Nuclear Shadow over the Middle East

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

"Unfortunately the Middle East finds itself in the shadow of a nuclear threat. We shall not give up. We shall not surrender."

These remarks could have been made by the representative of any Arab government since the late 1960s, by which time it was widely assumed within intelligence agencies that Israel, which had been developing nuclear weapons for a decade, had finally produced one. But the speaker was Israeli President Shimon Peres, who knows a lot about nuclear weapons, having been closely involved in his country’s nuclear development program from the beginning. In the Middle East only Israel has nuclear weapons but the ‘nuclear threat’ to which Peres was referring is Iranian. Arab states and non-Arab states on the periphery of the Arab world have been living in the shadow of Israeli nuclear weapons for four decades. Iran has an advanced nuclear program but no nuclear weapons. No-one even says it has. Even Israel says only that it ‘may’ or ‘will’ soon have reached the point of technical expertise of being able to produce a nuclear weapon and most intelligence agencies don’t even go that far.

The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) has issued numerous statements affirming that Iran does not have the bomb and that there are no signs it is trying to develop one. Iran itself has said it will not produce nuclear weapons. Furthermore, unlike Israel it has signed up to the NPT and allows inspections of its nuclear installations. The record is not perfect, but not since Mordecai Vanunu provided information and photographs to the London Sunday Times in 1986 has any information leaked out about what is going inside Israel’s main nuclear plant at Dimona. During the Kennedy years,  Israel allowed American nuclear scientists to make ‘visits’ to Dimona but these proved to be so ineffective they were eventually discontinued (by the Nixon administration). When the scientists were allowed into the plant they were rushed through and never allowed to see what they needed to see to confirm that Israel was not developing nuclear weapons. Of course, a full inspection of the Dimona plant would have revealed that this was exactly what Israel was doing.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to White House protection, Israel was able to develop nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to Arab capitals without the US using any of the means at its disposal to block developments regarded as threatening to the national interest. It could have used financial pressure and it could have refused to supply the advanced weaponry Israel desperately wanted, but on instructions from the White House, senior administration officials were prevented from resorting to any of these means. Secure in their knowledge that the president was behind them, Israeli government representatives, from the Prime Minister down to the ambassador in Washington, ducked, weaved and defied attempts to pry commitments from them. They made not one concession to the US apart from the ritual formula that ‘Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the region’, and then they argued over the meaning of  ‘introduce’, i.e. whether a bomb which had not been tested  or fully assembled could be said to have been ‘introduced’.

State and Defence Department officials, from secretaries and undersecretaries down, had argued strongly and persistently for pressure to be used to compel Israel to abandon nuclear weapons development and sign up to the NPT but it was their government’s national priorities they were eventually forced to abandon in the face of the refusal of the White House to support them. The successful acquisition by a small state of nuclear weapons shattered US policy on non-proliferation, setting a bad example for other small states and vastly increasing the dangers inherent in any open global confrontation between the US and the USSR.

From the time Israel developed nuclear weapons it was inevitable that other states in the Middle East would follow suit, unless they were to resign themselves to living forever in the shadow of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Amazingly, in the past four decades none has but  now one state, Iran, has reached the point where it could develop a nuclear weapon if it so desired. The reaction from Israel has been visceral. Monopoly possession of nuclear weapons means that there is no war Israel cannot win if it chooses to use them. At worst it could destroy its enemies at the same time it is being destroyed – the so-called ‘Samson option’ – but far more is involved here than the fundamental question of survival of the state. During a panel discussion at the AIPAC conference (May 2009), former Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh drew out some of the consequences should Iran acquire nuclear weapons. Immigration would ‘dry up’. Parents would encourage their children to leave the country. Investment would drop and decision-making would become ‘more timid’ for fear of provoking Iran. ‘Terrorists’ would become bolder and a peace deal with Syria would become less likely (when Netanyahu has just announced that the Golan Heights will not be returned to Syria a ‘peace deal’ could hardly be less likely). To this list must be added colonization of East Jerusalem and the rest of occupied Palestinian land, which for the reasons Ephraim Sneh gives would be unlikely to proceed as confidently as before. The fear and uncertainty already stirred up among the Israeli population at large is reflected in the recent public opinion poll showing that 66 per cent of Jewish Israelis support military action designed to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. The message being passed on from Sneh is not that Israel could not go on, but that it could not go on as before.

Senior Israeli political, military and intelligence figures have been threatening Iran with military attack for years. Their warnings have been reinforced with numerous statements of understanding from Washington. The constant threat of military action undermined the reformist Khatami government and prompted Iran to strengthen its overall defence capacity. It has refused to back down to US and Israeli threats. For Iran, nuclear development has taken the place of oil, nationalized in 1951 by a government subsequently brought down by the CIA, as the symbol of national independence. Egyptians felt the same way about the Suez Canal. Iran regards the attitude of the US, the UN Security Council and the EU, both following the US line in support of Israel, as neo-imperialist.

In Washington Shimon Peres said Israel would not be delivering ultimatums to the US. At the moment the two countries are circling each other with the wariness of boxers who have just stepped into the ring. In the short term Israel might even regard dialogue with Iran as working in favor. Obama will be given time to see if he can talk Iran into scaling down its nuclear development program. If he fails to show progress in a few months, Israel will argue that it went the extra mile for the sake of peace and now has the right to expect more. The ‘threat’ will be continually ramped up ahead of this point. Peres told Obama that ‘Iran is a threat not just to Israel but the whole world. As Jews, after being subjected to the Holocaust, we cannot close our eyes in light of the grave danger emerging from Iran’. At the annual AIPAC conference Michael Oren, nominated as the next Israeli ambassador to the US, remarked that ‘Israel will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons’. The same message will be delivered in person by Netanyahu when he visits Washington later this month.

The mainstream media is already inside the Israeli narrative. Little is made of the fact that the Arab states and Iran have had to live in the shadow of Israel’s nuclear arsenal for the past four decades. While talking up the ‘Iranian threat’ neither does the media pay much attention to the overwhelming military superiority of Israel at every level. Furthermore, since 1979, the Islamic republic has gone to war only once, to defend itself against attack by Iraq in 1980, whereas Israel has invaded Lebanon twice (1982 and 2006), has attacked Syria once (when it bombed what it claimed was a nuclear site in September 2007) and Gaza many times, culminating in the three week onslaught beginning in late December 2008. To this list must be added its undercover operations, including assassinations, in the occupied territories, Syria and Lebanon.

Going back to 1948, the rhetoric of imminent destruction has been deployed ahead of all of Israel’s wars. Even in the most favorable circumstances it is always Israel which is under threat.  Weizmann knew perfectly well that the Zionist forces were in no danger of defeat when he told Truman on April 9, 1948, (the same day that Palestinians were being massacred at Deir Yassin) that the choice ahead of the Jews was ‘between statehood and extermination’. What he told members of the US delegation to the UN was rather different: ‘The Jews had absolutely no fear of the Arabs and he elaborated on this by indicating that the Arab states were so disorganized and weak as to constitute almost the military factor of zero’. In 1956, just ahead of the ‘tripartite aggression’ against Egypt, various representatives of the Israeli government claimed their country was being surrounded by a ‘ring of steel’. In 1967, a few days before the attack on Egypt and Syria, Israel’s ambassador to Washington spoke of genocide and ‘another Munich’, while on the home front Israel’s generals were assuring their Prime Minister that Arab armies were soap bubbles – ‘one pin will burst them’. During the onslaught on Lebanon in 1982, Menahim Begin cast Yasser Arafat as another Hitler. In 2009, that role has now been reassigned to Mahmud Ahmedinejad, with Obama already being set up as a second Chamberlain prepared to give away Israel’s Sudetenland (the occupied territories) to appease Iran. Yitzhak Rabin remarked early in the Carter presidency that Carter was ‘a dangerously inexperienced outsider who looked like giving Israel a lot of trouble before he learned ‘political maturity’’. Now it is Obama who has to be taught. The lobby is already hard at work to block and contain him. During his visit to Washington, Netanyahu will give glib assurances of working for peace, but neither he nor Avigdor Lieberman have any intention of withdrawing from the West Bank and East Jerusalem (or the Golan Heights for that matter). Very early in his presidency Obama is already facing a challenge that may define it.

Obama’s Middle East team has linked dialogue with Iran to two issues. For the first time in many years the US has raised the question of Israel’s adherence to the NPT.  It also wants Netanyahu to openly declare his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, arguing that Israeli commitments on both these issues will strengthen its negotiating position with Iran. Turning the argument on its head, Netanyahu is certain to argue that it cannot possibly sign up to the NPT or withdraw from the occupied territories when Iran is developing nuclear weapons and threatening Israel through its ‘proxies’ in Syria and Lebanon. In fact, Israel has no intention of signing the NPT. Furthermore, Netanyahu has already said there will be no withdrawal from the Golan, and while he will dissemble in discussions with the Americans, no withdrawal can be expected from the West Bank and East Jerusalem either except perhaps for the cosmetic dismantling of ‘outposts’. In this context, the ‘Iranian threat’ can appear as a transparent ploy used to justify retention of the occupied territories, but it would be unwise to conclude from this that Israel is not also serious about attacking Iran.

According to recent reports, Israel wanted to attack Iran in May 2008 and held back only after opposition from the White House but Bush himself made numerous statements of support for Israel’s reading of the situation and Obama has done the same. At last year’s AIPAC conference he pledged that as president he would do ‘everything’ to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Repeating the word three times, he left the clear impression hanging in the air that ‘everything’ might ultimately include the use of force. By buying into the Israeli narrative about the nature of the ‘Iranian threat’, for his own electoral purposes, Obama has set up a trap for himself. If dialogue fails to persuade Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, the Israeli government and the lobby will turn on him straight away with cries of ‘but you promised..’. 

Since the elections several senior figures in the administration (notably Secretary of Defence Robert Gates) have sought to play down the scare rhetoric, but with little apparent effect on public opinion. They must know  that the ‘Iranian threat’ is being used by Israel in the same way it has used other ‘threats’ in the past either to justify what it wants to do or what it does not want to do. But the US media reads the situation the same way as Israel and so does Congress, creating a daunting lineup of domestic critics should Obama turn the screws too tightly. Ahmedinejad’s questioning of the Holocaust adds a fresh daub of color to an already lurid canvas peopled with grim-faced mullahs reaching for nuclear weapons, Christian evangelists reaching for their Bible to prove what was foretold about ‘the threat from the north’ and now a new Hitler bent on ‘wiping Israel from the map’. In this atmosphere what he actually said scarcely matters.

Having pledged to do ‘everything’ to prevent Iran from reaching the point of having the technical expertise and the enriched uranium to produce nuclear weapons, Obama will come under intense pressure to go further if the combination of dialogue and sanctions (carrot and stick) is seen to have failed. As nuclear development is supported across the board in Iran, the elections on June 7 are not going to make any difference. Obama may well be left with empty hands unless his ‘everything’ does include military force. The US does not necessarily have to be involved because the Israelis seem confident they can do the job on their own and have been rehearsing with this in mind. Israel may even be prepared to go ahead without a green light, knowing that in an atmosphere of sympathy and understanding in media and the congress, the administration would be sucked in behind it anyway. As Obama and senior figures in his administration have already lent themselves to Israel’s arguments, they would effectively be hoist on their own petard. If there is an Israeli attack on Iran, no-one across the Middle East and the Muslim world would believe that they were not involved in some fashion anyway.

There is no doubt that Israel has the capacity to destroy or do substantial damage to Iran’s nuclear plants. It has all the military means necessary plus the most advanced missile and radar defence systems to protect itself from a counter attack.

The military strength of both countries was analyzed in a recent report prepared by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Israel comes out well on top in every respect. The report looks at possible means of attack (aircraft and missiles) and routes (north, overflying southern Turkey; central, overflying southern Syria and Iraq; and southern, overflying Saudi Arabia and Iraq). Iran’s nuclear sites include research and development institutes, uranium enrichment plants, a heavy water plant, uranium mines, uranium ore purification plants, a light water nuclear reactor at Bushehr, a heavy water reactor at Arak, a uranium conversion plant at Esfahan and the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. They are scattered across the country (probably for strategic reasons). Esfahan, Natanz and Arak are the core elements in the program. The destruction in whole or part of the nuclear infrastructure would have to be accompanied by the destruction of Iran’s ability to defend itself and strike back. This would necessarily involve attacks on missile sites and military air bases, naval facilities in the Persian Gulf and, depending on how far Israel wants to go, possibly strategic sectors of the civilian infrastructure.

The tail end of the CSIS report deals with an aspect of the war which the mainstream media in the ‘west’ has hardly considered. When the US destroyed Iraq’s chemical weapons factories in 1991, plumes of wind carried toxic fallout all the way to southern Iraq, contributing, along with the effects of the depleted uranium shells used in the war, to a surge in the number of birth deformities and cancers. When Israel attacked Iraq in 1981, its Osirak nuclear reactor had not been loaded with nuclear fuel and so was not ‘live’. What is now being contemplated is something the world has not yet experienced – a direct military attack on active nuclear plants.

The CSIS report, assessing the loss of life and environmental damage that would result from an attack just on the Bushehr reactor in southern Iran, finds  that Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates would all be ‘heavily affected’ by the release into the atmosphere of highly toxic radionuclides. It concludes: ‘Any strike on the Bushehr nuclear reactor will cause the immediate death of thousands of people living in or adjacent to the site and thousands of subsequent cancer deaths or even up to hundreds of thousands  [my emphasis] depending on the population density along the contamination plume’.

What is extraordinary here is that one country is actually contemplating action that will have some or all of these consequences, that other countries have not warned it off and that the mainstream media does not appear to be concerned. Neither do the gulf states, for that matter. They are said to be supportive of the US effort to contain and control Iran, although there is a lot of propaganda in circulation on this point. Perhaps they have not really thought through what a military attack could mean for them. To the extent that Israel has been preparing for such an attack for years, its threats have to be taken seriously, and cannot simply be regarded as some kind of diplomatic card game. All its plans are in place. At this stage they can be regarded as contingency measures, to be activated or left on the shelf depending on what transpires in the next few months,  but no-one should doubt how deeply felt the issue is for Israel. The threatening shadow of its own nuclear weapons makes no difference. No perceived threat in the past begins to compare with the end of its nuclear monopoly and the possibility that another state will acquire nuclear weapons. Just the possibility is enough.

If Obama cannot talk Iran into modifying key aspects of its nuclear program, if bilateral and multilateral sanctions are not sufficient to throw it off course, the Netanyahu-Lieberman government may decide to act on its own regardless of what the world thinks.

– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to

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