World Nuclear Disorder and the Middle East
Posted in the Sipri Middle East Email Network, "Forum on the Impact of the South Asian Nuclear Tests", September 15 1998

The Indian government's decision to test nuclear weapons, followed in kind by Pakistan, created a fundamental change in the global nuclear regime. Although both states were viewed as "undeclared" nuclear powers for many years (in the case of India, since the 1974 test), the physical testing of the weapons marks a fundamental shift. Instead of 5 recognized nuclear weapons states, three "threshold" or non-NPT signatories, and small number of rogue states, a new category of non-NPT nuclear powers was created. As a result, the NPT regime, which was already severely tested by the Iraqi violations of the treaty, and North Korea's behavior at the margins, was stretched even thinner.

For the Middle East, the impact is particularly acute. The Indian subcontinent is one side of the Persian Gulf, and the visible nuclear capabilities in this region could have a direct impact on neighboring countries. Iran, which has invested heavily in acquiring nuclear technology and has an active ballistic missile development program, could be most directly effected, and these tested may accelerate the rate of Iranian nuclear effort. Indirectly, for states that are farther removed, these tests may lead to the perception that that the level of effort required to achieve the status of a nuclear power is lower, and the costs, in terms of sanctions and relations with the US, may be acceptable.

These tests also placed the issue of nuclear status on the political and military agendas of many states in the Middle East. For example, the Egyptian press debated the costs and benefits of restarting the long-dormant Egyptian nuclear program. When combined with Iraq's success in holding on to its nuclear weapons infrastructure, even after seven years of UN-mandated inspections, these events would seem to point to accelerated proliferation in the region. The Clinton Administration's weakness when challenged by Saddam Hussein, and recent IAEA reports documenting the extent of Iraq's ability to hide its nuclear infrastructure, are major sources of concern. (Former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter reported that Iraq maintains the high-explosive configurations for three nuclear weapons, which will become operational bombs if fissile material is obtained). Although the South Asian nuclear tests did not change this situation, the uncertainties and potential for rapid development of nuclear weapons in the region have been emphasized.

Although Pakistan is an Islamic state with close defense and military relations with Saudi Arabia and other states in the region, it is not considered to be a threat to Israel. As will be discussed below, there is some concern regarding the potential for transfer of technology and personnel to other states in the region, but this potential existed prior to the recent tests.

More importantly, Israel now finds itself in a group of one, rather than one of three non-NPT signatories. Although Israel, in contrast to India and Pakistan, has not tested nuclear weapons and is a signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in some ways, the events have been costly for Israel. Following the tests, the US pressed for the beginning of talks towards a Fissile Material Production Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT), and India and Pakistan quickly agreed to alter their positions. Israel had avoided taking a position on this issue, but the events made this position untenable. In this sense, the South Asian nuclear tests have highlighted the exceptionality of the Israeli nuclear posture, as will be examined in detail below.


The efforts of a number of nations in the Middle East to acquire nuclear weapons began long before the Indian and Pakistani tests. The critical question is whether the fallout from the explosions will accelerate the rate at which Iran and other countries in the Middle East are able to acquire nuclear weapons. The entry of Indian and Pakistani into the nuclear club may create a new standard for measuring power and international prestige, and that states that had settled for chemical or nuclear weapons "as the poor man's nuclear weapon" would now seek to upgrade to nuclear powers. However, to the degree that the Indian and Pakistani programs are exceptional (India acquired its nuclear technology from Canada and the U.S. before the NPT regime was established, and Pakistan received extensive assistance from China), efforts to emulate them by Iran or Syria will face significant obstacles, in comparison to the Indian or Pakistani efforts.(2)

In a broader sense, if the Indian and Pakistani tests contribute to a general sense that "the dam restraining the flood of nuclear proliferation" has been breached, nuclear supplier states that have been relatively stringent in enforcing export limitations might relax or even end these limitations. If there is a sense of hopelessness regarding the ability to slow the spread of nuclear weapons, and the commercial interests that are constantly seeking relaxation of export limitations will prevail. If this process takes hold in the U.S., (where support for all sanctions is weakening, primarily because other supplier states have profited while U.S. firms are excluded from trade,) the prospects for the continuation of the non-proliferation regime will be very bleak.

In the more optimistic scenario, the South Asian "shocks" will press Russia and China into ending the export of nuclear and missile technology. These two countries have been the primary sources of the Iranian effort to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and have ignored the impact of a nuclear Iran on world stability and for their own strategic interests. In July 1998, Iran conducted the first flight test of the Shihab 3 missile, which goes beyond Iranian deterrence requirements vis a vis Iraq and the Gulf, and will be able to target Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and much of Russia. Although the domestic changes in Iran suggests possible changes in the long term, the extremist anti-Israeli rhetoric and support for terrorism that characterizes the ěconservativeî Iranian leadership continues to be a major source of instability and concern.

Perhaps now, the prospect of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, has become more realistic, and this might lead to reevaluation of the wisdom of the export policies (or the absence of such) in Russia and China. Similarly, after the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, the countries that have advocated easing of sanctions on Iraq (primarily Russia, China and France) might now recognize that as soon as the UN inspectors leave Iraq, Saddam Hussein will resume his effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

In contrast, the pessimistic view is that the Russian and Chinese assistance to Iran and Syria will continue, and that these countries will seek to accelerate their nuclear and missile development programs. This could trigger an unrestrained nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East.


Since the mid-1980s, many military and security analysts reached the conclusion that Pakistan had the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons. As a result, the Pakistani decision to emulate the Indians and test their own nuclear weapons was not surprising.

However, these events led to a series of headlines in the Israeli press warning of the dangers of an "Islamic bomb". Prominence was given to the Iranian Foreign Minister's visit to Islamabad, a few days after Pakistan joined the nuclear club, and to his declaration that "From all over the world, Muslims are happy that Pakistan has this capability...Now they feel more confident because it will help balance Israel's nuclear capability."(3) Similarly, Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin declared that "Pakistan's possession of nuclear power is to be considered an asset to the Arab and Muslim nations."(4) Palestinian newspapers printed cartoons featuring a nuclear mushroom cloud topped by an Islamic crescent, and some argued that the display of Islamic power would force Israel to make more concessions in negotiations with Arafat.

The term "Islamic bomb", was coined in the late 1970s, after President Ail Bhutan declared that despite sanctions, Pakistan would follow India in developing nuclear weapons, even if his people "had to eat grass". Pakistan received aid from a number of countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Libya, leading to concerns that Pakistani nuclear know-how or even weapons would be transferred to Colonel Ghaddafi, the Saudis, or Saddam Hussein.(5) In a broad sense, the concept of an "Islamic bomb" resulted from "the fear that Muslim solidarity will lead to, in times of crisis, the transfer of nuclear arms from nuclear to non-nuclear Muslim countries."(6)

In the intervening 20 years, there was no sign of an "Islamic bomb" in this sense. Although Pakistan is believed to have had a nuclear weapons capability since the mid-1980s, no evidence has surfaced of aid or technology transfer. With the recent tests, Pakistan became unambiguous nuclear power, but this does not necessarily imply that Pakistan will now become a source of nuclear weapons or technology.

Indeed, it is clear that these tests were a response to India's tests, and that Pakistan is focused on what it perceives as the Indian threat and the conflict over Kashmir, and not on the Middle East. Pakistan's Minister of Information, Mushahid Hussain, asked "Why do people talk about an Islamic bomb?...This is a Pakistani bomb. In the case of India, you don't talk of a vegetarian bomb." (7)

This situation could change if Pakistan needs allies and financial assistance to keep pace with India. In the past, Iran and Pakistan have had some military links in the past decade, including naval training exercises, and there are reports of limited weapons exports. However, relations between Pakistan and Iran are strained over a number issues, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. As one Pakistani analyst has noted, "nothing in the history of Pakistan has shown a substantial commitment to an Islamic cause. ... Nuclear cooperation with Iran ... would be further inhibited by the long-standing Shia-Sunni hostility." (8) In addition, Pakistan is unlikely to risk its close relationship with Saudi Arabia by helping Iran go nuclear.

Another potential source of concern is the possibility of Pakistani nuclear aid for Saudi Arabia. These two states have intense military links, Pakistanis provide training and expertise for the Saudi armed forces, and the two states have cooperated in Afghanistan. Although there have been some unsubstantiated claims regarding Saudi nuclear ambitions, and given the high degree of Saudi dependence on the United States, this seems far fetched. (9)

In any case, both Iraq and Iran were well on the road towards nuclear weapons long before Pakistan joined the nuclear club. Both countries have been purchasing nuclear and missile technology from China and Russia. Thus, even if it was so inclined, the ability of Pakistan to provide assistance beyond what has been received directly from Moscow and Beijing is probably minimal. At most, Pakistan might become a "second tier" provider, but this is only of importance for assistance that cannot be obtained from a "first tier" source. (Perhaps some information on bomb design, based on the recent tests, can be provided, but over 50 years after Hiroshima, this is of marginal importance.)


In the short term, the impact of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests on Israel was most strongly felt in the diplomatic arena, in connection with American efforts to reinforce the shattered nuclear non-proliferation regime. After the tests, the U.S. government, as the primary supporter of this regime, sought to repair some of the damage by pressing for progress towards the negotiation of a Fissile Material Production Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). This production freeze has been under consideration and discussion for the past decade, but differences over key issues blocked the beginning of formal negotiations in the 61 nation Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The CD operates by consensus, and for the past few years, India and Pakistan have blocked the opening of negotiations. In addition, a group of non-aligned states, led by Egypt, sought to include stockpiles in the context of the FMCT, while the U.S. and the other P-5 states have rejected the effort to include stockpiles.

This impasse was suddenly unblocked in the wake of intense American pressure on India and Pakistan. After a visit from a high level American delegation, the Pakistani government rescinded its objections, and the U.S. moved quickly to gain consensus in the CD for the establishment of an ad-hoc committee for negotiating the text of an FMCT. Within two weeks, the issue was before the CD, and all members, except Israel, were ready to approve the establishment of this committee.

Israeli decision makers, who had not been briefed by the US on the results of the talks in Islamabad, were not prepared for these developments. The government had considered the FMCT in the past, but decided not to take a position. Israeli policy makers are generally concerned that any change in the status of the Dimona reactor and any discussion or information regarding its capabilities and activities would be equivalent to embarking on a "slippery slope". This would eventually undermine the policy of ambiguity that has served Israel very well for over three decades. The deterrent threat is viewed as a central element in Israeli national survival, and the vast majority of the leadership and population back the current policy of ambiguity. Many credit the deterrent threat with preventing Iraqi chemical and biological attacks during the 1991 war.)

While its security would benefit from a global freeze in fissile material production, leaving Israel with its regional nuclear monopoly intact, there was little prospect of a verified freeze among many countries in the Middle East. The experience of the IAEA's safeguard and inspection system in the case of Iraq, even after the 1991 war, and questions regarding Iranian and Syrian adherence to NPT requirements, showed that closed countries with wide areas in which to hide nuclear programs are able to evade verification requirements. Israel has consistently rejected pressures to dismantle its nuclear deterrent by signing the NPT, and the FMCT is widely viewed as a "back door" to the NPT.

In 1991, following the belated discovery of the extent of the Iraqi progress towards a nuclear weapons capability, the U.S. government began to press for consideration of a verified fissile material production cut-off. In 1993, President Clinton explicitly called for a global FMCT, and this led to more intensive consideration by the Israeli government. However, Prime Minister Rabin decided that as long as the issue was still blocked in the CD, and the Indian and Pakistani objections remained, there was no pressing need for Israel to take a public position. Rejection would lead to conflict with the US, while acceptance would mean embarking down the slippery slope.

When the issue suddenly arose again in July 1998, Israel was a new member of the CD, and this was the first time that it was required to take a position on the opening of negotiations. The issues were complex, and the Netanyahu government, which was besieged with a wide range of pressing political and economic problems, had not focused on this issue. President Clinton pressed Netanyahu to agree to the creation of a negotiating committee, but it is difficult for any Israeli Prime Minister to make rapid decisions that might effect the core of Israeli deterrence policy. It took the government a few days to consider the options, but considering the complexity and implications of the decision, it responded very quickly by agreeing not to block consensus at the CD.

However, Israel also made it clear that this did not presage acceptance of an FMCT Treaty that would effect the policy of nuclear ambiguity.(10) A statement issued by the Prime Minister's office summarized the issues, noting that "In consultation with the defense establishment, we made it clear to the United States that Israel has its own considerations which are unique to its situation in the region. In light of this, we will need clarifications from the U.S. We also made it clear that we have fundamental problems with the treaty, which we will also discuss with the U.S."(11)

Thus, Israel avoided, for now, the paradoxes posed by the FMCT. When negotiations make progress, and decisions regarding signing and ratification must be made, the Israeli will have to weigh the costs and benefits. In the short term, however, it is clear that Indian and Pakistani tests left Israel isolated, in a class of its own, and no longer part of the "three nuclear threshold states".


In contrast to India and Pakistan, Israel has no interest in testing, but does have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo in the region. The Israeli nuclear deterrent is an exceptional response to Israelís unique vulnerability, and was developed as ěa weapon of last resortî in the face of tangible threats to survival. Although the nature of these threats has changed, Israel remains a microstate with enemies who reject its legitimacy. As a result, Israel has and will continue to maintain this deterrent capability until the threats, both conventional and non-conventional, have been replaced by a reliable system of regional security.

At the same time, successive Israeli governments, representing different parties and ideologies, and in different security environments, have scrupulously honored the agreements from the late 1960s with the U.S. government in which Israel pledged not to test or declare its nuclear status. For thirty years, this policy of nuclear responsibility has been carefully maintained, despite the NPT violations of Iraq and concerns regarding Iranian objectives.

However, in the longer term, the concern is that the Indian and Pakistani tests will weaken the international non-proliferation regime, and accelerate nuclear weapons development in the region. Shortly after the tests, the Israeli government noted that these events should lead "the international community ... to make every effort in order to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear capacity. The international community needs to act decisively in order to prevent Iranian capabilities in this sphere.(12) This is and will remain Israel's primary goal, and until this situation changes, Israel is extremely unlikely to change its policy or to follow the Indian and Pakistani in testing nuclear weapons. Israeli officials also emphasize that Israel is a signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Despite the suggestions in the Arab capitals, particularly from Cairo, that somehow the Indian nuclear tests might be emulated by "other states that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty", the events in the South Asian region will not change Israeli policy. Israel has nothing to gain and much to lose by becoming an overt nuclear power. The situations are very different, as demonstrated in the fact that in contrast to India, Israel does not focus on the discriminatory nature of the NPT. As a status-quo state facing Islamic and Arab-nationalist regimes that threaten its survival, Israel's policy of last-resort deterrence based on deliberate nuclear ambiguity continues to be the best option.

Another area of contrast is the realm of domestic politics. In India, the issue of nuclear status was a central domestic political question that emphasized the Indian sense of discrimination and claims for a seat among the major powers (including membership in the UN Security Council). One important factor in the newly elected Indian government's decision to test was the expectation that the national euphoria that would follow testing would enhance the support for this narrow government. Similarly, domestic political pressure in Pakistan forced the government's hand, and even if the decision makers were reluctant to proceed with the nuclear tests, this pressure was essentially overwhelming.

In Israel, however, the vast majority of the public (as well as the elite) support maintenance of the status quo, without testing, under existing conditions. Nuclear status and policy does not play a role in Israeli domestic politics, and there is also no "nuclear" lobby pressing for tests, as was the case among the Indian technical and scientific elites.

Nevertheless, these events demonstrate that the ability of the international community, in general, and the U.S., as the leader of this community, to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and prevent Iraq, Iran or Syria from obtaining nuclear weapons is limited. During a meeting on nuclear proliferation at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly noted that Israel must assume that it will not be able to prevent Iran or Iraq from obtaining nuclear capability. In the longer term, Israel can be expected to accelerate its own planning for a multipolar nuclear Middle East, including secure second strike systems. The Indian and Pakistani tests have accelerated the preparation for these future scenarios.


(1) This analysis is based on the author's earlier publication, "Assessing The Impact of The Indian And Pakistani Nuclear Tests On The Middle East", Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, No. 386, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem, Israel, 15 July 1998

(2) Michael Eisenstadt, "Dual Bomb Blasts In South Asia: Implications For The Middle East", Washington Institute for Near East Studies, May 1998

(3) Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, BBC News (June 4, 1998), cited in "Middle East Reverberations Of The Nuclear Tests In India And Pakistan", Policywatch #322 The Washington Institute on Near East Policy, Washington DC, June 1998

(4) Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai Al-Aam (May 31, 1998), cited in "Middle East Reverberations Of The Nuclear Tests In India And Pakistan", Policywatch #322 The Washington Institute on Near East Policy, Washington DC, June 1998

(5) See, for example Herbert Krosney and Steven Weismann, The Islamic Bomb, and the BBC Television documentary of the same name.

(6) Pervez Hoodbbhoy, "Myth-Building: The Islamic Bomb", The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1993, p. 42

(7) Pakistan's Minister of Information, Mushahid Hussain in an interview with Der Spiegel (June 8, 1998), cited in "Middle East Reverberations Of The Nuclear Tests In India And Pakistan", Policywatch #322 The Washington Institute on Near East Policy, Washington DC, June 1998

(8) Pervez Hoodbbhoy, "Myth-Building: The Islamic Bomb", The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1993, p. 45

(9) Michael Eisenstadt, "Dual Bomb Blasts In South Asia: Implications For The Middle East"

(10) In the CD, the Israeli representative declared "Israel shares the significance of the moment. On instructions, I am directed to observe that Israel did not, and does not, object to the consensus decision just taken to establish and ad hoc committee on the FMCT, but we, of course, reserve our position on the substance of the issues involved." Statement of Israeli Ambassador Yosef Lamdan before the CD, 11 August 1998 Conference on Disarmament, Final Record of the 802nd Plenary Meeting, CD/PV.802, Geneva

(11) PM Netanyahu's Remarks Regarding Media Reports Concerning Israel's Nuclear Policy, August 11, 1998, (Communicated by the Prime Minister's Media Adviser)

(12) Prime Minister's Media Advisor Responds To Iran's Fm's Visit To Pakistan (Communicated by the Prime Minister's Media Advisor) Information Division, Israel Foreign Ministry - Jerusalem, Jerusalem, 1 June 1998