The Iran deal and Israel’s nuclear monopoly

Friday 24/07/2015
Partial view of Israel’s Dimona nuclear power plant

The historic agreement between Iran and six world powers on Tehran’s nuclear programme has a side effect virtually ignored in the West – the deal perpetuates Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. As long as that persists, the notion of eventually turning the region into a nuclear-free zone remains a fantasy.
Critics of the accord between Iran and the P5+1 — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — say that Iran cannot be trusted to stick to the accord, which restricts Tehran’s ability to work on nuclear weap­ons in return for lifting harsh economic sanctions.
Sceptics point to past Iranian efforts, documented by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, to conceal parts of its nuclear programme and its efforts to enrich uranium in secret facilities.
By far the loudest cries of alarm about the agreement are coming from the one and only country in the region that has a nuclear arsenal — Israel. In the latest edition of its yearbook on arma­ments, the Stockholm Interna­tional Peace Research Institute estimates that Israel has 80 nuclear warheads. Other esti­mates are higher. Israel neither confirms nor denies it has atomic bombs under a US-blessed policy of “nuclear opacity”.
There is an irony of history in vociferous Israeli objec­tions to the deal and in its outrage over deceptive Iranian practices. Why? They resemble those of Israel from the time it began working, in the late 1950s, on nuclear weap­ons at the Dimona reactor in the Negev desert.
The veil of secrecy over the project was so effective that it took years for US intelligence to figure out its purpose, according to Avner Cohen, a leading expert on Israel’s nuclear bombs. A non-prolifera­tion scholar at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, Cohen is the author of two landmark books on the history of Israel’s weapons: Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb.
Cohen and William Burr, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, recently released a trove of documents that add detail to the story of Israeli nuclear deception. One of the papers refers to an Israeli official’s answer to a question US Ambassa­dor to Israel Ogden Reid asked when the two were on a helicopter flying over a huge construction site near Dimona in 1960. “What is being built there?” Reid asked. “It’s a textile factory,” he was told.
Middle East pundit Juan Cole has ascribed Israel’s fierce opposition to the nuclear deal to “mirror thinking” — Israel cheated so it assumes Iran will cheat, too.
Almost a decade of on-and-off negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 has produced a flood of analyses on subjects from the number of centrifuges and the frequency of inspections to what type of bomb would be required to knock out nuclear reactors if the deal fell apart and Iran moved towards weapons production.
But there has been almost no debate in the West on how maintaining the present imbal­ance of nuclear power in the Middle East could be compatible with long-standing calls to turn one of the world’s most volatile regions into a nuclear-free zone. It is an idea that has been on the UN agenda for decades and enjoys overwhelming international support.
Those in favour include US President Barack Obama, who soon after taking office in 2009 declared “clearly and with conviction America’s commit­ment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”. The commit­tee that awarded him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize cited “his vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”.
But there is a large gap between words and deeds, particularly where Israel is concerned.
In May, a UN meeting meant to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Pro­liferation Treaty ended in failure when the United States and two of its closest allies, Canada and Britain, opposed a proposal to have a conference on a nuclear-free Middle East. It would have required Israel to confirm its nuclear arsenal.