Israel’s Nuclear Program and Middle East Peace

Israel’s Nuclear Program and Middle East Peace

As diplomatic pressure intensifies on Iran over its nuclear program, new attention is being focused on Israel’s nuclear capabilities and the challenges its nuclear program poses for peace in the Middle East.

February 10, 2006 3:20 pm (EST)

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A resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors to refer Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear program was delayed because of a clause inserted by Egypt calling for a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East. The clause was directed at Israel, which over the past five decades has developed a nuclear-weapons program but has neither denied nor admitted the existence of its nuclear arsenal; Israelis call this "strategic ambiguity." Unlike Iran, however, Israel is not a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and, as such, technically does not have to abide by nuclear anti-proliferation conventions. But as diplomatic pressure intensifies on Iran, new attention has been focused on Israel’s nuclear capabilities and the challenges its program poses for peace in the Middle East.

What is the capacity of Israel’s nuclear program?

It’s a widely held belief among arms-control experts that Israel began its nuclear program in the mid-1950s. One estimate, by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), puts its arsenal at around 200 nuclear warheads, which would make Israel the sixth-largest nuclear power. These warheads can be launched by air (F-16s and F-15Es), by ground (intermediate-range ballistic missiles like the Jericho II), or by sea (U.S.-made Harpoon missiles based on diesel-powered submarines or ships). Experts say Israeli missiles can reach Libya, Iran, or Russia. It is also believed Israel possesses at least 100 bunker-busting bombs—so-called mini-nukes—which are laser-guided and capable of penetrating underground targets like nuclear labs or storage facilities for weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

How do we know about Israel’s nuclear program?

American U-2 spy planes in 1958 confirmed the existence of Israel’s Dimona nuclear complex, located in the Negev desert. U.S. inspections of Israeli nuclear sites in the 1960s proved largely fruitless because of restrictions placed on the inspectors. Instead, much of what the outside world knows about Israel’s nuclear capabilities came from Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician who worked at Dimona and leaked details of the program to the British press in 1986. For his actions, he was sentenced for treason and espionage and spent eighteen years behind bars in Israel, eleven of them in solitary confinement.

Why did Israel embark on a nuclear-weapons program?

"Because of the [military] asymmetries between itself and its neighbors," says Shlomo Brom, a veteran of the Israel Defense Force and visiting scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Israel has sought an "ultimate deterrent" to protect itself stretching back to the mid-1950s (its first bomb was believed to have been developed sometime before 1968), shortly after then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s main shipping outlet to the Red Sea. Israel’s weapons program "grew out of the conviction that the Holocaust justified any measures Israel took to ensure its survival," according to the FAS. Experts point to Israel’s Arab neighbors’ alleged biological and chemical weapons programs as threats that justify its nuclear arsenal. In the 1990s, the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles by Pakistan and North Korea raised the likelihood, in Israeli eyes, of such weapons falling into the hands of its enemies. Iran’s more recent moves to enrich uranium, coupled with its president’s calls to wipe Israel "off the map," present perhaps the greatest justification for Israel’s nuclear program, experts say. A nuclear-armed Iran would likely have more confidence to fund terrorists groups opposed to Israel, says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Why is Israel deliberately vague about its nuclear arsenal?

Primarily for deterrence purposes, experts say. Charles Ferguson II, a science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Israel "has done the calculation that if it removes its ambiguity it may stimulate other states to acquire nuclear-weapon capabilities." Its ambiguous nuclear posture is also smart from a geo-strategic standpoint, Brom says. "Israel gets the benefit of being perceived as a nuclear power while at the same time not enduring potential punishment [by the international community]."

Is Israel likely to give up its nuclear program?

Not in the near future, experts say. In July 2004, the IAEA’s director general urged Israel to abandon its nuclear program as part of regional arms-control talks. Though Israel balks whenever the subject is raised, it has said it would not be the first country in the Middle East to formally introduce nuclear weapons into the region. Israel, moreover, is on record as supporting a WMD-free Middle East. But conditions by Israel would be stringent, experts say. First, there must be "comprehensive peace" with its Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians. Second, Israel’s neighbors, including Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, would have to verifiably dismantle their suspected chemical and biological weapons programs.

What does Israel’s nuclear capability mean for the Middle East?

Arab states, particularly Egypt, often shift attention at nuclear arms control conferences toward Israel’s nuclear stockpile and raise the issue of achieving a nuclear-free Middle East. According to Joseph Cirincione, director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, most weapons programs in the Middle East began in direct response to Israel’s decision to go nuclear in the 1950s and 1960s. "Everyone already knows about Israel’s bombs in the closet," he wrote in a March 2005 article in The Globalist. "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." But Brom is less certain. The main motivation, for example, behind Iran’s nuclear program is not Israel, he says, but "the prestige in acquiring the status of a nuclear power." Iran’s alleged nuclear program is motivated more by the perceived threat of the United States than Israel, says Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in an August 2005 International Herald Tribune op-ed. Because Israel and Iran have no territorial disputes and Israel has never threatened Iran from a nuclear standpoint, he writes, "Tehran has the luxury of viewing Israel as an ideological affront rather than a military challenge."

Is a nuclear-free Middle East a realistic vision?

This idea, first proposed by Egypt and Iran in a 1974 UN General Assembly resolution, faces numerous obstacles. Because of recent elections of Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the nuclear showdown over Iran, Brom says a nuclear-free Middle East "will not happen anytime in the close future." Flynt Leverett, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is more hopeful. In a New York Times op-ed, he points to recent remarks on the subject by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister: "His implication that a nuclear-weapons-free Gulf might precede a region-wide nuclear-weapons-free zone is a nuanced departure from longstanding Arab insistence that regional arms control cannot begin without Israel’s denuclearization." If the region were to relinquish its WMDs, the country most at risk would be Israel, experts say. Bennett Ramberg, who served in the State Department under then-President George H. W. Bush, in a May/June 2004 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, suggested that membership for Israel in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) might mitigate Israeli insecurity. Others, however, say this is unrealistic, given misgivings about Israeli policies among some NATO members. On February 10, Israel’s Ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein, told Reuters "Israel has a great interest now in qualitatively upgrading its relations with NATO."

Is Israel capable of knocking out Iran’s nuclear capabilities?

In the event of a military attack, experts foresee a limited air attack by Israel, similar to its attack against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in 1981. But Iran poses a greater challenge than Iraq did—its nuclear sites are more fortified and scattered throughout the country, many of them underground. Employing its F-15s, Israel could probably take out several of Iran’s nuclear sites, including Isfahan and Natanz, but not all, experts say. While such a strike would delay Iran’s nuclear capabilities, it would not eradicate its nuclear ambitions, says CFR’s Ferguson. "I’m leaning more toward the idea that [the Iranians] are so committed to this program, they won’t give it up by threat of military force," he says.

What is the likelihood of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East?

According to recent workshops by the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, if Iran’s nuclear program were left unchecked, this could encourage Tehran’s Arab neighbors and Turkey either to seek nuclear capabilities of their own (i.e. Israel) or to import nuclear technologies (i.e. Saudi Arabia). Ferguson says this could set off a "lukewarm arms race," but adds it would take Iran—or any state in the region—decades to match Israel’s level of nuclear warheads. Instead, Ferguson predicts that, in response to a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran, some Arab states and Turkey might "try to use the NPT as a cover to acquire at least the capability to break out into nuclear weapons development."

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