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Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East

Gitty M. Amini

Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Middle East August, 2000 Middle East August, 2000
Source: NASA


One of the most volatile and war-torn regions of the world, the Middle East is racked with disputes over religion, culture, land, and water. With the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the region, these disputes have already brought about the use of these terrible tools of modern warfare, and concern regarding their future use lingers in the minds of citizens and leaders in the region and beyond.

This issue brief first looks at the six key states in the region that possess WMD—Israel, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and Egypt—and their WMD capabilities and commitments to nonproliferation regimes. But more importantly, what motivates these key powers to acquire or produce WMD? And what options are available for defusing some of the conflicts and reducing the reliance on WMD?

This issue brief gives a comprehensive overview of the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East by looking at:

  • the capabilities and participation in nonproliferation regimes of the six key states in the region: Israel, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and Egypt;[1]
  • the political, social, and economic incentives leading states to seek WMD; and
  • options for limiting WMD in the region.

IA. Capabilities

This section gives a general overview of the current capabilities, both suspected and confirmed, of key states in the region. These are the states that have caused other countries and peoples, within and outside of the region, the most concern in terms of WMD acquisition and proliferation.



Israel has maintained an ambiguous official status in regard to its nuclear capabilities, neither confirming nor denying possession of nuclear weapons. This ambiguity has had its benefits and drawbacks for Israel. The widespread belief by its neighbors that Israel is a nuclear power has contributed to the deterrence of major actions hostile to its interests. However, it is also thought that its neighbors' suspicions of its nuclear capability have increased tension and hampered regional negotiations. At the same time, the lack of official confirmation of its nuclear status keeps Israel from suffering the penalties imposed on newly pronounced nuclear states, such as economic sanctions and international legal condemnation. Most experts and analysts agree that Israel possesses sophisticated nuclear capabilities and has the most advanced nuclear program in the Middle East. Israel's nuclear activity centers around the Dimona facility in the southern Negev desert.


There is no confirmed evidence of Israeli production or stockpiling of such weapons, despite allegations of its possession of an advanced chemical weapons program. Suspicion has fallen on the activities of the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona, especially after the October 1992 discovery of about 50 gallons of dimethyl methylphosphonate at an El Al crash site in Amsterdam. The chemical—a possible precursor to the sarin nerve agent and a common simulant for weapons research—was destined for the Institute. The Israeli government denies such allegations and has offered benign explanations for any suspicious activities.


Despite a lack of credible evidence, rumors and allegations persist that Israel possesses an offensive biological weapons program. Most speculation centers around the Israel Institute of Biological Research in Ness Ziona and its activities. Arab critics of Israel have alleged that the Israeli military poisoned wells with typhoid and dysentery during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War; confirmation of these allegations is difficult to achieve.


Israel has been developing missiles since the 1960s. Its extensive and comprenhensive missile capabilities include cruise and ballistic missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the Arrow theater defense missile system. By 1973, it had successfully developed the first-generation ballistic missile with a 500 km range, the Jericho-1. Israel first launched the 1,500 to 3,500 km-range, intermediate-range, two-stage ballistic missile—the Jericho 2—in 1986. It is also rumored to have completed the 4,800 km-range Jericho-3 and its improved space launcher the Shavit-1.



Iraq is suspected of having an active, clandestine nuclear weapons program. In 1975, it commissioned the construction of a French nuclear reactor located in Tuwaitha. Despite the 1981 destruction of the reactor by Israel, the facility continued to enrich uranium and pursue other nuclear weapons efforts. By the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi program had advanced to the point of having completed a prototype design of a nuclear bomb, although it had not been tested. After its defeat in the war, Iraq was subjected to United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections to uncover and destroy its nuclear capabilities. However, these inspection teams were expelled in 1998 and had been denied access to any new or renewed facilities and sites until November 2002. As a result of the four-year absence of inspectors, experts estimate that Baghdad's nuclear program has progressed significantly and may be as little as one year from completing a nuclear weapon.[2]


Iraq is believed to have made widespread use of chemical agents during its war with Iran (Iran-Iraq War 1980-88) and against its own Kurdish population in northern Iraq, including in Halabja, in 1988. Prior to 1990, Iraq had produced the blister agent mustard and the nerve agents tabun, sarin, and VX. According to its own admissions to UN inspectors, Iraq had produced 3,859 tons of agents and more than 125,000 filled and unfilled "special munitions" between 1982 and 1990. Iraq's main chemical weapons production, filling, and testing facility was at the Muthana State Establishment, where most of the weaponized chemical agents were stored. By 1995, international inspectors had largely completed verification and destruction of Iraq's chemical stocks, munitions, and production equipment. However, the United States believes that Iraq continues to have a significant, secret stockpile of chemical agents, especially nerve agents, and that it has largely rebuilt its chemical weapons research and production infrastructure.


Iraq has had a biological weapon program since 1985. By 1990, it had stockpiled 25 missile warheads and 166 400-pound aerial bombs filled with anthrax, botullinum toxin, or aflatoxin. Iraq has admitted to having about 20,000 liters of boulinum toxin, 8,425 liters of anthrax, and 2,200 liters of aflatoxin. It has also acknowledged having researched the weapons potential of camelpox virus, human rotavirus, enterovirus 17, and the toxin ricin. Due to the absence of inspectors between December 1998 and November 2002, little is known about the status of Iraq's BW program.


Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Iraq purchased considerable numbers of short-range Scud missiles and launchers from the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, towards the end of its war with Iran, Iraq extended the range of the Scud to 650 km, using many of these modified missiles for the remainder of the Iran-Iraq War and in the 1991 Gulf War. After Iraq's defeat in the 1991 war, UN inspections put a halt to its range of missile projects that Iraq had pursued with extensive foreign assistance. However, it has continued to develop various ballistic missile systems under the restrictions of the Gulf War ceasefire resolution, which limit the range of missiles to 150 km. Amongst the missiles are the Ababil and the Al-Samoud, which Iraq continues to test and for which it continues to seek foreign assistance.



In the 1970s, under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran began a nuclear power program and a nuclear weapons research program. However, progress on these programs was halted as a result of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In 1984, it is believed that Iran revived its efforts in gaining nuclear capabilities, resuming its power program and beginning a suspected covert weapons acquisition policy. Iran possesses five research reactors and two partially constructed power reactors at Bushehr. It has been actively pursuing international (most notably Russian) expertise and cooperation in completing the two Bushehr plants. Despite repeated assertions by Iran's critics, especially by the United States, that the Islamic regime has diverted its efforts from peaceful nuclear energy to weapons uses, the IAEA has not been able to confirm such accusations.


The U.S. Department of Defense reports that Iran's chemical weapons program started in 1983 as a response to Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The United States believes that Iran produced its first chemical agent in 1984, and since then, cumulative production is "a minimum several hundred tons of blister, blood, and choking agents."[3] In addition to the suspected stockpiles, it is estimated that Iran can produce 1,000 metric tons of agent per year. Iran strongly denies these allegations.


Iran's biological weapons program was also initiated in the early part of the war with Iraq. According to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the U.S. Department of Defense, Iran conducts research on toxins and organisms, has produced biological warfare agents, and apparently has weaponized a small quantity of those agents, possibly including mycotoxins, ricin, and the smallpox virus.[4] Iran strongly denies producing biological weapons.


Iran's building of a missile arsenal has involved both the purchase of complete missile systems from abroad and the development of indigenous systems. Suppliers of missile components and technology to Iran include North Korea, China, and Russia. Iran purchased Scud-B, Scud-C, and Nodong missiles from North Korea and the short-range solid-fueled NP-110 (Silkworm) missile from China. Its indigenous variations of the Scud-B and Scud-C are called Shahab-1 and -2 respectively. The Shahab-3, with an approximate range of 1,300 km, is based on North Korea's Nodong-1 design but is produced domestically. There are contradicting accounts as to the outcome of the Shahab-3 tests. More controversy surrounds the Shahab-4, thought to be a 2,000 km-range ballistic missile based on North Korea's Taepodong-2 technology. There is dispute about whether Iran is actively pursuing its completion: officials deny the existence of the program while others claim it has progressed to the test phase. There are also allegations about Iran's plans for even more advanced systems including the Shahab-5 and the Kosar or Shahab-6 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).



Suspicions about the regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi continue to spawn allegations of Libya's pursuit of nuclear capability. However, Libya's lack of material, technical, and financial resources makes in unlikely that it has progressed very far with a nuclear weapons program. Its only significant nuclear facility is the complex at Taruja, which houses a Soviet-supplied 10 megawatt research reactor. Two 440 megawatt reactors promised by the Soviets in the late 1980s were never started due to the decline of the Soviet Union. More recently, after 1998 and the lifting of the UN sanctions against Libya, Russia has renewed its interest in aiding Libya to renovate the Taruja complex.


There is much evidence of Libya's active acquisition efforts and use of chemical weapons. It is well documented that Libya used Iranian-supplied mustard gas against Chad in 1987, making it one of only a handful of nations to have engaged in chemical warfare. Additionally, U.S. intelligence reports allege that Libya has ongoing chemical weapons production facilities in Tarnhunah and Rabta, both outside Tripoli.


Allegations persist that Libya is actively conducting research in pathogens and toxins for military uses in violation of its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). It is thought that the chemical weapon plants at Rabta and Tarhunah may also conduct research in biological weaponry. Moreover, U.S. intelligence reports claim that Qaddafi's regime has tried to recruit South African scientists to further its biological weapons research. It is estimated that Libya is several years from attaining a significant indigenous biological weapons capability.


Libya's arsenal of Scud-B missiles was first acquired in the 1970s from the Soviet Union. In the early 1980s, Libya began its 950 km-range al-Fatah ballistic missile program with the assistance of China and Germany. The al-Fatah missile system is still incomplete and untested. Since the lifting of international sanctions in 1998, Libya has received renewed technical aid and component supplies from countries like North Korea, Iran, China, India, and Russia. North Korean aid may have been the most substantial, ranging from the loan of ten North Korean scientists to the $600 million deal to sell Libya 50 Nodong ballistic missiles, including launch capabilities.



Despite Israeli and American concerns about Syria's nuclear weapons ambitions, there is little evidence that point to much activity. Syria lacks the infrastructure and financial ability to pursue an indigenous nuclear weapons program. Syria's only nuclear reactor, a 30 megawatt research reactor in Dayr al-Jajar, is under IAEA inspections safeguards. Various negotiations with China, Argentina, and Russia to expand Syria's nuclear infrastructure failed until its agreement with Russia in May 1999. Russia has agreed to supply Syria with at least one light water reactor, which will be subject to IAEA safeguards.


Syria is believed to have one of the most extensive chemical weapons programs in the developing world. Its initial chemical warfare program and stockpile of chemical agents were allegedly supplied by Egypt in 1973 prior to the October War with Israel. Other alleged suppliers are the Soviet Union, Russia, various European countries, and India. It is also believed that Syria now has an indigenous capability to produce and weaponize nerve agents, such as sarin and VX, and blister agents, such as mustard. Syria has fit Scud-B and Scud-C missiles with chemical warheads and, in 1999, is believed to have tested a Scud-B with a warhead able to disperse VX. There are thought to be at least three facilities in Syria that are currently producing chemical weapons: near Damascus, Hama, and Safira village (in Aleppo).


There is limited and contradictory information regarding Syria's biological weapons capability. German and Israeli sources claim it possesses athrax, botulinum toxin, and ricin. Others, however, maintain that Syria has not progressed beyond the research phase. It has a pharmaceutical infrastructure that could support a limited biological weapons program, and its trade relations with Western Europe, Russia, and North Korea have included a wide range of dual-use equipment and supplies.


Syria's missile program, which began in the 1970s, was initially intended to counter the superior military capability of Israel, but has since evolved as part of Syria's chemical warfare strategy. Syria now has one of the largest ballistic missile arsenals in the region, made up of hundreds of Scud-derived missile systems. In the 1970s and 1980s, it relied on the Soviets for its missiles program, importing the Soviet FROG-7, Scud-Bs, and the solid-fueled Scarab SS-21. In the 1990s, Iran supplied Syria with assistance for solid-fueled rocket motor production, and North Korea supplied equipment and technical assistance for liquid-fueled missile production. However, Syria has had difficulty developing an indigenous missile production capability and has had to continue to import components and complete systems from North Korea and China. In 1991, it reportedly purchased 150 Scud-C missiles from North Korea. In September 2000, it tested a North Korean, 700 km-range Scud-D missile, suggesting that it is actively seeking to gain more advanced missile capability.



Egypt's nuclear program seems to have been limited to research for power generation purposes since it began in the late 1950s. Its Inshas Nuclear Research Center hosts a Soviet- supplied 2 megawatt research reactor and an Argentine-supplied 22 megawatt light water research reactor. In the 1970s, there was some consideration given to pursuing nuclear weapons capability, however, it would appear that this goal has been abandoned. More recently, Egypt has publicly supported a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. Its commitment to nuclear nonproliferation is partly motivated by Egypt's rivalry with Israel and its suspicion of Israel's nuclear weapons capability.


Egypt has had a long history of alleged involvement with chemical weapons. There are reports that it inherited British stockpiles of mustard gas after the British withdrawal in 1954, and that it received chemical weapons assistance from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There is strong evidence that the Egyptian military employed mustard and phosgene during the Yemeni Civil War of 1962-1967. This makes Egypt one of the few states to have engaged in chemical warfare. It is thought that Egypt also has nerve agent and psychoactive chemical capabilities, in addition to a well-developed infrastructure, support system, and possible delivery capabilities. Egypt publicly denies possessing chemical weapons.


There is no corroborated evidence that Egypt is actively conducting research on biological weapons. Also, most analysts believe that Egypt lacks the infrastructure to convert its civilian technical strength in microbiology to weapons production. There are, however, allegations by Israel that Egypt has conducted research on anthrax, plague, botulinum toxin, and Rift Valley Fever virus for military purposes. Egypt strongly denies these allegations.


Egypt's missile program began in the 1960s with three short- and medium-range missile designs that were abandoned before coming to fruition in 1966 due to the withdrawal of West Germany's technological assistance. In the 1980s, Egypt's missile program resumed with cooperation from Iraq and Argentina; the goal was to develop a short-range solid-fueled missile. It has had considerable success developing an indigenous Scud-B and an enhanced Scud-C manufacturing with the aid of North Korea. There are reports that Egypt entered an agreement to purchase North Korea's 1,000 km-range Nodong missile in 2001.

IB. Participation in Nonproliferation Regimes

Having incomplete signing and ratification records and mixed success in adherence, the key Middle East powers' participation in nonproliferation regimes is a point of controversy within the region and a source of frustration for the international community.


Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

Israel refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This is partly due to Israel's policy of maintaining an ambiguous nuclear status and so that Israel can keep its options open in the future. In many respects, this has been a more honest policy than those of other countries that strive to acquire nuclear capability in violation of their commitments to the NPT.

Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

Israel signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1993, but has yet to ratify it.

Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC)

Israel refuses to sign the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). In 2001, it initiated a review of this policy, but no change has come about as a result of the re-analysis.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)

Israel has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and is considering ratification. Israel is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), but has pledged to follow its guidelines.



Although Iraq acceded to the NPT in 1969, it had not been in compliance with the NPT's verification requirements between 1998 and 2002. In December 1998, Saddam Hussein's regime expelled the weapons inspections team mandated by the IAEA and the UN, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM). Iraq remained non-compliant with the terms of the NPT until November 2002, when it allowed the readmission of IAEA and UN inspectors (now called UNMOVIC, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) after intense American and international pressure.


Iraq refuses to sign or ratify the CWC.


Iraq was required to sign and ratify the BWC as a condition of the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire agreement. However, given the weak nature of the BWC's enforcement mechanisms, Iraq's compliance with the terms of the BWC is not assured.



Iran acceded to the NPT in 1970. Under its obligations to the NPT, Iran has been periodically subjected to inspections by the IAEA. It has apparently cooperated with the inspectors and the IAEA has not found evidence of Iran's supposed violations of NPT restrictions. However, the IAEA and Iran have been in discussion since the latter half of 2002 and will continue to conduct talks in 2003 to address the IAEA's request for an additional safeguards protocol given suspicions of Iran's accelerated nuclear efforts.


Iran ratified the CWC in 1997.


Iran ratified the BWC in 1973.



Libya ratified the NPT in 1975 and came under IAEA safeguards in 1980.


Libya refuses to sign or ratify the CWC.


Libya acceded to the BWC in 1982. However, given the weak nature of the BWC's enforcement mechanisms, Libya's compliance with the terms of the BWC is not assured.



Syria signed the NPT in 1968 and ratified it in 1969.


Syria has refused to sign or ratify the CWC.


Syria acceded to the BWC in 1972, but has not ratified it. However, given the weak nature of the BWC's enforcement mechanisms, Syria's compliance with the terms of the BWC is not assured.



Egypt acceded to the NPT in 1981 and has been implementing the comprehensive safeguards under the IAEA inspection regime since 1982. However, since the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, Egypt has been one of the NPT's most vocal critics. Irritated by Israel's ambiguous nuclear status, Egypt is frustrated by the international community's inability to pressure or punish Israel for refusing to sign the NPT.


Egypt refuses to sign or ratify the CWC.


Egypt acceded to the BWC in 1972. However, given the weak nature of the BWC's enforcement mechanisms, Iraq's compliance with the terms of the BWC is not assured.

II. Incentives for Seeking WMD

The decision for each of these Middle Eastern states to acquire or produce WMD is varied and complex. Below is a summary of the incentives for seeking WMD and how these incentives apply to each state individually.

Security Issues

The main responsibility of a state is to maintain the safety of its national interests and boundaries. If it perceives threats to its safety, it is obliged to neutralize those threats and secure its interests. WMD are attractive and, oftentimes, cost-efficient ways to boost a nation's level of security. For instance, a nation that lacks man-power may find WMD more practical for self-defense than maintaining a large standing army. It may rely upon the deterrent value of WMD to prevent its enemies from encroaching on its interests. Each nation of concern in the Middle East has significant security concerns with others in the region and with states outside the region.

Regional Politics

Many Middle Eastern states are engaged in competition over influence in the region. The high stakes involved in some of these issue areas intensifies the competition. For example, much of the Middle East is populated by ethnic Arabs and there is a sense of solidarity amongst Arabs that transcends the existing political boundaries. This solidarity is often referred to as "Pan-Arabism" or the idea of the existence of an "Arab nation." Many national leaders have attempted to become the champion of Arabs everywhere, to duplicate what President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt did in the 1960s. Thus, the relationship between Saddam Hussein of Iraq, former President Hafez al-Asad of Syria, deceased King Hussein of Jordan, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has often been tense and uneasy. Each of these leaders has tried to trump the others and claim to represent the interests of all Arabs. WMD may have been seen as one way to show one's strength, to dominate the politics of the region, and to gain popular Arab support.

Global and Extraregional Pressures

Competition and pressures between states are not confined to the region. Middle Eastern states may perceive threats from beyond the region that prompt them to seek WMD arsenals. Historically, Middle Eastern leaders have been suspicious of the colonial powers, then of the Cold War superpowers, and now of the great powers, the United States in particular. For instance, many Arab and Muslim states have been highly critical of the U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. They consider the United States's involvement as biased in favor of the Israelis, and they resent American "meddling" in Middle Eastern affairs. Part of their rationale for obtaining WMD capabilities may include the idea that by increasing their military strength, they can counterbalance the influence of outside powers and perhaps even deter such outsiders from meddling at all.

Another way that global pressure tempts Middle Eastern states to acquire WMD is through trade. Some states with advanced technology may have an economic interest in capitalizing on the sale of such technologies. For example, some of the communist and formerly communist states of the Soviet bloc have encountered economic hardship and may choose to cash in on their nuclear or missile manufacturing capabilities. North Korea and Russia are the most obvious examples. The availability of such military assistance and the willingness of supplier states to proliferate WMD is a great temptation to regional states.

Each Nation's Domestic Politics

Many Middle Eastern governments feel the pressure to highlight their strength and accomplishments by building impressive armies and acquiring advanced weaponry. Especially in the event of "going nuclear," acquisition of WMD capability encourages a sense of national pride in the population and may enhance the position and popularity of the regime in power. The government may be able to stave off a challenge by the opposition if it can portray itself as the staunchest defender of the country's military might. Thus, governments can find it difficult to resist the temptation to build up WMD capabilities.

Economics and Trade Concerns

The lucrative commodities of oil and natural gas can make economic disagreements in the Middle East far from benign. Control over drilling rights, shipping lanes, and pipeline routes are so central to the development of many of these states that they are considered both economic and strategic/military concerns. As a consequence, states may be tempted to rely on military solutions to protect their economic and trade interests. The clash between Iraq and Kuwait in 1990, which led to Iraq's eventual invasion of its small neighbor, partially stemmed from a dispute over drilling rights in the oil fields shared by both nations. Hence, sophisticated weaponry may be seen as an avenue to protect trade and economic interests.

Country by Country Examination of the Incentives:


Surrounded by hostile neighbors, the state of Israel has always felt its existence threatened. Since its declaration of statehood in 1948, it has been in a nearly constant state of war with Arab and Palestinian parties. Israel has engaged in wars with Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon and is now embroiled in conflict with the Palestinian population within its own borders. In addition to the direct threats posed by its immediate neighbors, Israel feels that its security is threatened by other states in the region. One prominent example is Iran's financial and logistical support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other extremist terrorist groups who target Israel.

However, while Israel attempts to maintain its security through military strength, it faces international pressure to moderate its actions against Palestinians. The UN has repeatedly criticized Israel for using too heavy a hand in dealing with terrorist threats by Palestinian militias. Also, Israel's perceived military superiority has led its neighbors to counterbalance by building multilateral coalitions to pressure Israel. This shows how overwhelming strength can sometimes become a liability, a paradox called the "security dilemma." Israel must find the right balance between its ability to secure its population and the impact its might will have on other states in the world.


Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War did not lessen its regime's ambitions for national and regional dominance. Saddam Hussein considers Iraq's WMD capabilities an important source of power and legitimacy for his government and an international bargaining chip vis-à-vis the international community.

Iraq has shown its willingness to employ the threat and the actual use of chemical weapons on its domestic populations in order to maintain control over dissidents. The current regime has a tenuous hold over the Kurdish regions of Iraq's north and over the Shi'ite Arabs of the nation's south, but is determined to retain sovereignty over these areas. Hampered by the international no-fly zones and by its dire economic straits, Iraq has had difficulty providing services or maintaining normal governmental control over these internal regions. Thus, it has opted for military measures, including the threat of WMD use, to keep opposition forces in check.

In defiance of the United States's and international community's policy of keeping Iraq weak, Iraq is seeking to re-establish itself as a regional power. Saddam Hussein's vision of Iraq's potential power stems from its status as the holder of the world's second largest petroleum reserve, as one of the Middle East's most populated countries, and as the world's fourth largest military prior to its devastation in 1991. However, due to the economic sanctions regime imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War, Iraq has limited options in furthering its goals. It has, therefore, turned to clandestine WMD programs to enhance its power.


Since its Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has struggled to maintain its position as a regional leader. After the overthrow of the Shah and the assumption of the Shi'ite Islamist theocracy, Iran has suffered from American economic sanctions and from its protracted war with Iraq. These two factors have significantly reduced its conventional military strength and Iran strongly desires military and strategic parity with its neighbors, especially Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, the Caspian states, the Persian Gulf states, and Israel. Iran has ongoing political and economic rivalries with each of these groups: for instance, Iran and Iraq have been competing to dominate the Persian Gulf region for many years, and Iran's concerns with Turkey and the former Soviet republics of the Caspian region center around oil and natural gas access and shipping rights. Moreover, Iran's concerns with much more powerful, global powers, such as Russia, the United States and Israel, lead it to seek WMD strength in addition to conventional strength.

In addition to regional and global incentives, Iran faces domestic pressures to expand its WMD programs. Since the revolution that swept it into power, the Islamic Republic has consistently fallen short of the high hopes its people have had. Apologists for the regime point to the economic isolation imposed on it and the devastation of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War as reasons for Iran's failure to match the economic prosperity of the Shah years. However, 23 years of excuses have worn thin and much of the population of Iran is restlessly looking for signs of progress. This has given rise to a popular reform movement, personified by President Mohammad Khatami, which is viewed suspiciously by the conservative ruling clerics. Iran's efforts to build a strong and technologically advanced military may be seen as a way for the regime to provide a conspicuous sign of progress to its population.


Since the revolution that brought him to power in 1969, Libya's Colonel Muammar Qaddafi has at some point alienated each of Libya's neighbors in the region and many countries beyond. His radical ideology, support for rebels movements around the world, and financial backing of terrorist groups have made him unpopular through much of the world. The ever-changing nature of Libya's relations with others makes its alliances very fluid and unstable. Therefore, Libya's most reliable security partner is actually just itself; ultimately, it must be self-sufficient in security and military terms.

As with the other Arab states, Libya is also concerned about Israel and the Palestinian question. It has been militant in its opposition to the state of Israel and to the peace process. Far from making it the champion of the Arab and Palestinian cause, its militancy on this issue has caused tension with other Arab states. Libya has been critical of each state that has come to an agreement with Israel. Enhanced military capabilities might serve Libya's twin goals of eliminating Israel and of becoming the leader of the "Pan-Arab Nation."

Libya was the target of U.S. military attacks and economic sanctions in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as a UN economic sanctions regime from 1992 to 1999. These punishments took their toll on Libya's economy and by the late 1990s, Qaddafi seemed to be willing to comply with international norms of conduct. However, it is unclear whether Qaddafi has actually learned his lesson or if he has merely decided to overtly placate the international community while covertly pursuing his own agenda. If so, he may not have abandoned his efforts to obtain WMD, but is simply more secretive about his attempts to do so.


As one of Israel's immediate neighbors, Syria has been embroiled in rivalry with it since Israel's creation. Unlike Israel's other traditional foes, namely Egypt and Jordan, Syria has not come to a peace settlement with the Jewish state. Syria and Israel had most recently been engaged in ongoing hostilities using Lebanon as their proxy battlefield. Given this continued tension, Syria's strategic calculations must involve Israel. Thus, Israel's military superiority remains of primary concern to the regime of Bashar al-Asad.

Syria has also long been concerned about its neighbor to the north, Turkey. These two countries have experienced tension due to disagreements over water rights, Syria's alleged support of Kurdish separatists fighting against Turkey, and Turkey's policies toward Israel, the West, and Iraq. The water issue revolves around the head waters of the Euphrates River and over the joint management of their shared coastline. Also, Turkey claims that Syria has harbored elements of the group Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed insurrection group aimed at gaining the independence of the Kurdish region from Turkey. The Turks, on the other hand, have frequently alarmed the Syrians by trying to gain control over Iraq's northern Kurdish region, becoming cozy with NATO and the West, and getting closer to Israel in the 1990s.

Syria's other major regional rivalry involves Iraq. Even though both countries' governments are Ba'athist, their nominal and historical roots do not mean that they have always agreed with each other's goals or policies. Rather, each side tried to prove itself the authentic representative of secular Arab nationalism, at the expense of the other. Relations between Damascus and Baghdad were severed in the 1980s when Syria sided with Iran in its war against Iraq. However, since the assumption of Bashar al-Assad to the Presidency of Syria, he has made a concerted effort to reach out to Iraq. Alarmed by military cooperation between Turkey and Israel and by the collapse of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Syria sought closer ties with Iraq. The two states have struck agreements to cooperate in the economic and military realms: Syria provides Iraq with avenues to circumvent many of the restrictions placed on it by the UN and by economic sanctions.


Egypt has traditionally considered itself a leader of the Arab countries and has positioned itself as the main balancer to Israel's power. This drive for regional influence translates into a need to maintain a competitive military force. The pressure to keep current with technology and military strength may be particularly acute as Egypt compares itself to Israel. Israel, the most militarily advanced nation in the region, has won all of the wars fought with Egypt.

In addition to regional incentives, Egypt faces domestic, political, and economic pressures for seeking advanced WMD. President Hosni Mubarak's regime has been fending off the rising challenges of Islamic opposition movements, growing popular pressure to support the Palestinian intifada, and an economic downturn. The stability of the Mubarak regime has been under attack since 1992 by the armed opposition groups of Islamic Jihad and Islamic Group, which have employed public criticism and political violence to undermine the regime's credibility. Egypt's official reactions have included military countermeasures and martial crackdowns. Egypt's government may feel that WMD policies will enhance its prestige and hold on power.

III. Options for Limiting Middle East WMD

What are the options for limiting Middle East WMD? The following processes and actions could be key components in the daunting task of making this region more secure.

The Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process

The Peace Process between the Israelis and the Palestinians refers to the series of agreements and talks wherein the parties were negotiating a peace settlement and the conditions for the establishment of a Palestinian state. An ongoing process, it began in 1993 with the Oslo Declaration of Principles and continued in 1998 with the Nye River Memorandum, but was abruptly stopped in September 2000 due to disputes over the terms of the final settlement. Since then, relations between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government have virtually ceased with the election of Ariel Sharon as Israeli Prime Minister and with the start of the Palestinian uprising, known as the second al-Aqsa intifada.

A series of destabilizing incidents have been linked to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There are the obvious escalatory actions between the two main parties, such as the many suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians and the series of Israeli raids and re-occupations of Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As the cycle of violence and reprisal continues, it threatens to spread to other neighboring states and conflicts.

Incidents not directly related to the situation in Israel are still considered linked to, and perhaps, caused by it. For example, in October 2002, the senior diplomat and administrator of the American foreign aid organization, USAID, was shot dead in Amman, Jordan. Even though Jordan is generally considered a stable, pro-Western state, this act showed that anti-American sentiment is a strong current in the general population, the majority of whom are ethnically Palestinian. Similarly, attacks on American military interests in the Persian Gulf region throughout the summer and fall of 2002 indicate resentment of the presence of U.S. armed forces in the area. After such events, when responsibility for such actions is claimed or discussed, one prevailing argument is that such actions are in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel, which is perceived as heavily "pro-Israeli" and unfairly "anti-Palestinian."

The continued conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis has polarized the region, leading Middle Eastern parties to pick sides, keeping the level of tension high. Reducing the amount of violence between the Israeli and Palestinian populations may eliminate many of the incentives and justifications for escalating violence and arms build-ups. A renewal of the Peace Process may be an important part of a comprehensive approach to eliminating WMD in the Middle East.

Unilateral Measures

In addition to acting in concert with others, states—especially the great powers such as the United States—can act alone to thwart proliferation and to encourage arms control and disarmament. Specific examples of these strategies include applying economic and military pressure on states that sell WMD to others, imposing economic sanctions against corporations that sell supplies or dual-use technologies to proliferating states, threatening military action against violators of international agreements, and enhancing activism by the United States as the "hegemon."

Pressure on Supplier States

WMD proliferation involves two parties: those who wish to acquire the capability and those who furnish it. It is not sufficient to merely punish those who are tempted to attain WMD. States also need to thwart foreign governments that are tempted to transfer WMD components to others. For example, Russia, despite being party to the MTCR, which prohibits the transfer of missile technology to states that do not already possess such technology, has sold ballistic missile components and know-how to Middle Eastern states, like Iran and Iraq. Since the MTCR is a voluntary agreement, there are no formal institutional consequences for violating its terms. Thus, individual member states must be willing to punish violators of such nonproliferation norms if they are to have any effectiveness. Public exposure, economic punishments, and other international pressures have had success in curbing the sales of WMD technologies from European states, such as Germany, and have begun to have success with Russia as well.

Sanctions against Multinational Corporations (MNCs)

Often, states that gain from selling WMD arms claim not to be officially involved in such trafficking by hiding behind the private status of their national businesses. Thus, pressure on governments is not enough—their corporations must be pressured as well. The United States has been very active in imposing penalties on foreign companies that have sold arms to Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Pakistan. In 2001 and 2002, the U.S. Department of State placed approximately 12 Chinese, one Indian, and a number of Moldovan companies on its sanctions list. It used the authority of U.S. domestic laws[5] prohibiting the American government from doing business with foreign corporations that sell nuclear, chemical, biological, or missile technologies to highlight the activities of these transnational corporations.

Accountability of Treaty Violators

While many international treaties have built-in enforcement measures, member states may also act unilaterally in conjunction with the international agencies. In fact, reliance on the formal safeguards alone may not be sufficient to prevent and deter WMD proliferation. For example, Iraq's refusal to submit to IAEA inspections as required under the NPT lasted from 1998 to 2002, despite institutional and multilateral pressure from the UN and its member states. It was not until the renewed focus and threat of unilateral action from the United States in 2002 that Iraq agreed to submit to inspections. Thus, individual states with sufficient leverage may reinforce the incentive and disincentive structures set up by the formal treaties.

U.S. Hegemony and Policy of "Pre-emption"

As the richest and most militarily powerful nation in the world, the United States holds a uniquely influential role in international politics and can expand its role in preventing the spread of WMD. The Bush administration has made this issue more of a priority, labeling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as constituting an "Axis of Evil" in large part due to their WMD ambitions. As the hegemon, or the predominant power in the global system, the United States can bring its own weight and that of other states and international organizations to bear on these states of concern. Thus, in dealing with Iraq, the United States has been able to line up the UN Security Council members in support of Resolution 1441[6] condemning Iraq's efforts at obtaining WMD capabilities.

In addition to the general manner in which the United States can influence states, its adoption of the policy of "pre-emption" is a novel specific approach to combating WMD proliferation. Announced as a new National Security Strategy of the Bush administration in June 2002, pre-emption shifts the United States from a traditional reactive defensive posture to one of proactive defense. Under the premise that "the best defense is a good offense," this strategy calls for pre-emptory action by the United States if it feels its security to be under threat. Rather than waiting for the threat to be actualized, the United States would act beforehand to prevent the threat. By taking a tough stand, the U.S. administration hopes to dissuade states from proliferating WMD. Iraq appears to be one of the first targets of this new strategy; pre-emption may be applied to others as well.

Regime Change

Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq has increasingly become marginalized in the region and in the world community. The main reason for this is Saddam Hussein's aggressive ambitions. In the Persian Gulf region, Iraq has proven its expansionistic intent by its invasions of two of its neighbors: Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. Iraq's immediate neighbors are further threatened by Iraq's possession of and willingness to use chemical weapons. Slightly more distant neighbors are also concerned about the range of Iraq's missiles. For instance, Israel is considered a likely target of Iraqi Scud missiles. Finally, the global community is concerned with Iraq's suspected nuclear, chemical, and biological capabilities and the possibility that Iraq may transfer such weapons to terrorist organizations.

As a result of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, the United States—backed by Britain and the UN—has committed itself to seek the replacement of the current Iraqi government. The logic of this line of argument is that while the proliferation of WMD is always of concern, the possible threats are compounded when such capabilities are sought by aggressive regimes such are Saddam Hussein's.

Regional Cooperation

Multilateral talks and cooperation that include most of the states in the region may be another avenue for resolving problems. The strength of multilateral cooperation is that it provides a forum through which issues that cross many borders can be tackled—issues that ultimately require coordinated action to resolve. Thus, a multilateral track is another dimension of negotiations, supplementing bilateral talks.

The Middle East Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group, one of five multilateral groups—the only one devoted to discussion of security issues—met between 1992 and 1995. Prior to its suspension in 1995, ACRS held six plenary sessions during which the 15 regional parties focused on confidence-building measures (CBMs) with each other. These included creating a communication network across the region; coordinating search and rescue operations; pre-notifying each other of military activities; striking maritime agreements; and establishing regional security centers in Jordan, Qatar, and Tunisia, among other measures. The rationale for such agreements is that greater linkages and cooperation between these states will provide greater opportunities for communication, thus offering new means of preventing conflicts and reducing suspicions of one another. Reduced tensions and perceptions of threat may reduce their desire to seek WMD capabilities. Renewing such a multilateral security forum may be useful in combating the proliferation of WMD.

However, even the multilateral working groups discussing issues not directly related to WMD may still have a positive effect on the region's security environment. For example, three of the working groups tried to continue their work after the 1995 breakdown of the ACRS track: the groups on refugees, water resources, and the environment. These issue areas are lightning rods for disagreements and disputes between the parties in the Middle East. The scarcity of water and relatively large numbers of migrants in the region make these issues more directly related to security than they might be elsewhere. A greater emphasis on these sorts of multi-party negotiations could be helpful in lowering the general level of tension in the region.

Strengthening Existing International Treaties or Regimes and Creating New Ones

The monitoring, inspection, and enforcement mechanisms of existing international treaties are not always as effective as they can be. As mentioned in the previous section, the BWC lacks a formal safeguard process and its draft protocol suffers from a number of loopholes and a lack of universal support. As a result, the BWC essentially functions on the honor system, a problem when those suspected of violating it do not act honorably. The questions before the members of the BWC at their annual reviews are whether and how to strengthen the BWC. It is thought that an effective, yet not overly burdensome, series of measures may be found. First, the BWC's self-reporting requirements can be tightened up so that states must declare their biological weapons activities more accurately. Making them more obligatory than voluntary may increase compliance rates as long as the reporting requirements are minimally costly to legitimate commercial entities. Another measure under consideration is adding an inspection component, which may add strength to the BWC but must also be minimally intrusive to civilian pharmaceutical and bio-research activities. Finding the right balance between these two concerns is the difficult challenge before the BWC membership.

Even the most comprehensive treaty, the NPT, can be strengthened. The first problem is that the NPT is not universal. Israel, India, and Pakistan are not parties to the treaty. Also, the CTBT, designed to stop nuclear states from testing, may be under some jeopardy, as the U.S. Congress has not ratified it. NPT members may further the goals of nuclear nonproliferation by addressing the general political incentives for proliferation. Thus, members can be more active in fostering regional cooperation, such as the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR), through which the United States supports the efforts of former-Soviet states in controlling their nuclear materials and weapons. Additionally, recognizing the limitations of the IAEA safeguards protocol, a new model protocol was adopted in 1997. However, it has not been signed nor ratified by sufficient numbers of members to make the new protocol as effective as it might be. These proposed measures show how fighting the spread of nuclear weapons is a constant battle and the strategies used must be periodically re-examined.


Official Documents

  • CIA, Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 July - 31 December 2001, www.cia.gov.


  • Anthony H. Cordesman, Proliferation in the "Axis of Evil": North Korea, Iran, and Iraq (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2002), www.csis.org.
  • Anthony Cordesman, Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2001), www.csis.org.
  • Anthony M. Cordesman, National Developments of Biological Weapons in the Middle East (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2001), www.csis.org.
  • Michael Donovan, A New Approach to Iran (Center for Defense Information, May 2002), www.cdi.org.
  • Michael Donovan, Iran, Israel, and Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East (Center for Defense Information, February 2002), www.cdi.org.


  • CNS, Middle East Resources, http://cns.miis.edu.
  • Center for Strategic and International Studies, www.csis.org.
  • Institute for Science and International Security, www.isis-online.org.

Print Publications

  • Shai Feldman, Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in the Middle East(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).
  • Khidr Abd Al-Abbas Hamzah, Saddam's Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda (New York: Scribner, 2000).


[1] The states are presented starting with the states with the most advanced nuclear programs and descending in level of nuclear technological achievement.
[2] This estimate is a worst-case estimate by senior Bush administration officials, assuming Iraq has access to sufficient fissile material. U.S. intelligence does not believe Iraq already has the fissile material needed, but cannot rule out that possibility. For more, see International Institute for Strategic Studies, "Strategic Dossier on Iraq's WMD," www.iiss.org.
[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Proliferation: Threat and Response (Washington: Government Printing Office, April 1996), p. 16.
[4] Cited in W. Seth Carus, "Iranian Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons: Implications and Responses," Middle East Review of International Affairs, vol. 2, no. 1, March 1998.
[5] For example, the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act of 1999, the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991, and the Iran Non-Proliferation Act of 2000.
[6] Passed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council on November 8, 2002, Resolution 1441 authorizes UNMOVIC (the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) to conduct unlimited and unfettered inspections of Iraq's suspected WMD facilities and report back to the UN Security Council. The Security Council would then have more information on which to base any future actions it might take against Iraq.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2015.


Gitty Amini provides a comprehensive overview of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Middle East by discussing the capabilities, incentives and constraints of six key states in the region.

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