Israel & Iran: Double standards on nuclear weapons


Israel has nuclear weapons, perhaps as many as 400 of them.  The Federation of American Scientists (see puts the number at between 100 and 200.


The fissile material for these weapons was mainly plutonium from a nuclear reactor supplied by France in the late 50s and situated at Dimona in the Negev Desert. 


However, it is generally believed that nuclear material was stolen by Israeli agents from the US, the UK and France in the 1960s and transported to Israel by covert means (see Annex A).  The most notorious instance was the theft of 200 pounds of enriched uranium from the US nuclear facility in Apollo, Pennsylvania, with the alleged help of its American director, Zalman Shapiro.


Israel’s weapons stockpile today includes warheads for mobile Jericho-1 and Jericho-2 missiles, and probably for submarine-launched cruise missiles, as well as nuclear bombs for delivery by aircraft.  The Jericho-1 is reckoned to have a range of up to 750km, the Jericho-2 up to 1500km (though some estimates put it as high as 4000km).


In the 1990s Israel took delivery of three German-built diesel-electric submarines, two of which were a gift from Germany.  It is thought that they are capable of launching nuclear-armed Popeye Turbo cruise missiles with a range of up to 350km and that at any time, two of the vessels remain at sea – one in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, the other in the Mediterranean – and a third is on standby. 


There is little doubt therefore that Israel is capable of striking any part of the Arab world and at Iran with nuclear weapons.  It may even be capable of striking London and Washington.


Double standard

Iran has no nuclear weapons.  It’s not clear that it ever had plans to develop nuclear weapons.  But it is now being threatened with dire consequences by the US and Europe for failing to reveal precisely what it is doing in the nuclear area.  By stark contrast, nobody says boo to Israel, which has had nuclear weapons since the late 60s, and has now got a fully functional arsenal pointing at its neighbours including Iran.


One might be forgiven for thinking that the West is, yet again, applying a double standard, that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is fine providing it’s to allies.


To be fair to the US, that is its publicly stated position.  John Bolton is deputy secretary for arms control in the State Department, responsible for the non-proliferation of nuclear (and other) weapons.  At a press conference in London on 9 October 2003, he was asked about Israel's nuclear weapons capability and replied: "The issue for the US is what poses a threat to the US" (Guardian, 10 October).  Proliferation of nuclear weapons to allies is OK.


European states have not been as overt in saying that proliferation to allies is OK.  They have stuck to the technicality that Iran must honour its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as interpreted by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA).  But the basic policy is the same: Israel is allowed to have as many nuclear weapons as it likes, but Iran is not allowed to have any.


The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which came into force on 5 March 1970, divided the states of the world into nuclear sheep and non-nuclear goats, and expressed the ambition of the nuclear sheep to keep it that way.  A state is defined to be a nuclear-weapons state if it had “manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967” (Article IX(3)).


In the Treaty, nuclear states undertook not to transfer nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states or to assist them in any way to develop nuclear weapons (Article I).  Non-nuclear states undertook not to be the recipient of such largesse and not to manufacture nuclear weapons themselves (Article II).


The International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) is responsible for policing the Treaty.  Each non-nuclear signatory to the Treaty is required to negotiate a “safeguards” agreement with the IAEA in respect of its civil nuclear activities, the purpose of which is to allow the IAEA to confirm that it is not engaging in weapons-related activity.


Clearly, the Treaty is highly discriminatory in favour of nuclear states, since they are not obliged to give up nuclear weapons, whereas non-nuclear states are obliged not to acquire any of these weapons, which are the ultimate guarantee of a state’s continued existence in the modern world.  Iraq would not have been invaded and occupied by the US/UK if it had had nuclear weapons.  The lesson for any state that wishes to avoid Iraq’s fate is to acquire nuclear weapons as soon as possible.


It is true that the Treaty pays lip service to the notion of nuclear disarmament all round.  Article VI says:


“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”


But no nuclear-weapons state as defined by the Treaty has ceased to be one since the Treaty came into force.


(It is also worth noting that the policing body for the Treaty, the IAEA, is biased in favour of the nuclear states, since they are always represented on its Board of Governors.  The Board decides what action is to be taken against states, which are supposed not to have met their obligations under the Treaty.  It is now considering what action to take against Iran.)


Who signed in 1968?

The Treaty was opened for signature on 1 July 1968, and was signed on that date by 62 states including Iran (and Iraq).  But only three nuclear states – the US, the UK and the USSR – signed at that time.  China and France did not sign until 1992.


Some non-nuclear states, notably India, refused to sign, giving as a reason that the Traety was discriminatory against non-nuclear states.  Pakistan also refused to sign.  Neither were nuclear states in 1967; both are nuclear states now.  Since they never signed the Treaty, they didn’t break it by becoming nuclear states, and were not subject to IAEA monitoring while they were becoming nuclear states.  South Africa didn’t sign at the outset either, and successfully developed nuclear weapons, but later abandoned development and signed the Treaty in 1991.


No state has withdrawn from the Treaty.  No non-nuclear state has acquired nuclear weapons while a signatory to the Treaty.  North Korea, which signed in 1985, is a possible exception to the latter.  Iraq also tried to acquire nuclear weapons while a signatory, but was unsuccessful.


Iran’s misfortune

It is Iran’s misfortune that it signed the Treaty in 1968 when the Shah was in power.  As a consequence, it is now being indicted by the IAEA for failing to honour its “safeguards” agreement.  If it had never been a party to the Treaty, it wouldn’t have a “safeguards” agreement to fail to honour and wouldn’t have had the IAEA monitoring its nuclear activities.


In recent months, Iran must have contemplated withdrawing from the Treaty (as North Korea has threatened to do).  Article IX allows a state to withdraw:


“Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”


By any objective standard, Iran (and other neighbours of Israel) has good grounds for withdrawal, with the build up over the past 30 years of an Israeli nuclear arsenal directed at them.  There could hardly be a better example of “extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty”, which “have jeopardized [their] supreme interests”.


But for Iran to withdraw now, with the clear implication that it intended to develop nuclear weapons as a counter to Israel, would risk terrible havoc from the US and/or Israel.  The only sensible course of action for Iran, or any other non-nuclear state which may wish to develop nuclear weapons, is to do it secretly and, like India and Pakistan, make an announcement about it only after success has been achieved – and retribution by other nuclear states is impossible.


In present circumstances, Iran has no option but to continue to adhere to the Treaty and to do what it is told by the IAEA – which may mean that plans for developing nuclear weapons have to be put on hold for now.


Israel conceals

Like India and Pakistan, Israel didn’t sign the Treaty.  By the time the Treaty was available for signing in July 1968, its nuclear weapons programme had achieved initial success.  It is generally believed that by the time of the Six-Day War in June 1967 Israel had two deliverable nuclear devices (see Israel and the Bomb by Avner Cohen published in 1998).  It is a moot point whether Israel qualified as a nuclear-weapons state within the terms of the Treaty (that is, as having manufactured nuclear weapons by 1 January 1967), but that didn’t matter since it had no intention of announcing to the world that it had a nuclear weapons programme. 


Israel went to great lengths for many years to keep the existence of its programme secret, even from the US, because it feared that it would be put under pressure to terminate its programme.  After the US became aware of the existence of the nuclear facility at Dimona in 1960, the Kennedy administration insisted on inspecting it to confirm Israel’s assertion that it was for civil purposes only.  US inspectors visited the facility seven times in the 1960s, but never found direct evidence of weapons related activities – because Israel went to extraordinary lengths to hide them.  Israel insisted on knowing in advance when the inspectors were coming and went so far as to install false control room panels and to brick over elevators and hallways that accessed areas of the site where weapons related activity was going on.  So, although inspectors suspected the wool was being pulled over their eyes, they were unable to prove it.


When the Non-Proliferation Treaty was available for signing in 1968, the Johnson administration pressed Israel to sign and declare its programme, which by then the US was certain existed, but Israel refused.  Negotiations between Richard Nixon and Golda Meir led in 1970 to a new understanding on the issue between the US and Israel, which persists to this day.  Under it, the US stopped pressing Israel to sign the Treaty and ceased sending inspection teams to Dimona.  In return, Israel undertook to maintain a low profile about its nuclear weapons: there was to be no acknowledgment of their existence, and no testing which would reveal their existence.  That way, the US would not be forced to take a public position for or against Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.


NPT extended

The Non-Proliferation Treaty was initially scheduled to last for 25 years, at the end of which a conference of the signatories was to be held to decide whether to extend its operation.  This Review and Extension Conference took place in 1995 and extended the operation of the Treaty indefinitely.


It also passed a resolution, proposed by the US/UK and Russia, calling for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East (as did Security Council resolution 687, the Iraq disarmament resolution, passed in 1991).  This resolution was a gesture by the major nuclear powers to the many non-nuclear states which complained at the Conference that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons made a mockery of the non-proliferation principles they were required to adhere to by the Treaty.  The proposers of the resolution never intended to do anything about Israel’s nuclear weapons, and they didn’t.


Who’s signed today?

Today, nearly every state in the world has signed the Treaty.  Cuba held out for over 30 years but finally signed in November 2002, presumably because of the increasingly threatening noises coming from the US.  Five states – the US, the UK, Russia, France and China, which just happen to be the five permanent members of the Security Council – are signatories as official nuclear-weapons states, who are allowed under the Treaty to retain their nuclear systems and expand them ad infinitum.  The other 185 or so signed as non-nuclear-weapons states, which are forbidden under the Treaty to acquire any. 


The only significant states which have not signed are Israel, India and Pakistan, all of which acquired nuclear weapons after the date for membership of the official nuclear club closed on 1 January 1967.  Now, they cannot sign the Treaty without giving up their nuclear weapons as South Africa did – unless the Treaty is amended to extend the membership of the nuclear club to include them.  That is not going to happen since the support of a majority of the existing signatories is required to amend the Treaty.


The British exception

Eight states now have nuclear weapons.  All of them made their own weapons, and can make more.  All of them, apart from one, made their own delivery systems, and can make more.  All of them, apart from one, can strike targets with their weapons without the permission of any other state.  In other words, all of them, apart from one, have got what used to be referred to as an “independent nuclear deterrent”.


The exception is Britain.  France has an independent nuclear deterrent.  So have India and Pakistan.  Britain hasn’t.


Since 1998 when it decommissioned its nuclear bombs, Britain has had only one nuclear weapons system: the submarine-launched Trident missile system.  The submarine platforms (four of them) were made in Britain, as were the nuclear warheads for the missiles.  But the missiles themselves were made in the US, and are owned by the US: Britain merely leases them.  They belong to a pool of missiles managed by the US and stored at Kings Bay, Georgia.  On commissioning, the British submarines picked up their missiles from Kings Bay, and they are exchanged at Kings Bay, when they need servicing.  The warheads are fitted to the missiles onboard the submarines at the Royal Naval Armament Depot at Coulport in the west of Scotland.


Of all the nuclear powers in this world, Britain relies on another state for its delivery system.  What is more, if Tony Benn is to be believed, Britain cannot launch a Trident missile without the specific permission of the US.  According to Benn (speaking on BBC1’s This Week on 19 November), the launching submarine requires access to a US military satellite in order to determine its precise location.


So, Britain can’t use its nuclear weapons without permission of the US, permission that will be given only if it is in the US interest to do so. 


Permanent volunteer

In conventional military matters, Britain is also increasingly subordinating itself to the US.  In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute on 26 June, Geoff Hoon said:


“The multilateral nature of our future will therefore set a premium on the capacity of our forces to inter-operate with those of other countries.  Most importantly, it is highly unlikely that the United Kingdom would be engaged in large-scale combat operations without the United States, a judgement born of past experience, shared interest and our assessment of strategic trends.”


There, it is assumed that it will never be in Britain’s interest to oppose the US.  Rather, Britain will always fight alongside the US – in the words of Guardian journalist, Martin Kettle, Britain will be America’s “permanent volunteer” – and the inter-operability necessary to do that will be central to Britain’s military planning from now on.


This begs the question as to why we want to maintain the pretence of independence any more.  Should we not seek to become the 51st state of the US, and get 2 seats in the US Senate, so that we can have some say in the foreign policy we are going to follow?


Britain’s role as America’s “permanent volunteer” has serious implications for Europe.  It means that Europe cannot have a role in the world independent of the US, as long as Britain has a veto over its foreign and defence policy.  If France and others are serious about carving out an independent role for Europe, then they will have to exclude Britain.


Britain and America say that there must be no military arrangements in Europe that undermine NATO.  What they really mean is that there should be no military arrangements in Europe independent of them. 


As a war fighting alliance NATO doesn’t exist.  The US has decreed that it be so.  After the war on Yugoslavia when the US freedom of action was constrained by other NATO states, the US determined that never again would it fight a war under the banner of NATO.  In future, it was going to be its own master.  If it could get a few servants to tag along behind, then well and good, but they would have to do as they were told.  That is what has happened in Afghanistan and Iraq.


NATO is useful to the US now in two ways.  First, if a state is a NATO member, particularly if it is a recent joiner, it is easier for the US to pressurise it into providing military resources of one kind or another.  Second, it is a useful tool for resisting attempts to create independent military arrangements in Europe: these are met with cries that nothing must be done to harm NATO – and, unfortunately, no state has yet had the courage to say: “Why not?  NATO lost its role with the break up of the Soviet bloc.  It should have been disbanded then.  It should be disbanded now, and Europe should make its own defence arrangements.”



Annex A  Israel’s nuclear programme


The following is extract from an article entitled Israel’s Nuclear Development & Strategy: Future Ramifications for the Middle East Regional Balance by Laura Drake, an American academic.

“Material progress toward the achievement of a nuclear option proceeded along two separate but complementary tracks. One track was subterranean, travelled by agents of Israeli foreign intelligence. It involved the systematic location and theft of nuclear materials from advanced nuclear countries, including the United States. On at least four occasions, nuclear materials were stolen and transported to Israel by covert means.

“The most notorious instance, fully uncovered by the American intelligence in 1967, involved the Israeli theft of several hundred pounds of enriched uranium from the U.S. Nuclear Material and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) facility in Apollo, Pennsylvania with the alleged help of its American director, Zalman Shapiro. While the evidence was not sufficient to convict the principal involved, there was a "clear consensus" within the CIA that the nuclear materials in question had been diverted to Israel and used by the Israelis for nuclear weapons manufacture. Indeed, Shapiro was known to have maintained extraordinarily intimate relations with the Israeli government and its nuclear scientific community during his tenure at NUMEC.

“Other known instances of Israeli theft of nuclear materials include hit-and-run tear-gas attacks by the Israelis against uranium-laden trucks belonging to the government of France, their former nuclear benefactor.

“British nuclear cargo was similarly hijacked by individuals suspected of working for Israeli intelligence. A fourth instance involves the temporary seizure of a ship registered to what was then West Germany, from which 200 tons of yellowcake (uranium used as nuclear fuel) subsequently disappeared, an instance the U.S. intelligence has also attributed to Israel.

“The second track to Israeli nuclearisation led through the center of the French Defense Ministry. The initiative of none other than Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, then director-general of the Israeli Defense Ministry, was the critical element responsible for the forging of this connection. Noting the convergence of interests in colonial Algeria and therefore, in frustrating the overall pan-Arab ambitions of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Israel saw in Paris a potentially crucial ally. This was particularly important for Tel Aviv at a time when Washington, under the more balanced Eisenhower Administration, was still keeping a respectable distance from Israel. France and Israel thus began to work together on a massive scale. “


Labour & Trade Union Review

December 2003