Amid a growing Arab determination to back out of nuclear nonproliferation commitments unless Israel abandons its atomic program, Defense Secretary William J. Perry warned Sunday that the possibility of a “rogue nation” or terrorist acquiring a nuclear bomb is “one of the most serious threats facing the world today.”
Ending two days of meetings in Egypt at the beginning of his first tour through the Middle East, Perry said he is urging both Arab nations and Israel to sign an extension of the international Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, or NPT, when it comes up for review in March.
The fear that nuclear weapons-control programs could be unraveling in the Middle East in the face of a stalemate in peace talks between Israel and Syria is a key theme in Perry’s talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“When I met with President Mubarak yesterday, when I meet with Prime Minister Rabin this afternoon, I will be urging both of these leaders to support extension of that non-proliferation treaty,” Perry said Sunday.
“It is, I believe, one of the most serious security threats facing the world today: the danger that a rogue nation or a terrorist will get their hands on one, five or a dozen weapons and threaten the world with them.”
Arab nations, frustrated at Israel’s continuing nuclear development program at a time when most Arabs have committed to non-proliferation, have signaled they will no longer participate in the treaty without Israel joining in.
Arab League officials said that Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria - the engines of policy in the Arab world - have all committed not to sign an extension without Israel’s participation.
Israel, which never signed the NPT, is thought to have about 200 nuclear warheads, although it refuses to acknowledge a weapons program. Israeli leaders have said they will be ready to discuss non-proliferation only after there is a comprehensive peace agreement, including Syria, in the Middle East.
The controversy comes at a particularly dangerous time. Iran is thought to be as little as five years away from developing a nuclear bomb, and Arab leaders have not ruled out the possibility of new weapons programs elsewhere in the Middle East.
“If Israel does not sign, I would expect you to see other countries beginning to seek the nuclear bomb. It will not be an exclusive privilege for one country forever. Remember, nuclear war will eliminate Israel from the map, but it will not eliminate the Arab nation from the map,” Adnan Omran, deputy secretary general of the Arab League, said in an interview.
“Don’t expect any country which is really fearing another country not to resort to all means of self-defense,” added Omran, a Syrian. “If they (Israelis) have a nuclear bomb, you have to seek a nuclear bomb, whether secretly or not.”
Until now, all Arab countries except the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Djibouti have signed the NPT, and none of those nations has nuclear development programs.
Algeria and Egypt both have nuclear research reactors but are not believed to have moved forward with weapons development. Iraq’s formative weapons program was cut short by the 1991 Persian Gulf war and international sanctions, and Iran remains the most worrysome new nuclear development point in the Middle East.