller, "Nuclear Shadows in the Middle East: Prospects for Arms Control in the Wake of the Gulf Crisis." Security Studies 1, no. 1 (autumn 1991): 54-77.

3. Here are the cases. South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons and the programme that produced them, shortly prior to the end of the Apartheid regime in 1993. When the Soviet Union dissolved and weapons and nuclear facilities were left behind in three former Soviet republics--Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan--all three states transferred former Soviet nuclear weapons to Russia and negotiated the terms under which they signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear weapon states. Similarly, Argentina and Brazil opened their advanced nuclear infrastructures to mutual inspection, and subsequently joined the NPT and the Tlatelolco nuclear weapon free zone agreement. In all of these cases, the reverse in nuclear status was the outcome of a political decision that followed a profound change in regime and/or political identity. Interestingly, in all the mentioned cases the change in regime was also to a degree a democratic change.

4. "The Disarmament Issue," Ha'aretz, editorial, January 4, 2004.

5. Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

6. Avner Cohen is presently researching and writing a democratic critique of Israel's culture of nuclear opacity, taboo and secrecy.

Avner Cohen, a senior fellow at both the Center for International and Security Studies (CISSM) and the Program on Global Security and Disarmament, University of Maryland, is the author of Israel and the Bomb (1998). Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. is special counsel at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. He has served as acting director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and also as President Clinton's special representative for arms control, nonproliferation and arms control 1994-95. This article is based, in part, on Avner Cohen, "Weapons of Mass Destruction", Ha'aretz, December 25, 2003, and George Perkovich and Avner Cohen, "Devaluing Arab WMDs", Washington Times, January 19, 2004. See also the forthcoming article by Cohen and Graham in the forthcoming issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May/June 2004), entitled "An NPT for Non-members".

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