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Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East

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The Middle East is the only region where all three kinds of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) have been used and developed. Accusations, allegations, but unfortunately blur information and data, with very limited open-source information about the possession and quantity of WMD in countries in this region represents further instability factor and creates uncertainty and tensions between rival countries.

There are 17 countries in the region: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Sometimes the political term also includes countries from South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia and there exists various definitions which countries belong to the Middle East and which do not. In this report focus is on states which possess WMD. WMD on territory can be found in 6 countries, in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Syria. For the rest of the countries in the Middle East is not known to possess nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs. Globally accepted definition of WMD does not exist, but all include nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Even though all types of WMD are inhumane in its possibilities and consequences of usage, nuclear weapons are the one getting most of the attention. Today in the world more than 30 countries want nuclear power. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Report for 2013-2014 says that making fuel for nuclear power plants involves the same technology as making materials for nuclear weapons. Actions to reduce proliferation and security risks must be taken to prevent the dangerous spread of uranium enrichment or plutonium technology. The report pointed out that nuclear exchange is less likely, but many scenarios could lead to a catastrophic explosion. Another topic regarding nuclear weapons needs to be taken care of. The fact that today about 2.000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials remain spread across hundreds of sites around the globe with poor security creates concerns.

Many international arms control agreement have been reached since the existence of nuclear, biological and chemical WMD. With the threat posed by terrorism United Nations Security Resolution 1540/04 was accepted which affirmed that the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery constitute a threat to international peace and security. States are obliged to refrain from supporting by any means non-state actors from developing, acquiring, manufacturing, possessing, transporting, transferring or using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their delivery systems. On nuclear area steps have been made toward non-proliferation with the Partial Test Ban Treaty and prohibition of nuclear testing and the Non-Proliferation Treaty NPT that places restrictions. Important role playsInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with its 164 Member States which promotes safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear energy. Under the NPT has a role of the international safeguard inspectorate. The use of nuclear weapons violates many international laws such as UN charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva Convention, the Hague Convention and many others. In this segment among many others, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which prohibits all testing of nuclear weapons is important.

Elimination of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction has shown as a hard task to accomplish. States usually do not publicly announce their stockpiles. Usually information comes from rival countries, public state representatives in speeches or reports and tasks. Verification has been hardly ever available. History has shown that possession of chemical or biological weapons is verified when country has used prohibited means in fighting, usually by international organizations. Most of the time there are speculations. In the field of the biological weapon reduction Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons (BTWC) as a global solution plays an important role. The Treaty prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, or acquisition of biological and toxin weapons, and mandates the elimination of existing weapons, weapons production material and delivery means.

For the third WMD, chemical weapons, Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) – Convention on the prohibition of the development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical weapons and on their Destruction is the important agreement watch over by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Both biological and chemical weapons have been used in the recent past and both arsenals are speculating if even known for most of the countries. Even though they have been used more as nuclear weapons, which were used in in the fighting only in the Second World War, they do not get so much public attention. Next table shows countries in the Middle East, possession of WMD and international obligations and commitments.

Country Nuclear weapon Biological weapon Chemical weapon Signatory NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons)

Signatory CTBT

(Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty)

Signatory CWC (Chemical Weapons Convention) Signatory BTWC (Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons)
Egypt No, only civil use – two nuclear research reactors Yes based on public opinion but no based on verification Suspected for maintaining capabilities Yes No ratification No No ratification
Turkey Host of 60 to 70 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons under NATO No possession No possession Yes Yes Yes Yes
Iran Ambitions to require some Possibility of dual use activities In the past Yes No ratification Yes Yes
Iraq No In the past / possibility of remains In the past/ possibility of remains Yes Yes Yes Yes
Israel Yes Possibly Possibly No No ratification No ratification No
Syrian Arab Republic No Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes

Egypt is one of the four countries that has neither signed nor acceded CWC and Israel is one of the two countries that have yet to ratify it. The NTI country report says that country’s civil nuclear program is relatively sophisticated compared to other countries in the Middle East, but still in development stages. Country signed the BTWC in 1972 but since no ratification has been made speculations about covert possession of biological weapon is presumed. Many western and Israelis report has been made on developing biological weapon, but no concrete evidence has been given so far. They are based on speeches of formal representatives of state without real background. Egypt official stance of not ratifying is concerns of Israelis nuclear weapon arsenal and that country do not possess nor seeks biological weapons. Blur is also an Egyptian chemical weapon arsenal and both poses and no poses are possible. The country had in history used chemical weapons during the 1960s conflict in North Yemen. Allegation of collaborating with Iraq and Syria to boost their chemical weapons has been made in the past. It stays unclear whether the country is still active and has an arsenal of both chemical and biological weapons on their ground.

On the other hand Turkey is also a party to the NPT, BTWC and CWC and is not known to own nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or programs. It peruses civilian nuclear technology. Country is part of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) umbrella and host from 60 to 70 tactical nuclear weapons on its strategically important territory.

Iran has an advanced nuclear program that in Iranian world is peaceful in nature. Even as a member of the NPT it failed to report everything to the IAEA and the possibility of developing all aspects of nuclear fuel cycle has caused international concern and even sanction imposed on the country. Countries stockpile is about 10.000 kg of low enriched uranium. Very little public information to determine whether biological weapons exist is available. Iran ratified the BTWC Convention. It is assumed that it has the capacity to produce biological warfare agents. In a war with Iraq, Iran suffered severe losses because of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. Iran ratified the CWC and has publicly acknowledged the existence of a chemical weapons program, but activities were terminated by the year 1997.

Much has been said about the Iraqi supposedly nuclear program and weapons. The nuclear weapons program was in Iraq dismantled by the IAEA from 1991 to 1997. U.S. and coalition forces began military actions against the country in 2003 based on a possession of nuclear weapons that was never found till this day. The country has extensively used chemical weapons against Iran and its Kurdish population in the past. The program was dismantled, but still last year there were reports that ISIS fighters had taken control over a former chemical weapons facility with sarin. It has also pursued offensive biological weapon capabilities until 1990s.

The only country in the Middle East that has not signed the NPT, which is the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states, is Israel. The Treaty has 190 States parties, including five nuclear-weapon States. Unfortunately, conference on the 22 of May this year ended without a consensus and without a new action plan, among other things also because of discussions around the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and its disagreement. Based on the NTI country report it is widely believed that Israel have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for 100 to 200 nuclear warheads. It has a nuclear arsenal, but the capacity remains unclear. The country has not made a lot of international bounding commitments in the WMD area since it is not a state party to the CTBT, CWC or BTWC. Israel also remains reluctant to so called Middle East Weapon of Mass Destruction Free Zone. Israel is opposed to every country in the neighborhood that has nuclear ambitions. It believes Iran should be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons and in this order they have carried out a covered operation to stall Iran’s nuclear program with disruption of equipment supply, computer viruses such as Stuxnet and Flame and even the accusation of assassination of Iranian scientists have been made. In the past air strikes against Iraq’s Osiraq Reactor in 1981 and Syria’s suspected reactor near Al-Kibar in 2007 were carried out in order to protect itself in the Arab world. It exists also the possibility that country poses chemical and biological weapons, based on official reports about military training, defensive biological weapon research and education of employees in the military, with advance chemical industry.

A non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT and CWC suspected of nuclear weapons ambitions, now caught in civil war possibly has and did possess WMD. No nuclear or biological weapons in the country seem to exist but chemical does. Syria had in the past refused to renounce its chemical weapons program until Israel abandons its nuclear. The country has an arsenal of chemical weapons, although was dependent on foreign suppliers at the beginning also from Egypt and then with international isolation had development gone further. Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war. Allegations of chemical weapons used in Homs, Damascus and Aleppo caught wider public attention. The chemical weapon program was counter balanced to Israelis conventional warfare and in recent events to fight citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic with agent Sarin. The events lead to international control and commitment of Syria to join the CWC. According to OPCW’s findings the Syrian arsenal includes 1.000 metric tons of Category I chemical weapons, 290 tons of category II chemicals and 1.230 of category III delivery systems. Some speculation still exists about hidden chemical weapons in the country.

Before humanity and society difficult challenges of abolishment, prohibition and controlling of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons lies and waits for the right solution. Is the world going to be better without WMD, can it even be abolished and if not, what can and should we do about it? When the world has a common answer to those questions victims of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare will become a distant past. Until then the danger and uncertainty posed by WMD still lingers.

Teja Palko is a Slovenian writer. She finished studies on Master’s Degree programme in Defense Science at the Faculty of Social Science at University in Ljubljana.

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Middle East

Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war

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After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.

This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies.  This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.

A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.

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First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib

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Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*

The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.

The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.

Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.

As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.

But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.

This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.

To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.

The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.

For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.

Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.

Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.

The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.

Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.

* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

From our partner RIAC

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Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed

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No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.

The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.

Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.

Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.

In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.

The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.

For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.

Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.

The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.

If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.

The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.

If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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