Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East: Western Policy Considerations


By kind invitation of Julian Lewis MP, The Henry Jackson Society was pleased to host a discussion with Dr Jack Caravelli, Former Principal Advisor to the President for Non-proliferation Policy, U.S. National Security Council and former Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy as well as currently a Senior Visiting Fellow, UK Defence Academy.  Dr Caravelli has extensive experience in national security policymaking at the highest level and is a leading authority on the subjects of nuclear threats, terrorism and non-proliferation.  Dr Caravelli discussed themes from his recently published book, “Beyond Sand and Oil: The Nuclear Middle East”, and considered the policy challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes in addition to incipient civilian nuclear programmes in various Arab nations, as well as the prospects for the 2012 Middle East Nuclear Free Zone Conference.


If I take the approach of talking about US policy successes on non-proliferation we can be out of here in about five minutes, but I think we deserve a bit more discussion than that and I will try to provide that for you this evening. As Dr Lewis said, I recently completed a book about a month ago, and with all of the shameless pitches at an author makes, that’s about it for the moment. As Dr Lewis said, the timing is interesting because the events of the past few months obviously underscore the extraordinary political fragility that is the Middle East. The final consequences of that are yet to be revealed to us not only in the conflict in Libya but how things are resolved, certainly in Egypt and beyond. When you set that political undercurrent against the topics that I took up in the book over the past year, I think it’s safe to make the case that through the balance of the decade, the Middle East will transform itself in many ways. One almost certainly now is political, that seems almost undeniable, but think we are also looking at two other dynamics. The first is that on the book, what I tried to do was write standalone chapters on the nuclear programs in Israel, Iraq, Libya and Iran. The second part of the book really takes up two themes. The first in the Iranian case and the second is what I think will be the final part of this case for transformation of where the Arab world is thinking, talking, planning and perhaps moving to its own nuclear developments. So let me take on some of those issues in sequence.

Looking at the stand alone chapters, a couple of really major judgements came to me. The first is that the nuclear Middle East only goes back to 1948 with Israel. The influence of individuals in the region in the nuclear cases, plural, is pretty striking in not only Israel but also Iraq and Libya. Iran is slightly different. But even as far back as 1948, three years after we entered the nuclear age in 1945 with the end of WWII and the bombings of Japan, David Ben-Gurion, who was the first Israeli Prime Minister, really surveyed what he perceived to be as two lessons: one from Japan and one from the US. One can argue forever I guess the politics of how the British mandate ended and Israel became a nation state, but in Ben-Gurion’s view, it is quite clear in his writings and his speeches that he saw the lessons for Israel of the devastation that he saw in Japan after the war and the destruction of two cities by atomic weapons as well as fire bombings elsewhere. He also saw how the US emerged victorious and emerged as a super power in no small measure because it became, at least for four years, the sole nuclear weapons state. Quite clearly, in a world of deterrence, Ben-Gurion felt that in an Israeli environment, perceived and surrounded by hostile neighbours, that this was the best way to ensure Israel’s long term survival.

The phrase I used at the start of the book was “ain brerah,” which is translated as “no alternatives.” But as we wind through the story, I’ve spent a great deal of time in my professional career on the Iranian nuclear weapons program. My involvement goes back to 1991. I have followed that as Dr Louis said, as a CIA officer first on the intelligence side, as a policy maker for the white house, and then on the science and technology side or the department of energy. I come to my views on Iran with hopefully with some background and experience. Whether different from yours, we can decide. I look forward to our conversation on this in a few minutes.

I think as you try to characterise the Iranian program, I have read a number of people who have tried to do so and some have done it with more insight than others. But I think a few things really come through if you look at the evidentiary base for Iran.

First, it is a long standing program. Under the theocratic regime, we can trace it back with a military dimension until at least the mid-1980s.

Second it was a covert program. From its earliest days, it has had strong covert elements including a strong reliance not only on the AQ Kan Pakistani black-marketeer of nuclear technology assistance but also on other nations, again clandestinely, including Russia –with extraordinary support from Russian entities and North Korea. One of the lesson that certainly jumped out of the book when we look at Israel, Iraq, Libya or Iran is that every nation that undertakes these nuclear programs does so and requires almost always considerable external assistance. And Iran has been no different in that situation.

The third is that it is a misnomer to simply refer to Iran’s efforts as a nuclear program – it is also a missile program. As many of you here know who are also very involved in these issues, it is sort of one set of challenges and problems to develop a weapon, but you need to develop the ability to deliver the target. As we sit here today, in actually a rather beautiful room, Iran possesses the capability to deliver weapons throughout the Middle East through a weapons system known as a Shahab-3, which is actually a derivative, a knock off of the North Korean design. It was developed with considerable assistance from actually Russian technicians. This is a program really with multiple dimensions and I think the conversation that I was having with George on the way in as we were starting was simply that what I find most compelling and troubling in the Iranian case, and I think in others, is that nations vote with resources. Since 1985 or thereabouts, through thick and thin of Iranian economy, which has certainly had both its ups and downs, both of these programs as far as I can tell, going back to my direct involvement in 1991, almost always have been well funded, well-resourced. I think that also tells us something about Iranian intensions.

The soft spot in the Iranian program and the biggest problem for them today technically maybe the authorisation point: being able to take the material in what we call a physics package, the electronics, the guidance, being able to get it into a way that you can actually put it on a missile and deliver the target. Iran clearly, the IEEA reports, is working in that area. We know that to be true. There may be reasons to believe that they haven’t mastered that process yet, that part. There’s a reason they call this nuclear and missile science. This isn’t rocket science, but there are lots of things that go with it. That may be a stumbling block that we don’t fully appreciate. They may have said that we can’t fix that yet so we are not going to be any more provocative until it is. These uncertainties have placed the international community at a point where there are very few if any good options. Now, how the Israelis or the Americans do the calculus, your guess is as good as mine, but one tripwire is where we think they are in being able to weaponise.

The fourth point I would make about Iran is that our ability to glean true insights into some parts of Iranian intentions, thoughts, planning, and again I was privy since ‘91 to the intelligence, has been lacking in many cases. It is easier I think that some of you appreciate to see the output, to look at a missile site or look at an enrichment facility, but the hard things that I tried to answer as an intelligence officer, that I tried to answer as a policy maker in the last democratic administration, were very, very difficult. We struggle to find some understandings for that. Without those understandings, we grope in the dark for policy responses that I think people will discuss.

In 2001 I offered Pakistan as a program in which we would help them secure their materials on behalf of the Department of Energy. There are a lot of things that we know how to do at the Department of Energy on those things. We put that offer out to them approval of the white house and the state department. The Pakistani response was, how do I put this politely, go to hell. They just didn’t trust us. We’ve seen insider threats from Russia endless in their nuclear war. The Iranian case is interesting in part because what’s known as the IRGC, which has a great deal of financial investment into these programs as well as a substantive, political side. One of the troubling aspects of this is that the US, GB, Russia, China and France, the first five nuclear powers, despite the things that we’ve learned from being in that game, we still have mistakes and problems. Even under the best circumstances, as Iran develops more and more nuclear materials, the command and control always becomes suspect. Certainly in America we still have problems, we still make mistakes with individuals and other parts of the security process. Given the fact that we’ve been in the game longer than anyone, in the best circumstances, do I have real confidence? Iran is not technically well-trained and political instability potentially is a toxic mix, a possible perfect storm. I don’t think it happens tomorrow, but it’s one of these uncertainties that goes into the mix of these consequences that we talked about earlier.

The fifth point is on sanctions. The other point to make on this regarding sanctions is that we have been at this game with Iran for a very long time. I was a part of the president’s envoy in the late 90’s with the Russian government at the ministerial level, for talks on what we considered their bad behaviour. We did not do very well. We imposed as a consequence sanctions on these Russian entities. In the new decade, in the new century, I think as many of you know, the EU3 was involved for a number of years in direct talks with Iran. The US does not have diplomatic relations with Iran of course, so we don’t have that means of communication, but the EU, the so called EU3, did that for years, not very successfully. The IEEA, international watch dog if you will for the international community has been involved of course with Iran, with inspections, and with conversations and the like for a number of years. Some of their actually very good reports are available on their website, and I think as you trace this and again look at the record of the IEEA inspections, you find a clear sense of this growing frustrations of how difficult it’s been to glean insight into what Iran’s really intends. On top of that, in terms of sanctions in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010, the UN Security Council, the international body, has voted various sanctions on Iran. I have high regard for some very good colleagues in the state department in Washington, and they will tell you that sanctions serve a variety of purposes. That may well be but, but in my judgement, sanctions really only have one purpose and why you impose them in a case like this and that is simply to try to change behaviour. If that is a metric of success of all these sanctions –international sanctions, unilateral sanctions from America, multilateral sanctions from Europe – I think as we sit here again, we can look at the fact that 282, by my count, entities or individuals from Iran have received some kind of sanctions. But again if the metric of success for sanctions is to try to change or alter behaviour, I think the unalterable judgement at this point is that they have not succeeded. That is a very sobering consequence.

I think there is an official belief, I can’t speak for the administration, that there is some time when perhaps sanctions may work. You’ve heard my scepticism on that. Other events may play out. Certainly it’s a region that has showed itself capable of many surprises. In terms of the Arab world, one of the things we are actually going to do, there’s something in US law called a 123 agreement. It’s paragraph 123 of the 1954 atomic energy act. All it basically says is that the US can and is prepared to provide nuclear assistance to nations that are cooperating and pursuing a peaceful path. In the US, if you read, those can find a glimmer of light in this story. The UAE has written a very thoughtful, very good, well-planned nuclear program, and the US in part because of that program has signed a 123 agreement with the UAE, which means we will provide technical assistance for nuclear technologies to the UAE. The cost is the understanding the assistance we provide is not diverted in all of the things you can imagine. It looks to me that the Americans are prepared to work with friendly Arab nations that are committed to their legal responsibilities to help them move forward. Again, I am not anti-nuclear; nuclear power in the region can be transformative in a very good way in the years to come. Oil will run out, populations grow, they have energy requirements. You can’t deny any of them; that will come, whether we like it politically or not. So I think the American response in a very preliminary way is to look at some of those positives and to try to shape and encourage the positive outcomes of these programs wherever they are developed: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, possibly Kuwait, certainly the UAE, that they will look benign and serve very good and positive commercial purposes.

In 1999 the Clinton admin came very, very close to re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran. Domestic political reasons squashed them. Republicans in US congress were apoplectic at the prospect, which was probably a missed opportunity. I think there is frankly no good reason not to have diplomatic relationships with Iran. As James Baker, former secretary of state who is a republican and very conservative, said, “You don’t only talk to your friends. Certainly tomorrow, if I were president, I would establish diplomatic relations for those reasons. In many ways, we have had different kinds of involvement: we’ve had the EU3 with the Iranians, we’ve had the IEEA there, and we’ve had these debates that the UN for years. I agree that the US probably needs to play a much more active role in all of this if at all possible. Also if there was someone to talk to on the Iranian side because again, it takes two to make a dialogue. I fully agree that we should try to do more. Diplomacy is always preferable to almost any other option. At the same time, I look back at the historical record, the evidentiary base, I know that there have been enormous amounts of conversations with Iran, many opportunities, many promises they’ve made, many commitments they’ve made but they’ve never carried through with or without the US.

Our diplomats are approved by the Senate. But the larger point is the political issue of a diplomat of hopefully some stature that would have some good in Tehran. That’s a political issue. We would be debating that again in the Congress just as we tried to do in 1991. The response back to Bill Clinton was that Republicans would not support it. I suspect that at the end of the day, the president as the head of the executive branch could do this. But if this got ugly, the Congress could without funding for an embassy or something similar. My sense is that having watched this game played out once, if it is not cooperative on the front end, you have no chance of succeeding.

Going back to the Clinton administration, we engaged Russia endlessly, as I said at the ministerial level, in talks on their behaviour and their political response with everything we were able to conjure, including talks with the government here at the time. In terms of approaches to Russia, we tried to appeal to Russia’s soft interests. I was one of the many who read the talking points with as much sincerity and enthusiasm as I could. After 3 or 4 years of direct contacts that I had, it became rather apparent that Russia viewed its interests in the region differently than what we did and what we wanted them to view. In the world of sovereign nations, that’s how it played out. Russia clearly has geographical reason, trade regions, and perhaps reason to serve as a spoiler to American interests in the region, countervailing reasons to not be very supportive of the positions of the US and the UK on these issues of sanctions and the like. They have reluctantly voted for sanctions. It’s been like pulling teeth. In China it’s very much the same. Both of those nations see their interests in the Middle East and certainly with Iran differently than do we. We have very little leverage on this, and frankly this administration hasn’t tried to apply much of that. One of the great policy lessons relevant to this is that all of these questions, whether its Iran or North Korea, China or Russia there is no one issue. All of these issues involving these complex questions bump into other issues as well. We care about the US-Russia context, the US-China context. None of these questions, as important as they are, exist in and of themselves. They are caught up in other things that we are trying to do. This tends to water down the process.

In the late 90’s with Russia, as it became apparent that what we were experiencing from trying to move Russia from the assistance its government knew for a fact its entities were providing to Iran in nuclear and missile areas, is that we were not succeeding. The administration wouldn’t impose sanctions on the Russians, these Russian entities until forced to by the republicans in Congress simply because there was another equity there. In the Clinton administration view, it was to prop up the fledgling democracy that we thought was Russia. It was a higher value perceived by Washington given to this. One can judge how much of a democracy Russia is today, but again the issue is caught up in broader concerns. There is never a clear path for policy decisions certainly in London, Washington, Moscow or Beijing. We certainly haven’t found the magic path forward. I agree that they’re fighting this battle with one hand tied behind their backs with the a large amount of indifference from the Russians and Chinese to this. Do the Chinese and Russians think Iran will be a threat to them? No they really don’t. I’ve had these conversations in Moscow and it’s pretty clear that they are not deeply troubled by this at the end of the day. They are not particularly sad or happy about a nuclear Iran on their border, but do they really perceive Iran as even a touch of the way the Israel might, other Arab states might or the US might? I think the honest answer is no.
Our options are very few and limited and not very attractive in any sense. Leaving aside the politics of undertaking military afflation, and I am not saying that I advocate that, but setting aside the politics for a minute, it is a very difficult, complex target set for whoever tried to it. Let’s pick on our Israel friends for a second. There are multiple targets, they are scattered, they are well defended and in many cases they are hidden or in mountains. Qom was revealed in 2007 prior to Wikileaks. It’s a major undertaking. One doesn’t do those things casually. Now, we quickly can get to the other side. In terms of capabilities, we are talking earth penetrating weapons, very high accuracy, high yield explosive that Israel may or may not possess. Again the logistics of a military strike of that magnitude over a long distance is a very difficult undertaking. It is something that the US could do militarily with long range airpower, cruise missiles and the like. Again I am not implying that it’s a very easy thing to do. We have ways of doing these things, which would be very hard for Iran to defend. Again, perhaps the policy part of me goes back to the question: we go through all of this, we do all of that, we do it on a Monday, but then we have Tuesday. It’s the what if, what then. In my judgement, collectively we haven’t answered that question.

The question always arises, I guess point 6, the sort of when does Iran succeed, cross the threshold, become a nuclear state, however you want to phrase it. In researching the book, one can literally find every year on the calendar from about 2004 to 2015, identified by some expert group, organization, intelligence agency or policy making body that picks a year and they haven’t been right yet. Iran clearly has experienced problems in both the nuclear and missile programs. Some of them have probably been sort of trips of their own, problems in the lacking of technical supports.Some of them may have been aided and abetted by outsiders and there may be some questions on that.

So do I think that it’s automatic that Iran succeeds? No, but I think we have to assume, given where they’ve been, what they’ve done, where we’re headed, how they’ve invested and the way they’ve invested, I think there is a strong likelihood that Iran will succeed and become a nuclear weapon state unless something dramatic happens –politically, militarily occurs in the next couple of years. But if anyone says that they know when Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state, I will tell you that they don’t know and the arrogance of certainty would be embarrassing for those who think they do.

One of the issues in part that I tried to capture in the book is not only the troubling aspects of Iran’s programs, but also the consequences. One of the things that I’ve learned in four years of policy making at the White House, is that we were really bad at answering the question of what then? We would formulate and think and write and debate a topic or issue like Afghanistan, Iran or whatever. We’d be very proud of ourselves for coming to a recommendation for the president on whatever was unfolding. But we were not very good at collectively being able to answer the question of okay this is what we want to do, what then, what happens? I think that the endless debate for all of us today both in this country, which has been enormously important in this issue as well as America, is if Iran succeeds, what then? There are a lot of hypotheses, I take on some of these issues in what I’ve written, but again the uncertainty and I can assure you that policy makers really do not like uncertainty very much.

One hundred lines have been drawn in the sand. In my judgement, again it’s no better than anyone else’s here, my sense is that there is no virtually no set of circumstances by which the US would undertake military action. In the Israeli case, it is perhaps more nuanced and complex. Obviously this is something that is a very hard undertaking. This is not a repeat of what Menachem Begin did in 1981 in Iraq. Now Iran has much more diverse, widespread, defended targets today. This is the reflection of the investment of resources over 25 years plus. One of the triggers is that as we sit here today Iran possesses sufficient amounts of low-enriched uranium that if it was enriched to what we call weapons-grade, which is about 90% of the isotope U-235. With their existing cache of low-enriched uranium, if they continued the enrichment process, without problems, they could probably produce two or three weapons within four to six months. That’s science, I mean that’s not politics. That set of facts existed in the US, Japan, South Africa. We are coming close. Again, there is a difference between aspiration and doing it. Iran may be very cleverly holding back and waiting to see how things turn out. I don’t want to imply that there is a mindless rush on Iran’s part, but I think what experts describe as a breakout capability maybe within three, four or five months they’ll produce a couple of weapons. Perhaps this is one threshold.

One of the areas of uncertainty, perhaps of greatest concern, really evolves to the Arab world in the third part of the book. Over the last couple of years, a number of the Arab states including the Saudis, the Egyptians and the UAE have not only discussed but announced and in some cases done some very robust first stage planning to develop commercial nuclear power. And they will all tell you, and they tell you accurately that as NPT members, members of the non-proliferation treaty, they are entitled to what the treaty calls the full benefits of nuclear technology. And that’s all fine and that may turn out all very well. What we know on the science side is simply that the knowledge gleaned from any commercial nuclear power plant, parts of what we call the fuel site from my department of energy days certainly provides, as it has to the Iranians, insights, training, expertise that if one chooses, one can certainly make the turn down a weapons path. So it’s an issue that we need to watch very carefully. And again, the outcome of where all of the Arab states may go may be totally benign and forward leaning, and they will make the strong case that they are developing alternative energy sources they want to obviously sell oil for hard currency earnings, etc, etc. That may all be fine and turn out well, but we are looking at a world and a region in the next five to ten years that will look much, much different than it does today. We will have a nuclear Iran. We will have the seeds sown, in part perhaps because of the Iranian program, of other Arab nations pursing their own nuclear programs. Again it raises many questions for policy, for the US obviously, for Great Britain. It’s not a secret that US has and maintains strong relationships with Israel and these will be great challenges from Israel as well.

One of the consequences simply does fall on Israel. For decades this policy of nuclear ambiguity that traces back to an earlier conversation that Richard Nixon had with Golda Meir has served Israel pretty well. And it has worked in the Arab world, which is sometimes overlooked. A nuclear Iran may force Israel’s hand in ways that they perhaps haven’t decided or thought through, or in ways that we haven’t thought through. Going back to the Eisenhower days of the 1950’s, Israeli governments have repeatedly under various administrations in Washington asked for guarantees, for a nuclear umbrella comparable to what we provide with NATO. Washington for various reasons, again the historical record is clear, said no. Now does that change as part of the arrangement between Tel Aviv and Washington? I don’t know. Secretary Clinton early on in the administration had talked of a defence umbrella, which the Israelis did not respond particularly affirmably to because they understand the nuance of words. It is a nuclear umbrella that they sought.

One of the great ironies of all of this is that as we talk about these unfolding nuclear events in the regions, the US has done two things in this administration: Obama has talked of a world free of nuclear weapons and we have also signed the new start treaty, which will continue to draw down the number of deployed US forces. We will be within ten years around 1,550 deployed from a cold war of high of nearly 30,000. In some ways this is quite an accomplishment. I would argue that the US nuclear capability has worked very well in the Pacific, ask the Japanese historically, and has worked I think in Europe, certainly not just our  for resources. But now I think that there is a real policy challenge for both the US and Israel. If Iran emerges as a nuclear weapons state, there’s a lot of ambiguity there. Will Israel find a requirement to acknowledge where it is and talk deterrence? We learned in the cold war as we played the deterrence game with the Soviet Union. We had a few brush ups in 1962, in Cuba and the like, but we sort of found our way through that with a lot of experience but with some wrong turns and the like. And in the Middle East case amongst other things, if you sit there in Israel, the warning of the missile attack from Iran to Israel is not the 30 minutes, the luxury of 30 minutes  that the US had in the cold war. It’s about four minutes. I don’t know what Israel will do as a defence posture. Again, when you put forces on alert, there have been some extraordinarily dangerous events that almost happened in the 80s involving the US and USSR on missile alerts and computer malfunctions. A Russian lieutenant colonel had to make a snap decision when a computer back in 1983 told him that there was an incoming missile attack from the US. The only reason he didn’t believe this was that there had been a new computer system installed in his command centre early in the week, and there was a malfunction. If he had followed established procedure and reported it up the chain, who knows what would have happened. That’s the conundrum, the consequences that spill out of the Iranian program.

Beyond the purview of this discussion, if you look at my very good friends who are heavily involved and know much more about it than I, they will tell you to go back to 1994 and look at the frame work agreement that was negotiated by Bob Gallucci was intended to try to hold development for some years and it did. I think that Bob knew that it wouldn’t last forever. I don’t know what emerges from the political chaos there. I come back to the Middle East as someone who has been in this game longer than others. I was astounded by the rapidity by which two words, youth and technology, are changing the entire region in ways we didn’t imagine. Youth and technology: that combination. Do I think that spills over to North Korea? In three months will you have 300,000 Korean youths clamouring for a different life now? I think in both the Iranian context and the North Korean context, revolution from within is very, very hard to do. I think we may see much more of what we’ve had. The US doesn’t have many answers on North Korea. Frankly, Russia and China have more self-interest in this region. I don’t think China wants a million refugees coming across the border.

One of the first indicators of this as Dr Louis mentioned is something that last year in May at the non-proliferation treaty revcon (review conference) in NY, the international community called for a nuclear weapons free zone conference in 2012 to address the issues in the Middle East. The wording of that is rather interesting in that there was no mention made in the communiqué of Iran’s efforts, but there was a very thinly viewed reference to other nations in the region that may have nuclear weapons. It was certainly unclear to me if indeed the conference will take place in 2012. If it does, again we will have this of politics: the program in Israel that has existed for many years, the burgeoning program in Iran, and perhaps the seeds of programs that may emerge in the Arab world. So as we look at the events of the past few months, again I think we are looking at this long row of issues that is going to be coming at us, they won’t come at us sequentially, they will come at us together, largely in the same time frame over the next few years and these will be enormously complex policy challenges for London, for Washington. I know that many of you are probably involved in some of those things here and I think the more we talk, debate and have these conversations, at least we have a chance to try to take the path forward. Aside from that, it’s easy.


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