The nuclear arms race in the Middle East

Nabil Fahmy, Saturday 2 Jun 2018

The Middle East is on the threshold of a dangerous arms race which can only be solved through region-wide action and commitment

The recent statement of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave rise to several international concerns and reactions and raised the alarm just after the Kingdom noted that it will raise its military capabilities to equal that of its neighbours, especially Iran.

In spite of the statement being daring and candid in a way that goes in line with the crown prince’s personality, neither its content nor the argument upon which it was based contain any exceptional standpoint.

Many countries, if not most of them, always maintain a security balance between themselves and their neighbours.

It is no secret that the Middle East is a region of unrest and violent disputes from North Africa in its west through Egypt to the Levant in the east and the Arab Gulf to the south. Thus, waging an arms race is a natural result of the continuous conflicts in the region, whether it was conventional armaments or weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

The military expenditure in the region has reached unprecedented levels, whether through domestic manufacturing or increasing arms sales from abroad.

Israel and Iran were the first to develop their domestic military capabilities, including nuclear technology, whether for peaceful use for both of them or for military use for Israel.

Several reports mentioned that Israel possesses more than 200 nuclear warheads and high-precision missile systems. It is the only country in the Middle East that did not join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear country.

As for Iran, which has joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, there were mounting fears concerning its nuclear programme. This has driven the UN Security Council permanent members as well as Germany to reach an agreement with Iran (the JCPOA) in order to adjust the tempo and ambitions of the Iranian nuclear programme.

In spite of all this, there are justified concerns and reservations. The first is the time span of the deal and consequently its regulations which don’t exceed few years. The second is related to Iran’s ballistic capabilities, i.e. the means of delivering lethal weapons. The third emanates from strong reservations regarding Iran’s tough regional policy through which it seeks hegemony.

On the personal level, I hope that the Middle East does not witness a nuclear arms race and I don’t believe that the Saudi crown prince’s statement is a formal pronouncement of the launch of a Saudi nuclear programme. However, the real message of the crown prince is that the arms race in the region has indeed reached dangerous levels, including nuclear weapons along with the high-tech and means of delivery, and that is a matter that can no longer be tolerated.    

Those sensitive issues require that we should be frank. Thus, we should expect that the countries of the region raise their armaments and develop their domestic capabilities in case of not responding to their security concerns. The high-tech weapons and lethal weapons won’t be an exception and within this context, acquiring nuclear weapons will be an option.

These dangerous developments can only be avoided through dealing with the nuclear capabilities in the region and the disparity between the countries’ commitments regarding the possession of weapons of mass destruction. This can be done by joining the treaties on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and other weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons, and setting regulations to the means of delivery.

As a first step towards this objective and instead of cancelling the nuclear deal with Iran, I suggest tackling the deal’s shortcomings seriously and comprehensively, especially as all the Middle Eastern countries, including Iran and Israel, agreed on principle to make the region a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

Egypt expressed its readiness to join the Chemical and Biological Weapons Convention if Israel joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Hence, I suggest that a Middle Eastern negotiating group be set up under the sponsorship of the Security Council’s five permanent members in order to ensure continuity and work under the UN umbrella. This should be carried out with the participation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), being the most technically concerned organisations.

This can be achieved under the umbrella of one big system that gathers all the region’s countries and tackles different kinds of weapons of mass destruction, or all countries joining the existing treaties and adding some inspection procedures and the topic of the means of delivery.

Please note that my preferred choice is a blend of the two suggestions. The group’s function and mission will be negotiating an agreement making the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction before the end of the Iran nuclear deal. It will pursue its work in the framework of the Security Council resolutions related to this objective and their means of delivery in the Middle East.

In order to be certain of the negotiating parties’ seriousness and before the beginning of the negotiations, I demand that they submit letters in the Security Council in which they announce their commitment to achieving the aforementioned objective while the joint action plan for Iran's nuclear programme is valid.

They should also declare their commitment not to develop their own weapons of mass destruction during the ongoing negotiations. Within this context, the international organisations for banning weapons of mass destruction, the IAEA, the OPCW, and the CTBTO, can suggest some confidence-building measures and offer a better climate for negotiations and contribute to crystallising a verification system.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Middle East is on the threshold of an extremely dangerous arms race. The region’s countries and the world have only two options: either to begin serious and comprehensive negotiations ensuring the commitment of the countries of the region without exception to getting rid of the weapons of mass destruction whether nuclear, chemical or biological, or else bear the responsibility of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the dangerous repercussions of this proliferation, as a result of the international community’s inaction and its double standards.


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