ISRAEL: The risk of nuclear break out
Since the 1960s, when Israel produced its first A-bomb`s worth of plutonium, the Jewish state 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. The consequences are well worth considering.
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, made with components from the United States.
Given that neither Israel"s bombs nor the means to deliver them are home-grown, 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 1,000 gas centrifuges – machines able to boost natural uranium up to nuclear weapons grade. Depending on how efficiently the centrifuges operate, they could produce a bomb"s worth of weapons-grade uranium within a year or so of 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.
Iran has also had help 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. So 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 long-standing ties to terrorism and a growing missile fleet.
Iran"s missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear-sized payload not only to Israel, but also 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.
Thus the nuclear question in the Middle East is not just between Israelis and Muslims. A nuclear break out by Iran would affect inter-Islamic rivalries as well.
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 months" notice and turn its nuclear wherewithal to bomb-making.
As long as the inspectors are allowed to observe what Iran is doing, Iran can come right up to the edge of nuclear weapons capability without breaking the rules.
It is time for the whole world – not just the United States - to start imagining what a nuclear-armed Middle East will look like. Could Western diplomacy keep such a region from going over the edge? Would some type of local deterrence work? And what about US President George W. Bush"s plan to extend democracy in the region? Unless the world is confident of the answer to 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. Courtesy of Media Monitors.