Perry issues nuclear arms warning

CAIRO, EGYPT — CAIRO, Egypt -- Amid a growing Arab determination to back out of nuclear nonproliferation commitments unless Israel abandons its atomic program, U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry warned yesterday that the possibility of a "rogue nation" or terrorists acquiring a nuclear bomb is "one of the most serious threats facing the world today."

Ending two days of meetings in Egypt at the beginning of his first Middle Eastern tour, Mr. Perry said he was urging Arab nations and Israel to sign an extension of the international Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, or NPT, when it comes up for review in March.


The fear that nuclear weapons-control programs could be unraveling in the Middle East in the face of a stalemate in peace talks between Israel and Syria was a key theme in Mr. Perry's talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Mr. Perry met for two hours with Mr. Rabin yesterday, after leaving Cairo, a U.S. official said in Jerusalem.


"When I met with President Mubarak yesterday, when I meet with Prime Minister Rabin this afternoon, I will be urging both of these leaders to support extension of that nonproliferation treaty," Mr. Perry said yesterday.

"It is, I believe, one of the most serious security threats facing the world today: the danger that a rogue nation or a terrorist will get their hands on one, five or a dozen weapons and threaten the world with them."

Arab nations, frustrated at Israel's continuing nuclear development at a time when most of them have committed to nonproliferation, have signaled that they will no longer participate in the treaty unless Israel joins in.

Arab League officials said that Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria -- the engines of policy in the Arab world -- had all committed not to sign an extension without Israel's participation.

Israel, which never signed the nonproliferation treaty, is thought to have about 200 nuclear warheads, although it refuses to acknowledge that it has a nuclear weapons program. Israeli leaders have said they will be ready to discuss nonproliferation only after there is a comprehensive peace agreement, including Syria, in the Middle East.

Iran is thought to be as little as five years away from developing a nuclear bomb, and Arab leaders have not ruled out the possibility of new weapons programs elsewhere in the Middle East.

"If Israel does not sign, I would expect you to see other countries beginning to seek the nuclear bomb. It will not be an exclusive privilege for one country forever. Remember, nuclear war will eliminate Israel from the map, but it will not eliminate the Arab nation from the map," said Adnan Omran, deputy secretary general of the Arab League.

Until now, all Arab countries except the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Djibouti have signed the nonproliferation treaty, and none of those nations has nuclear development programs.


Algeria and Egypt both have nuclear research reactors but are not believed to have moved forward with weapons development. Iraq's formative weapons program was cut short by the 1991 Persian Gulf war and international sanctions, and Iran remains the most worrisome potential new nuclear power in the Middle East.

Egypt and Israel have been holding direct, behind-the-scenes talks in recent months. Egyptian officials have been disappointed by Israel's insistence that peace precede disarmament. But Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, after talks in Egypt last week, told the parliament in Israel that Egypt is "not demanding that Israel remove the appearance of a shroud surrounding its nuclear option" before Israel has signed peace treaties with all its neighbors.