Saturday, July 10, 2004

Nuclear Israel

Cross posted from The Fixer:

From Asia Times:

Nuclear Israel: Belling the cat
By Ehsan Ahrari

In an era of intense global support for nuclear non-proliferation, Israel's unspoken possession of a nuclear arsenal - euphemistically known as an outcome of its policy of "strategic ambiguity" - is coming under increased criticism and limelight. Mohammad ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - the United Nations' nuclear watchdog - visited Israel on Tuesday to talk to the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Even though a spokesman of that agency denied that ElBaradei's mission was to ask the Jewish state to unravel its nuclear-weapons program, one is hard pressed to know how else that region would ever become a nuclear-free zone. According to the unclassified estimates of the US intelligence community of the late 1990s, Israel possesses between 75 and 130 nuclear weapons.

If one were looking for a gaping example of US nuclear non-proliferation policy double standards, that it lets Israel continue to modernize its nuclear arsenal without even a word of criticism would fit the bill. Not that Washington was ever oblivious to the existence of such Israeli capabilities. On the contrary, as the website of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) - a prestigious nuclear non-proliferation group - notes, "The United States first became aware of Dimona's existence [a nuclear facility in the southern Israeli town of the same name] after U-2 overflights in 1958 captured the facility's construction, but it was not identified as a nuclear site until two years later. The complex was variously explained as a textile plant, an agricultural station, and a metallurgical research facility, until David Ben-Gurion stated in December 1960 that [the] Dimona complex was a nuclear-research center built for 'peaceful purposes'." One should recall similar explanations that India proffered in the aftermath of its so-called peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974, and until it became a declared nuclear power in 1998. Iran is currently using the very same rationale to pursue its own nuclear program.

[. . .]

From the Arab side, there has been a sustained endeavor to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Even though it has been an uphill struggle, Arab states still view it as a major - and perhaps the only - way of putting pressure on Israel to unravel its nuclear-weapons program. But their dilemma is summarized in the adage, "Who'll bell the cat?" In this instance, the Arabs' side also knows that the US is the only power that has some - in fact a lot, in their assessment - influence in initiating a meaningful dialogue with Israel to materialize the emergence of a nuclear-free zone in their area. Even though the extant tremendous advantage of Israel in conventional military power over Arab countries makes its possession of nuclear weapons well nigh unnecessary, only Washington (at least in principle) can successfully make that argument and persuade Israel to contemplate dismantling those weapons.

The chief problem with the preceding is that there is no conceivable way any US president would ask Israel to unravel its nuclear capabilities in the era of a global "war on terrorism". Yet Washington had no compunction about putting similar pressures on India and Pakistan immediately after their respective nuclear-weapons programs came out of the closet in 1998, or demanding that North Korea unravel its nuclear-weapons option, or that Iran shouldn't even consider developing its capabilities to produce nuclear weapons.

[. . .]

There is no suggestion here that Israel would seriously consider abandoning its nuclear-weapons program in the near future. But at least it is willing to talk about the issue. The only way it would ever be persuaded to give up nuclear weapons is if the US decides to speak the truth to nuclear Israel. And that is also not about to happen in the short run. In the meantime, the involvement of the IAEA promises to serve as a compelling moral force in the potential emergence of the Middle East as a nuclear-weapons-free zone, especially if the issue remains under the international limelight on a sustained basis.

At least they're talking. Although Israel's posession of nukes is probably the only thing keeping them from being overrun by an Arab state with a grudge. A tricky situation. The problem is that Israelis like Sharon have no qualms about using them.

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