Building the Non-conventional Middle East

The only countries in the Middle East without non-conventional weapons or plans to develop them, are Jordan and Lebanon. Therefore, the real threat Israel will face is the capability of hostile states to become equipped with weapons of mass destruction that could reach Israel.

"Israeli-Palestinian tensions and continuing talk of military action against Iraq has raised fears of a wider war in the region," says the introduction to a new study from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). The study, to be published next month under the title "Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction," summarizes the non-conventional weapons and missile capabilities in the Middle East.

The American researchers analyzed the data about the non-conventional capabilities of the countries in the region, covering chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles. Their findings are similar to Israeli intelligence analyses - except for their very interesting section on Israel's non-conventional capabilities.

The significance of the study is that in the coming decade the Middle East will be threatened by this proliferation of enormous quantities and varieties of weapons. Expected developments by the end of the decade include Iran becoming a nuclear power, Libya having missiles that could reach Israel and, if action is not taken against Iraq, it is possible it too will develop nuclear weapons.

In effect, the only countries in the Middle East without non-conventional weapons or plans to develop them, are Jordan and Lebanon. Therefore, despite the intense concern about the Palestinian question, the real threat Israel will face is the capability of hostile states to become equipped with weapons of mass destruction that could reach Israel.

Based on a Pentagon report from last year, the CEIP report says Iraq needs about five years and outside help to build nuclear facilities that manufacture enough fissionable material for bombs. But if it acquires fissionable material from another source, it could build a nuclear bomb in a matter of months.

As for Iran, the study reports on a major nuclear weapon development project, and while its details are unknown, its purposes are clear. Israel's latest estimate says Iran could finish developing a bomb by 2006. The Iranians are trying a number of different avenues to acquire enriched uranium - laser technology, centrifuges, even a photosynthetic project - all meant to enrich uranium from the reactors being built in the coastal city of Busheir.

Israel, says the study, has enough fissionable material to produce between 98 to 172 bombs. So far, Israel has manufactured between 391-687 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium. According to the report, Israel completed development of its first bomb back in late 1966 or 1967.

As for biological weapons, the study says that Iraq has all the know-how and experience to make them. The capabilities destroyed during the Gulf War and afterward can be renewed "within weeks or months."

Iraq joined the international treaty against biological weapons proliferation in 1991, but that hasn't prevented it from continuing to develop biological weapons. Iran joined the treaty in May 1998, but according to the study, it has development plans and stockpiled biological weapons. The study says that in 1996, official American agencies were reporting that Iraq had had biological weapons since 1972.

The Americans say Egypt has not developed, manufactured or positioned any biological weapons. Syria has the capability to develop such weapons, and the infrastructure to support manufacturing them, but according to the study Syria has not made serious efforts to manufacture and deploy biological weapons.

The situation is far more worrying regarding chemical weapons. Egypt and Syria have large stockpiles of chemical weapons and neither has signed up to chemical weapons non-proliferation. In 1990 American intelligence said that Syria had armed both airplane-borne bombs and Scud missiles with chemical warheads. Iraq resumed developing and manufacturing chemical weapons after the UN inspectors left the country. Iran continues stockpiling chemical weapons, and most probably has succeeded in developing chemical payloads for its ballistic missiles.

Israel has advanced capabilities in both chemical and biological weapons, says the study, and for decades has developed chemical and biological weapons mainly at the Ness Ziona research center. In 1990 - the study says in reference to a report by the Pentagon intelligence agencies - Israel had an operational facility for testing chemical weapons. Israel has signed the non-proliferation treaty for chemical weapons, but has yet to ratify it. It has not signed the biological weapons treaty.

All the countries with biological and chemical stockpiles also have ballistic missiles - and plans for even longer-range missiles. Iran has an ambitious missile project, that has already developed the Shihab 3, with Israel in its range. Syria has Scud-Ds, which can reach everywhere in Israel. Iraq more than a decade ago had al-Hussein missiles with a 600 km range and renewed its missile development plans after the UN inspectors left.

The message to be drawn from the study is that Israel should encourage U.S. policies that aim to deal with the development plans for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Iran. At the same time it has to prepare for a new era in the region, when it could lose its hegemony over nuclear potential.