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From: Irish Foreign Affairs: Articles
Date: July, 2009
By: David Morrison

The elephant in the room: Israels nuclear weapons

The elephant in the room: Israels nuclear weapons
by David Morrison

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 Israels 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 Israels 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 Presidents 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 Israels 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 Israels 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 Israels
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 Israels existence from
Irans 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.

Lets 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 dont 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
wont 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 doesnt 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 UKs
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 Irans 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 wasnt.
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 Israels deterrent capacity.
Listen to this from an article in Haaretz on 15 May 2009

This is the place to emphasize Israels mistake in hyping the Iranian
threat. The regime in Tehran is certainly a bitter and inflexible rival, but
from there its a long way to presenting it as a truly existential threat to
Israel. Irans 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, Israels 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 Haaretz.
Much of Pedatzurs 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 Irans 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]

Pedatzurs 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.

Thats what Iran says. As required by the NPT, Irans 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 hasnt declared to the
IAEA. The IAEA has found no evidence for this, but the
possibility cannot be completely ruled out.
Irans 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 hadnt
restarted its programme in the interim (see my article Iran hasnt
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 Irans 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 isnt mandatory on a state under
the NPT (and Brazil, which also has uranium enrichment facilities,
doesnt allow it). The Additional Protocol is designed to
allow the IAEA to get a full picture of a states 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 hasnt 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

That is one additional measure that could be taken to help
provide assurance that Irans 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 Irans uranium enrichment facilities under a
degree of international control. Perhaps, President Obamas 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, didnt 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 isnt going to happen any time

Dont 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 Haaretz 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

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.

Thats 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
isnt going to allow Israel to stand in the way of that policy.

Obama says whos 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 wasnt 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.