Weapons of mass destruction and the proliferation challenge

Authored by: J. Wirtz James

The Routledge Handbook of Security Studies

Print publication date:  November  2009
Online publication date:  December  2009

Print ISBN: 9780415463614
eBook ISBN: 9780203866764
Adobe ISBN: 9781135239077


 Download Chapter



On 6 September 2007, Israeli warplanes attacked and destroyed an industrial facility in the eastern desert of Syria. Although there were rumours at the time that Tel Aviv had actually carried out a preventive strike to destroy a covert nuclear reactor, another story began to emerge seven months later. The US government alleged that Syria, with the aid of North Korea, had been secretly building a reactor capable of producing plutonium, fissile material that could be used to construct a nuclear weapon. According to the White House, Syria was in direct violation of its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency to notify the international community about the presence of the reactor, which further suggested that the facility was not intended for peaceful purposes (White House 2008). Assuming that these reports are accurate, Syria’s failed gambit to undertake a clandestine nuclear weapons programme is of more than passing interest because it highlights three important trends that shape the challenge posed by the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the world today. First, Syria’s effort to launch a covert nuclear programme did not involve a great power with an established nuclear industry and weapons capability. Instead, Syria received aid from North Korea, a state that is currently at odds with the international community over its own effort to build nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Syrian–North Korean collaboration is actually a case of ‘second tier nuclear proliferation’, whereby states in the developing world with limited scientific and manufacturing capabilities trade among themselves to enhance their weapons programmes (Braun and Chyba 2004). Other observers also have noted that this clandestine trade is occurring among non-state actors – criminal syndicates, commercial entrepreneurs and even terrorists – that are participating in what might be described as ‘third tier’ proliferation activities (Zaitseva 2008). Second, the Syrians apparently ignored their international obligations to undertake their nuclear programme inside the reporting and regulatory environment created by the non-proliferation regime. The incident not only raises doubts about the ability of the regime to slow proliferation in the face of a state or even non-state actors determined to acquire a weapon of mass destruction, but also about the ability of the regime to detect covert weapons programmes and trade in dual-use material and technologies (i.e. goods that can be used for peaceful and military purposes). Third, the Israeli preventive attack highlights the willingness of some states to take direct military action to prevent other state and non-state actors from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Clandestine proliferation activity itself is an immediate threat to the peace because it can prompt neighbouring states to take military action to stave off nascent threats.

Search for more...
Back to top

Use of cookies on this website

We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site. You can find out more in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.