Middle East Countries with Nuclear Weapons

Who Has Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East?

There are only two Middle East countries with nuclear weapons: Israel and Pakistan. But many observers fear that if Iran joined that list, it would spark a nuclear arms race, starting with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief regional rival.

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finger above nuclear button

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Israel is the Middle East’s principal nuclear power, though it has never officially acknowledged possession of nuclear weapons. According to a 2013 report by US experts, Israel’s nuclear arsenal includes 80 nuclear warheads, with enough fissile material potentially to double that number. Israel is not a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and parts of its nuclear research program are off limits to the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Proponents of regional nuclear disarmament point to a contradiction between Israel’s nuclear capacity and insistence by its leaders that Washington stops Iran’s nuclear program – with force, if necessary. But Israel’s advocates say nuclear weapons are a key deterrent against demographically stronger Arab neighbors and Iran. This deterrent capacity would of course be compromised if Iran managed to enrich uranium to the level where it too could produce nuclear warheads.

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We often count Pakistan as part of the wider Middle East, but the country’s foreign policy is better understood in the South Asian geopolitical context and the hostile relationship between Pakistan and India. Pakistan successfully tested nuclear weapons in 1998, narrowing the strategic gap with India which conducted its first test in the 1970s. Western observers have often voiced concerns over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, particularly regarding the influence of radical Islamism in the Pakistani intelligence apparatus, and the reported sales of enrichment technology to North Korea and Libya.

  • Pakistan’s Links to Saudi Arabia

While Pakistan never played an active role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, its relationship with Saudi Arabia could yet place Pakistani nuclear weapons at the center of Middle Eastern power struggles. Saudi Arabia has provided Pakistan with generous financial largesse as part of efforts to contain Iran’s regional influence, and some of that money could have been ended up bolstering Pakistan’s nuclear program.

But a BBC report in November 2013 claimed that cooperation went much deeper. In exchange for assistance, Pakistan may have agreed to provide Saudi Arabia with nuclear protection if Iran developed nuclear weapons, or threatened the kingdom in any other way. Many analysts remain skeptical of whether an actual transfer of nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia was logistically feasible, and whether Pakistan would risk angering the West again by exporting its nuclear know-how.

Still, increasingly anxious over what they see is Iran’s expansionism and America’s diminished role in the Middle East, the Saudi royals are likely to weigh all security and strategic options if their main rivals get to the bomb first.

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Iran’s Nuclear Program

Just how close Iran is to reaching weapons capacity has been the subject of endless speculation. Iran’s official position is that its nuclear research is aimed for peaceful purposes only, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – Iran’s most powerful official – has even issued religious decrees slamming possession of nuclear weapons as contrary to the principles of Islamic faith. Israeli leaders believe that the regime in Tehran has both intent and ability, unless the international community takes tougher action. 

The middle view would be that Iran uses the implicit threat of uranium enrichment as a diplomatic card in the hope of extracting concessions from the West on other fronts. That is, Iran might be willing to scale down its nuclear program if given certain security guarantees by the US, and if international sanctions were eased.

That said, Iran’s complex power structures consist of numerous ideological factions and business lobbies, and some hardliners would no doubt be willing to push for weapons capacity even for the price of unprecedented tension with the West and Gulf Arab states. If Iran does decide to produce a bomb, the outside world probably doesn’t have too many options. Layers upon layers of US and European sanctions have battered but failed to bring down Iran’s economy, and the course of military action would be extremely risky. 

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Manfreda, Primoz. "Middle East Countries with Nuclear Weapons." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/middle-east-countries-with-nuclear-weapons-2353423. Manfreda, Primoz. (2020, August 27). Middle East Countries with Nuclear Weapons. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/middle-east-countries-with-nuclear-weapons-2353423 Manfreda, Primoz. "Middle East Countries with Nuclear Weapons." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/middle-east-countries-with-nuclear-weapons-2353423 (accessed May 14, 2021).