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Concern Grows Over Middle East's WMD Arsenal

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Efforts to secure Syria's chemical weapons and regulate Iran's nuclear program have again raised the idea of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. But analysts say regional rivalries stand in the way.

A U.N. mission to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, and efforts to regulate Iran's nuclear program, have raised hopes the Middle East is on its way to limiting the threat of weapons of mass destruction.

But for political analysts like Professor Emad Shahin of the American University in Cairo, it's a long-standing, and long-odds, dream.

“The region will be much better off it is chemical free and nuclear free." he said. "However, this has been on the table for decades.”

Transparency is one of the obstacles. Iran dismisses Western accusations it is seeking nuclear weapons. Syria only confirmed its chemical stockpile when threatened with a U.S. missile strike.

Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Iran are all believed to have chemical weapons, as is Israel, which also has unacknowledged nuclear capability.

While piecemeal efforts to contain the threat are underway, political sociologist Said Sadek argues the problem should be looked at in its totality.

“This has to be a joint effort by all participants," he said. "But as long as there is conflict, there is always justification for keeping the weapons.”

As with many issues in the region, debate often turns to Israel. Emad Shahin said, “There is a kind of a defense doctrine that has been imposed on the region, whether it is deliberate or not, but it's a de facto doctrine that Israel should be militarily superior to all its neighbors combined.”

The perception of a regional imbalance colors current efforts at disarmament, despite the apparent deterrence such weapons imposed on Israel and Syria for decades. Again, Emad Shahin said, “Dismantling these arsenals as a way of pressuring countries, while at the same time maintaining this strategic imbalance between regional powers, this is what really creates lots of problems.”

So, too, argue some, is the way President Obama handled the Syrian crisis. backing down from strikes for the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, says Said Sadek, will encourage the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by others.

"For Obama, he wanted face saving. He wanted new ways," he said. "There is no way you can solve Iran's nuclear program. And the credibility of the U.S. has been bruised with this Syrian chemical issue. Assad got away with it."

Although Iran maintains its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, many in the region, not just Israel, are skeptical.

“It can also push some countries like Egypt and also Saudi Arabia to seek their own nuclear programs and try to do some balance,” he said

It's a scenario, Sadek says, that despite international efforts, could push the volatile region into an even greater arms race.
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