2006 September 22 Friday
Will Middle East Start Nuclear Arms Race?

Stanley Kurtz worries Iran's getting nuclear weapons will set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will lead to nuclear terrorism with untraceable bombs. Is this a realistic fear?

I found Time's latest cover story on "What War With Iran Would Look Like (and how to avoid it)," much less slanted against the military option, than I'd expected. True, the story was weak on explaining the actual dangers of a nuclear Iran. Time warned of a nuclear arms race between Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, but didn't explain how this would greatly increase the prospects of Muslim terrorists getting a bomb to plant on U.S. soil. Once many Muslim states have the bomb, the state source can no longer be traced, and it becomes a relatively simple matter to hand a nuke off to terrorists. Nor was there much here on the huge damage Iran could do by blackmailing itself into de facto control of the world's oil resources.

Yet Time acknowledged that a raid would have "a decent chance of succeeding," if at a "staggering" cost. Time also noted that the real "red line" (the ability to enrich enough uranium for a bomb) could be crossed in just a year. The biggest surprise of all was that Time rightly put little stock in the likelihood of a negotiated settlement. Time called the diplomatic approach "as much like a prayer as a strategy," and quoted an ex-CIA director saying "I don't think I've ever met an Iranian moderate." (Read that Michael Rubin piece and you'll see what he means.)

Sure, Time also covers those "staggering" costs: a huge and economically damaging oil price spike, the prospect of escalation from air raids to a major land war (at a moment when our military is already stretched to the limit) and the danger that after all the trouble and world condemnation, the raid won't even succeed. But all this is quite right.

One the one hand, we are faced with a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, nuclear blackmail and terrorist chaos at the heart of the world's Persian Gulf oil supply, and terrorist-planted nuclear weapons in America's cities. On the other hand, we can choose an economically disruptive war with Iran that will alienate us from the world, push us to and beyond our military limits, and that even then may not even succeed. The by now stock phrase, "there are no good options" doesn't quite do justice to the awful choice we face.

My guess is that Muslim states can't be trusted with nukes. I'm afraid people who have more loyalty to something other than a ruling government will turn nukes over to other groups. Is that reasonable fear? I'm very curious to hear sharp and well-informed arguments on why Arab or Iranian governments will control their nukes. Will the possession of nukes by a large number of Muslim states lead to untracable nuclear terrorist bombings? Or theft of nukes?

Without the fear of nukes getting out of the hands of sovereign governments I think the use of nukes by Muslim governments has very low odds. The elites have shown a willingness to avoid confrontations that might knock them out of power - let alone get them killed. Assad of Syria and Mubarak of Egypt do not want to launch attacks on Israel since they like being at the top of their national status and power pyramids.

Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal wants Egypt to develop nuclear energy.

CAIRO, Egypt -- The son of Egypt's president urged the nation to consider developing nuclear energy, a proposal that could help establish his own credentials as a serious politician and publicly distance him from the United States.

...

"We will continue using our natural energy resources, but we should conserve these resources for our future generations. The whole world is looking at alternative energy - so should Egypt - including nuclear," Mubarak told the gathering in Cairo.

The Mubarak dynasty wants to propagate itself, not get destroyed in mushroom clouds.

Gamal Mubarak appears to be in line to succeed his father and become the next King of Egypt (though as a sop to international and perhaps domestic opinion Kings in Egypt pretend they are really Western-style Presidents).

CAIRO -- It was back in May that many feel Gamal Mubarak was anointed the next president of Egypt.

...

In May, Gamal flew to Washington on what was supposed to be a secret visit, until details were leaked to the media. While in the U.S. capital, the 43-year-old got startling access for a private citizen who holds no official government position: a meeting with Vice-President Dick Cheney and another attended by Ms. Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

I'm sure some eager beaver blogger somewhere can explain how it is part of the brilliant Bush Administration democratization program for the Middle East to support the dynastic succession.

Does the United States need Egypt to behave nicely toward Israel so much that the US would continue to pay Egypt protection money for Israel's benefit even as Egypt developed nuclear power and eventually nuclear weapons?

The carefully crafted political speech raised the prospect of two potentially embarrassing developments for the White House at a time when the region is awash in crisis: a nuclear program in Egypt, recipient of about $2 billion a year in military and development aid from the United States, and Mr. Mubarak succeeding his father, Hosni Mubarak, as president without substantial political challenge.

Simply raising the topic of Egyptís nuclear ambitions at a time of heightened tensions over Iranís nuclear activity was received as a calculated effort to raise the younger Mr. Mubarakís profile and to build public support through a show of defiance toward Washington, political analysts and foreign affairs experts said.

The United States is seen as the world's market dominant minority. This breeds resentment and the need of some to defy the US to demonstrate their masculine independent leader bona fides. We'd be better off if we were less visible in the Middle East since then Middle Easterners would spend less time reacting to us. We should protect ourselves by preventing them from coming here and by doing less stuff over there.

Update: There'd be a chain of causation that would lead to a Western city getting nuked by Muslim terrorists. Do each of the links in the chain work? I just wrote this up in an email trying to explain the specific components of my fear of Muslim state nuclear proliferation might lead to terrorists getting nukes:

My fear of transfer of Muslim nuclear weapons into the hands of non-state actors (i.e. terrorists) stems from my view that Arab countries are full of people who have less loyalty to the state. They have tribal and family loyalties and loyalties to Islam.

Was A.Q. Khan operating on his own in doing deals about nuclear technology or with the blessings of his superiors?

We certainly have examples of disloyalty to a state in order to help another state with nuclear technology. Americans have done it. Is it really that big of a jump from that to disloyalty in order to help a private group? The disloyalty hurdle for a single person doesn't seem so big.

But the next hurdle seems quite a bit bigger. Nukes are under guard. They are in (presumably) facilities that are hard to get access to. The number of people who have to either be disloyal or fooled would hopefully have to be very large. But I have no idea, for example, what security Pakistan has around their nukes or what security Iran will have around their's.

How big are these hurdles?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 September 22 04:54 PM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control


Comments
Bob Badour said at September 23, 2006 6:15 PM:

Another question: What are the chances that all of the security or staff at a site will be from the same tribe? Or that all of the security while transporting fissionable materials will be from the same tribe? etc.


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