The Coming Mideast Nuclear-Arms Race

<i> Yossi Melman, a journalist for the Daily Ha'aretz, specializes in intelligence and strategic affairs. He is co-author of "Every Spy a Prince: A Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community."</i>

Last Sunday, a few hours before Pakistan conducted its second series of nuclear tests, its radar screens identified enemy fighter planes resembling U.S.-made F-16s entering Pakistani air space. Since the Indian air force flies Soviet-made MIGs, the Pakistanis concluded that the intruding blips were Israeli fighters preparing to attack their nuclear facilities on behalf of India. Nawaz Sharif’s government issued a strongly worded statement warning India of a “painful response” should India try to destroy its nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, it secretly contacted the Israeli government seeking clarification. Israeli Ambassador to Washington Eliahu Ben-Elissar hurriedly telephoned his Pakistani counterpart, Riaz Khokhar, to assure him that Israeli fighters were not in the area, that Israel was not involved in the Indian-Pakistani conflict and that it had no intention of being dragged into it.

Pakistani fears of an Israeli pre-emptive strike, however, were not groundless. Since 1972, when Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ordered his nation’s best nuclear physicists to build a bomb, Israel’s worst strategic nightmares have revolved around an “Islamic bomb.” Israeli fears that Pakistan would share its nuclear know-how, technology and materials with other Arab or Muslim countries brought Israel and India closer together. Before the two countries established full diplomatic relations, they clandestinely cooperated on defense and intelligence matters. In 1994, after India and Israel opened embassies in Tel Aviv and New Delhi, they formalized their defense cooperation in an agreement. Since then, collaboration on defense and security has intensified.

India’s leading defense scientist, nuclear-weapons expert and national hero, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, visited Israel several times in 1996 and 1997, along with several other top Indian scientists. Senior Israeli scientists reciprocated with visits to India. Brahma Chellaney, a researcher at New Delhi’s privately funded Center for Policy Research, said during a visit to Israel last month that India and Israel have set up several defense-related projects on guidance and missile technology, special materials and electronic warfare. Only three weeks ago, a few days after India tested its nuclear devices, a top-ranking delegation from the state-owned Israel Aircraft Industries toured India. The purpose of the visit was to accelerate the sale of Israeli-made RPVs (pilotless aircraft) and sea-to-sea missiles.

To some Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Pakistani nuclear tests are just another manifestation of the monolithic, homogeneous Muslim world out to destroy the Jewish state. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamel Harazi’s sudden visit to Islamabad, to congratulate Pakistan for its achievement, further confirmed these suspicions.


But senior government officials and intelligence experts do not share Netanyahu’s and his supporters’ dire view. “I do not see an immediate Pakistani-Iranian cooperation in the nuclear field,” says one senior intelligence analyst. On the contrary, Pakistan and Iran are in conflict over war-torn Afghanistan. Pakistan supports the hard-line fundamentalist Taliban movement, which controls the central government in Kabul; Iran backs the rebels. In truth, Iran has much closer diplomatic relations, larger commercial accounts and more defense contacts with India. Indeed, on several occasions, including in October 1997, Israeli officials have expressed their concerns about this evolving relationship.

Still, the lessons to be drawn from the Indian-Pakistani tests are alarming to Israel. The most obvious is that if a country with the basic scientific and technological infrastructure to build a bomb decides to go nuclear, no country can stop it.

The possibility of a nuclear-arms race has long lurked in the background of strategic thinking about the Middle East. Now, such a competition seems more possible than ever. Imposing economic sanctions and military sanctions seems to make no difference to a country determined to develop a nuclear capability. Indeed, the international sanctions imposed by the United Nations on Iraq since the end of the Gulf War in 1991 have not weakened Saddam Hussein’s desire to regain nuclear potential. A recent report by the Israeli military intelligence’s research department for Netanyahu asserts that it is only a matter of time--from five to seven years--before Iran develops its own military-related nuclear capability. Once Iran has the bomb, it is likely that its sworn enemy, Iraq, will have it, too.

Israel has never admitted to possessing nuclear bombs. On the one hand, it has repeatedly refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, while, on the other, it is a signatory member of the treaty to ban nuclear tests. The country’s official policy, repeated by every government since the construction of Israel’s nuclear reactor in 1961, is that “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region.” It is a policy crafted to create ambiguity and to deflect international pressure while keeping its Arab adversaries honest. But if Iran builds a bomb, Israel will automatically lose its nuclear monopoly in the region. What can--and should--Israel do?


It might send its air force on a mission to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, repeating its successful attack against Iraq’s 17 years ago. Although such a mission would be more difficult than the one launched against Iraq--Iran has learned the lessons of that attack by hardening and dispersing its facilities--the Israeli air force could carry it out. But it is highly unlikely that the current government, or any future one, would initiate any such assault. The political and strategic ramifications would be just too far-reaching. Plus, many experts doubt whether Iran, rhetoric notwithstanding, seriously considers Israel an enemy. “It is more likely that an Iranian nuclear warhead will create a stronger headache for Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt,” says one Israeli intelligence official.

Israel has two other options. It can change its nuclear policy from ambiguity to clarity, declaring that it wants to join the nuclear club. But neither the international community nor Israel is ready to adopt this approach. Interviews with most Cabinet ministers, opposition leaders, Knesset members and military experts indicate no enthusiasm for any change in policy. “It is better for us to remain ambiguous,” says former Prime Minister Shimeon Peres, who is widely considered the architect of Israel’s nuclear capabilities.

By way of elimination, if pre-empting Iran’s atomic ambitions or declaring membership in the nuclear club are unrealistic, the emerging choice seems to be an accelerated nuclear-arms race in the Middle East. Nuclear weapons in Iranian, and possibly in Iraqi, hands would compel Israel to stay ahead of its enemies, presumed and real, in terms of both conventional and nonconventional weapons. Based on past logic and the experience of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear-arms race, this means Israel will have to develop a second nuclear-strike capability. The best evidence for such an outcome is the fact that, by year’s end, the Israeli navy will receive the first of its two modern submarines constructed in German shipyards.