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WMD and the Threat to the Gulf Region

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Source: The spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the threat they pose to the Gulf region. Address by Mr. Neil Partrick at the 5th International Defence Exhibition & Conference. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 18-22, 2001.

For both Iran and Iraq, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are, at minimum, a means to limit external interference in their affairs - to obtain deterrence on the cheap - while in the process to extend regional weight and influence.

A coercive objective for developing WMD, therefore, cannot easily be distinguished from a defensive posture. However, discerning the relationship between WMD development and the strategic objectives of Iran and Iraq is important to correctly assessing these programmes' threat to the Gulf, and therefore to applying the right policies in response.

Iraq and Iran's unresolved territorial disputes and ongoing tensions emphasises the importance of WMD to their mutual deterrence, and, following the outcome of the 1991 Gulf War, their mutual desire to deter military action by the United States, given Washington's active commitment to the security of its Gulf allies. Iran's experience of invasion by Iraq and the latter's introduction of chemical weapons into the battlefield in the first Gulf War, compounded by Iran's lack of strategic allies in the region, emphasises the utility to Tehran of its WMD programmes.

For Iraq, the experience of territorial penetration and periodic aerial attacks in the ten years since the last Gulf War, in the context of a periodic subjection to Iranian Scud missile attacks aimed at Iraqi sponsored opposition groups, emphasises Baghdad's present relative defencelessness and the attraction of WMD development.Neither Iraq or Iran see Israel as their most significant strategic threat: the development of WMD is not primarily motivated by Israeli capabilities. Rather, a repeat of Israel's pre-emptive attack on Iraq in 1981 is feared by both Tehran and Baghdad as a response to their pursuit of WMD. In other words, WMD proliferation in the Gulf is fundamentally a function of threat perceptions and regional objectives within the Gulf.

Tehran is realistic about the limits of WMD as a coercive tool vis-à-vis the US' Gulf Arab allies. However, in the context of a presently weakened Iraq, the utility of WMD as a potential coercive tool vis-à-vis Baghdad over such questions as the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, cannot be discounted. Likewise, for Iraq the likelihood of its current territorial dispensation and limited access to the waters of the Gulf, for example, proving inadequate for any conceivable future government, will continue to make WMD attractive as a coercive as much as a deterrent instrument.

Given the US security commitment to GCC allies, are Iran and Iraq's WMD programmes necessarily a threat to the region? The above assessment of their likely motivating factors in pursuing WMD does not suggest that the six countries of the GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) would be under direct threat from Iran, while Iraq's residual territorial ambitions vis-à-vis Kuwait are liable to be held in check by the defence commitment of the US and UK in particular. However, motivations can change, regimes can retrench, and there is no guarantee that the possibility of renewed direct conflict between Iran and Iraq, for example, would in the future be confined to only the battlefield use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, the US and the Europeans need to ensure they make the correct response to WMD proliferation in the Gulf in order that the potential threat is reduced, not exacerbated.

There is a serious prospect of Iran, with external assistance or, eventually, with its own in-house ballistic missile capability, having the capability to launch a nuclear strike anywhere in the region within 10 years. At the same time, the inevitable loosening of the UN sanctions regime on Iraq, and the absence of effective weapons inspections for nearly three years, raises questions about what can be done by the US and others to reassure GCC states about their security now. A range of non-proliferation tools beyond existing arms control agreements and non-ratified additional protocols will be continued. Strategies of denial designed to be tough on potential dual-use exports, have an important role to play, along with diplomacy and material inducements designed to encourage key external suppliers such as North Korea, Russia and China not to assist Iranian missile and WMD programmes. Slowing down Iran's seemingly inevitable path toward deliverable WMD may allow time for domestic changes, which although unlikely to dissuade Tehran, will reduce tension, including the dangers of over-reaction to a proven break with the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, for example.

If Washington fails to provide fundamental reassurance to the GCC countries in the face of the two natural Gulf powers' WMD development, then the further development of missile programmes may lead to WMD options being seriously considered by some of the GCC states. The development of the US' Co-operative Defence Initiative toward a theatre based missile defence network may prove an essential part of reassurance, coupled with a strong commitment uniting the US, Europe and the Gulf Arab allies, in favour of tough sanctions for any Iranian contravention of its treaty commitments under the NPT. A more aggressive posture toward Iran, however, would be difficult to sustain internationally following the South Asia nuclear tests, save in the face of severe domestic retrenchment. However, Washington's engagement with Iran will be important political cover for the GCC allies, especially as maintaining an effective and reassuring defence commitment may make it difficult to make the US' military "footprint" too light.

In short, the strong defence commitment of the US, in particular, to the defence of GCC allies will continue to minimise the threat posed by WMD proliferation to the security of the Gulf, whilst strategies of denial and diplomacy on third country suppliers will continue to buy important time for countering the threat and improving the diplomatic atmosphere. Developing a theatre missile defence shield will help provide reassurance to the GCC states by maximising the US' means to deter Iran and Iraq and reducing the attractiveness to GCC states themselves of directly pursuing WMD. Neither Tehran or Baghdad are likely to be dissuaded, however, from pursuing their WMD capabilities because of political engagement and/or TMD. Therefore ensuring that Iran and Iraq's WMD programmes do not translate into coercive advantage vis-à-vis GCC allies will be an important part of maintaining stability in the Gulf. Slowing down WMD development, maximising defence capabilities to counter the threat, and pursuing political engagement, matched with a tough but not over-reactive stance toward Iranian nuclear capabilities in particular, will be an important contribution to minimising security threats in the Gulf.

 

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).

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