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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 33, December 1998 - January 1999

An Overview of Gulf Security: Oil And Weapons Of Mass Destruction
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 Iraq.

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 kilometres).

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." (12)

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 punishments.

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 minority.

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 non-conventional capabilities.

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 ruled out.

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 opportunity.

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 millennium.

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 preventing it.

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 system.

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 1998, pp.2-5.

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, p.129.

10. BBC Online Network, "Israel buys new subs," 3 July, 1998.

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, p.106.

15. Paul A. Gigot, "A Great American Screw-up: The US and Iraq 1980-1990," National Interest, No. 22, Winter 1990/91, p.5.

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, p.33.

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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