Three nations in the Middle East dominate any present-day discussion of nuclear weapons, yet only one is subjected to an unprecedented degree of international scrutiny. Two have nuclear weapons; the third does not. Yet it is the third nation that is widely considered the threat to world peace and the target of ever increasing economic sanctions.
The first nuclear weapon state in the Middle East is Israel, an “undeclared” nuclear power whose official policy is to refuse to acknowledge its possession of at least sixty to eighty plutonium weapons, and possibly as many as four hundred.1 Israel never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is not subject to any verification measures by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Aided by its close linkages with the United States, Israel’s nuclear weapons programme is shielded from any international oversight. It steadfastly refuses to participate in any conventions meant to address its own nuclear stockpile.
The second nuclear weapon state of consequence in Middle Eastern affairs is, of course, the United States, the preeminent nuclear superpower. American bases and troop deployments are spread across the region, operating under the auspices of the largest of its overseas military establishments, Central Command (Centcom). US bases in this region with nuclear-capable forces or that support nuclear missions include Incirlik in Turkey, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and Bahrain. The US Fifth Fleet is more-or-less permanently deployed at the Persian Gulf, and routinely includes at least one to two aircraft carriers, several Aegis-class cruisers, and an unspecified number of Ohio-class ballistic missile and Los Angeles or Seawolf class attack submarines. Taken alone, the US Fifth Fleet is one of the largest mobile nuclear weapon strike forces deployed on the planet.2
Yet it is neither Israel nor the US Fifth Fleet that attracts international attention over nuclear weapons. Rather, it is Iran, despite repeated confirmation by the IAEA that no nuclear materials have been diverted from its indigenous nuclear fuel cycle programme. Iran has ratified the NPT and implements a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, under which it operates its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. No concrete evidence exists that Iran has either an atomic explosive device or an active programme to manufacture one.
1 Summarized in Anthony H. Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan, “Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Development Facilities,” Center for International and Strategic Studies, 19 March 2009.
Michael Veiluva has been general counsel to the Western States Legal Foundation (WSLF) since 1985. This article builds upon and updates the author’s book, Burdens of Proof: Iran, the United States and Nuclear Weapons (2009). The text is updated to take into account further developments in Iranian-US relations and the aftermath of the 2009 elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The author was assisted in the production of Burdens of Proof by WSLF executive director Jacqueline Cabasso, WSLF policy analyst Andrew Lichterman, and Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy executive director Dr. John Burroughs. This article is Chapter 7 of Beyond Arms Control: Challenges and Choices for Nuclear Disarmament (ed. Ray Acheson), published by Reaching Critical Will, a project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (March 2010).