A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Israel's Nukes and the Iranian Issue

This article in the conservative Washington Times, and this sidebar accompanying it, are provoking some commentary today because they imply that the Obama Administration's efforts to stem nuclear proliferation could lead to exposing Israel's nuclear arsenal and making it part of the debate about Iranian nuclear ambitions. The implication seems to be that the US might expect Israel to be willing to trade off its own strategic deterrent, but the idea that somehow the US has been "shielding" Israel's nuclear arsenal for 40 years seems a bit far-fetched.

Israel's nuclear arsenal is not a secret in the usual sense. In the defense literature through the years there have been fairly detailed descriptions of delivery systems and how and where they are deployed. There are muliple books on the subject, some credible (just about anything by Avner Cohen), some a bit credulous (Seymour Hersh's The Samson Option). I've always suspected the Israelis wanted details to leak out — a deterrent doesn't deter if the other side doesn't know you have it — and that the abduction and jailing of Mordechai Vanunu (instead of dismissing him as a crank and ignoring him) was meant in a way to let the world know that Vanunu's information was genuine. Israel's policy of strategic ambiguity over its nuclear arsenal does not deceive anyone, and its neighbors recognize its nuclear arsenal for what it is. Its ballistic missiles are in at least their third generation, and that it has nuclear weapons capable of delivery from aircraft and by ballistic missile is hardly debatable, while there are allegations of a submarine-launched capability (a potential second-strike capability) as well. Here's globalsecurity.org's pages on Israeli nuclear deployments. Click on individual bases for the (alleged) details. Oh, that secret.

To insist on sanctioning Iran's development of nuclear weapons without recognizing that weaponization has already occurred in the region (not to mention Pakistan), it seems to me, undercuts our credibility as advocates of non-proliferation. But to suggest that the Obama Administration is in danger of "revealing" Israel's nuclear arsenal seems naive. Iran already knows about Israel's arsenal and mentions it frequently. It's only the US Administration that has consistently looked the other way. I don't really see much new in today's story.

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