British Association for American Studies


“Atomic Ayatollahs”: The ‘Islamic Bomb’ in 1980s American News Media

Mass demonstration in Iran, 1979 (commons.wikimedia.org)

Mass demonstration in Iran, 1979 (commons.wikimedia.org)

Just prior to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to the US Congress in March 2015, the conservative Washington Times commented:

Mr. Netanyahu has the opportunity to talk in plain speech with no equivocation about the threat that Iran, armed with the Islamic bomb, poses to the survival of the Jewish state and perhaps the United States as well. Perilous times call for strong measures, and these are perilous times.[1]

The ‘Islamic bomb’ is and was shorthand for a perceived pan-Islamic desire for nuclear capability. Eliding nuanced understandings of the significant differences between strands of Islam, the diversity of the ‘Muslim world’, and the many different reasons why a country might (or might not) seek nuclear status, the ‘Islamic bomb’ was a trope that essentialised Islam and implied a monolithic religious bloc. Wilful misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the ‘Islamic world’ and its relationship with nuclear weapons have, however, been a feature of US media reporting since the late 1970s.

The idea originated in the late 1970s and wove together faith, place, and ideology, creating a construct encompassing a huge swathe of territory, including Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, central Africa, and Libya. The ‘Islamic bomb’ also served as a vessel containing not just perceived Muslim nuclear unity, but also the anti-Western ‘fanaticism’ of Libya’s Muammar Quadaffi, the socialist Ba’athism of Iraq, the revolutionary Islamic ideology of Iran, contemporary Middle Eastern terrorism, and the military-Islamic thinking of Pakistan.

This all came to pass at a time when ‘the West’ was coming face to face with new forms of political Islam. The most significant event was the Iranian Revolution of early 1979, a popular uprising that took the United States by surprise, and led to recriminations within government, the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps, and engendered wider public debate about the perceived failings of the Carter administration. To further complicate matters, the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan at the end of 1979 created a situation where the United States strove to establish a unified Muslim bloc to stand against the Soviets.[2] More precisely, the ‘Islamic bomb’ originated in fears about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme in the late 1970s, when Pakistani leaders Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Muhammad Zia ul-Haq blusteringly suggested that Islamabad’s atomic aspirations extended beyond national borders to benefit the entire Muslim world. In particular, fear of Libyan-Pakistani nuclear cooperation underlay the media furore surrounding the ‘Islamic bomb.’

Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Ronald Reagan and William Clark, 1982 (commons.wikimedia.org)

Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Ronald Reagan and William Clark, 1982 (commons.wikimedia.org)

After European media outlets began to speak of an ‘Islamic bomb’ in the Iranian Revolution’s aftermath, the US media began to place the Pakistani program within a pan-Islamic context.[3] A CBS report on ‘The Pakistani-Islamic Bomb’ painted an apocalyptic picture of Middle Eastern nuclear warfare. “Reliable” informants proffered information that led reporter Bill McLaughlin to contend that, “Libya wants it [a Pakistani nuclear weapon] to be the nuclear sword of the Moslem world. And Pakistan not only has close relations with Libya, it is also deeply committed to the Palestine Liberation Organisation.”[4] In the Washington Post, Muammar Quadaffi – perhaps not entirely unreasonably – was characterised as an “unpredictable” advocate of an ‘Islamic bomb’ provided by Pakistan. Islamabad would thus “light a dangerous new spark in South Asia and the Middle East.”[5]

The ‘punditocracy’ – political journalists whose views reached a national audience – played a major role in publicising the ‘Islamic bomb’.[6] Don Oberdorfer buried Carter administration statements on the lack of evidence for an ‘Islamic bomb’ at the foot of an article on Congressional disquiet.[7]  Jack Anderson was a tireless advocate of the ‘Islamic bomb’. In 1980, he wrote:

What makes the situation far worse is that Pakistan will likely share its nuclear know-how with even less responsible Arab nations, like the fanatic Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, which is a protector of terrorists and an implacable foe of Israel.[8]

In the mid-1980s, he argued that the “long dreaded ‘Islamic bomb’” was about to eventuate because Pakistan was “obliged to share its nuclear technology with Libya”.[9] By this stage, he also began to stop putting quote marks round the phrase ‘Islamic bomb’ and saw no need to explain its meaning.[10] Anderson portrayed Zia as a primitive madman suspected of building a Muslim nuclear weapon with the intention of using it to wipe out Pakistan’s “blood enemy” India.[11] Even towards the end of the decade, confusion remained rampant as it seemed that Iran’s fanatical “atomic ayatollahs” would now be the recipients of ‘the bomb’ from Pakistan.[12]

One of the paradigm’s key proponents was pundit and written-word pedant, William Safire. Fiercely libertarian and pro-Israeli – media analyst Mark Jurkowitz described him as “Ariel Sharon’s press secretary” – Safire never shied away from predicting the imminence of the ‘Islamic bomb’.[13] Despite his status within the New York Times office, he was regarded by peers as presenting “highly questionable propositions as if they were accepted facts”.[14] The ‘Islamic bomb’ was nothing if not a questionable proposition, and Safire presented it with gusto.

GWB and LB.  Ceremony for 2006 Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

President George W. Bush presents William Safire with 2006 Medal of Freedom (wikipedia.org)

Although supportive of the paradigm, Safire was sometimes confused about its reality. In the space of a few months in 1981, he claimed that Gaddafi was buying the ‘Islamic bomb’ from Pakistan with his oil profits, then after the Israeli raid on Iraq’s OSIRAK reactor, claimed the Saudi’s had paid the Pakistani’s not to spread the ‘Islamic bomb’. Reversing course in October, he claimed that Pakistan was refusing to cooperate with US non-proliferation measures in case it interfered with progress on the ‘Islamic bomb’ and the ability to gift Libya nuclear weapons.[15] Into 1983, he contended Saddam Hussein’s secular, Ba’athist Iraq had been stopped from making an ‘Islamic bomb’ by the 1981 Israeli raid.[16] By now, the esteemed columnist also eschewed quote marks around ‘Islamic bomb’. Castigating China for aiding Pakistan, he remained deeply concerned about proliferation to a variety of Muslim countries that, in reality, disliked – if not downright hated – each other.[17] This remained the pattern for the rest of the 1980s, especially in Safire’s quasi-humorous, end of year ‘Office Pool’ columns, where he repeatedly predicted that the ‘Islamic bomb’ was the next greatest disaster in waiting.[18] However, this was hardly surprising. Safire was notoriously pro-Israeli and the ‘Islamic bomb’ was – since it first appeared – continually positioned as a threat to the very existence of the Jewish state.

In the face of the ‘Islamic bomb’, even a national hero like former astronaut John Glenn was castigated when he spoke out against Israel’s Osirak raid, later being forced to admit that he “shared your concern about the danger an ‘Islamic bomb’ would pose to Israel’s existence”. Pro-Israeli, anti-nuclear Senator Allan Cranston also commented that an ‘Islamic bomb’ was particularly dangerous because “there is no more unstable and dangerous part of the world than the Middle East.”[19] Later, Cranston claimed that Pakistan represented a far more serious threat to the Middle East than Saddam’s Iraq ever did.[20]

In the 1980s, the ‘Islamic bomb’ was – it must be admitted – never the front page story. However, it remained a thread running through the era of the Iran-Iraq War, continued Arab-Israeli tension, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and US military action against Gaddafi’s Libya. The very idea of an ‘Islamic bomb’ ties in to what cultural anthropologist Hugh Gusterson argues is a persistent strand in the US media: that “proliferation of nuclear weapons to nuclear-threshold states in the Third World, especially the Islamic world, would be enormously dangerous.”[21] The ‘Islamic bomb’ speaks of essentialising attitudes towards Islam in the media, seeing a global religion with over a billion adherents as an undifferentiated mass. As Edward Said pointed out back in 1979 – just as the ‘Islamic bomb’ was emerging in the Western media – it was fear that lay behind images of Islam. Fear of jihad and fear of Islamic resurgence.[22] Fear did lie behind Anderson, Oberdorfer, and Safire’s writings on the Islamic bomb: fear of a Middle Eastern nuclear war engulfing the globe and fears of changes in the balance of power between the Muslim world and the West.


[1] ‘The World in Peril’, 2 March, 2015, The Washington Times, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/mar/2/editorial-benjamin-netanyahu-to-expose-obamas-iran (accessed 3 March, 2015)

[2] This research into US media attitudes towards Islam and nuclear weapons is still very much in its infancy. A much greater range of media sources – print and broadcast – require analysis before any real conclusions can be reached. The findings presented here should therefore be considered preliminary.

[3] Peter Nieswand, ‘Pakistan Denies it is developing Nuclear Arms,’ Washington Post (hereafter WP), April 9, 1979, front page; Don Oberdorfer, ‘Arms sales to Pakistan Urged to Stave Off A-Bomb There,’ WP, April 6, 1979, A7; David Binder, ‘How Pakistan Ran the Nuke Round the End,’ New York Times, April 29, 1979, E5; Don Oberdorfer, ‘Arms Sales to Pakistan Urged to Stave Off A-Bomb There,’ WP, August 6, 1979, A7; Don Oberdorfer, ‘Pakistan: The Quest for Atomic Bomb [sic],’ WP, August 27, 1979, A1.

[4] Transcript of CBS Evening News, ‘Special Report on the Pakistani-Islamic Bomb, part 2,’ broadcast June 12, 1979, The National Archives of the UK (TNA), Foreign and Commonwealth Office Records (FCO) 96/956, 2.

[5] Ronald Koven, ‘Many nations ready to break into nuclear club’, June 15, 1981, WP; ‘More on nuclear spread’, June 15, 1981, WP.

[6] See Eric Alterman, Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) for more on the ‘punditocracy’ in the 1980s.

[7] Don Oberdorfer, ‘Arms sales to Pakistan Urged to Stave Off A-Bomb There,’ WP, April 6, 1979, A7.

[8] Jack Anderson, ‘Pakistan Near Entry Into Atomic Club,’ WP, April 11, 1980, B9.

[9] Anderson and Dale Van Atta, ‘U.S. Hinders Pakistan’s Bomb Plans’, September 23, 1985, WP, D8.

[10] Anderson and Joseph Spear, ‘ CIA Procedure Keeps Senate in the Dark’, July 26, 1986, WP, F13.

[11] Anderson and Van Atta, ‘Trade-Off With Pakistan’, March 1, 1987, WP, D7

[12] Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, ‘A Secret Plea From Pakistan’, April 27, 1987, WP, A11.

[13] Jack Shafer, ‘William Safire (1929-2009), September 28, 2009, Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/press_box/2009/09/william_safire_19292009.html (accessed on March 3, 2015)

[14] Eric Boehlert, ‘William Safire’s Dubious Legacy’, November 22, 2004, Salon, http://www.salon.com/2004/11/22/safire_7/ (accessed on March 3, 2015)

[15] William Safire, ‘Quaddafi in Chad’, March 5, 1981, New York Times (hereafter NYT); Safire, ‘Hail to the Nuclear Entebbe’, Jun 11, 1981, NYT; Safire, ‘The Islam Bomb’, October 1, 1981, NYT.

[16] Safire, ‘Glenn on Israel’, February 3, 1983, NYT, A23.

[17] Safire, ‘Atoms for Argies’, September 18, 1983, NYT, E19.

[18] Safire, ‘Office Pool ‘85’, December 31, 1984, NYT, A23; Safire, ‘Office Pool ‘90’, December 28, 1989, NYT, A21.

[19] Anon., ‘Panel Eases Provision Barring Aid Unless Pakistan Halts A-Bomb Effort’, April 4, 1984, WP, A31.

[20] Evans and Novak, ‘From Ace to Joker’, Aug 8, 1984, WP, A17.

[21] Hugh Gusterson in ‘Nuclear Weapons and the Other in the Western Imagination,’ Cultural Anthropology, 14:1 (February, 1999), 112.

[22] Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003), 287.