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|Posted: Mon Oct 30, 2006 7:14 pm Post subject: Islam, Terror and the Second Nuclear Age
|Islam, Terror and the Second Nuclear Age
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By NOAH FELDMAN
Published: October 29, 2006
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Illustration by James Victore
For nearly 50 years, worries about a nuclear Middle East centered on Israel. Arab leaders resented the fact that Israel was the only atomic power in the region, a resentment heightened by America’s tacit approval of the situation. But they were also pretty certain that Israel (which has never explicitly acknowledged having nuclear weapons) would not drop the bomb except as a very last resort. That is why Egypt and Syria were unafraid to attack Israel during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. “Israel will not be the first country in the region to use nuclear weapons,” went the Israelis’ coy formula. “Nor will it be the second.”
Today the nuclear game in the region has changed. When the Arab League’s secretary general, Amr Moussa, called for “a Middle East free of nuclear weapons” this past May, it wasn’t Israel that prompted his remarks. He was worried about Iran, whose self-declared ambition to become a nuclear power has been steadily approaching realization.
The anti-Israel statements of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, coupled with Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, might lead you to think that the Arab states would welcome Iran’s nuclear program. After all, the call to wipe the Zionist regime from the map is a longstanding cliché of Arab nationalist rhetoric. But the interests of Shiite non-Arab Iran do not always coincide with those of Arab leaders. A nuclear Iran means, at the very least, a realignment of power dynamics in the Persian Gulf. It could potentially mean much more: a historic shift in the position of the long-subordinated Shiite minority relative to the power and prestige of the Sunni majority, which traditionally dominated the Muslim world. Many Arab Sunnis fear that the moment is ripe for a Shiite rise. Iraq’s Shiite majority has been asserting the right to govern, and the lesson has not been lost on the Shiite majority in Bahrain and the large minorities in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned of a “Shiite crescent” of power stretching from Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and (by proxy) Syria.
But geopolitics is not the only reason Sunni Arab leaders are rattled by the prospect of a nuclear Iran. They also seem to be worried that the Iranians might actually use nuclear weapons if they get them. A nuclear attack on Israel would engulf the whole region. But that is not the only danger: Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere fear that the Iranians might just use a nuclear bomb against them. Even as Iran’s defiance of the United States and Israel wins support among some Sunnis, extremist Sunnis have been engaging in the act of takfir, condemning all Shiites as infidels. On the ground in Iraq, Sunni takfiris are putting this theory into practice, aiming at Shiite civilians and killing them indiscriminately. Shiite militias have been responding in kind, and massacres of Sunni civilians are no longer isolated events.
Adding the nuclear ingredient to this volatile mix will certainly produce an arms race. If Iran is going to get the bomb, its neighbors will have no choice but to keep up. North Korea, now protected by its own bomb, has threatened proliferation — and in the Middle East it would find a number of willing buyers. Small principalities with huge U.S. Air Force bases, like Qatar, might choose to rely on an American protective umbrella. But Saudi Arabia, which has always seen Iran as a threatening competitor, will not be willing to place its nuclear security entirely in American hands. Once the Saudis are in the hunt, Egypt will need nuclear weapons to keep it from becoming irrelevant to the regional power balance — and sure enough, last month Gamal Mubarak, President Mubarak’s son and Egypt’s heir apparent, very publicly announced that Egypt should pursue a nuclear program.
Given the increasing instability of the Middle East, nuclear proliferation there is more worrisome than almost anywhere else on earth. As nuclear technology spreads, terrorists will enjoy increasing odds of getting their hands on nuclear weapons. States — including North Korea — might sell bombs or give them to favored proxy allies, the way Iran gave Hezbollah medium-range rockets that Hezbollah used this summer during its war with Israel. Bombing through an intermediary has its advantages: deniability is, after all, the name of the game for a government trying to avoid nuclear retaliation.
Proliferation could also happen in other ways. Imagine a succession crisis in which the Saudi government fragments and control over nuclear weapons, should the Saudis have acquired them, falls into the hands of Saudi elites who are sympathetic to Osama bin Laden, or at least to his ideas. Or Al Qaeda itself could purchase ready-made bombs, a feat technically much less difficult than designing nuclear weapons from scratch. So far, there are few nuclear powers from whom such bombs can be directly bought: as of today, only nine nations in the world belong to the nuclear club. But as more countries get the bomb, tracing the seller will become harder and harder, and the incentive to make a sale will increase.
The prospect of not just one Islamic bomb, but many, inevitably concentrates the mind on how Muslims — whether Shiite or Sunni — might use their nuclear weapons. In the mid-1980’s, when Pakistan became the first Islamic state to go nuclear, it was still possible to avoid asking the awkward question of whether there was something distinctive about Islamic belief or practice that made possession of nuclear technology especially worrisome. Most observers assumed that Islamic states could be deterred from using nuclear force just like other states: by the threat of massive retaliation.
During the last two decades, however, there has been a profound change in the way violence is discussed and deployed in the Muslim world. In particular, we have encountered the rise of suicide bombing. In historic terms, this development is new and unexpected. Suicide bombing has no traditional basis in Islam. As a technique, it was totally absent from the successful Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. Although suicide bombing as a tool of stateless terrorists was dreamed up a hundred years ago by the European anarchists immortalized in Joseph Conrad’s “Secret Agent,” it became a tool of modern terrorist warfare only in 1983, when Shiite militants blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon.
Since then, suicide bombing has spread through the Muslim world with astonishing speed and on a surprising course. The vocabulary of martyrdom and sacrifice, the formal videotaped preconfession of faith, the technological tinkering to increase deadliness — all are now instantly recognizable to every Muslim. And as suicide bombing has penetrated Islamic cultural consciousness, its list of targets has steadily expanded. First the targets were American soldiers, then mostly Israelis, including women and children. From Lebanon and Israel, the technique of suicide bombing moved to Iraq, where the targets have included mosques and shrines, and the intended victims have mostly been Shiite Iraqis. The newest testing ground is Afghanistan, where both the perpetrators and the targets are orthodox Sunni Muslims. Not long ago, a bombing in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, killed Muslims, including women, who were applying to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Overall, the trend is definitively in the direction of Muslim-on-Muslim violence. By a conservative accounting, more than three times as many Iraqis have been killed by suicide bombings in the last 3 years as have Israelis in the last 10. Suicide bombing has become the archetype of Muslim violence — not just to frightened Westerners but also to Muslims themselves.
What makes suicide bombing especially relevant to the nuclear question is that, by design, it unsettles the theory of deterrence. When the suicide bomber dies in an attack, he means to send the message “You cannot stop me, because I am already willing to die.” To make the challenge to deterrence even more stark, a suicide bomber who blows up a market or a funeral gathering in Iraq or Afghanistan is willing to kill innocent bystanders, including fellow Muslims. According to the prevailing ideology of suicide bombing, these victims are subjected to an involuntary martyrdom that is no less glorious for being unintentional.
So far, the nonstate actors who favor suicide bombing have limited their collateral damage to those standing in the way of their own bombs. But the logic of sacrificing other Muslims against their own wills could be extended to the national level. If an Islamic state or Islamic terrorists used nuclear weapons against Israel, the United States or other Western targets, like London or Madrid, the guaranteed retaliation would cost the lives of thousands and maybe millions of Muslims. But following the logic of suicide bombing, the original bomber might reason that those Muslims would die in God’s grace and that others would live on to fight the jihad. No state in the Muslim world has openly embraced such a view. But after 9/11, we can no longer treat the possibility as fanciful.
Raising the question of Islamic belief and the bomb, however, is not a substitute for strategic analysis of the rational interests of Islamic governments. Like other states, Islamic states act on the basis of ordinary power politics as much as or more than on the basis of religious motivation. Pakistan, which tested a series of warheads in 1998, at the height of tensions with India, has not used its atomic power as a tool of the faithful in a global jihad. The proliferation operation spearheaded by the nuclear scientist — and sometime Pakistani national hero — Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan appears to have been based on a combination of national interest and greed, not on religious fervor. Khan found buyers in Iran and Libya, but also in decidedly non-Islamic North Korea. (In a twist much stranger than fiction, Saddam Hussein apparently turned down the offer.)
Some observers think that Iran, too, wants the bomb primarily to improve its regional position and protect itself against regime change — not to annihilate Israel. According to this view, Iran’s nuclear push reflects a drive to what is sometimes called national greatness and might more accurately be defined as the ability of a country to thumb its nose at the United States without fear of major repercussions. A televised pageant hastily arranged to celebrate Iran’s atomic program in April of this year featured traditional Persian dancing and colorful local garb intermixed with make-believe vials of enriched uranium. To an Iranian audience accustomed to decoding official symbols, these references were nationalist, not pan-Islamic. (They were also subtly subversive of the mullahs: singing and dancing are not favored forms of expression in the clerical enclave of Qom.)
But at the same time, Ahmadinejad has emphasized Iran’s pan-Islamic aspirations to act on behalf of Muslims everywhere. An emerging nuclear power needs friends. Right now Iran wants to reduce, not promote, division between Sunnis and Shiites — and promoting broader “Islamic” interests by going after Israel is one way to lessen Sunni fears about Iran’s rise. Ahmadinejad has put his money where his mouth is, providing Hezbollah with medium-range missiles — though apparently not chemical warheads — to use against Israel. The nationalist language he has sometimes used at home may be a cover for sincerely held pan-Islamic ends — a version of the old revolutionary strategy of making nationalist claims in order to attract the support of those fellow Iranians who do not respond well to Islamist ideology. That it is convenient for Iran to emphasize Islamic unity does not mean that at least some of its leaders do not believe in it as a motivating goal.+
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Noah Feldman, a contributing writer, is a law professor at New York University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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