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The Myth of the ‘Islamic Bomb’


By Rizwan Asghar

February 12, 2015

The recent visit by Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee to Saudi Arabia has again revived speculations of a secret nuclear agreement between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Many analysts have opined that both countries have reconfirmed an arrangement whereby the Pakistani government has a commitment to provide nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia and that is also the reason behind a rapid increase in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

If we ruminate over the situation impartially, what becomes very clear is that the abovementioned claims are characterised by exaggeration. There is no disputing the fact that Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world but this hardly proves the conclusion drawn by many American analysts and opinion-makers that Pakistan is building more bombs for Saudi Arabia.

In fact, most experts are portraying such scenarios, fraught with oversimplification, as due to growing apprehensions that Saudi Arabia will also seek to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran crossed the nuclear threshold. However, they lose sight of the fact that it is technically not possible to transfer nuclear weapons from one country to another as a mere commodity.

In addition, Saudi Arabia does not have the nuclear infrastructure and scientific expertise to be able to maintain and use nuclear weapons. The conventional view is that the value of nuclear weapons lies in their deterrent effect. When Saudi Arabia cannot publicly claim to be in possession of these weapons, this adds little to its deterrence capabilities.

The speculations about a secret agreement on nuclear cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan originally started due to a visit to Pakistani nuclear research laboratories by Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz in 1999. Although Pakistan’s nuclear security establishment later claimed that the research laboratories visited by the Saudi prince had nothing to do with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project, apprehensions regarding Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear technology from Pakistan refuse to die down.

The suspicions of nuclear cooperation also grew due to testimony of a former Saudi Arabian diplomat, Mohammed Khilewi, in his asylum application in 1994. Khilewi claimed that Saudi Arabia had signed a pact with Pakistan pledging that, in the event of a nuclear attack on Saudi Arabia, Pakistan would respond with its own arsenal.

Two years back, in 2013, Mark Urban of the BBC had also come up with one of the most sensational pieces of journalism, claiming that Saudi Arabia had allegedly financed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and was confident it could acquire atomic bombs at will from Pakistan. Unnamed NATO officials and a former Israeli military intelligence chief were quoted in his report as arguing that Pakistan maintained “a certain number of warheads” and that “if Saudis were to ask for them at any given time they would immediately be transferred”. The story raised some concerns in diplomatic circles but failed to attract much attention.

These speculations, however, have once again instigated a debate around the misleading notion of the Islamic bomb. Many Pakistani and foreign authors have often been rhetorically speaking of our nuclear capability in terms of an ‘Islamic bomb’ and a BBC documentary was also titled such, which gave a historical account of Pakistan’s journey to nuclear weapons.

However, the term ‘Islamic bomb’ was first coined by former PM of Pakistan Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In 1979, Bhutto wrote from his death cell in Rawalpindi jail: “We know that Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability. The Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilisations have this capability. The communist powers also possess it. Only the Islamic civilisation was without it, but that position was about to change.”

The fact is that Bhutto was fully aware of the ideological and sectarian fissures in the Muslim world and did not believe in this mythical concept. But knowing that the Islamic bomb would be widely considered a strong defence against the west, Bhutto suddenly used the idea to gain the support of the Muslim world so he could save himself. The truth is that Pakistan has never been able to extend substantial support to pan-Islamic causes.

When Pakistani rulers started the nuclear weapons programme, they had only two things in mind: the loss of East Pakistan in the 1971 war with India and making Pakistan’s defence impregnable to save the country from any such future tragedy. Fifteen years after Bhutto’s death, the then Iranian vice president Syed Ayatollah Mohajerani spoke on the same lines, calling upon all Muslim countries to join hands to produce an Islamic bomb. However, his call also failed to gain considerable support from other Muslim countries.

Unfortunately, due to the poor internal security situation and an equally poor record on non-proliferation, the international media gets the opportunity to come up with such hyped up concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear programme every now and then. It is certainly true that a portion of funding for Pakistan’s nuclear programme came from Libya, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab countries. It is also true that after the 1998 Indian nuclear tests, Pakistani authorities rejected all international pressure and tested nuclear weapons due to Saudi Arabia’s promise of giving almost 50,000 barrels of free oil a day in the event of international sanctions.

However, all this help did not entail any obligation on Pakistan to transfer sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Pakistani rulers are well aware of the fact that any transfer of nuclear materials would lead to an extreme backlash from the international community and Pakistan may be formally declared as an ‘irresponsible nuclear state’.

Some western analysts have also been trying to link the secret activities of the A Q Khan network with the cause of the Islamic bomb but documents released by Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan himself show that nuclear technology was transferred to North Korea, Iran and some other countries in order to gain monetary benefits. Mythical ideas like the Islamic bomb have no place in the 21st century due to the supremacy of national identities over religious causes in the Muslim world. Pakistan has always publicly opposed Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Pakistan does not want any other Muslim country to acquire nuclear capability so that its status as the sole Muslim nuclear power can remain intact. This is also another reason why the Pakistani government will never hand over nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia.