Sign Up

Iran and Israel’s Nuclear Weapons

Is it in Israel’s interest to help to create a nuclear-free Middle East?

March 11, 2005

Is it in Israel's interest to help to create a nuclear-free Middle East?

For quite some time now, Washington officials have been pressuring the International Atomic Energy Agency to find Iran’s nuclear power program in “material breach” of its treaty obligations not to develop nuclear weapons.

The tough talk against Tehran has inadvertently put on the table a program that no one in Washington wants to discuss openly — Israel’s nuclear weapons program.

In fact, the world does well to remember that most Middle East weapons programs began as a response to Israel’s development of nuclear weapons. That program started in the early 1950s — and had secretly yielded a bomb by 1968.

Israel is now believed to have between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons, a stockpile of chemical weapons and a biological weapons program that may have developed several weapons agents.

If you do not know much about Israel’s programs, it is not surprising.

Israel is never mentioned in semi-annual reports the U.S. Congress requires the intelligence agencies to prepare on “the acquisition by foreign countries during the preceding six months of dual-use and other technology useful for the development or production of weapons of mass destruction.”

The agencies provide their assessment of programs in Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan and others, but Israel (and Egypt) are omitted. This pattern is repeated across the board.

For example, the 2003 report on the ballistic and cruise missile threat from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center lists 18 nations with missiles, including U.S. allies Bulgaria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Yemen, and Egypt — but not Israel.
Yet, Israel is the only nation in the Middle East with nuclear weapons and an array of medium-range missiles that could deliver them.

Of course, the United States does not see Israel as a threat — but other nations in the region do. That is the whole point.

By ignoring Israel’s programs in order to protect the people of Israel, we may actually be increasing their danger.

It should be obvious that Israelis are better off in a region where no one has nuclear weapons than in one where many nations have them.

That is why repeated UN resolutions have called for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

The United States, Israel and the Arab states have all supported this goal. In fact, for a few years in the 1990s regional talks on these issues appeared to make significant progress — but sputtered out as the Palestinian-Israeli peace process collapsed.

That was then. Now, U.S. policy is based on a different assumption. It seeks to knock off evil regimes seeking these deadly arsenals while tolerating — even encouraging — their possession by states deemed responsible.

This policy can work piecemeal, as in Iraq, but cannot work systematically because the proliferation impetus transcends particular regimes.

Proliferation issues arise in democracies as well as dictatorships.

Even if democratic transformations sweep the Middle East, a new Iraq and a new Iran would still want nuclear weapons as long as Israel has them — and as long as they are seen as the currency of great powers.

The Iranian nuclear program began under the Shah in 1958, with the first U.S.-supplied reactor going online in 1967. The program will likely continue under future governments unless fundamental regional dynamics are altered.

While recognizing the genuine security concerns that gave rise to the Israeli programs, now may be the perfect moment to use the victories from a preventive war in Iraq to ensure that we do not have to wage one again.

Now is the time to put U.S. muscle behind long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a nuclear-free Middle East region.

No one would deny the serious internal security issues confronting Israel. What is not appreciated, however, is that nuclear weapons are completely irrelevant to that struggle.

Lost in the cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence is the fact that Israel has never been more secure from external threats.

Its conventional forces can easily defeat any conceivable combination of Arab armies. One of its key regional opponents — Iraq — has just been eliminated.

Syria’s forces are now retreating from Lebanon, the Taliban has been removed from power in Afghanistan and there is no longer a Soviet Union to arm and encourage Arab regimes hostile to Israel’s existence. There is now a substantial U.S. military force in the region.

Thus, Israel has less need of nuclear weapons now than at any time in its history and it has a clear interest in preventing any other regional power from getting the one weapon that could offset its conventional superiority.

Arab and Muslim nations now believe that their suspicions of U.S. regional goals have been verified by the failure to turn up any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq and continued threats to remove other regional governments.

Despite the recent progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations, many still doubt President Bush’s commitment to a genuine negotiated settlement.

Instead of confirming these suspicions, the United States could now prove them wrong by adopting an even-handed policy that views all nonconventional weapons in the Middle East as threats to regional peace and stability.

Everyone already knows about Israel’s bombs in the closet. Bringing them out into the open and putting them on the table as part of a regional deal may be the only way to prevent others from building their own bombs in their basements.

It will not be easy and will likely take years to fashion such an agreement. That is why there is no time to lose.

With diplomatic currents in the region now running in President Bush’s favor, this is precisely the time to intensify efforts to create a zone free of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East.

President Bush may be in an ideal position to cut this knot of real and exaggerated security threats — a knot pulled tighter by Israel’s undeclared possession of nuclear weapons and by its continuing conflict with the Palestinians and with neighboring Arab states that do not recognize its existence.

Joe Cirincione is the co-author of the March 2005 Carnegie report, “Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security,” available online here.