Israel, Pakistan, and the threat of Nuclear proliferation.

The treaty on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) set out to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology as well as promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy. There are a handful of nations uninvolved in the treaty that have, or at least thought to have, developed nuclear weapons, these countries will be my focus, looking particularly at Israel and Pakistan and the controversy that surrounds their nuclear weapons programmes. The NPT came into force in 1970 with 190 parties having signed it, five of these were nuclear weapon states.

North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003. India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan, all members of the United Nations, have never been party to the treaty. North Korea, Israel and Pakistan their nuclear capabilities more than any ‘proliferation state’ attract the most attention, from the media, from historians and from other states. The concept of these nations developing an effective nuclear arsenal is enough to warrant a great deal of scrutiny, particularly from the United States.

There is great ambiguity and secrecy surrounding Israel’s nuclear capabilities, certainly during the crisis over Dimona, American and British governments began increasingly to suspect the existence of an Israeli nuclear weapons programme.

The tension between the two climaxed when the United States government called for an inspection of nuclear reactors being held at the Dimona site in Israel’s Negev Desert to ensure as, Israeli Prime minister David Ben-Gurion had promised, “this reactor [Dimona], like the American reactor, is designed exclusively for peaceful purposes”. The report produced on Israeli activity was reassuring and was eventually accepted by American president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Any potential conflict was avoided and for the time being American suspicion was quashed. The whole affair was more of a power struggle or political stand off than a legitimate threat. Historian Matteo Gerlini summarised the crisis as “primarily a political one, regardless of any kind of military nuclear potential in or close to Israel’s grasp”.

The Eisenhower administration were not alone in their cynicism over Israel’s nuclear development. Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq 1979-2003, was threatened by Israel’s supposed nuclear capabilities. Transcripts released of meetings between Saddam and his staff shows Saddam’s intentions of starting a non-nuclear war with Israel by matching its alleged nuclear ability, therefore removing and Israeli advantage. As argued by historians Hal Brand and David Palkki “Saddam thus came to see nuclear weapons as a powerful coercive tool for dealing with Israel”.Pakistan-Nuclear-Arsenal.jpg

Pakistan’s nuclear programme has proved to be equally controversial. It provoked a media outcry in the 1970s, with news outlets in Britain and America developing the idea of an ‘Islamic Bomb’. This was to be “a nuclear weapon originating in Pakistan but which would allegedly be proliferated to other Muslim states”. However, some historians argue what the media portrayed was largely hyperbolic given the limited reaction from American and British governments.

Pakistan did later develop ‘the bomb’, and in 1998 became the seventh country to test a nuclear weapon. The main reason for Pakistan’s atomic development was to match its great regional rival India’s nuclear capabilities. Historians Pervez Hoodboy and Zia Mian illustrate “Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has been rapidly expanding, alongside a growing capacity to make nuclear weapon materials”. There is a vast amount of literature written on Pakistan and many state officials fear the consequences of a country so averse to non-proliferation having such impressive nuclear capabilities.

Israel and Pakistan are just two examples of non-signatories of the NPT developing nuclear arsenals. Both cases illustrate the potentially covert nature of nuclear weapons programmes and the paranoia they can instil in other nuclear and non-nuclear states alike. In both cases, the response often from the American government and media, show that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is of great concern in the modern world.

Ellie Harris


Gerlini, Matteo, ‘Waiting for Dimona: The United States and Israel’s development of nuclear capability’, Cold War History, 143-161.

Brands, Hal, and D.Palkki, ‘Saddam, Israel, and the Bomb: Nuclear Alarmism Justified?’, International Security, (2011), xxxvi.

Craig, Malcolm, ‘“Nuclear Sword of the Moslem world”? America, Britain, Pakistan, and the “Islamic bomb”, 1977-1980’ The International History Review., DOI: 10.1080/07075332.2016.1140670

Hoodbhoy, Pervez and Main, Zia ‘Nuclear fears, hopes and realities in Pakistan’, International Affairs,(2014), vol.90, pp.1125-1142Nuclear Proliferation




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