by Eric Margolis © 1997 Eric Margolis
The deadly but fascinating game of Mideast military rivalry took a new twist this week as North Korea, furious over the defection of two senior diplomats, pulled out of talks aimed at halting the spread of missile technology.
US intelligence scored a major coup by organizing the defection of North Korea's ambassador to Cairo and his brother, a diplomat in Paris. Cairo is North Korea's main base for weapons sales to Arab states and Iran.
Ever since the 1991 Gulf War, Syria, Iran, Egypt and Iraq have been struggling to build offensive missile capability in the face of Israel's growing nuclear arsenal. Israel is estimated to have as many as 400 atomic and hydrogen weapons. The Israeli Air Force has three squadrons equipped with Jericho nuclear-tipped missiles at the Sedot Mikha base, 45 km south of Tel-Aviv. The Jericho's can reach all major Arab cities, Iran, and Russia. Israel also has a large number of gravity nuclear weapons, possibly including neutron bombs.
This very large nuclear arsenal was built to counter possible nuclear threats from the Soviet Union by targeting the southern USSR, notably the Sebastapol military complex. Israel's hostile Arab neighbors were also targeted. In the 1973 war, Israel came very close to using nuclear weapons against Syria and Egypt.
Further enhancing Israel's power, the US is supplying it with the long-ranged F-15F. This deadly strike aircraft, air refuelled, can deliver nuclear weapons from Morocco to Pakistan.
The Arabs and Iran are terrified of Israel's nuclear might Since their inept air forces could not pose a serious threat to Israel, the Arabs and Iran sought a partial counter-force response by turning to missiles. During the Gulf War, Saddam's primitive Scud-B's had struck Israel. They were little better than rocks hurled by medieval trebuchets, and caused few casualties. But everyone realized that armed with chemical or biological agents, the Scud's could cause enormous damage to Israel's population and military forces.
Israel mobilized its powerful Washington lobby to get the US to implement a world-wide effort to block nations from exporting missiles or nuclear technology to the Mideast. Brazil, South Africa, and Argentina were forced out of the missile business. Pakistan, considered a potential nuclear threat by Israel, was hit by a US-arms embargo. China and Russia were threatened by sanctions if they shipped missiles to the Arabs and Iran.
But US pressure had no effect on North Korea. Desperate for hard currency, Pyongyang sells improved - though still rather crude - Scud-C technology,.missiles and parts to Egypt, Syria, Iran and possibly Iraq. Israel claims Russia is also selling missile technology to Iran and Syria.
North Korea's accelerating economic decay, and its need for foreign aid, recently forced Pyongyang to enter talks with the US to halt its missile exports - until this week's defections.
Last April, Israel's Defense Minister claimed Syria was developing VX nerve gas warheads for recently delivered North Korean, extended-range Scud-C's. Such warheads could neutralize Israel's air, logistics and missile bases, as well as take a heavy toll of civilians. Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy warned Syria to desist or face Israeli `capabilities far and above what the other side can imagine.' In plain Hebrew: nuclear attack.
Israel says its Arab foes and Iran are developing chemical-armed missiles to destroy the Jewish state. The Arabs and Iran say they have been compelled to acquire missiles and gas as purely defensive measures to counter Israel's nuclear arsenal, and frequent threats to use it against them.
Israel has so far been successful in its key strategic goal of maintaining a nuclear monopoly in the Mideast, Iraq's attempts to make primitive nuclear weapons were squashed during the Gulf War. Iran is striving to develop nuclear capability, but is years away from production. Before that date, Israel will probably use its F-15F's to destroy Iran's reactors. Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, believes its reactors are also on Israel's target list.
But neither Israel nor the US can stop the Arabs and Iran from building more Scud-C's and producing chemical/biological weapons. The technological genii is out of the bottle. So long as Israel has nuclear and chemical weapons, other Mideast states will move heaven and earth to develop a counter-force.
Unless the Mideast strategic arms race is stopped, Israel will face ever-growing chemical and biological dangers, such as persistent nerve gas and anthrax - that make today's terror bombings look like child's play. Even if North Korea collapses, other hard-up nations will sell military technology.
Adding a new level of danger, the authoritative `Jane's Intelligence Review' will shortly publish a study that says Israel might launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike because of its nuclear arsenal's vulnerability. Israel's nuclear force was designed to launch on warning of a Soviet attack, not to ride out a strike.
The limestone caves sheltering Israel's Jericho's and gravity bombs cannot withstand a hit by even a crude, low-yield nuclear weapon. If Israel believed - correctly or mistakenly - that enemy missiles or aircraft were headed towards its vulnerable nuclear complex, Israel, says `Jane's,' might launch a massive, pre-emptive nuclear strike.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]