Issue No. 33, December 1998 - January
An Overview of Gulf Security: Oil And Weapons Of Mass
By Gawdat Bahgat
For the last several decades oil has been the world's primary
source of energy. The prosperity of the world economy depends
significantly on the availability of oil supplies at a reasonable
price. Recent new discoveries and improved recovery methods have
contributed to the diversity of hydrocarbon resources particularly
from the North Sea and the Caspian Basin. North Sea output is
expected to peak in the first half of the next decade, then start
to decline. The Caspian region contains some of the largest
undeveloped oil and gas reserves in the world. Although the region
is unlikely to become "another Persian Gulf," most observers
consider that its resources will be on the same order of magnitude
as those of the North Sea. Production in the region, however, is
restrained by geographical, political, and financial obstacles.
This means that the Persian Gulf will continue to be a crucial
player in the international energy market. The region enjoys at
least three advantages: it holds approximately 65% of the world's
proven crude oil reserves and 33% of its proven natural gas
reserves; these resources are extremely cheap to produce; and they
are located on well-developed routes close to consumer markets in
Europe and Asia. Thus, the Gulf's share in world oil production is
projected to rise in the next few decades and the world will become
more dependent on supplies from the region. In other words, the
availability of Gulf oil in reliable volume and at reasonable cost
is a key to global prosperity. This raises the question of the
security and stability of Gulf producers. The issue this article
addresses is the threats posed to the region by the proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the following section a
brief examination of the security system is provided. This will be
followed by a discussion of the history, motivations, and responses
to the proliferation of non-conventional weapons in Iran and
The Security Environment: The Proliferation Threat
The experience of the last few decades shows that oil supplies
from the Persian Gulf can be subject to unanticipated and sizeable
interruptions. In the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war,
several oil producer States decided to reduce their supplies,
provoking the first oil shock. The political turmoil in Iran in the
late 1970 had similar impact on oil production and prices. Finally,
there was a short-lived rise in prices shortly after the Iraqi
invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Gulf War demonstrated the world's
determination to protect oil supplies from the region.
Since the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, Western powers,
particularly the United States, have taken the responsibility to
prevent any cross-border aggression by one Gulf State against
another. Accordingly, several defense agreements were signed
between Washington, London, and Paris on one side and the Arab Gulf
States on the other side. Put differently, Western powers have both
the political will and the military power to protect energy
resources in the region. Thus, a casual survey of the global system
can points to an increased security of energy supplies. This
conclusion, however, does not take into consideration the rising
threats of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and the
missiles that carry them. The threat from these non-conventional
weapons was demonstrated during the massive use of chemical weapons
and missiles in the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-88). In a
future conflict between Tehran and Baghdad a similar confrontation
can re-occur. Even worse, the use of chemical weapons could lead to
an escalation and intensity of the fighting to the point -
potentially, one day - of a nuclear exchange. No wonder both Iran
and Iraq seek to prepare for such a development.
Iran: History, Motivations, and Responses
For the last several years, Iran's interests in acquiring and
developing non-conventional weapons have been a source of concern
for both its neighbors in the region and global powers.
A. History: Tehran's efforts to develop nuclear
capabilities go back to the late 1950s when it signed a civil
nuclear co-operation agreement with the United States. In 1974 the
Shah established the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and,
simultaneously, called for the creation of a nuclear free zone in
the Middle East. (1) All nuclear co-operation between Tehran and
Washington, however, came to a halt when the Shah was deposed in
1979. For a number of years after the revolution Iran's nuclear
program was suspended due to domestic political turmoil. As a
result of the pressure imposed by the Iran-Iraq war, the clerical
regime began to show a renewed interest in acquiring nuclear
technology from 1984, when it concluded an agreement with Kraftwerk
Union (a German firm) to complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant,
a project started under the Pahlavi regime (2).
Due to Iraqi attacks on the reactor, and external pressure, this
agreement was never carried out. Instead, Russia has agreed to
finish the construction in Bushehr. This project will help Iran to
alleviate its serious shortage of electrical generating capacity
and train a generation of engineers in the operation of nuclear
technology. The opponents of Iran's nuclear program, however, argue
that already rich in gas and oil resources, Tehran, with military
motives, could use the material from the plant for construction of
nuclear weapons. Bushehr, the critics claim, could provide an
excellent cover for smuggling efforts. On the other side, the
Russians insist that the reactor would be used for civilian
purposes and would be subject to international inspection.
In addition to this renewed interest in nuclear technology, Iran
has, since the early 1990s, placed a high priority on developing
its chemical capability. It remains, however, dependent on foreign
sources for chemical warfare-related technologies. (3) Similarly,
Iran's biological warfare program began during the Iran-Iraq war.
Although this program is in the research and development stage, the
Iranians have considerable expertise with pharmaceutical, as well
as the commercial and military infrastructure needed to produce
basic biological warfare agents. (4) Finally, for well over a
decade, Iran has adopted a two-track strategy to acquire and
stockpile long-range ballistic missiles. First, it has procured
ballistic missiles from North Korea, China, Libya and Syria;
second, it has invested substantial resources in the development of
an indigenous missile production capability through technology
transfers from Russia, China and North Korea. (5) This strategy has
clearly begun to bear fruit: on 22 July, Iran successfully
conducted a test flight of a medium-range ballistic missile, the
Shahab-3, with a maximum range of 780 miles (1,300
These intensive and growing efforts to acquire and develop WMD
can be explained by the Islamic Republic's perception of the
regional and international systems as well as real and potential
enemies. As Iran's Defence Minister, Ali Shamkhani, stated simply
after the test-flight of the Shahab-3: "The defence policy
of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been based on increasing the
capacity to deter. In view of the developments in regions that are
close to us and those that are far from us, Iran has been
determined to ensure a lasting peace and, consequently, it has made
investments to address some of its defence needs." (6)
B. Motivations: Iran is located in a "rough" neighborhood
where several States - including Iraq, Israel, Pakistan, and Saudi
Arabia - have access to one form or another of non-conventional
weapons. Furthermore, for almost two decades Tehran's relations
with most of these neighbors have been characterized by tension and
mutual suspicion, particularly with Baghdad.
Iran's experience in the war against Iraq has had a significant
impact on the initiation and development of its non-conventional
capabilities. During the "war of the cities", Iraqi missiles
reached several targets all over Iran. Tehran's inventory of
long-range missiles was no match to that of Baghdad. In addition,
the Iraqi use of chemical weapons proved decisive in the Iranian
military collapse at the end of the war. Thus, the leadership in
Tehran concluded that the acquisition of WMD was a "must" in any
future confrontation with Baghdad. It is worth mentioning that the
eight-year war between them ended with a cease-fire. The two sides
have not signed a peace treaty. Given the fact that the fundamental
reasons for their conflict (i.e. borders and hegemony over the
Gulf) have not been settled, a future war cannot be ruled out.
Indeed, the probability of war with Iraq remains higher than that
of any other war scenario for Iran. (7) It is also important to
point out that in the aftermath of the Gulf War Iran, like many
other countries, was shocked to find out how advanced Iraq had
become in developing all kinds of destructive weapons. The United
Nations' findings since 1991 have underscored the Iranian fears of
Iraq's intentions and capabilities.
Similarly, Israel poses another potential threat to the security
of Iran. For a long time Israel has maintained a policy of nuclear
ambiguity, refusing to confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons.
However, since the late 1950s Jerusalem has heavily invested in
developing various kinds of WMD including the Jericho
missile, with its capacity for carrying a nuclear warhead. (8)
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies
(IISS), Israel is "widely believed to have a nuclear capability
with up to 100 warheads." (9) This Israeli superiority in nuclear
capability will not be challenged any time soon. Israeli leaders
consider the "nuclear option" as their strategic deterrent against
real and potential enemies.
Three recent developments illustrate the mutual suspicion
between Jerusalem and Tehran. First, in the late 1990s Israel
acquired German-built Dolphin class submarines. (10) These
submarines give Israel a second-strike nuclear capability. Second,
in September 1998 Israel successfully tested its anti-missile
defense system Arrow-2. (11) One of the goals of the
Arrow project is to provide protection against missiles,
such as the Shahab-3, being developed by Israel's enemies.
Finally, in his visit to New York to speak before the General
Assembly of the United Nations, the Iranian President Khatami
stated that "We have over and over again expressed our concern that
Israel has become a center for nuclear weapons and for weapons of
mass destruction. We, too, have the right to defend ourselves."
Given these perceived threats from Iraq and Israel, most
analysts believe that Iran is seeking to develop and stockpile its
arsenal of non-conventional weapons. The United States has taken
the lead in seeking to contain the "Iranian threat."
C. Responses: The United States believes Iran is
committed to acquiring WMD either through indigenous development or
by cooperation with other countries. Since the early 1980s,
Washington has used a range of diplomatic tools to limit Tehran's
access to the technology and materials it needs to develop such
weapons. The United States has succeeded in persuading several
countries - including Germany, France, Brazil and India - to close
down cooperation in transferring nuclear technology to Iran. In
addition, European countries, in conjunction with the United
States, refuse to export any dual-use materials to Tehran. In 1997,
under American pressure, China announced that its nuclear
cooperation deal with Iran has been stalled and cruise missile
sales will be halted. (13) Finally, Russian corporations and
agencies which provide Iran with missile and nuclear technology
have become subject to various American financial and diplomatic
In summary, three intertwined conclusions need to be
re-emphasized. First, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) which conducts regular inspections in Iran has found
no incriminating evidence that Tehran has violated its obligations
to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Put bluntly, the IAEA has
never found any evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
In addition, Iran ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons
Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the NPT
and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Second, Iran
does not yet have the necessary human and physical infrastructure
to support a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, Tehran's nuclear
aspirations are constrained by severe shortage of financial
resources and the external pressure to deny the country any
material that can be used to manufacture WMD. Third, in spite of
these restrictions, the clerical regime's perception of regional
threats is genuine. There are fundamental disagreements between
Tehran and both Baghdad and Tel Aviv. As long as this animosity
exists, the ruling regime in Tehran, Islamic or otherwise, will
feel the need to acquire and develop WMD. This conclusion can be
applied to the other proliferator in the Gulf - Iraq.
Iraq: History, Motivations and Responses
Iraq, the other giant in the Persian Gulf, had embarked on an
ambitious program to develop its arsenal of non-conventional
weapons since the mid 1970s. But unlike Tehran, Baghdad had been
less restrained in using some of these weapons against its enemies
including Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and even its own Kurdish
A. History: Iraq entered the Gulf War with a stockpile of
chemical and biological weapons, a well-developed complex nuclear
program, and extensive ballistic missile capabilities. The roots of
these programs go back to the mid 1970s. Officially, Iraq became an
independent State in 1932 but the British influence dominated the
country until 1958 when the monarchy was overthrown. For about 15
years the country enjoyed very little political stability due to
power struggles between the nationalist and leftist political
parties. Shortly after he came to power in 1968, Saddam Hussein was
able to establish himself as the strong man in Baghdad and in 1979
he officially became the President.
Saddam Hussein's regime initiated an ambitious nuclear program
in cooperation with France in 1974. (14) According to an agreement
signed between the two countries, France agreed to supply Iraq with
a large reactor, technical assistance, and training. In return,
Iraq provided a substantial proportion of France's imports of oil.
This growing Iraqi nuclear capability was seen as a threat to the
only nuclear power in the Middle East - Israel. Not surprisingly,
Israeli jets attacked and destroyed most of the Iraqi nuclear
facilities in June 1981.
The war with Iran, however, provided Iraq with an opportunity to
re-build and develop its chemical, biological, and nuclear
capabilities as well as ballistic missiles. Presenting itself as a
bulwark against the messianic Islam of the Khomeini regime in
Tehran, Baghdad was able to acquire almost all kinds of weapons and
materials which it used to build up its conventional and
non-conventional capabilities. When Iraq used chemical weapons
against Iran and against the Kurds in 1988, the international
condemnation, including that of the United States, was very modest.
(15) Thus, Baghdad continued its massive investment in developing
its WMD capabilities. According to David Kay, who was chief nuclear
weapons inspector on Iraq during 1991-92, at the time of the Gulf
War Iraq was probably only 18 to 24 months away from its first
crude nuclear device and no more than 3 to 4 years away from more
advanced, deliverable weapons. (16) Finally, it is worth mentioning
that due to these advanced capabilities Iraq was able to use its
ballistic missiles against both Saudi Arabia and Israel. These
attacks underscored Baghdad's incentives to develop its
B. Motivations: Iraq does not share borders with Israel
but the relations between the two countries have always been
characterized by suspicion and hostility. Given Iraq's history and
human and natural resources, the ruling regimes in Baghdad have
aspired to claim the leadership of the Arab world. Hostility and
even confrontation with the Jewish State was used to achieve this
goal. In other words, Iraq's efforts to develop WMD had been
motivated, to a great extent, by Baghdad's perception of the
Israeli threat to its own national security as well as the overall
imbalance in nuclear capability between Israel and the Arab world.
The Iraqi leadership wanted to "correct" this imbalance and to
close the technological gap between the two sides.
Iran, on the other side, has been perceived in Iraq as an
immediate and direct challenge to its national security. The two
countries are much bigger and powerful than most of their Gulf
neighbors. Consequently, each would like to dominate the region and
see the other as an adversary. There is, however, a demographic gap
between them. Iran's population is more than twice that of Iraq. In
order to close this demographic gap, Baghdad has sought to rely on
WMD. During their eight-year war, this policy proved successful.
Iraq's superiority and willingness to use WMD gave her the upper
hand over Iran. As discussed above, although the two countries
enjoy better relations now, the renewal of their conflict cannot be
This Iraqi perception of threats from Israel and Iran prompted
the leadership to stockpile various kinds of non-conventional
weapons. Global powers, particularly the United States, felt the
need to contain the Iraqi challenge - the Gulf War provided the
C. Responses: The Gulf War and its aftermath are
considered a turning point in the development of Iraq's
non-conventional capabilities. Some of the facilities were already
known and destroyed by the international coalition during the war.
In addition, Security Council Resolution 687 (passed in April 1991)
established procedures for the destruction of Iraq's unconventional
weapons and ballistic missile capabilities and for a subsequent
monitoring program to prevent their reconstruction. According to
these procedures, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM)
was created. Since its establishment, UNSCOM has been able to
identify and eliminate many of Iraq's WMD facilities. Indeed, the
Special Commission's inspectors have succeeded in destroying more
weapons in Iraq than were destroyed during the entire Gulf War.
In spite of this achievement, it is important to point out that
much less progress has been achieved in locating and eliminating
Iraq's biological weapons capability. Because of the dual-use
character of many biological agents, verifying the presence of a
biological warfare capability is inherently more difficult than
monitoring nuclear or ballistic programs. The defection of Saddam
Hussein's son-in-law Hussein Kamel in August 1995, and his
willingness to cooperate with the United Nations, forced the Iraqi
government to release a large cache of documents which it
previously claimed did not exist. These disclosures revealed a much
more extensive nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and
missile effort than Iraq had previously admitted. This development,
and the rocky relations with the regime in Baghdad, have left
UNSCOM and the IAEA unprepared to finally declare Iraq free of WMD.
1998 saw a marked deterioration in Iraq-UNSCOM/IAEA relations, with
numerous diplomatic crises and salvage operations finally leading
to December's air strikes by America and Britain. As reported and
considered at length elsewhere in this issue, these strikes have
left the future of UNSCOM, and the international community's policy
towards Iraq more generally, in grave doubt and some disarray.
In closing, two important points need to be made concerning
Baghdad's efforts to acquire and develop non-conventional weapons.
First, the capacity to produce WMD cannot be eliminated by simply
destroying weapons facilities. The "know-how" is there and cannot
be taken away from the Iraqi scientists. Second, Iraq is not
proliferating simply because its current regime is extremist. It is
proliferating because it has good strategic reasons to do so (17),
namely the conflicts with the more populous Iran and the more
technologically advanced Israel.
Conclusion: Proliferation in the New Millennium
The main international subtext to the issue of Persian Gulf
security is the fact that the world economy will grow more
dependent on oil supplies from the region in the next few decades.
This means that the stability of the region is of critical
relevance to efforts to secure long-term global prosperity.
Proliferation of WMD, however, poses a significant challenge to
this stability. The analysis of Iranian and Iraqi efforts to
acquire and develop non-conventional weapons set out in this paper
suggests several conclusions which might enhance international
attempts to contain this threat in the opening decades of the new
First, proliferation can be explained less by the nature of the
ruling elites in Tehran and Baghdad and more by strategic concerns.
In other words, regardless of the nature of the ruling regime, the
two countries are likely to continue their efforts to stockpile
these weapons. Second, The current efforts by the international
community to deny the two countries the necessary materials to
manufacture these weapons are important and should continue.
Meanwhile, it should be clear that the realistic objective would be
to slow proliferation, rather than reversing or completely
Finally, as recent events appear to indicate more emphatically
than ever, the question of proliferation fundamentally requires an
economic solution, not a military one. In the long run the
international community needs to offer Iran and Iraq incentives to
forgo their WMD programs. Both countries need to be integrated into
a regional security system and the global economic system. This
will help them to overcome their suspicion of each other and of the
only WMD-power in the Middle East - Israel. This will lay the
foundations for a durable peace and resilient non-proliferation
Notes and References
1. Jacqueline Simon, "United States Non-Proliferation Policy and
Iran: Constraints and Opportunities," Contemporary Security
Policy, Vol. 17, No. 3, December 96, p.371.
2. Shai Feldman, "Middle East Nuclear Stability: The State of
the Region and the State of the Debate," Journal of
International Affairs, Vol. 49, No. 1, Summer 1995, p.207.
3. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Proliferation: Threat
and Response, Washington DC: US Government Printing Office,
November 1997, p.27.
4. Ibid., p.27.
5. Jubin Goodarzi, "Missile Proliferation in the Middle East:
The Case of Iran," Middle East International, No. 583,
September 18, 1998, p.19.
6. Quoted in Disarmament
Diplomacy, No. 29, August/September 1998, p.54.
7. Eric Arnett, "Reassurance versus Deterrence: Iranian
Confidence-Building Opportunities," Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 27, June
8. For a recent detailed analysis of Israel's nuclear
capabilities, see Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, New
York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
9. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, The
Military Balance, London: Oxford University Press, 1997,
10. BBC Online Network, "Israel buys new subs," 3 July,
11. Jack Katzenell, "Israel Tests Anti-Missile Missile,"
Associated Press, September 14, 1998.
12. Barton Gellman, "Rushdie Case Termed Finished,"
Washington Post, 23 September, 1998, p. A21.
13. Middle East Economic Digest, Vol. 41, No. 44, 31
October, 1998, p.14.
14. Ahmed Hashim, "Iraq: Profile of a Nuclear Addict," The
Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. 4, No. 1, January 1997,
15. Paul A. Gigot, "A Great American Screw-up: The US and Iraq
1980-1990," National Interest, No. 22, Winter 1990/91,
16. David A. Kay, "Denial & Deception practices of WMD
Proliferators: Iraq and Beyond," Washington Quarterly, Vol.
18, No. 1, 1994, p.85.
17. Anthony H. Cordesman, "The Changing Military Balance in the
Gulf," Middle East Policy, Vol. 6, No. 1, June 1998,
Dr. Gawdat Bahgat is Director of the Center for Middle
Eastern Studies, Department of Political Science, Indiana
University of Pennsylvania, USA. In the last three years, he has
published two books and numerous articles in English and Arabic on
Persian Gulf security affairs. His articles have appeared in
journals in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway,
Italy, Lebanon, Iran, and India.
© 1998 The Acronym Institute.
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