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Curbing Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East
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Robert J. Einhorn

In terms of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats in the Middle East, 2003 ended up being a pretty good year. It did not start out that way. In fact, the situation was looking pretty ominous at the beginning of last year. Intelligence agencies in the United States and elsewhere were convinced that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program. At the very minimum, Iraq's neighbors in the Middle East were uncertain about Saddam Hussein's WMD intentions and capabilities, and this uncertainty was a factor motivating some of them, especially Iran, to pursue WMD programs of their own.

In Iran, disclosures by dissidents about two sensitive fuel-cycle facilities and investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had revealed that Iran was making an alarming amount of progress in its uranium-enrichment program and, therefore, in its nuclear weapons program.

In Libya, the United States and other countries were growingly concerned that Moammar Gaddafi's long-standing nuclear and missile programs were finally getting some traction and could no longer be considered a joke. When added to Israel's already advanced but undeclared nuclear capability and Syria's relatively sophisticated chemical and missile capabilities, these situations in Iraq, Iran, and Libya suggested that the Middle East was destined to become a region saturated with weapons of mass destruction.

A year later, things have changed quite significantly. Both the fears and the uncertainties about Iraq's WMD capabilities and programs have largely been eliminated. Faced with the prospect of an IAEA Board of Governors finding of noncompliance and the possibility of UN Security Council sanctions, Iran has agreed to suspend enrichment and reprocessing activities, to adhere to the IAEA Additional Protocol, and to make a full disclosure of its nuclear program. In addition, Gaddafi has now decided to come clean about Libya's WMD programs and to permit their elimination under verification. Just as importantly, Libya is providing information to U.S., British, and IAEA officials about its sources of supply, and hopefully this is going to permit strong action to be taken against the black market networks that constitute one of the greatest threats to the nonproliferation regime today.

The Bush administration and its critics are debating why these positive developments are occurring. Bush supporters claim that the administration's tough national security strategy and the "demonstration effect" from the Iraq military operation are responsible and that this has caused Iran and Libya to have second thoughts about their WMD programs. Administration critics, however, argue that the Libyans and Iranians are motivated at least as much by positive inducements as they are by fear. They say that recent progress confirms that multilateral institutions and carrot-and-stick diplomacy can be successful.

I would say that both sides of this argument are right to some extent. Regardless, the outlook today for curbing WMD proliferation in the Middle East is much better than it was just a year ago.

What should we be doing to try to keep this progress pointed in the right direction? On Iraq, I think the priority should be preventing any residues from Hussein's WMD programs from becoming the seeds of WMD programs in Iraq or elsewhere. The Iraq Survey Group should keep pressing to try to find out what happened to the weapons, the precursors, the materials, the blueprints, and so on. Coalition authorities should do whatever they can to keep track of former Iraqi weapons scientists to provide them with professional opportunities in the civilian sector and to make sure that they are not peddling their know-how outside of Iraq-or even to insurgents inside Iraq.

In our dealings with future Iraqi authorities, U.S. officials will need to make clear the importance they attach to avoiding any WMD recidivism in Iraq, and they are also going to have to work closely with Iraqi defense institutions to make sure that the country develops the kind of army and conventional defense capabilities that reduce Iraq's incentives for developing weapons of mass destruction in the future.

On Iran, I think the challenge is much more difficult. Iran's agreement this past fall to adhere to the Additional Protocol and suspend enrichment activities was hardly an indication that Iranian leaders have made the fundamental decision to abandon their quest for nuclear weapons. Indeed, Iran has already begun to arouse suspicion by insisting that its suspension of enrichment be defined in a very narrow way.

Still, I think it may be possible over time to convince Iranian leaders that nuclear weapons are simply not in Iran's national interest. The United States, Europe, and Russia need to stick together and confront Iran with a stark choice: it can be a pariah with nuclear weapons, or it can abandon its ambitions to get nuclear weapons and become a well-integrated member of the international community-politically and economically. Iran needs to understand that giving up the nuclear option convincingly means giving up the capability to enrich uranium. The suspension of enrichment and reprocessing activities must be replaced with a permanent prohibition on these capabilities, which means existing facilities eventually must be dismantled. In exchange for giving up the right to produce enriched uranium fuel, Iran should receive a multilateral guarantee that, as long as it lives up to its nonproliferation obligations, it will be able to buy reactor fuel for any civilian nuclear power reactors that it decides to build. The Europeans, Russians, and Americans should get together to offer such a guarantee.

Such a fuel assurance might well address possible Iranian concerns about arbitrary future cutoffs of fuel supply, but it will not address what I believe is Iran's principal motivation for seeking the nuclear option: security. With the Iraqi threat gone, as far as Iran is concerned, Iran's main security preoccupation today is the United States, specifically that the Bush administration may be interested in putting pressure on Iran and even toppling its regime. That is why I believe that a permanent solution to the Iranian nuclear issue will probably require a fundamental improvement in bilateral relations between the United States and Iran. The sooner these two countries begin to engage one another and explore the possibility of a modus vivendi that can address each side's concerns, the sooner it may be possible to reach a durable solution.

On Libya, things seem to be moving in the right direction. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the IAEA are working to document and dismantle Libya's WMD programs. I wish I could say that they were working collegially to do this, but that is clearly not the case. The United States and United Kingdom have a legitimate interest to be fully involved in this process. They have a great security stake in being involved in the process. The IAEA's role, however, is also legitimate and central. I think the Bush administration would be well advised to recognize that its longer-term nonproliferation objectives would be served by not trying to marginalize the IAEA on Libya.

Syria has come under strong pressure from the United States since the invasion of Iraq. In some areas, such as preventing the movement of foreign fighters through Syria to Iraq, Syria seems to be trying to accommodate U.S. demands. Nevertheless, on the question of abandoning its WMD capabilities, especially chemical and missile programs, Syria has so far given no indication that it is prepared to follow Gaddafi's lead.

Syria sees its nonconventional weapons capabilities as a counter to Israel. If it is prepared to put those capabilities on the negotiating table at all, it would probably do so only in the context of a peace settlement with Israel. Even then, Syria might argue that it needs to hold on to those capabilities as long as Israel retains nuclear weapons.

In the period ahead, Israel can expect to become the focus of increased attention. Already Libya, Syria, and Egypt have raised the question of a double standard in the Middle East, and they have urged Israel to relinquish its nuclear weapons capability. Israel is reportedly giving consideration internally to how it can respond.

In my view, it is unrealistic to expect Israel to do very much at the present time, especially on the nuclear issue. It is certainly true that the fall of Hussein, the apparent end of Libya's WMD programs, and positive steps in Iran have diminished the WMD threat faced by Israel. Yet, the Israelis correctly point out that the Iran issue has not been resolved, and more fundamentally, the Israelis believe that the Arab world today is less prepared to accept the existence of the state of Israel than it was during the 1990s when the peace process was moving forward in a very purposeful and promising way. As long as the Israelis face what they regard as an existential threat, they are going to be reluctant to surrender what they see as an ultimate guarantor of their security.

Still, in order to keep the positive momentum going within the region, Israel needs to consider what it can do now. George Perkovich and Avner Cohen have recently suggested that one step Israel could take is to ratify the Chemical Weapon Convention and adhere to the Biological Weapons Convention.[1] I think this would be a good idea.

On the nuclear issue, I would not expect much. One thing Israel should do is state that, in the context of a comprehensive and durable peace in the Middle East, it is prepared to give up its nuclear option as long as others in the region, including Iran, do the same. Israel adopted this position in the early 1990s. It apparently remains Israel's position, but we do not hear much about it today. It would be valuable for Israel publicly to emphasize that it is prepared to renounce its nuclear weapons capability under certain conditions.

Finally, an important way of addressing the Middle East WMD threat in the longer term is to try to re-establish a region-wide multilateral forum on arms control and regional security. Such a forum existed from 1992 to 1995 and made some impressive progress, including on confidence-building measures. It made some impressive progress during that period, but it had a number of flaws-namely that Syria, Iraq, and Iran were not involved. In the future, that should be corrected. The forum eventually broke down, in large part over disagreements between Egypt and Israel about how to deal with the nuclear issue. Given the raw nerves that exist in the region today over the Israeli-Palestinian problem, it is difficult to imagine resurrecting this forum in the immediate future, but we should look for opportunities to do so as soon as conditions permit.

My bottom line? The Middle East is not going to become a WMD-free zone any time soon. Indeed, you would have to be quite an optimist to think that the Middle East will ever be completely free of weapons of mass destruction. Yet, there are reasons to be optimistic. A year ago, security experts assumed that the Middle East would eventually be home to at least several nuclear powers. Today, that no longer seems inevitable.


1. George Perkovich and Avner Cohen, “Devaluing Arab WMDs,” Washington Times, January 19, 2004, p. A19.

Robert J. Einhorn is a senior adviser in the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) International Security Program. Before coming to CSIS, he was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered January 28, 2004, at the Paul C. Warnke Conference on the Past, Present, and Future of Arms Control, which was co-sponsored by the Arms Control Association.







Posted: March 1, 2004