January 19, 2020
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Islamic Bombast

After Chagai, are Israeli apprehensions about the prospects of an Islamic bomb misfounded?

Islamic Bombast

IN his 'stinking' death cell, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto framed the original concept of an Islamic bomb. He boasted that had he remained in power, Pakistan would have had the weapon. "The Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilisations have this capa-bility...only the Islamic civilisation was without it, but that position was about to change," he wrote in his prison testament that was smuggled out, banned in Pakistan and later published in India. In the book's introduction is Bhutto's now famous one-liner: that Pakistan will "eat grass to produce the bomb".

Although dismissed as mischievous by contemporaries, today Bhutto's rhetorical flourish is being discussed seriously by many countries in the world. Resentment (by neighbouring Arab states) of Israel's nuclear and conventional defence power, which gives it disproportionate negotiating clout in the region, adds an urgent logic to the need for an "Islamic" weapon.

There are apprehensions that Pakistan's decision to retaliate against India's nuclear tests with six tests of its own has given it a political tool to tempt Islamic states like Iran and Iraq with nuclear technology, and to use it as a diplomatic lever in dealing with other countries like the US and India. The notion of an Islamic bomb can also be used to enhance Pakistan's clout in the Gulf states, say analysts. What adds to these fears is that with sanctions being imposed on Islamabad, it may be forced to trade the nuclear knowhow for funds from Arab countries.

The Israeli public is perhaps the most worried. The media is drawing a direct linkage between the Pakistani bomb and the Palestinian "Jihad", describing the developments as no less than the threat of a new Holocaust on the Jewish people.

The fact that the Pakistani tests were welcomed by Muslims has reinforced the linkage between the bomb and Islam. The first to arrive in Islamabad immediately after the tests was Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi. He didn't help matters by hailing the Pakistani tests, saying that the Muslims in West Asia had long worried about Israel's nuclear capability. "Now they feel confi-dent, because a fellow Islamic nation possesses the knowhow to build nuclear weapons," he stated.

The Israeli press highlighted these declarations and the fact that the Pakistani arsenal had restored the strategic balance between the Muslim world and Israel. Nobody was willing to believe Kharrazi's claim that Iran was in favour of a "clean Middle East without nuclear weapons". An alarmed Israeli public was inclined to link Kharrazi's comments to the statement of the Hamas chief, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, that "Pakistan's nuclear capability is an asset to the Arab and Muslim nations".

Indian analysts are also rather perturbed by Kharrazi's utterances. Says defence expert Shebonti Ray Dadwal: "When India detonated its devices, Iran said it was disappointed and called for India to sign the CTBT, but the reaction to the Pakistani blasts was rather different."

Israel is concerned that the Shihab series of long-range missile being developed in Iran (which Tel Aviv says could only be used to launch weapons of mass destruction against Israel) might well be fitted with Pakistani warheads. Iran, however, has denied that it has a nuclear weapons programme. It is an NPT and CTBT signatory and has said its nuclear facilities are open to international inspectors. But Israel says it has proof that Iran is two to five years away from a nuclear weapon and Pakistan might help this process. Even some Indian analysts privately express fears of Iran getting hold of Chinese nuclear technology through Pakistan.

Prof G.P. Deshpande, dean of the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is sceptical of such a marriage. "Iran has its own ambitions in the area which are not necessarily in keeping with the Pakistani view of the region. There is also the Shia-Sunni divide which is as serious as any other ethnic conflict in the world," he says. Contradictions within the Islamic world, like the Kuwait-Iraq conflict, make the notion of a unified Islamic bomb virtually impossible. And if Iran and Iraq were to go nuclear with the help of Pakistan, the fallout would be enormous. "You would then not only have sanctions, but also direct US intervention in those areas," believes Deshpande.

Analysts say Israel is bound to monitor the Chinese long-range missiles (CSS-2) in Saudi Arabia closely. "It does not make any sense to have such expensive missiles unless they are fitted with nuclear warheads...and since they don't have nuclear warheads and warheads are available in Pakistan, it becomes a made for each other situation," says defence expert K. Subrahmanyam.

Agrees an American diplomat who has served in the subcontinent: "Saudi engineers and scientists are probably already in Pakistan and Saudi money may be used to offset the bite of the sanctions." He feels that it would not be long before the Israelis "follow with their own blast and that the US increases pressure on India and Pakistan to justify a possible future Israeli detonation". However, he notes that even more than an Islamic bomb, the Americans are afraid of a drug cartel bomb that "could be quickly miniaturised and could get into the hands of the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels who have plenty of money, a real hatred for the US and no compunctions about using it".

All this apprehension about Pakistan selling bomb technology to keep itself afloat may be unwarranted. B.G. Verghese of the Centre for Policy Research believes that because the Pakistani bomb and delivery system is largely Chinese, Beijing is "going to keep a tight control over where it goes, to ensure that it does not go into what it regards as unsafe hands". If these are very elementary weapons, as has been reported, Pakistan might still need Chinese help for upgradation.

In any case, Pakistan itself may be reluctant to sell bomb technology in order to seize the leadership over the rest of the Islamic world. "Pakistan is keeping this a national secret, it is a source of national pride...their national interests are at stake. If they tried to export this technology, it would trigger new sanctions and bring the situation to a whole new dangerous level," observes Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment in the US.

Concurs Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control: "There is no evidence that Pakistan is ready to share this technology with anyone else. We have to hope that Pakistan is not pushed by the sanctions to peddle this technology elsewhere." While stressing that Pakistan is not likely to share its nuclear knowhow with Middle East extremists, a former Mossad officer wonders whether Islamabad may be tempted to sell some of the nuclear technology to Iran in its effort to continue with its programme or to tide over the sanctions.

While Israeli public opinion is alarmed by the Chagai tests, more sober voices in the country are saying there is nothing to worry about. A leading Israeli physicist Yuval Ne'eman, one of the fathers of the country's nuclear programme, notes: "The tests were no surprise. Everybody knew of Pakistan's nuclear capabilities. Pakistan developed its bombs with the assistance of China." He avers that Pakistan has no interest in the Middle East conflict, and Israel has nothing to fear. Official sources in Jerusalem also feel that Pakistan is not going to be over-eager to help Iran in its nuclear programme.

Subrahmanyam agrees that it's not going to be easy to sell to the Islamic world. With the diminishing oil reserves and low oil prices, many Gulf countries are less inclined to bail out Pakistan "unlike in the 1970s when they gave Bhutto aid to build a bomb, and also in the 1980s". Deshpande reads the situation somewhat differently: Pakistan would need assistance even in maintaining its present levels of nuclear preparedness. "So it is not a question of Pakistan selling something, it is more a question of countries like Saudi Arabia and China bailing out the Pakistanis," he says.

Jerusalem has another worry. "The US failed to track the Indian preparations for the tests; Europe and Russia may well defeat the sanctions on India and Pakistan. What are the lessons Saddam Hussein and the ayatollahs of Iran to learn from this?" ask many in Israel. In that case, is Israel going to change its policy of "ambiguity" of its nuclear potential?

Immediately after the Chagai tests, David Bar Ilan, the prime minister's media advisor, said that Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East. So as the sands of Pokhran shift for some time to come, so will the bomb politics of the Middle East.

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