For a nuclear-free Middle East

The wheels of war roll on and it appears the world is getting closer to some type of armed conflict in the Middle East. In Pentagon war rooms, where the military huddle, planning for the coming battle, the possibility of using “low-yield earth-penetrating nuclear weapons” is being discussed. This is not only being debated in the United States but is also being debated in Israel, America’s closest ally and military partner in the Middle East and the only country in the region that hasn’t signed the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT).

According to Robert W. Nelson in The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists (January/February 2001 Volume 54, Number 1),

“even if an earth penetrating missile were somehow able to drill hundreds of feet into the ground and then detonate, the explosion would likely shower the surrounding region with highly radioactive dust and gas and would…necessarily produce enormous numbers of civilian casualties. No earth-burrowing missile can penetrate deep enough into the earth to contain an explosion with a nuclear yield even as small as 1 percent of the 15-kiloton Hiroshima weapon. The explosion simply blows out a massive crater of radioactive dirt, which rains down on the local region with an especially intense and deadly fallout.”
A discussion alone of this missile’s capability is a chilling prospect and its usage would be a direct violation of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty, which the United States signed on July 1, 1968. This treaty, entered into force on March 5, 1970, has 187 state parties as signatories, making it the most widely supported arms control treaty ever. Cuba, Israel, India, and Pakistan are the only states yet to join the NPT and, with Cuba’s voiced intention in 2002 to sign, they are the only three countries with significant nuclear activities that remain outside the NPT.

In the spring of 2000 at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference convened at United Nations Headquarters, with 157 of 187 States Parties participating, including Cuba and Palestine as observers, the parties called on Israel by name to accede to the treaty for the first time in the NPT’s history, as it is the only state in the region not to have done so. The Conference recalled that operative Paragraph 4 of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East “calls upon all States in the Middle East that have not yet done so, without exception, to accede to the Treaty as soon as possible and to place their nuclear facilities under full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.” The Conference noted, “several States have acceded to the Treaty and that, with these accessions, all States of the region of the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, are States parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The Conference welcomed the accession of these States and reaffirms the importance of Israel’s accession to the NPT and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards, in realizing the goal of universal adherence to the Treaty in the Middle East.”

Israel’s nuclear weapons program dates back to the late 1950s with the construction of its nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev desert. There, with French and later South African assistance, the Israelis embarked upon a nuclear arms program that, according to most estimates, is thought to have yielded between 100 and 200 weapons, but may have as many as 400 deliverable nuclear and thermonuclear weapons. According to Kenneth S. Brower,

“Israel’s nuclear capability is by most accounts quite sophisticated, and may include “intercontinental-range, fractional-orbit-delivered thermonuclear weapons; thermo-nuclear or boosted nuclear-armed, two-stage, solid-fuel, intermediate-range ballistic missiles with a range of 3,000km; older, less accurate, nuclear-armed, theatre-range, solid-fuel ballistic missiles; air-deliverable, variable-yield, boosted nuclear bombs; artillery-delivered, enhanced-radiation, tactical weapons; and small nuclear demolition charges.” (“A Propensity For Conflict: Potential Scenarios And Outcomes Of War In The Middle East,” Jane’s Intelligence Review Special Report No. 14)
Israel also has an active chemical weapons program with among others, the production capability for mustard and nerve agents. Although there is no publicly confirmed evidence of production, extensive research into Biological weapons is reportedly conducted at the Biological Research Institute in Ness Ziona. As with the NPT Treaty, Israel is also not a signatory of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).

Over the years, there have been many public debates in Israel regarding the usage of their Nuclear weapons capabilities. Israeli defense analysts have also debated how Israel should respond to a chemical or biological weapons attack. For example, during a conference on “Challenges to Global and Middle East Security” in Herziliya, sponsored by Tel Aviv and Harvard universities, Shai Feldman, director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS) at Tel Aviv University, said that Israel should be prepared to use any weapon - including nuclear - if attacked with chemical or biological weapons.

This was not the first time that the usage of nuclear weapons was proposed. Israel instituted a nuclear alert during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and there are reports that they did it again in 1991 during the Gulf conflict. With the current arms build up and worldwide tension focused on Iraq, what will prevent Israel from unleashing its war machine should it feel threatened or should it be attacked in a possible war? Without Israel as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, what guarantees are there that it won’t resort to nuclear weapons? It isn’t limited by treaty constraints as is the United States and this could provide the perfect scenario for testing the new low-yield earth-penetrating nuclear weapons that the United States would not dare to deploy themselves.

Although this might sound “farfetched” to some, those of us who live in the Middle East and have watched the escalation of tensions in the region know that anything, including nuclear war, is possible. Because of this real danger, it is crucial that Israel accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is also crucial that the conflict with Iraq be settled peacefully, as at this point it is not Iraq that prevents the Middle East from being a nuclear free region, it is Israel.

Karen Asfour lives in Amman, Jordan. She contributed this comment to EI