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.” 
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,
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 ;
other experts on these matters reckon it may have as many as 400 .
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” . 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 . 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
MR. McDONOUGH: Pardon me?
Q Have you included Israel in the
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.
the fascinating story of how this came to be US
policy, see Israel
crosses the threshold, National
Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No 189 .)
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
“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
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”.  Could there be a better argument for Iran acquiring
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
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
“Do you believe the Iranians would consider using that
nuclear weapons capability against the nation of Israel?”
“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
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
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
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.” 
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.” 
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
obtains a nuclear weapon . 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:
findings are worrying because they reflect an exaggerated and unnecessary
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.”
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” . In doing so, he was following in the
footsteps of his predecessor and founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah
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
What is the current US intelligence
assessment? A US National Intelligence Estimate,
the key judgments of which were published in December 2007 ,
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 ). 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“… 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.”
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
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
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.
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
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
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 .
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
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
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 Iran”
was the title of an
article by Yossi Melman in Ha’aretz
on 22 May 2009, . Here are its opening paragraphs:
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
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 ). 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.”
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.
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
Obama says who’s boss
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
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.” 
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.
2 June 2009