The elephant in the room: Israel’s nuclear weapons


“One of the areas that we discussed is the deepening concern around the potential pursuit of a nuclear weapon by Iran.  … Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would not only be a threat to Israel and a threat to the United States, but would be profoundly destabilizing in the international community as a whole and could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would be extraordinarily dangerous for all concerned, including for Iran.” [1]


Those words were spoken by President Barack Obama at a press conference in the White House on 18 May 2009.  By his side was Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.


In the room with them, there was an elephant, a large and formidably destructive elephant, which they and the assembled press pretended not to see.


I am, of course, referring to Israel’s actual nuclear weapons systems, which are capable of doing to cities in the Middle East what the US did to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  The Federation of American Scientists estimates that Israel has 80 warheads [2]; other experts on these matters reckon it may have as many as 400 [3].


Iran has none, zero.  The President said so himself in Prague on 5 April 2009, when he announced “America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” [4].  He averted his eyes from Israel’s nuclear arsenal on that occasion as well.


At a press briefing onboard Air Force One en route to Prague, a funny thing happened which shows that it is administration policy to do so [5].  Denis McDonough, a deputy National Security Advisor, was holding forth about the President’s plans for universal nuclear disarmament, when the following dialogue took place:


Q    Have you included Israel in the discussion?

MR. McDONOUGH:  Pardon me?

Q    Have you included Israel in the discussion?

MR. McDONOUGH:  Look, I think what you'll see tomorrow is a very comprehensive speech. 


Secret Nixon/Meir deal

It looks as if the US is still sticking to the secret deal that President Nixon made with Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, in September 1969.  Under it, the US agreed not to acknowledge publicly that Israel possessed nuclear weapons, while knowing full well that it did.  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.


(For the fascinating story of how this came to be US policy, see Israel crosses the threshold, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No 189 [6].)


Sitting beside Netanyahu, Obama said that “Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon” would be “profoundly destabilizing” and “could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East”.  That is a profoundly dishonest statement.  In reality, the race started in the early 1950s when Israel launched a nuclear weapons programme.


For many years, Israel went to great lengths to keep the existence of this programme secret, because it feared that the US would put pressure on it to terminate the 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.  So, although inspectors suspected the wool was being pulled over their eyes, they were unable to prove it.


When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) 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.  Israel refused.  The issue was finally resolved by the agreement between Nixon and Meir in September 1969, at which point, the US ceased sending inspection teams to Dimona and stopped pressing Israel to sign the Treaty.


As I said, it looks as if, 40 years later, the Nixon/Meir agreement still forms the basis of US policy with regard to Israel’s nuclear weapons.  But there has been a development, which may mean a change is afoot (see below).


Iran would not commit suicide

At his White House press conference with Obama, Netanyahu told the usual tale of a looming threat to Israel’s existence from Iran’s nuclear weapons:


“In this context, the worst danger we face is that Iran would develop nuclear military capabilities.  Iran openly calls for our destruction, which is unacceptable by any standard.  It threatens the moderate Arab regimes in the Middle East.  It threatens U.S. interests worldwide.”


One wonders how he has the brass neck to complain about the possibility that Iran may develop a nuclear weapon at some time in the future, when Israel has lots of them now and that, as Israeli Prime Minister, he has the means to raze to the ground, at the touch of a button, tens, if not hundreds, of cities in the Middle East, including Tehran.


Let’s suppose for a moment that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme, which will produce effective nuclear warheads and the means of delivering them to Israel, within a few years.  Would that make Iran a serious threat to Israel, as Obama said?  Of course, not.


Rulers of Iran don’t want their cities devastated and they know that, if Iran were to make a nuclear strike on Israel, it is absolutely certain that Israel would retaliate by making multiple nuclear strikes on Iran and raze many Iranian cities to the ground – so Iran won’t do it.  Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal, and the ruthlessness to use it, that is more than adequate to deter Iran from making a nuclear strike on Israel.


Likewise, it is unimaginable that Iran would attack the US, or US interests abroad, for fear of overwhelming retaliation.


Taking account of the elephant in the room puts a very different perspective on the impact of a nuclear-armed Iran.


Ultimate weapons of self-defence

The significance of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is not that Iran would become a threat to Israel and the US, but that Israel and the US would no longer contemplate attacking Iran.  Nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapons of self-defence – a state that possesses nuclear weapons doesn’t get attacked by other states.


As Seumas Milne put it in The Guardian on 27 May 2009, writing about North Korea:


“… the idea, much canvassed in recent days, that there is something irrational in North Korea's attempt to acquire nuclear weapons is clearly absurd. This is, after all, a state that has been targeted for regime change by the US ever since the end of the cold war, included as one of the select group of three in George Bush's axis of evil in 2002, and whose Clinton administration guarantee of ‘no hostile intent’ was explicitly withdrawn by his successor.


“In April 2003, North Korea drew the obvious conclusion from the US and British aggression against Iraq. The war showed, it commented at the time, ‘that to allow disarmament through inspections does not help avert a war, but rather sparks it’. Only ‘a tremendous military deterrent force’, it stated with unavoidable logic, could prevent attacks on states the world's only superpower was determined to bring to heel.


“The lesson could not be clearer. Of Bush's ‘axis’ states, Iraq, which had no weapons of mass destruction, was invaded and occupied; North Korea, which already had some nuclear capacity, was left untouched and is most unlikely to be attacked in future; while Iran, which has yet to develop a nuclear capability, is still threatened with aggression by both the US and Israel.” [7]


In the White Paper arguing for the maintenance of the UK’s nuclear weapons (published in December 2006), the Government said that they are “to deter and prevent … acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means”. [8]  Could there be a better argument for Iran acquiring nuclear weapons?


One thing is certain: attacking Iran, ostensibly to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, would make the case for it acquiring them like nothing else.  It would then be abundantly clear that Iran’s “vital interests” could not be “countered by other means” – and it can be guaranteed that it would then make a supreme effort to acquire them.


Gates says Israel has nuclear weapons

Surprisingly, one senior member of the Obama administration, Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, has stated publicly that Israel possesses nuclear weapons and that it would be rational for Iran to seek nuclear weapons as a deterrent.  He did so at his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 5 December 2006 [9], following his nomination by President Bush to succeed Donald Rumsfeld.


Gates was questioned by Senator Lindsey Graham about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and the threat to Israel if it did.  He said that he believed that Iran was trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and was lying when it said it wasn’t.  However, he suggested that its motivation was self-defence.  Asked by Senator Graham:


“Do you believe the Iranians would consider using that nuclear weapons capability against the nation of Israel?”


he replied:


“I don't know that they would do that, Senator. ... And I think that, while they are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for nuclear capability, I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent.  They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf.”


This is a remarkable reply from somebody who was about to become US Defense Secretary.  He should have a word with his new boss in the White House and put him straight about who is responsible for the nuclear arms race in the Middle East – and suggest that the US could reduce the intensity of the race by withdrawing its nuclear-armed ships from the Persian Gulf.


Israel can live with a nuclear-armed Iran

Some voices are being raised in Israel pointing out that, contrary to the extravagant rhetoric of Israeli political leaders, a nuclear-armed Iran would not be an existential threat to Iran, given Israel’s deterrent capacity.


Listen to this from an article in Ha’aretz on 15 May 2009


“This is the place to emphasize Israel’s mistake in hyping the Iranian threat. The regime in Tehran is certainly a bitter and inflexible rival, but from there it’s a long way to presenting it as a truly existential threat to Israel. Iran’s involvement in terror in our region is troubling, but a distinction must be made between a willingness to bankroll terrorists, and an intention to launch nuclear missiles against Israel. Even if Iran gets nuclear weapons, Israel’s power of deterrence will suffice to dissuade any Iranian ruler from even contemplating launching nuclear weapons against it. …


“In another year, or three years from now, when the Iranians possess nuclear weapons, the rules of the strategic game in the region will be completely altered. Israel must reach that moment with a fully formulated and clear policy in hand, enabling it to successfully confront a potential nuclear threat, even when it is likely that the other side has no intention of carrying it out. The key, of course, is deterrence. Only a clear and credible signal to the Iranians, indicating the terrible price they will pay for attempting a nuclear strike against Israel, will prevent them from using their missiles. The Iranians have no logical reason to bring about the total destruction of their big cities, as could happen if Israel uses the means of deterrence at its disposal. Neither the satisfaction of killing Zionist infidels, nor, certainly, the promotion of Palestinian interests would justify that price. Israeli deterrence in the face of an Iranian nuclear threat has a good chance of succeeding precisely because the Iranians have no incentive to deal a mortal blow to Israel.” [10]


This is by Dr Reuven Pedatzur, senior lecturer at the Strategic Studies Program, Tel Aviv University, fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force reserves, as well as Defense Analyst for Ha’aretz.


Much of Pedatzur’s article is taken up with reviewing a study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on the possible scenarios for an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the chances of success.  Its conclusion is:


“A military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities is possible … [but] would be complex and high-risk and would lack any assurances that the overall mission will have a high success rate.” [11]


Pedatzur’s point is that Israel should prepare to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, rather than fantasising that it is possible for Israel to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons (assuming it has a mind to do so) by bombing its nuclear facilities – and should stop scaring its citizens unnecessarily by giving the impression that, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, then the existence of Israel as a state is under serious threat.


According to a recent opinion poll, some 23% of Israelis would consider leaving the country if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon [12].  The poll was conducted on behalf of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.  Commenting on the poll results, the head of the Center, Professor David Menashri, said:


“The findings are worrying because they reflect an exaggerated and unnecessary fear.  Iran's leadership is religiously extremist but calculated and it understands an unconventional attack on Israel is an act of madness that will destroy Iran. Sadly, the survey shows the Iranian threat works well even without a bomb and thousands of Israelis [already] live in fear and contemplate leaving the country.”


Has Iran got a nuclear weapons programme?

Has Iran got a nuclear weapons programme, in violation of its obligations under the NPT?


Iran has repeatedly denied that it has such a programme.  Furthermore, the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa in September 2004 that “the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons” [13].  In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of his predecessor and founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini.


That’s what Iran says.  As required by the NPT, Iran’s nuclear facilities are subject to IAEA inspection.   And, despite many years of inspection and investigation, the IAEA has found no evidence that Iran has, or ever had, a nuclear weapons programme, though Western media consistently give the opposite impression.  True, the possibility exists that Iran has nuclear facilities for military purposes, which it hasn’t declared to the IAEA.  The IAEA has found no evidence for this, but the possibility cannot be completely ruled out.


Iran’s possession of uranium enrichment facilities is not in breach of the NPT, so long as they are for civil nuclear purposes.  The operation of these facilities at Natanz is subject to rigorous IAEA scrutiny.  The IAEA has testified that only low enriched uranium suitable for a power generation reactor is being produced there and that no nuclear material is being diverted from the plant for other purposes, for example, to further enrich uranium to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon.  That being so, the ongoing demands that Iran suspend these enrichment facilities is a denial of its “inalienable right” under Article IV(1) of the NPT to engage in nuclear activities for peaceful purposes.


What is the current US intelligence assessment?  A US National Intelligence Estimate, the key judgments of which were published in December 2007 [14], concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in the autumn of 2003, and hadn’t restarted its programme in the interim (see my article Iran hasn’t a nuclear weapons programme says US intelligence [15]).  Commenting on this 4 December 2007, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, noted that:


“the Estimate tallies with the Agency´s consistent statements over the last few years that, although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities, the Agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran.” [16]


No uranium enrichment, says US/EU

The present position of the US/EU seems to be that Iran should not have uranium enrichment facilities on its own territory, under any circumstances.  As I have said above, this is a denial of Iran’s “inalienable right” under Article IV(1) of the NPT to engage in nuclear activities for peaceful purposes.  It is also discriminatory against Iran, since no objection has ever been raised to other states, for example, Brazil and Japan, having enrichment facilities on their own territory in order to manufacture reactor fuel.


Iran entered into negotiations with the UK, France and Germany about its nuclear facilities in October 2003.  During these negotiations, Iran voluntarily suspended a range of nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment.  The negotiations came to an abrupt halt in August 2005 when the European states made proposals, which required Iran to abandon all processing of domestically mined uranium, including enrichment, and to import all fuel for nuclear power reactors.


Had Iran accepted these proposals, its nuclear power generation would have been dependent on fuel from abroad, which could be cut off at any time, even though Iran has a domestic supply of uranium ore. It was no surprise, therefore, that Iran rejected these proposals out of hand – and later resumed those activities it had suspended, including uranium enrichment.


Since then, the US/EU took Iran to the Security Council about its nuclear activities.  The Council has passed various resolutions demanding, inter alia, that Iran suspend uranium enrichment and imposing (rather mild) economic sanctions on it in an attempt to compel it to do so.  Russia and China have gone along with this rather reluctantly, while using their veto power to keep the sanctions mild.


Providing assurance

The key question is: are there any circumstances in which the US/EU would be content for Iran to have uranium enrichment facilities on its own territory?  For example, could additional measures be put in place to provide assurance that these, and other nuclear facilities, are being used for peaceful purposes only?


In the past, Iran did allow an enhanced form of IAEA inspection, under a so-called Additional Protocol to its basic inspection agreement with the IAEA.  This isn’t mandatory on a state under the NPT (and Brazil, which also has uranium enrichment facilities, doesn’t allow it).  The Additional Protocol is designed to allow the IAEA to get a full picture of a state’s nuclear activities by providing the agency with authority to visit any facility, declared or not, and to visit unannounced – and thereby seek to eliminate the possibility that a state is engaging in nuclear activity for military purposes at sites that it hasn’t declared to the agency.


Iran signed an Additional Protocol in 2003 and allowed the IAEA to operate under it from December 2003 until February 2006.  But, it withdrew permission in February 2006 when it was referred to the Security Council.  There is little doubt that it would be prepared to allow the IAEA to operate under an Additional Protocol again, if the Security Council dogs were called off and the economic sanctions imposed by the Security Council were lifted.


That is one additional measure that could be taken to help provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear facilities are being used for peaceful purposes only.  Another measure was suggested by Iran, as long ago as 17 September 2005.  Then, in a speech to the UN General Assembly, President Ahmadinejad made the following extraordinary offer, which goes way beyond the requirements of the NPT:


“… as a further confidence building measure and in order to provide the greatest degree of transparency, the Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment program in Iran.”


Needless to say, the US/EU have ignored this proposal, which would have put Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities under a degree of international control.  Perhaps, President Obama’s staff should draw this proposal to his attention.


Join the NPT, says the US

An NPT review conference is due in 2010.  A conference to prepare an agenda for it took place in New York recently.


Today, the NPT has 189 signatories, 5 as “nuclear-weapon” states, which, under the Treaty, are allowed to keep their nuclear weapons, and the other 184 as “non-nuclear-weapon” states, which are forbidden to acquire them.


Under Article IX(3) of the Treaty, states that “manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January, 1967” qualify as “nuclear-weapon” states.  The 5 states that qualified for this privilege were China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.


Today, only 4 states in the world – India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – are not signatories.  India, Israel and Pakistan have never signed; North Korea did sign, but has since withdrawn from the Treaty.


The US delegate to the preparation conference was Assistant Secretary of State, Rose Gottemoeller, the newly appointed chief disarmament negotiator for the US.  The following sentence in her statement to the conference on 5 May 2009 worried Israel:


“Universal adherence to the NPT itself – including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – also remains a fundamental objective of the United States.” [17]


There was nothing new in the US calling for universal adherence to the NPT.  However, the fact that Israel was explicitly named caused anxiety in Israel.  No doubt the fact that the US, its closest ally, put it in the dock alongside North Korea, a founder member of the “axis of evil”, didn’t please either.  The Guardian reported that “a diplomatic row” had broken out between the US and Israel about her remark [18].


You can understand why Israel is worried: this has the appearance of the US reverting to its policy prior to the Nixon/Meir agreement in September 1969, when it was pressing Israel to join the NPT.


Joining the NPT has serious implications for Israel.  Since it acquired nuclear weapons after the beginning of 1967, it cannot sign the Treaty as a “nuclear-weapon” state.  If Israel were forced to sign the NPT, it would have to give up its nuclear weapons and sign as a “non-nuclear-weapon”.


The same is true of India, Pakistan and North Korea – so universal adherence to the NPT isn’t going to happen any time soon.


Don’t attack Iran, says Obama

Obama has told Israel not to take military action against Iran, and he has told the world that he has done so.   Obama quashed Israel military option against Iranwas the title of an article by Yossi Melman in Ha’aretz on 22 May 2009, [19].  Here are its opening paragraphs:


Israel's military option against Iran has died. The death warrant was issued courtesy of the new US administration led by Barack Obama.

”All the administration's senior officials, from the president to his vice president, Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others are sending strong, clear hints that Israel does not have permission to strike Iran. Yet, given their familiarity with the Israeli client, they have not made do with simple hints and intimations. Washington dispatched the new CIA director, Leon Panetta, to Israel. Panetta made clear to Netanyahu, in so many words, that an Israeli attack would create ‘big trouble’.”


The Jerusalem Post quoted Panetta as saying that he "felt assured" Israel would not break ranks with Washington's strategy (see article, entitled CIA head: Jerusalem knows not to attack Iran, on 20 May 2009 [20]).  He continued:


“Yes, the Israelis are obviously concerned about Iran and focused on it. But [Netanyahu] understands that if Israel goes it alone, it will mean big trouble. He knows that for the sake of Israeli security, they have to work together with others.”


That’s treating Israel like an unruly child that has to be told to behave itself – and then, rather than keeping the matter in the family, broadcasting it to the world.


It is not unprecedented for the US to restrain Israel.  What is unprecedented is that the US made public the fact that it restrained Israel.  Why did it do so?  Its purpose must have been to demonstrate that it is serious about improving relations with the Muslim world in general, and with Iran in particular, and that it isn’t going to allow Israel to stand in the way of that policy.


Obama says who’s boss

On 8 January 2009, the Security Council passed resolution 1860 calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.  The voting was 14 to 0, with one abstention.  The US abstained, despite the fact the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, had played a major part in formulating the resolution and had therefore been expected to vote for it.  The rumour was that Israel had intervened.


A few days later the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, confirmed that this was true, boasting in a speech that he had changed US policy with a single phone call to President Bush:


“In the night between Thursday and Friday [8/9 January], when the secretary of state wanted to lead the vote on a ceasefire at the Security Council, we did not want her to vote in favour.


“I said 'get me President Bush on the phone'. They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care. 'I need to talk to him now'. He got off the podium and spoke to me.


“I told him the United States could not vote in favour. It cannot vote in favour of such a resolution. He immediately called the secretary of state and told her not to vote in favour.


She was left shamed. A resolution that she prepared and arranged, and in the end she did not vote in favour.” [21]


It was very foolish of Olmert to boast in public that he had changed US policy with a single phone call to the US president.  It gave the impression that Israel has the clout to make Middle East policy for the US, an impression that wasn’t entirely unwarranted in the days of President Bush.


By telling the world that he has killed off Israel's military option against Iran, Obama has made it clear that, where its interests demand it, the US will make policy for Israel, and not the other way round, as happened last January.


David Morrison

2 June 2009