Pakistan Is the Only Muslim Nuclear State – So Why Is Israel's Hysteria Reserved for Iran?

Unlike Iran, Pakistan doesn't call for Israel's destruction. But in certain ways, Islamabad poses more of a threat to Israel than Tehran does.

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A demonstrator holds a poster of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan at a rally in Lahore, Pakistan, January 2003.
A demonstrator holds a poster of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan at a rally in Lahore, Pakistan, January 2003. Credit: AP
Azriel Bermant
Azriel Bermant

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry caused a stir recently, when he said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 that Israeli critics of the emerging deal with Iran were guilty of “a lot of hysteria.” He has a point. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the Lausanne deal would “endanger Israel  big time” and  “make the world a much more dangerous place.”  

Yet in March, Pakistan test-fired a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, the Shaheen III, which Pakistani officials said can reach Israel. This event was barely noticed in Jerusalem.

In view of the disturbing nuclear developments in Pakistan as well as in North Korea and Russia, the hysteria expressed by prominent Israeli politicians and journalists over the recent draft agreement with Iran is unwarranted. The threat posed to India, South Korea, Poland and the Baltic states from their nuclear-armed neighbors is arguably at least as great as that which Israel is facing from Iran.   

Regular warnings are sounded in Israel about the dangers facing the world from nuclear terrorism once Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, but is this not a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted? The threat of nuclear terrorism has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has grown significantly as Pakistan has cemented its status as a nuclear weapons state.

Indeed, one could argue that Islamabad poses more of a threat to Israel than Tehran does. After all, we cannot be certain that Iran will take the next step and acquire a nuclear weapon, but Pakistan already possesses over 100 nuclear warheads. 

It is understandable why this is rarely discussed in Israel: Though Pakistan is the first Muslim state with a nuclear weapons program, it does not call for Israel’s destruction or sponsor terror attacks against Israel. A nuclear Iran, by contrast, would receive cover to step up its hegemonic ambitions in the region and intensify its support for terrorism against the Jewish state.

In addition, Pakistan has taken measures in recent years to strengthen oversight for its nuclear facilities and has dismantled proliferation networks. And even if Pakistan were to disintegrate tomorrow, it would be India, not Israel, that would be first in line to face Islamabad’s nuclear warheads, whereas Israel would certainly believe itself to be the first potential target of a nuclear Iran.

But despite Islamabad’s obsession with India, Pakistani officials have also spoken on occasion about the need to deter Israel. And were Pakistan to disintegrate, it could pose an imminent threat not only to India but also to the Middle East, including Israel.

During his first term in office, U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly told his staff that the possible breakup of Pakistan and the subsequent danger of a scramble for nuclear weapons was his greatest national security concern. Indeed, terrorists have tried on several occasions to assassinate the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. In such circumstances, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could be stolen or smuggled out of the country, with the possibility of rogue elements targeting Israel.

U.S. intelligence officials have long warned of the danger of jihadists infiltrating Pakistan’s laboratories. In the past, senior scientists working on Pakistan’s nuclear program have shared expertise with terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaida. Abdul Qadeer Khan, widely viewed as the father of Islamabad’s nuclear program, developed a multinational network during the 1980s and 1990s for the packaging and sale of nuclear technology and know-how to Iran, as well as to Libya and North Korea.

And then there is the close relationship between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Islamabad has reportedly shared its nuclear secrets with Riyadh, but prominent intelligence experts think Pakistan is unlikely to transfer nuclear weapons to the Saudis (though the probability could increase significantly if Iran goes nuclear).

While Israel's attention has focused on Iran, let's not forget North Korea, which claimed this month to have test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine. According to some Chinese experts, North Korea may already have up to 20 nuclear warheads. In view of the paranoid and unpredictable nature of the regime in Pyongyang, this is a source of profound concern for South Korea and Japan, and it should worry us all.

And then there is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly dangerous emphasis on nuclear weapons as a guarantor of Moscow’s international prestige, at a time of greater Russian assertiveness in Europe. Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, voiced concern in February that Russia may have lowered the threshold for its use of nuclear weapons, and NATO is believed to be reviving its Cold War emergency hotline with Moscow as the dangers of unintended escalation have increased. Poland and the Baltic States are understandably worried about their neighbor’s intentions in the wake of its actions in Ukraine.

Distinguished Israeli observers, among them former Mossad director Efraim Halevy and Yair Evron, an expert on nuclear proliferation, have argued that while the draft agreement drawn up in Lausanne with Iran is flawed, Tehran has been forced to agree to far-reaching restrictions on its nuclear program, including unprecedented international supervision and monitoring of its nuclear facilities. Many in India, East Asia and Eastern Europe may be looking on enviously and wishing that their nuclear-armed neighbors had been subject to similar restrictions.

Azriel Bermant is a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He is writing a book on Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East.

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