Sunday, November 25, 2012

Don't toss this coin - the terrible two sided face of nuclear proliferation in the Islamic world

Concerning the challenges to international security posed by nuclear proliferation, much greater attention must be given to the relationships between different Islamic extremist organizations.

Consider Hezbollah's attitude towards Al Qa'ida. If Iran attains a nuclear weapon, Hezbollah's peripheral access presents many problems. Such a capability (whether perceived or real) would enable Hezbollah to pursue nuclear blackmail against Israel and the United States, but also against Al Qa'ida. Rooted in a history of conflict and accentuated by years of recent and brutal Shia-Sunni sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, Hezbollah despises Al Qa'ida and its allies. Where the groups do sometimes co-operate, this co-operation is vested in shared short term interests. Hezbollah ultimately opposes Al Qa'ida's objectives, because Al Qa'ida seeks to destroy Hezbollah's on-going pursuit of greater Shia theological power in political Islam (see below). For Hezbollah, weakening Al Qa'ida isn't just a defensive objective, it's a means to pursue the precedence of Shia theology at the forefront of Islamic 'traditionalist' discourse. And in obvious terms, a nuclear weapon is a powerful tool for that agenda.

Next let's consider the Al Qa'ida perspective. Yesterday's news from Pakistan indicates that whether involving subscribers to Salafist (Al Qai'da) or fundamentalist Deobandi (Pakistani Taliban) theology, an embedded hatred underpins the outlook of many Sunni extremists when it comes to Shia Muslims. Anyone who doubts the strategic importance of this hatred should read Al Zarqawi's 2004/05 letters from Iraq. Should these individuals gain access to nuclear weapons, the outcome would be rather unpleasant. In such a scenario, while India, the US and Israel would certainly be in the crosshairs, major Shia Islamist groups like Hezbollah would also face a major threat. Thus is the understated point - Al Qa'ida would believe that they finally had the means to 'purify' Islam.

In essence, while nuclear proliferation in the Middle East obviously presents a profound challenge for international state security dynamics, it also portends a second, equally dangerous face. A security environment where non-state groups which idolize counter-intuitive notions of existential value, are armed with nuclear weapons and propelled by hatred, mistrust and irreconcilable ideologies. This would be a security dilemma on steroids- unrestrained, uncontrollable and a whisper away from nuclear war.

Post-update - See my related analysis on why Muslims must confront Islamic extremism
For my further thoughts on Iran- links here.


  1. I think you over-exaggerate the likelihood for a "briefcase-sized" nuclear weapon ending up in the hands of non-state actors. I agree that a nuclear armed Iran would create a regional security dilemma and would embolden non-state actors, but there is little chance Iran would give a nuclear weapon away when it has taken over a decade to acquire.

    1. Even if there is little chance, what is the impact of that little chance on regional security? The little chance carries major weight. If Iran can produce a few nukes a year, they have the opportunity to share if they decide to. Certainly Iran would want to use its nuclear umbrella to provide greater insulation for Hezbollah. And what if Iran 'lost' a nuclear weapon to Hezbollah etc.