Nuclear Breakout in the Middle East?
December 11, 2003

Since the 1960s, when Israel produced its first A-bomb’s worth of plutonium, it has enjoyed a surprisingly long-lived monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Now, with the nuclear resurgence of Iran, that monopoly could end, with consequences to the region that are difficult to foresee.

Israel is thought to possess as many as 200 nuclear warheads, fueled primarily by its French- and Norwegian-supplied reactor in the Negev desert. Those warheads could be delivered by Israel’s squadrons of American-made F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers, or by its powerful Jericho-II missile, also made with components from the United States. Neither Israel’s bombs nor the means to deliver them are homegrown. The question facing the Middle East now is whether Israel’s rivals will be equally successful in importing what they need.

Iran is making great progress. By year’s end, it plans to be operating a thousand gas centrifuges–machines able to boost natural uranium up to nuclear weapon grade. Depending on how efficiently the centrifuges operate, they could produce a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium within a year or so after coming on line. Iran hasn’t said where its centrifuge designs and components came from, but whoever supplied them is producing a large strategic impact. For the moment, the finger of suspicion points to Pakistan.

Help to Iran has also come from Chinese companies, which have supplied the blueprints for a plant to produce the gaseous form of uranium needed to feed the centrifuges, and from Russia, which has provided sensitive technology for heavy water reactors. The latter produce plutonium, a second type of nuclear weapon fuel. None of the imports has any reasonable use in Iran’s civilian nuclear power program, itself suspect in light of Iran’s copious oil reserves.

There is every reason to think that Iran will achieve nuclear weapons status if it stays its present course. The centrifuges appear to be functional, and Iran has managed to buy equipment needed to assemble or make centrifuges on its own. Should Iran enter the nuclear club, the Middle East will face a nuclear-armed state with longstanding ties to terrorism and a growing missile fleet. Iran’s missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear-sized payload not only to Israel, but to Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt.

It is naive to think that none of these states will react. Uzi Rubin, former director of defense policy at Israel’s National Security Council, predicted in an October 2003 speech to an international conference on missile defense that an Iranian bomb would spur nuclear weapon moves by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egypt does not possess such weapons now, but in the past has considered building them. It has already begun to produce Scud-type missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Israel. Saudi Arabia does not possess the bomb either, but it bought a fleet of Chinese missiles in the 1980s that could deliver nuclear warheads to many points in the Middle East, and it is rumored to have discussed nuclear cooperation recently with Pakistan. Given the fact that Pakistan has sold uranium centrifuge technology to North Korea, and is rumored to have supplied the same to Iran, any nuclear talks between it and the Saudis should cause real alarm. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt would like to see Iran dominate the region.

In addition to all this, Libya has shown signs of renewed nuclear activity. Colonel Qaddafi has been talking to the Russians about refurbishing his Tajura nuclear site, and about building a power reactor. Libya has for years imported Scud-type missiles from North Korea.

Thus the nuclear question in the Middle East is not just between Israelis and Muslims. A nuclear breakout by Iran would affect inter-Islamic rivalries as well. That is why the nuclear future in Iran is so important.

Iran’s progress is not likely to be stopped by its pledges under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unfortunately, a country is perfectly free to use its adherence to the treaty as a reason why other countries should provide it with nuclear technology. Then, after importing what it needs, it can drop out of the treaty on three month’s notice and turn its nuclear wherewithal to bomb-making. Nor do the inspections carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency provide much comfort. As long as the inspectors are allowed to observe what Iran is doing, Iran can come right up to the edge of nuclear weapon capability without breaking the rules.

It is time for the whole world–not just the United States–to start imagining what a nuclearized Middle East will look like. Could western diplomacy keep such a region from going over the edge? Would some species of local deterrence work? And what about US President George W. Bush’s plan to extend democracy in the region? Unless the world is ready to answer such questions, it had better curb Iran’s nuclear program before it is too late.


Gary Milhollin directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington DC.