18 June 2015

Of weapons programs in Iran and Israel, and the need for journalists to report on both

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette, Jr. is a science writer/editor and foreign correspondent who has filed stories from every continent except Antarctica. His stories have appeared in Scientific American,...


A country in the Middle East has a clandestine nuclear development program, involving facilities hidden in the desert. After several years, the country is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, even though the United States has been using all its resources to prevent that from happening. Frantic communications fly behind the scenes, between Washington and Tel Aviv.

And where is the nuclear program located? Israel.

Although Iran’s nuclear program dominates the headlines now (and did apparently have a military dimension at one time), that program has yet to produce a nuclear weapon, judging from the available public evidence. Meanwhile, the country pushing most aggressively for complete elimination of any prospect of an Iranian bomb—Israel—has an unacknowledged nuclear arsenal of its own. Although others project higher numbers, nuclear arsenal experts Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris estimate that Israel has roughly 80 warheads, built in secret.

It is noteworthy that while negotiations over limiting Iran’s enrichment program have taken center stage in news coverage—and will likely dominate the headlines as a final agreement is or is not reached at the end of this month—the history of Israel’s covert nuclear program draws relatively little media attention. Israel has long maintained a policy of nuclear ambiguity, neither confirming nor directly denying that it has a nuclear deterrent, and the United States government has officially taken the same stance, prohibiting its officials from stating that Israel is a nuclear weapons country.

But as shown in the Bulletin’s coverage over the years, the Israeli government does indeed have a robust nuclear program that began decades ago; it continues to operate outside the international nuclear nonproliferation regime to this day. This program has a convoluted history.

In a July 2013 article, nuclear proliferation scholar Leonard Weiss outlined the Lavon Affair, a failed 1954 Israeli covert operation against Egypt, undertaken in hopes it would destabilize the regime of Egypt’s leader, Gamel Abdel Nasser. In a complicated way, the bungled effort eventually deepened the Franco-Israeli military cooperation that helped Israel create its nuclear arsenal.

The details of the Lavon Affair are complex, but essentially Israeli Military Intelligence (often known by its Hebrew abbreviation AMAN) activated a sleeper cell tasked with setting off a series of bombs in Egypt, targeted against Western and Egyptian institutions, in hopes that the attacks could be blamed on Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Communist Party. AMAN apparently figured that the ensuing chaos would persuade Western governments that Nasser’s relatively new regime was unstable and, therefore, unworthy of financial aid and other support.

But the best-laid schemes often go astray, and the entire Israeli operation was exposed; its members were eventually tried and convicted by an Egyptian court. This caused Israel to conduct a retaliatory military raid into Gaza that killed 39 Egyptians, upsetting Egypt still further. The Egyptians, in turn, moved closer to the sphere of the old Soviet Union, concluding an arms deal that angered American and British leaders. This led to the West’s withdrawal from previously pledged support for the building of Egypt’s Aswan Dam; Nasser retaliated by nationalizing the Suez Canal; and Israel, France, and Britain subsequently tried (and failed) to invade Egypt and topple Nasser. In the wake of the failed invasion, France expanded and accelerated its ongoing nuclear cooperation with Israel, which eventually helped enable the Jewish state to build nuclear weapons.

It is easy to see why the average news editor might blanch at diving into these complicated waters to give a full, warts-and-all explication of the Israeli nuclear weapons program from its earliest days. But that is no reason to fail to report about the weapons program as a fait accompli; Israel’s program is as much a legitimate subject for media debate as the Iranian program—especially when Israel criticizes the proposed Iranian nuclear agreement.

Also given relatively short shrift in mainstream news coverage of Middle Eastern nuclear matters is the NUMEC affair, in which Israel apparently stole 100 kilograms of US bomb-grade uranium in the 1960s from a Pennsylvania nuclear fuel-processing plant. The theft was not discovered until years later, and President-elect Jimmy Carter was apparently not briefed about it until December 1976. The unexplained loss of large amounts of bomb-grade fissile material is a matter of concern, no matter what the context, but in this case it also involved a close ally—and Israel’s bomb-making program could have derailed the Carter administration’s Middle East peace efforts.

Similarly, there has been little coverage of documents from 1969 that were declassified a year ago; these documents show that the United States—at that moment in time—was quietly working to prevent Israel from acquiring nuclear weapons and to steer that country towards joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Instead, Israel offered the United States only an ambiguous description of its plans, saying that Israel would not be the first country to introduce weapons to the Middle East, but pursued nuclear weapons in secret and declined to become a member state of the NPT. Israel still is not a member of the NPT, and its unacknowledged nuclear program angers many countries that are members. In fact, the NPT Review Conference recently collapsed without an agreement on a final document, at least partly because a group of countries wanted to begin a long-promised conference on a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East within a set time frame, and the United States and United Kingdom—supporters of Israel, which opposed such a conference—refused to go along.

And it is surprising how little mainstream media coverage there has been about a 1987 Pentagon report, released this spring in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, that confirms that the Pentagon knew many details of Israel’s nuclear program in 1987 and promptly covered them up. (A notable and praiseworthy exception to this lack of interest has been The Nation).

Perhaps the most concise and accessible description of the current Israeli nuclear program comes via Kristensen and Norris, who write the Nuclear Notebook column published by the Bulletin. “[I]t is a long-held conclusion among governments and experts,” they wrote in November 2014, “that Israel has produced a sizable stockpile of nuclear warheads (probably unassembled) designed for delivery by ballistic missiles and aircraft.” In that article, Kristensen and Norris provide a capsule description of how the Israelis were able to develop nuclear weapons while maintaining they were not “introducing” them into the Middle East—a diplomatic fiction that continues to the present day.

Kristensen and Norris estimate that Israel has a stockpile of approximately 80 nuclear warheads for delivery by two dozen missiles, a couple of squadrons of aircraft, and perhaps a small number of sea-launched cruise missiles. “Common sense dictates that a country that has developed and produced nuclear warheads for delivery by designated delivery vehicles has, regardless of their operational status, introduced the weapons to the region,” they wrote. “But Israeli governments have attached so many interpretations to ‘introduce’ that common sense doesn’t appear to apply.”

Editor’s note: The Bulletin’s archives from 1945 to 1998, complete with the original covers and artwork, can be found here. Anything after 1998 can be found via the search engine on the Bulletin’s home page.