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Nuclear Double Standards in the Middle East 

29 Jun 2021
By Clive Williams
Third stage of Israeli space launch vehicle Shavit, also used to launch Jericho missiles. Source:   טל ענבר

Israel has the world’s eighth largest nuclear arsenal. US and Australian support has allowed Israel to avoid being held accountable for its nuclear weapons program.

For decades, US presidents have pledged not to talk about Israel’s nuclear arsenal despite pushing for non-proliferation in the region and tight containment of Iran’s ongoing nuclear research program. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed earlier this year that Israel was carrying out a major expansion of its Dimona nuclear facility and accused Western leaders and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of hypocrisy for targeting Iran’s nuclear program but ignoring Israel’s. Unlike Iran, Israel is not a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nor has it allowed IAEA inspectors to visit its nuclear weapon sites.

Israel has consistently denied having “introduced” nuclear weapons into the Middle East and has maintained a policy of nuclear ambiguity. This policy dates back to 1969, when US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted that Israel was allowed to buy US Phantom aircraft on condition that Israel “not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Near East.” Israel semantically interpreted “introduce” to mean that Israel could possess nuclear weapons if it did not test, deploy, or make them public. This continues to be Israel’s policy.

In 1986, Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu revealed details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the British media, undermining Israel’s ambiguity position. Vanunu was subsequently abducted from Italy by Mossad and taken back to Israel, where he spent 18 years in prison, including more than 11 years in solitary confinement. He has since been jailed twice for breaching the terms of his parole, under which he is not allowed to talk to journalists or try to leave Israel.

The weapons-grade fissile material stocks in Israel are assumed to have originated from two sources. The first is through French assistance in the 1960s to establish the Negev Nuclear Research Centre near Dimona. Second, 300 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium were supposedly obtained in the late 1960s from a US naval propulsion reactor fuel fabrication plant.

The Soreq Nuclear Research Center in central Israel is also fuelled by uranium. IAEA inspectors are permitted to visit the site, but Israel is unable to import more highly enriched uranium to fuel the reactor because of its non-membership of the NPT.

The Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation states that Israel is widely believed to possess 90 plutonium-based nuclear warheads and enough plutonium for 100-200 weapons. In 2016, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly assessed the Israeli arsenal at 200 nuclear weapons.

Having nuclear warheads is of little military or strategic value unless the keeper has the means to deliver them. Carnegie Moscow Center analysis suggests that the Israel Defense Forces currently possesses a nuclear triad of delivery systems based on tactical aircraft, mobile surface-to-surface missile systems, and diesel-electric submarines. Israel has several US aircraft types that could deliver a nuclear gravity bomb at a distance of up to 1,650 kilometres, and possibly further with aerial refuelling or aircraft modification.  Israel is estimated to have about 30 aircraft-deliverable nuclear bombs.

Israel’s ballistic missiles are the Jericho II, with a range of 1,500-1,800 kilometres, and the Jericho III, with an estimated range of over 4,000 kilometres. The Iranian Natanz nuclear facility is 1,800 kilometres from Israel and the Fordow fuel enrichment plant about 2,000. As of January 2018, Israel was estimated to have up to 80 mobile launchers for its Jericho II and Jericho III missiles and about 50 nuclear warheads for these missiles.

The naval component of Israel’s nuclear triad consists of six German-made Dolphin-class diesel-electric submarines armed with cruise missiles capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads. An estimated 30-40 nuclear weapons have been allocated to the submarines, with a possible missile delivery range of up to 1,500 kilometres.

Despite the 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab states, Arab states remain committed to the Middle East becoming a nuclear weapons-free zone – a position which of course is intended to keep pressure on Israel to give up its nuclear weapons. In a more objective world, Israel would be made to account for its covert program, and at least encouraged to join the NPT and allow IAEA inspectors to visit all of its nuclear sites. But that’s not going to happen as long as the US and other Western countries, including Australia, are prepared to turn a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. In 2016, the US and Israeli governments signed their third 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on military aid, covering FY2019 to FY2028. Under the terms of the MOU, the US pledged to provide – subject to Congressional appropriation – another $49 billion AUD in military aid to Israel.

The US Foreign Assistance Act and Arms Export Control Act actually prohibit US economic and military assistance to nuclear proliferators and countries that acquire nuclear weapons. However, a US president can override that prohibition in the US national interest. So far – mainly for US domestic political reasons – no US president has been prepared to prohibit US economic and military aid to Israel.

Professor Clive Williams MG is a Visiting Professor at the ANU’s Centre for Military and Security Law and Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.  

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.