"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004

Israel Passes Landmine Removal Bill

Farrah Zughni

The Israeli Knesset last month approved a bill paving the way for the removal of “non-operational” anti-personnel landmines in Israel through the establishment of a national mine action authority.

The March 14 vote was 43 to 0.

The Minefield Clearance Act, which marks Israel’s first effort to address landmine contamination at the national level, limits demining to areas deemed “not essential to national security” by the authority. The exact number of deployed landmines is not known, but at least 33 square kilometers are believed to be affected, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a nonprofit publication considered the authoritative source on landmines, cluster munitions, and other explosive remnants of war.

The legislation makes no mention of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, the most comprehensive international agreement pertaining to landmines. Israel is not a party to that pact. Unlike the Mine Ban Treaty, the act does not address the manufacture, trade, stockpiling, or future deployment of landmines.

Israel is party to another key international agreement—the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and its amended Protocol II, which regulates but does not prohibit landmine use. Israel declared a moratorium on the sale, transfer, and export of all anti-personnel mines in 1994 and has renewed the moratorium every three years since then. The size of the country’s landmine stockpile is not known.

The act’s passage took place one year after a mine detonation in the Golan Heights resulted in injuries to two Israeli children. One of them, Daniel Yuval, who was 11 years old at the time, underwent a leg amputation as a result. Yuval’s story and subsequent campaign efforts made headlines across Israel and beyond and are widely credited for the legislation’s ultimate success.


The Israeli Knesset last month approved a bill paving the way for the removal of “non-operational” anti-personnel landmines in Israel through the establishment of a national mine action authority.

Unrest Complicates 2012 Middle East Meeting

Anne Penketh

The upheavals sweeping across the Middle East have cast a long shadow over diplomatic negotiations aimed at organizing a conference on establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in that region, according to officials involved in the process.

“We are absolutely committed” to the conference, said President Barack Obama’s WMD coordinator, Gary Samore, in a Feb. 16 telephone interview. “But there’s a lot of uncertainty because of the unrest in the Middle East.” In other interviews in recent weeks, officials from other countries also voiced some concern about the possible impact of the turmoil that has engulfed several of the core states that would be expected to attend the conference. The forum, to be attended by “all states” of the region, is supposed to be convened next year under a consensus decision by the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. (See ACT, June 2010).

The Egyptian revolution that exploded in January came at a critical phase in the preparations for holding the unprecedented regional conference, which would be notable for bringing Israel and Iran to the table for discussions on security and disarmament issues. Israel is the region’s sole presumed nuclear-weapon state, but remains outside the NPT, while Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, which continues in defiance of the UN Security Council, has raised suspicions about Iranian intentions. “To guarantee success, Israelis and Iranians must be there,” said Mohamed Shaker, the president of the 1985 NPT Review Conference in a Jan. 31 interview in Cairo.

Until now, there has been no obvious progress toward convening the 2012 forum. No facilitator has been appointed, and there is no agreement on which states should attend or on a date and venue for the conference, let alone on the agenda. Yet, diplomats and officials taking the lead in the organizational process—from Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the UN secretary-general’s office—remain committed to implementing the review conference decision on holding the 2012 conference. They say consultations are now under way in earnest. An EU seminar is scheduled to be held this summer as part of the preparations for the conference mandated by the 189 states-parties at the review conference, according to EU diplomats.

Samore said the co-sponsors hope to reach agreement “before the summer” with the regional players on a host government for the event and on a facilitator, who may come from the same country.

But he cautioned that there is no guarantee that the conference will be held. “We have to try to make it happen,” he said. Referring to the Middle East turmoil, he added, “We don’t know what effect it will have on foreign policy, and governments may be distracted.”

Signs of Impatience

In the region, there are signs of impatience with the conveners. Arab diplomats said they had hoped that the Arab League summit in Baghdad at the end of March would be able to endorse the choice of facilitator, with a view to holding the conference itself before May 2012. “This is a major concern for us, that nothing has moved. There’s no facilitator and no site for the conference,” said Maged Abdelaziz, Egypt’s UN ambassador, who led the diplomatic push on the WMD-free zone at the NPT review conference last May. Establishing such a zone has been a primary goal of Egyptian diplomacy for decades. At the 1995 NPT review conference, the Arab Group successfully pushed for the adoption of a resolution on establishing a WMD-free zone in return for agreeing to the indefinite extension of the NPT.

Shaker, who is now the chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, said it would be a shame if the Nile revolution affected the 2012 process. “Even with Egypt in chaos, we cannot lose sight of this issue which is so important for peace in the Middle East,” he said, speaking in his office on the seventh day of the 18-day Egyptian uprising.

There has been uncertainty about the Israeli government’s intentions regarding the 2012 conference. In the past, Israel has joined the other states in the UN General Assembly in officially endorsing the concept of a WMD-free zone as an ultimate goal. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily reacted to the review conference final document, which reaffirmed the importance of Israel joining the NPT and placing “all its nuclear facilities” under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Netanyahu warned that Israel would not attend. The Israeli government statement responding to the conference outcome said, “The real problem with WMDs in the Middle East does not relate to Israel but to those countries that have signed the NPT and brazenly violated it: Iraq under Saddam, Libya, Syria and Iran.”

Since then, Israel has begun to show signs of a greater willingness to engage, although officials still refrain from expressing open support for the conference. Israeli and U.S. officials also have made it clear that Israel cannot be expected to attend if the forum is used as an opportunity for “Israel bashing” by the Arab states and Iran.

Israel is examining [the conference]; we’re talking to the Americans,” Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said in a Feb. 8 interview on the sidelines of the annual Herzliya security conference near Tel Aviv. Meridor is the minister for intelligence and atomic energy in the Israeli cabinet. He also conducted a two-year strategic study on Israel’s policy of nuclear opacity, a policy that Israeli officials continue to believe has served the country well. Under a 1969 agreement between Prime Minister Golda Meir and U.S. President Richard Nixon, Israel has pursued a nuclear “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that continues with U.S. support to this day. Meanwhile, public discussion of Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons arsenal remains generally taboo. An off-the-record workshop at the Herzliya conference, entitled “Going to Zero? Global and Regional Nuclear and WMD Disarmament Initiatives,” paid only scant attention to the 2012 conference.

Inside and outside government circles in Israel, there is a range of opinion about the conference from conditional support to downright skepticism. One source said that “the only people interested in this are the Washington think tanks.”

Expressing a view held by some Israeli analysts, Emily Landau, senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said she would support a conference agenda reviving regional security talks such as those put in place by the 1991 Madrid conference, known as ACRS (arms control and regional security). From 1992 until its collapse in 1996, the multilateral working group, which included 14 Middle Eastern parties, focused on confidence-building measures and regional security issues. But Landau stressed that the 2012 conference “can only work with strong U.S. leadership.”

The final document from last year’s NPT review conference endorsed a series of “practical steps,” providing for the 2012 conference “on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.” It called on the UN secretary-general and the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia—the co-sponsor states of the 1995 resolution—to consult with the region on specific preparatory steps.

However, the language of the review conference document was sufficiently ambiguous to allow for different interpretations, or “misinterpretations,” as one diplomat put it. There seems to be general agreement that 2012 would not be a “negotiating” conference but a forum for “discussions” and that criteria for the facilitator as established subsequently by the Arab Group should be respected. The facilitator should have a profile of former foreign minister or more senior status to give him or her diplomatic clout, must be acceptable to Israel and Iran, and be neutral. He or she should not be from an Arab state or Israel, nor from one of the five countries—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—recognized by the NPT as nuclear-weapon states.

Differing Visions

But there remains a fundamental gap between the Arab Group’s vision, which sees the conference as an opportunity to pressure Israel to give up its undeclared nuclear arsenal, and that of the United States and other co-sponsors, which want to isolate Iran and will insist on full NPT compliance. For the Arab states, the conference would finally address their long-standing grievance about what they call the double standards of the United States, which shields Israel.

Samore predicted “one battle after another,” beginning with the discussions on a facilitator and host government and continuing with the agenda, as the conveners pursue their consultations. The agenda is expected to address regional adherence to treaties including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), as well as delivery systems.

“We see it as a give-and-take process,” said Abdelaziz. “At the same time that Israel will join the NPT, we will join the BWC and CWC,” he said. “It’s a parallel process requiring progress on all three fronts.” Neither Egypt—the first Middle Eastern country to acquire chemical weapons—nor Syria has signed or ratified the CWC. Both countries have signed but not ratified the BWC.

Obama defined his agenda priorities last July at a White House meeting with Netanyahu. “The United States will insist that such a conference will be for discussion aimed at an exchange of views on a broad agenda, to include regional security issues, verification and compliance, and all categories of weapons of mass destruction and systems for their delivery,” said a White House summary of their meeting.

Behind the discussions on convening the conference lie the politics driving Middle East hegemony and regional rivalries, which lay behind the collapse of ACRS in 1996 and will be the key factors when states consider their role in the 2012 conference. Will the next Egyptian government continue to champion the WMD-free zone? Will Iran, which was the first to call for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East in 1974, continue to see an interest in attending in the light of its own progress in uranium enrichment, which it insists is for peaceful purposes? Will Israel see the benefits of a security dialogue with its hostile neighbors or throw up roadblocks by citing concerns about conventional weapons and the peace process?

“It’s a good opportunity for Israel to start getting rid of its nuclear weapons, and for Iran not to get nuclear weapons, and for the Arabs to join the chemical and biological conventions,” Abdelaziz said.

Arab diplomats warn that, in the case of failure, prospects for the next NPT review conference, in 2015—and indeed for the treaty’s future in general—would be bleak.

Anne Penketh is Washington program director of the British American Security Information Council. She recently returned from a two-week trip to the Middle East where she discussed prospects for the 2012 conference with officials and nongovernmental representatives.


The recent uprisings in the Middle East have clouded the picture for a planned 2012 conference on establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, officials from key countries said.

U.S. Consulting on Middle East Meeting

Alfred Nurja

U.S. consultations with Russia, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and other key parties to identify a facilitator and a host country for the planned 2012 conference on establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East are under way, a Department of State official said in a Nov. 17 interview.

“Since the facilitator must have the trust of all the countries in the region, including Israel, and the international clout to bring all parties together, the selection is an important issue that is being carefully considered,” he said. “There is no timeline at this point,” he added.

The 2012 conference was one of the key steps endorsed by the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May. (See ACT, June 2010.) It marked the first time that NPT parties had been able to adopt concrete measures on implementing a 1995 resolution on the subject.

Another U.S. official, Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation Susan Burk, said the 2012 conference “must draw the mandate from the region and operate by consensus of all countries concerned.” Burk, the Obama administration’s lead official at the NPT review conference, made the comments on the sidelines of a Nov. 18 forum in Washington.

In a Nov. 11 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Sameh Aboul-Enein, Egypt’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, said that “Egypt intends to engage constructively with all concerned parties to implement the practical steps adopted.” Aboul-Enein, who was part of the Egyptian delegation at the review conference, added that “the road ahead is not easy but it’s the only way forward.”

Burk and Aboul-Enein attended an Oct. 25 conference organized by the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies on the Middle East WMD-free zone.

It remains unclear what the agenda items of the proposed 2012 conference will be, but according to a U.S. statement at the UN General Assembly First Committee in October, “[H]olding this conference will also require agreement to discuss a broad agenda, to include regional security issues, verification and compliance, and all categories of weapons of mass destruction.” The United States already has begun to work with others to advance this agenda, the statement added.

The statement came after the United States voted against an Arab League draft resolution on “The Risk of Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East,” which focused on Israel.

Israel, which has said that it supports the long-term vision of a WMD-free zone in the region, has conditioned forward movement on that objective with the existence of durable peace in the region and other states’ compliance with arms control and nonproliferation obligations. “[T]he basic prerequisites for reaching that vision do not exist,” Eyal Propper, director of the Arms Control Department at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the First Committee this October.

The 2012 “conference cannot be an event used to ramp up pressure on Israel,” the State Department official said.




IAEA Vote to Press Israel Falls Short

Alfred Nurja and Peter Crail

The members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Sept. 24 narrowly voted down a resolution expressing concern over Israeli nuclear capabilities and calling on the country to join the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The resolution, which was offered by the Arab Group, came to the floor on the last day of the week-long meeting of the IAEA General Conference in Vienna. The 51-46 vote against the resolution, with 54 abstentions or absences, marks a shift from last year, when a similar resolution passed by a vote of 49-46.

For nearly 20 years, Arab states have sponsored resolutions targeting Israel’s nuclear policy and calling on it to join the NPT. Last year’s vote was the first to succeed. The votes split primarily between Western countries and members of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), a bloc representing 118 developing nations.

The General Conference is the agency’s highest decision-making body, comprising all 151 IAEA members.

The United States lobbied extensively against the motion, saying that it risked undermining ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as well as prospects for a 2012 conference on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. In a statement welcoming the outcome of the vote, Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said that “rejection of the resolution has not created winners and losers, but instead preserved the opportunity for progress” on those two objectives.

At the 2010 NPT Review Conference in May, the parties to the treaty endorsed steps toward establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, including convening a conference of states in the region in 2012. Those steps are intended to advance a 1995 resolution calling for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. That resolution was key to securing Arab consensus on extending the NPT indefinitely.

Prior to the vote, the United States sought to persuade sponsors of the resolution to withdraw it for consideration this year and agree to a one-year moratorium on the issue. “Regrettably, there was no positive response to this proposal,” Davies told the conference.

The U.S. position was echoed by the European Union. In a letter sent to IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said that the resolution’s “non-consensual approach” would not help the 2012 agenda.

Speaking at a press conference in New York Sept. 24, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said he regretted the outcome of the vote and warned of a regional arms race if Israel maintained nuclear weapons. “It is inconceivable that only one country [in the region] will have nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that “the Middle East should be free of all weapons of mass destruction.”

In a statement to the IAEA conference before the vote, Israel Atomic Energy Commission Director-General Shaul Chorev accused the resolution’s sponsors of seeking to divert attention from Iran and Syria, “the real cases of dangerous proliferation and non-compliance” in the Middle East. An approach that singles out Israel “defeats the prospects for the advancement of arms control measures in the Middle East region,” he said.

Israel, which is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, has tied any decision to sign the NPT to progress on a comprehensive peace agreement in the region. Arab countries say that Israel’s suspected nuclear arsenal is a major hurdle to any peace negotiations. Israel’s position is not to confirm or deny having nuclear weapons. Accession to the treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state would require Israel to abandon its ambiguous nuclear policy and place all nuclear facilities under IAEA monitoring.

Last year’s resolution required the IAEA director-general to report on progress in securing Israel’s accession to the NPT and in safeguarding all of its nuclear facilities. Amano’s Sept. 3 report said that Israel’s “nuclear material, facilities or other items to which safeguards had been applied remained in peaceful activities” but that the agency “is not in a position” to determine the extent of Israel’s unsafeguarded nuclear activities. In a Sept. 16 statement, the Arab League criticized the report, saying that it was “devoid of any substance and not up to the typical level of the Agency’s reporting.”


The members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Sept. 24 narrowly voted down a resolution expressing concern over Israeli nuclear capabilities and calling on the country to join the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The resolution, which was offered by the Arab Group, came to the floor on the last day of the week-long meeting of the IAEA General Conference in Vienna. The 51-46 vote against the resolution, with 54 abstentions or absences, marks a shift from last year, when a similar resolution passed by a vote of 49-46.

Israel and Multilateral Nuclear Approaches in the Middle East

Thomas Lorenz and Joanna Kidd

As most states in the Middle East have expressed an interest in or are already developing nuclear power, regional cooperation can be an important tool to build nuclear confidence and allay proliferation concerns. This article will investigate how Israel could fit into a nuclear energy development paradigm consisting of regional approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle.

In addition, it will argue that early progress in collaborative efforts can help to create momentum for the envisioned 2012 conference on developing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

Countries in the Middle East have cited a range of reasons for their resurgent or new interest in developing nuclear power, including the need to diversify energy sources and to meet increasing electricity demands. There are concerns that the interest is driven at least partly by Iran’s nuclear advances and suspicions that it may have a military dimension. Although nuclear power advancement in the Middle East can be viewed a priori with concern from a proliferation perspective, it could offer an opportunity for a net nonproliferation gain if technological development progresses down the right path of transparency and collaboration. The equation is straightforward. If these budding programs in the Middle East develop as completely separate national programs, mistrust is bound to increase. If they develop more in parallel with each other—with collaboration on such elements as information exchanges, transparency of plans, safety and security issues, and, potentially, fuel cycle activities—there is a real chance that nuclear development can serve instead as a tool to increase trust and confidence, feeding into a wider security-building agenda in the region.

Although nuclear cooperation has been a sensitive topic throughout the atomic era, it is particularly difficult to envision such ventures in the Middle East, with its chronically unstable political-security situation. Recent evidence suggests, however, that crossing the traditional Arab-Israeli divide is possible even in the nuclear area.

Access to Nuclear Technology

Israel is among the countries in the region that have expressed a renewed interest in nuclear energy. National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau used the opportunity of a civilian nuclear power conference in Paris in March to reiterate the country’s interest in developing nuclear power.[1] For the past 40 years, Israel has seen nuclear energy as an integral goal in its energy planning, but it has not yet introduced nuclear power into its energy mix. The Web site of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) says that Israel decided in the 1970s that “an option to produce electricity using nuclear reactors should be prepared and maintained.”[2] The Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) concluded in the 1980s that a site in the northern Negev desert near the town of Shivta would be suitable for a nuclear power plant. In his Paris speech, Landau confirmed that the Shivta site is still being maintained from a scientific and technical infrastructure point of view. The current plan is to have a two-unit nuclear power plant with a generation capacity of 1,200-1,500 megawatts operational by 2020.[3]

Israel considers itself an “energy island” because it is not connected to the grids of any of its neighbors and must import all its energy sources. From these imported sources, Israel produces around 13,000 megawatts of electricity, a figure that is expected to double by 2020. Without an indigenous nuclear power program, Israel will need either to continue relying on energy imports or seek alternative routes to nuclear power, such as regional collaboration. Israel’s energy situation provides an incentive for the country to seek a long-term regional nuclear deal in which it progressively increases the transparency of its nuclear activities in return for integration with neighbors on energy projects, a win-win situation for all countries in the region. Although Israel would not be interested in becoming dependent on any one source of energy imports, it is open to buying electricity generated from, for example, a Jordanian nuclear power plant.[4] Creating grid connections between Israel and neighboring Arab states would be a good peace project and open the door for further technological collaboration in the energy area. The initiation of talks on such grid connections could be plausible in the next couple of years and be a suitable precursor to other energy-related cooperative efforts.

The main constraint on Israel’s nuclear power development has been its exclusion from foreign assistance because it is not a signatory of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Because the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 granted India an exemption from the requirement of full-scope safeguards—meaning that all the country’s nuclear facilities would be open to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors—as a condition for trade, Israel has been lobbying for the group to draw up a list of objective trade criteria for non-NPT states. The NSG has been engaging Israel for the past few years, but the group has received Israeli proposals with lukewarm interest. In May 2009, NSG Chairman Viktor Elbling led a delegation to Israel to discuss export controls and Israel’s relationship with the NSG.

Some, including former IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, have argued that India’s NSG exception amounts to a nonproliferation gain because it draws the country into the regime. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that further erosion of nuclear export controls, by granting Israel similar rights, will benefit nonproliferation. In fact, as the world sees a rising interest in nuclear power, the NSG should play an increasingly important role in anticipation of expanded nuclear trade. Unfortunately, the group has not been able to agree on strengthened guidelines on transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. To regain credibility lost with the India exemption, the NSG must agree on tighter rules related to these technologies and refrain from further exemptions.

Where does this leave Israel as far as partaking in a regional arrangement when it does not have access to nuclear technology? Israel developed its nuclear infrastructure with foreign assistance but prior to the establishment of the NPT and the NSG. It is maintaining its current nuclear activities with limited access to the international nuclear market as controlled by the NSG. An ardent nonproliferation argument would hold that Israel should not even reap the benefit of nuclear energy indirectly, such as by buying nuclear-generated electricity from neighboring states, because of its status as an NPT holdout. Fred McGoldrick, a former U.S. Department of State official, said in March that although an arrangement under which a Jordanian reactor was supplying electricity to Israel “technically” would “probably not violate the NSG guidelines…it would not be faithful to their intent.”[5]

Israel has not breached any nonproliferation commitments because it has not signed the NPT. Most of its nuclear research and development occurred before 1968, when the treaty was opened for signature. Because of its relationship to and dependence on the United States, it could not be transparent about its nuclear activities and thus not be one of the open and accepted nuclear powers of the 1960s. Israel had promised the United States not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East and did not want to defy its protector. The result was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy between the two allies that kept Israel’s program secret.[6] The question is whether it is a net nonproliferation gain to keep Israel outside cooperative activities or whether encouraging and including Israel in potential regional efforts would be better in order to increase trust and confidence that nuclear activities have a peaceful intent. Israel must be integrated into the nonproliferation regime, and one approach could be the establishment of cooperative nuclear activities in the region. Although some supplier states may be opposed on political grounds to seeing Israel benefit indirectly from nuclear energy, for example in the case of the Jordanian nuclear power plant, it is unlikely that this will prevent nuclear trade and the construction of nuclear plants in states neighboring Israel.

Multilateral Nuclear Approaches[7]

Compared to many other countries in the Middle East, Israel has a clear position on multilateral nuclear approaches. According to one Israeli government source, the country has developed a set of prerequisites that it thinks should govern regional nuclear development.[8]

• States must forgo sensitive fuel-cycle facilities, such as uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing plants. Israel categorizes fuel fabrication plants as sensitive as well.[9] Although limiting enrichment and reprocessing technologies is a powerful nonproliferation measure, it goes to the heart of the problem of nuclear haves versus have-nots and infringement of NPT rights.[10] A more pragmatic approach would be to establish multilaterally owned and operated plants in the region.

• States must have an additional protocol to their IAEA safeguards agreements in place. This presents several problems because Israel itself currently would not live up to this criterion. Another stumbling block regarding additional protocols is that Egypt has said it will not sign one unless Israel joins the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state.[11]

• Nuclear fuel supply to the region should be based on lifetime contracts and follow so-called leasing and take-back arrangements. A just-in-time refueling regime can be a powerful confidence-building measure because it aims to deliver fresh fuel right before a reactor needs refueling and return spent fuel to the supplier country as soon as possible, preferably within a year after the spent fuel has been taken out of the reactor.

• A stable regulatory system is needed in each state embarking on a nuclear program. The United Arab Emirates and possibly Jordan are seen in Israel as being on the right track in this respect.

According to the Israeli source, Israel regards multilateral nuclear approaches as having merit, especially in light of its position that no country in the region should have a closed national nuclear fuel cycle. For Israel, the key questions to address are host-country selection and eligibility criteria for such an arrangement, the source said. Pointing to experiences in Iran and North Korea, where years of sanctions have not resolved proliferation concerns after detection of clandestine facilities, he said Israel is skeptical of the effectiveness of IAEA safeguards enforcement.[12]

Regarding current efforts to create a system of assured nuclear fuel supply, for example through supplier state-sponsored guarantees, and the establishment of international fuel banks to provide low-enriched uranium if supply were disrupted for political reasons, Israeli officials fall in line with the majority viewpoint that these types of assurances, if not part of a comprehensive effort to internationalize the nuclear fuel cycle, amount to creating a solution for a problem that does not exist. In other words, current supply mechanisms based on market forces work and do not need fixing.[13]

According to Israeli officials, current nuclear energy planning includes looking into how the national program could feed into efforts to internationalize the fuel cycle. The IEC and IAEC signed an agreement in March 2010 calling for a survey of long-term nuclear energy strategy, including international aspects, to be conducted by a joint task force consisting of all relevant government offices. Although the focus of international cooperation would be on states with developed fuel cycles, such as some EU countries, Japan, and the United States, one government official said the survey would presumably address potential regional approaches as well.[14]

Signs of Cooperation

In general, Israeli officials say their country is open to regional cooperation, especially with neighbors Egypt and Jordan, with which it has peace agreements. Due to the current regional political situation, however, cooperation among these three countries would be very difficult, even if there were a desire for it. A case in point is the Israeli-Jordanian relationship, which unofficially is quite good, despite a more critical tone publicly.[15] In the nuclear area, cooperation is taking place, but it is low key. Officials from the two countries are mainly discussing Jordan’s planned reactor at Aqaba on the Red Sea near the Israeli-Jordanian border. Although the full extent of the talks is unknown, Israel is providing assistance in terms of site selection, nuclear safety and security issues, and seismic data from its Geophysical Institute.[16]

Israeli news media reported in March on talks between Landau and Jean-Louis Borloo, France’s minister of environment and energy, on joint nuclear projects involving France, Israel, and Jordan.[17] Jordan, however, distanced itself from this public discussion, with Jordan Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Khaled Toukan stating that it is “too early to speak of regional cooperation with Israel before resolving the Palestinian issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict.”[18] The episode nonetheless can be seen as representing a trial balloon and an indication from Israel’s side that it is open to regional nuclear cooperation.

Further evidence of the regional willingness to cooperate in the nuclear field is the Jordan-based SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) project. SESAME is the region’s first major scientific research center and aims to be “an international scientific and technological centre of excellence open to all qualified scientists from the Middle East and elsewhere.”[19] The project centers around a synchrotron radiation source, a gift from Germany. Activities are planned in fields such as molecular environmental science, micro-electromechanical devices, x-ray imaging, materials characterization, and clinical medical applications. Current SESAME members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Palestinian Authority.

When considering regional nuclear cooperation in the Middle East, Israel could offer expertise in a number of areas with its long-standing experience in the field. Indeed, it is already assisting Jordan with siting-related issues at Aqaba, as discussed above. Such assistance can be expanded to other countries, such as Egypt. Information exchanges in areas such as nuclear safety and security would be another good starting point for nuclear confidence building. Israel could offer a great deal in the area of education, in particular because it is currently setting up new nuclear engineering and physics courses to maintain its nuclear knowledge base. The SoreqNuclearResearchCenter has acquired a new particle accelerator to replace its 50-year-old research reactor. The accelerator is a joint project with the Weizmann Institute, the Israel Academy of Science, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Language does not necessarily pose a problem. For example, the Weizmann Institute offers all relevant graduate courses in English with open attendance.

Looking to the Future

What would a multilateral approach to the nuclear fuel cycle in the Middle East look like? Setting aside political constraints for a moment, one could imagine a network of regional nuclear facilities servicing the region with nuclear energy. In a best-case scenario, for a regional approach to the fuel cycle in the Middle East to be credible and acceptable, there should be no enrichment and reprocessing facilities. The first hurdle with this scenario is Iran’s expanding enrichment program, which Tehran is not likely simply to dismantle in the foreseeable future. One solution would be to internationalize Iran’s enrichment facilities, as has been proposed in principle by Iran. In a letter to the UN Security Council in June 2008, Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, proposed, as part of a package for constructive negotiations over the nuclear impasse, consideration of “establishing enrichment and nuclear fuel production consortiums in different parts of the world—including Iran.”[20] Geoffrey Forden and John Thomson of MIT have proposed a detailed and compelling plan for how to internationalize Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz.[21] According to Forden and Thomson, the enrichment technology should be “black-boxed,” which would impede access to sensitive know-how. It also should be multilaterally owned and controlled and placed under stringent safeguards, they said.

Another problem with “outlawing” enrichment technologies in the Middle East or any region is the strong objection from developing countries that see this as another infringement of their NPT rights to nuclear technology. A fairer approach would be to establish a global network of multilaterally owned and operated plants. This was envisioned in a 2005 IAEA Expert Group report on multilateral nuclear approaches, which said that, first, nationally owned plants should preferably be internationalized, followed by the establishment of “in particular regional” multilateral nuclear approaches for new fuel-cycle facilities, including enrichment plants.[22]

Jordan and Turkey are good candidates to host front-end fuel-cycle facilities, such as those for conversion and fuel fabrication, to form a regional fuel-production arrangement. Jordan, with its newfound uranium reserves, could be a main contributor of uranium, and Turkey has expressed interest in the past in hosting a regional fuel production center.[23] In general, nuclear power plants may be more troublesome from administrative, political, and technical points of view. Power plants are large, expensive and politically sensitive projects often subject to substantial delays and cost overruns, which could be difficult to manage between several states. Also, the host of the plant would have the technical advantage of being able to cut electricity supply to its co-owners when it wants to. Nuclear plants are preferably national ventures with assistance from, or even run by, established international vendor consortiums.

For the back end of the fuel cycle, a blanket nonreprocessing rule is preferable. The proliferation concerns associated with spent fuel reprocessing and plutonium extraction far outweigh the potential benefits from a so-called closed fuel-cycle arrangement. Although uranium enrichment (the other proliferation-sensitive process) is needed for fueling most reactors in the world, reprocessing is not necessary for electricity generation. Effective and transparent spent fuel disposition approaches should be established whereby the nuclear material is, for example, vitrified and stored in regional or international nuclear waste stations under multilateral control and monitoring.

The main nonproliferation benefit of the regional approach described above is that multilateral control, ownership, and operation will instill trust that the facilities are not used for nonpeaceful purposes. A breakout scenario in which the host country diverts uranium for a weapons program is much less likely if the facility is managed and staffed by people from several countries. It could also be argued that a multilateral approach means that a region needs fewer facilities than if each country develops the necessary production centers. This is attractive from a safeguards perspective because fewer sites would require IAEA monitoring. In addition, multinational ventures make economic sense due to economies of scale. It would be much less costly for a state to join a regional center than embark on developing a national facility.

On the negative side, as the 2005 IAEA Expert Group report on multilateral nuclear approaches pointed out, an internationally staffed enrichment facility could mean broader access to know-how and thus represent a proliferation risk.[24] However, if the facility is black-boxed, the spread of sensitive information would be restricted to a minimum.

Spillover Effect

If regional cooperative efforts in nuclear energy start to take off within the next few years, they could possibly open the door for more constructive discussions on other security-related issues. One opportunity to test this hypothesis will be the envisioned 2012 conference on developing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

The final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference calls for all states in the Middle East to participate in a conference in 2012 on a regional WMD-free zone. For the first time, the action formally sets the stage for moving ahead concretely to implement the 1995 NPT Review Conference Resolution on the Middle East. But the road ahead before a conference in 2012 can be realized will be long and bumpy, with the main task being to persuade Israel actually to participate. One significant task will be to navigate through the diplomatic minefield of international proliferation forums, trying to avoid singling Israel out. Another challenge will be carrying out the regional confidence building that is needed for earnest negotiations on a WMD-free zone to take place. The changing nuclear landscape in the Middle East offers an opportunity to do that.

Volumes have been written on the preconditions for the creation of a Middle East WMD-free zone, and the Arab-Israeli conflict clearly lies at the heart of the difficulties in moving forward. Countless attempts have been made to kick-start negotiations on a WMD-free zone, but as a comprehensive UN study concluded in 2004, “The Middle East seems no closer to realizing the aims of a [WMD-free zone] than it was thirty years ago nor is the region any safer.”[25]

The United States will play a key role not only in persuading Israel to participate in talks about a Middle East WMD-free zone, but also in providing a security environment necessary for Israel to consider signing such a treaty. In recent months, media reports citing unnamed Israeli officials have suggested that the United States has provided “unequivocal guarantees…for the State of Israel’s preservation of strategic and deterring abilities,” as one of them put it.[26] Although public statements have not gone that far, at a July 6 joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama, referring to discussions at the NPT review conference, said that “the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.” This statement signals U.S. willingness to work with Israel to meet its security needs in a way that allows it to participate in earnest discussions on a Middle East WMD-free zone. Another area in which the United States, as well as France, can be constructive is encouraging nuclear trade with Israel conditioned on Israel’s signature on and adherence to a treaty establishing a verifiable WMD-free zone in the Middle East and signature on an NPT-like agreement. There is little prospect of Israel signing the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state in the foreseeable future, but Israel could consider signing a separate document as proposed by nonproliferation experts Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham Jr. Cohen and Graham proposed in 2004 that India, Israel, and Pakistan—the three countries that have never signed the NPT—could sign a free-standing protocol allowing them to keep their current programs but inhibiting further development. The agreement would call for cooperation with export controls, ban nuclear testing, and set a timeline phasing out fissile material production.[27]

It seems clear that if collaborative regional efforts in nuclear energy gain momentum within the next few years, a positive climate surrounding nuclear security issues in general will start to emerge. This would not only benefit the general peace process in the region, but also help to create the right setting for the envisioned 2012 conference on developing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.


As more and more states in the Middle East are jumping on the nuclear renaissance bandwagon, there is an urgent need to build nuclear confidence in the region. Instead of each state having a go-it-alone policy developing its own nuclear fuel cycle, which is likely to increase mistrust and the risk of proliferation, nuclear transparency and collaboration should be the norm. If the intentions behind these new programs are open and clear from the start, the countries involved are more likely to avoid misperceptions. Furthermore, by collaborating more closely on nuclear energy issues, the states stand to gain in economic and technical terms. With increased nuclear confidence through transparency measures and collaborative projects, the region also can reap many benefits regarding security building. There are signs that nuclear cooperation is possible. Regional projects such as SESAME and Israel’s assistance with nuclear power-plant siting in Jordan are evidence. Education is one area in which Israel could contribute to regional nuclear development; safety and security culture is another.

The next step is to promote collaborative efforts on nuclear energy, through joint training programs, exchanges of information and experience, and even talks on joint fuel-cycle facilities. Nuclear confidence building is integrally linked to the wider security agenda in the Middle East, including the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

Thomas Lorenz is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for Security Analysis (ICSA) at the Department of War Studies, King’s College in London. Previously, he was a safeguards information analyst with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Joanna Kidd is director of the ICSA. Prior to joining King’s College in 2003, she worked as a defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. This article is based on field research conducted by the authors for a project on multilateral nuclear approaches in the Middle East commissioned to the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


1. Uzi Landau, Statement to the International Conference on Access to Civil Nuclear Energy, Paris, March 8-9, 2010, p. 70, www.conferenceparis-nucleairecivil.org/uploads/contents/86928/File/36255//transcriptionsconferenceen.pdf (summarized transcription).

2. Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), “Research and Publications by IAEC Personnel,” www.iaec.gov.il/pages_e/card_report_e.asp.

3. World Nuclear Association, “Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries,” May 25, 2010, www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf102.html.

4. Israeli officials, interviews with authors, Israel, March 2010.

5. Daniel Horner, “Israel States Strong Interest in Nuclear Energy,” Arms Control Today, April 2010.

6. Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham Jr., “An NPT for Non-members,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, May/June 2004, pp. 40-44.

7. This section relies heavily on interviews conducted by the authors in Israel in March with representatives of the IAEC, Ministry of National Infrastructure, Weizmann Institute, Institute for National Security Studies, and NGO Monitor.

8. Israeli energy official, interview with authors, Israel, March 2010 (hereinafter Israeli energy official interview).

9. Israeli official, interview with authors, Israel, March 2010.

10. Article IV of the NPT asserts “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”

11. Although this linkage is not an official policy, Egyptian officials in public statements regarding an additional protocol typically make the link in no uncertain terms. See, for example, http://mfoa.africanews.com/site/list_message/9319.

12. Israeli energy official interview.

13. For a discussion on fuel assurances, how developing countries view them, and the past year’s negotiations at the IAEA Board of Governors on creating an international fuel bank, see Thomas Lorenz and Joanna Kidd, “An Uncertain Future for International Fuel Banks,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2010, pp. 44-49.

14. Israeli government official, interview with authors, Israel, March 2010.

15. Israeli academics, interviews with authors, Tel Aviv and Istanbul, March 2010.

16. Israeli government officials, interviews with authors, Israel, March 2010.

17. Ehud Zion Waldoks, “Landau to Announce Plans for First Israeli Nuke Power Plant,” Jerusalem Post, March 8, 2010, www.jpost.com/HealthAndSci-Tech/ScienceAndEnvironment/Article.aspx?id=170440.

18. “No Nuclear Cooperation With Israel Before End of Conflict – Officials,” The Jordan Times, March 10, 2010, http://cjpp5.over-blog.com/article-the-jordan-times-com-jordanie-no-nuclear-cooperation-with-israel-before-end-of-conflict---officials-46433756.html.

19. SESAME, “SESAME: Brief Description and Status Report,” www.sesame.org.jo/About/Description.aspx.

20. UN Security Council, “Letter Dated 17 June 2008 From the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations Addressed to the President of the Security Council,” S/2008/397, June 17, 2008, www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/Iran%20S2008397.pdf.

21. Geoffrey Forden and John Thomson, “Iran as a Pioneer Case for Multilateral Nuclear Arrangements,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, May 2009, http://mit.edu/stgs/pdfs/IPCPublicationMay2009.pdf.

22. IAEA, “Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Expert Group Report to the Director General of the IAEA,” INFCIRC/640, February 22, 2005, p. 15, www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/mna-2005_web.pdf.

23. Mark Hibbs, “Turkey Will Press for Fuel Technology Transfer,” NuclearFuel, February 11, 2008.

24. IAEA, “Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” p. 75.

25. UN Institute for Disarmament Research, “Building a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East,” 2004, www.unidir.org/pdf/ouvrages/pdf-1-92-9045-168-8-en.pdf.

26. Attila Somfalvi, “State Official: Obama Provided Israel With Historic Guarantees,” YnetNews, May 30, 2010, www. ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3896361,00.html.

27. Cohen and Graham, “An NPT for Non-members.”


Prospect of Nuclear Deal With Israel Dismissed

Daniel Horner

The United States has no plans in the foreseeable future for civilian nuclear cooperation with Israel, U.S. officials said in recent weeks.

Media reports, seemingly confirmed by an Israeli cabinet minister, indicated that cooperation was at least being considered.

After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama July 6 in Washington, Israeli and other media reported that the two sides had discussed civilian nuclear cooperation.

In remarks at a July 8 conference in Tel Aviv, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said the United States had made a “declaration of willingness,” which he called a “breakthrough,” Bloomberg reported.

Under U.S. law and the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Israel is not eligible for major nuclear trade because it is not a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has not placed all its nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

The George W. Bush administration successfully pushed for an exception to U.S. law and the NSG guidelines to allow nuclear trade with India. (See ACT, October 2008.) Administration officials repeatedly said India’s case was unique and that Israel and Pakistan, which, like India, have never joined the NPT and have nuclear facilities that are not under safeguards, did not qualify for similar treatment. Since then, however, officials from the two countries have argued that they should receive a comparable deal.

At a July 8 press briefing, Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said, “There’s no agreement between the United States and Israel to pursue a nuclear cooperation agreement. There was no discussion of this issue between the president and prime minister.” Asked the following day if the two leaders had had any discussions related to nuclear energy or nuclear weapons, he said, “Not that I’m aware of.” He responded similarly to a question about a reported secret letter.

In an Aug. 25 interview with Arms Control Today, a U.S. official said that although some Israeli officials have raised the issue of an India-style deal, the United States has been “unambiguous” in rejecting it under the Bush and Obama administrations. He indicated that the policy is unlikely to change any time soon. “From our side, there is no interest in having this conversation,” he said.

The geopolitical situation in the Middle East makes a U.S.-Israeli nuclear deal unrealistic, he said. “It is clear, based on our discussions with other countries in the region, that U.S.-Israeli nuclear cooperation of the sort covered in a 123 agreement would be taken as a sign that we are not serious” about establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, he said. U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements are often known as “123 agreements” because they are required by Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act.

At the 2010 NPT Review Conference in May, the parties agreed on steps toward establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, including the convening of a conference in 2012. (See ACT, June 2010.)

The Israeli embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the status of U.S.-Israeli nuclear cooperation.

At a March conference in Paris, Uzi Landau, Israel’s infrastructure minister, strongly reaffirmed his country’s interest in pursuing a nuclear power program and said the program could be “an area for regional cooperation.” (See ACT, April 2010.)


The United States has no plans in the foreseeable future for civilian nuclear cooperation with Israel, U.S. officials said in recent weeks.

Media reports, seemingly confirmed by an Israeli cabinet minister, indicated that cooperation was at least being considered.

Israel States Strong Interest in Nuclear Energy

Daniel Horner

Israel’s infrastructure minister last month strongly reaffirmed his country’s interest in pursuing a nuclear power program and suggested such a program could be “an area for regional cooperation.”

Uzi Landau made the comments March 9 at a conference in Paris.

Observers agree that, to build a reactor on its territory, Israel would need to import at least some key components. Under the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Israel is barred from receiving such imports because it has nuclear facilities that are not safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In his prepared remarks for the Paris meeting, Landau said nuclear power represents “[r]eliable, environmentally clean and high efficiency electricity.” Israel “sees itself as eligible as any other country [for] the peaceful uses of nuclear energy: it has the need, the required scientific and technical infrastructure and know-how and certainly the motivation to engage in such [a] project,” he said.

In 2008 the NSG made an exception to its guidelines for India, lifting a long-standing ban on nuclear exports to a country that conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 and allows IAEA inspections of only some of its nuclear facilities. That initiative was led by the United States, which made a similar exception to its domestic law.

Bush administration officials said the deal was a unique exception for India and explicitly ruled out similar arrangements for Israel and Pakistan, the other two nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) holdouts. However, a congressional source recalled last month that “the Israelis have not been shy” about “linking themselves” to the India deal by suggesting they should receive similar treatment. The source said he was not aware of any recent Israeli effort to make that case. Other sources in Israel and the United States also said they knew of no such effort.

In a March 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a U.S. official indicated that no deal was in the offing. “All nuclear-related technical exchanges between the U.S. and Israel are restricted by U.S. law, which does not permit broad nuclear cooperation with Israel,” she said. She noted that the United States does not have a nuclear cooperation agreement with Israel and said “there is no discussion of negotiating one.”

Real Interest

According to an Israeli source, the country’s “interest in nuclear energy has been and remains real,” and its nonproliferation credentials are “as good as India’s or better.”

In his Paris remarks, Landau said, “Naturally, all nuclear power reactors to be built in Israel will be subject to international safeguards as well as appropriate physical protection measures.” He also said it is “imperative to minimize proliferation risks—especially those associated with the nuclear fuel cycle technologies.”

The Israeli source said he thought Israel would be willing to import fresh fuel for the reactor and send the spent fuel out of the country. This so-called cradle-to-grave approach has been widely supported by nonproliferation advocates and many political leaders as a way to lessen proliferation concerns about countries that are launching nuclear power programs. Such arrangements are designed to give countries an incentive to refrain from pursuing uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing programs.

Israel has an unsafeguarded reactor and reprocessing plant at the Dimona site, where the country is widely believed to have produced the plutonium for its nuclear arsenal.

Recent media reports have said Israel has been in discussions with France and Jordan about a joint reactor project at a site in the latter. One potential advantage of that route is that it might allow Israel to sidestep the NSG ban.

In a March 23 interview, Fred McGoldrick, a former State Department official who handled nuclear trade and nonproliferation issues, said an arrangement under which a Jordanian reactor was supplying electricity to Israel “technically” would “probably not violate the NSG guidelines but it would not be faithful to their intent.” Even though Israel would not have access to nuclear exports from NSG members, it would be getting “the benefits of nuclear energy without making the commitments” that NSG recipients are required to make, he said.

A similar plan was floated in the mid-1980s, and the United States “killed it because it would have been an obvious circumvention of our full-scope safeguards requirements,” he said.

The Israeli source and others said there were several potential obstacles to a joint reactor project built in Jordan. There are “multiple layers of security and politics” that would have to be addressed, the Israeli source said. He said that an overarching question is, “Can you be confident the Jordanians would not only initially commit to but would also be able to keep on supplying Israel energy even if the relationship would become politically sour?” Another issue is that Jordanian trade unions, which support a boycott of Israel, probably would oppose the project, he said.

The Associated Press quoted Khaled Toukan, the head of Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission, as saying, “It’s too early to talk about any regional cooperation with Israel before a solution is found to the Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts.”

Even though Landau indicated a preference for collaborative projects, Israel would have to “weigh an indigenous option,” the Israeli source said.

In his remarks, Landau recalled that Israel in the 1970s had chosen a site called Shivta in the NegevDesert and prepared some of the preliminary safety and security documentation. “Israel has kept the site and the necessary scientific and technical infrastructure for the safe and reliable operation of the future nuclear power plant,” he said.

Israel is one of about a dozen Middle Eastern countries that have expressed an interest in nuclear energy.

Criteria-Based Approach

The United States was “myopic” in making the U.S. and NSG exemptions specific to India rather than adopting a so-called criteria-based approach that also would have made Israel and Pakistan potentially eligible, the Israeli source said. Nuclear suppliers should establish a principle of “the harder you try, the more you qualify for,” he said. Such an approach would encourage the non-NPT states to come closer to the nuclear mainstream and would help raise the levels of security, safety, and nonproliferation adherence in those countries, he said.

Since the U.S.-Indian deal, Pakistan has repeatedly indicated it would like a similar arrangement. It would be “logical” to hold open the possibility of nuclear trade with Pakistan so as not to alienate Islamabad, the Israeli source said.


Israel’s infrastructure minister last month strongly reaffirmed his country’s interest in pursuing a nuclear power program and suggested such a program could be “an area for regional cooperation.”

Uzi Landau made the comments March 9 at a conference in Paris.

UK Revokes Arms Export Licenses to Israel

Rachel A. Weise

Following public outcry from British citizens and members of Parliament, the United Kingdom in July revoked five licenses for the export of arms components to Israel. The British decision could encourage other European Union (EU) members to review their current Israel export policy, a European Commission (EC) official said. According to a British government official, an EU working group will meet in Brussels Sept. 4 to discuss exports to Israel.

The July 13 British decision came after a lengthy review of all arms-related exports to Israel, following what the United Kingdom has called Israel’s “disproportionate” actions in Gaza in January. The licenses are widely believed to be related to Israel’s Saar-class Navy missile boats that fired on the Gaza coastline to support ground activities during Operation Cast Lead, the code name for Israel’s Gaza offensive to stop Hamas rocket fire. But the British official simply said that this was “speculation” and added that the government has not released information regarding the specific export licenses revoked.

Palestinian officials say that more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the conflict and that most of them were noncombatants. Israel estimates that fewer than 1,200 were killed and claims that most were affiliated with Hamas, an organization that Israel and the United States have labeled a terrorist movement.

Following Israel’s 22-day campaign in Gaza, the British Parliament, particularly the Committees on Arms Export Control (CAEC), demanded that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office review export licenses to Israel to ensure that no British components were used in Gaza. The review led the British government to revoke five of its 182 extant licenses to export arms to Israel.

Under EU policy, a member state that revokes an export license must circulate its reasons for doing so among the other 26 members. That requirement raises the possibility that other EU members will follow the United Kingdom’s lead. According to the EC official, although the United Kingdom’s action does not create a legal obligation on the other countries to follow suit, it is now “incumbent on EU members to actively consider this” as they evaluate their own export licenses. The purpose of the EU Code of Conduct, which regulates export policy, is to “harmonize” export practices across member states, the official said in an Aug. 8 interview. He said, “We take the Code of Conduct very seriously. That’s why we want to harmonize our [trade] practices…. Unless people want to challenge the U.K., probably, the EU will adopt those measures.” But because the specific exports in question were unique to the United Kingdom, there could be questions about the applicability of the British precedent, he said.

Israel has issued statements saying that the British decision will not have an effect on its military. The United Kingdom is not one of Israel’s major arms suppliers. Israel receives the vast majority of its arms imports from the United States, according to an Amnesty International report released in February.

Prior to the decision and in response to the CAEC’s sustained calls for a review of export licenses, Foreign Secretary David Miliband released a written ministerial statement to Parliament. In the April 21 statement, Miliband said all export licenses are assessed against British and EU criteria, which include the EU Code of Conduct and other relevant export policies. Criteria 2, 3, 4, and 7 of the code apply to the Israeli case, Miliband said. Criterion 2 prohibits exports where there is a “clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression,” while Criterion 3 limits exports that would “provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination.” Criterion 4 is related to the “preservation of regional peace, security and stability,” and Criterion 7 requires that exports have a low risk of being “diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions.” The licenses and the review process are not public, which makes it difficult to assess the vigor with which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office evaluates export licenses, said Roy Isbister, an arms transfer analyst at Saferworld, a London-based nongovernmental organization.

Miliband’s statement addressed a variety of claims made about Israel’s use of British exports in Gaza, saying that all existing licenses would be reviewed. He said that most of the claims were unsupported but also said “there are credible reports” about Israel using British components for a 76 mm gun outfitted on Saar 4.5-class vessels, fueling speculation that these components were exported under the recently revoked licenses.

Immediately following the decision, the British Embassy in Israel issued a statement saying that termination of these licenses was not a partial arms embargo, but part of the United Kingdom’s standard export review process. According to the July 13 statement, the United Kingdom also revoked a number of licenses to Russia and Georgia after last year’s conflict in Georgia.

Although the United Kingdom frequently reviews its export licenses, the CAEC’s continued call for a license review and the general outcry from British citizens about Operation Cast Lead contributed to the unusual level of publicity surrounding the license termination, Isbister said.

A similar situation occurred in 2002, when the United Kingdom reviewed its exports to Israel after Israel seized the town of Jenin in the West Bank in response to the second intifada, a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. The British Parliament and citizenry strongly protested British arms exports to Israel when they learned that Israel had sent into the Palestinian territories armored personnel carriers that had been built on the chassis of old British Centurion tanks. In a letter to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Nov. 29, 2000, Israel had pledged that “no UK originated equipment nor any UK originated systems/sub-systems/components are used as part of the Israel Defence Force’s activities in the Territories.” After the 2002 events, Jack Straw, the foreign secretary at the time, said the United Kingdom would no longer accept Israeli assurances and that the United Kingdom would evaluate each export against EU and British licensing criteria. This resulted in a number of refusals to export items to Israel based on Criteria 2, 3, 4, and 7, the British official said. This period of increased scrutiny apparently ended after a few months, in July 2002, when the United Kingdom allowed the export of F-16 components to the United States although the United States exports F-16s to Israel.

This page was corrected on January 13, 2010. The original article failed to note that the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports was replaced on December 8, 2008, by the EU Common Position (2008/944/CFSP) defining rules governing control of exports of military technology and equipment.

Following public outcry from British citizens and members of Parliament, the United Kingdom in July revoked five licenses for the export of arms components to Israel. The British decision could encourage other European Union (EU) members to review their current Israel export policy, a European Commission (EC) official said. According to a British government official, an EU working group will meet in Brussels Sept. 4 to discuss exports to Israel. (Continue)

Israeli Officials Wary of U.S. Shift on Iran

Peter Crail

With the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama pledging to pursue a policy of "tough diplomacy" with Iran, including opening the possibility of direct talks with Tehran, Israeli leaders appear to be warily bracing for the expected shift in the U.S. approach to one of Israel's most serious security concerns. Israeli officials have frequently expressed support for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue but have focused on strengthening international efforts to place economic and political pressure on Tehran. The rising concern comes as Israel is undergoing its own political transition, with general elections scheduled for this February.

A number of Israeli officials have questioned the utility of U.S. dialogue with Iran. At a Nov. 7 press conference following a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak doubted Iran's willingness to engage in dialogue in good faith, stating that "Iran continues to try to obtain a nuclear weapon and continues to cheat everybody by holding negotiations on the control of such weapons."

In particular, Israeli officials appear wary that a shift in policy toward engagement may weaken the current sanctions efforts aimed at Tehran. Israeli Foreign Minister and potential prime minister Tzipi Livni urged caution about the timing of direct talks, telling Israel Radio Nov. 6 that "premature dialogue at a time where Iran thinks that the world has given up on sanctions may be problematic," adding that such dialogue may be construed as "weakness." When asked if she supported U.S. dialogue with Iran, Livni responded, "[T]he answer is no."

In recognition that U.S. and Israeli aims regarding Iran may diverge, part of Israel's security establishment also appears to fear that a U.S.-Iranian dialogue may be successful in addressing U.S. concerns, but not those of Israel. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported Nov. 23 that a draft Israeli National Security Council annual situation assessment, which is to be presented to the Israeli cabinet in December, "recommends close cooperation with the U.S. to prevent a deal between Washington and Tehran that would undermine Israel's interests."

One key Israeli official, however, suggested a potential benefit from U.S. talks with Iran: the likelihood that such dialogue will be a route to stiffer sanctions. Amos Yadlin, the head of Israeli Military Intelligence, said in a Nov. 17 lecture in Tel Aviv that he is not opposed to U.S.-Iranian talks, highlighting that if such talks should fail, "there could be a greater realization that sanctions and the diplomatic campaign against Iran should be stepped up." He added that Iran is "very susceptible" to economic pressure at present due to the global economic crisis.

Israeli officials have frequently called for strengthened punitive measures to place pressure on Iran. In a Nov. 17 speech to Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called for "greater force" to confront Iran, stating that Washington must lead an international effort to make it "more costly to Iran to pursue nuclear weapons than to give it up."

In addition to being open to direct talks with Iran, Obama has called for expanding sanctions against Tehran to apply pressure on the regime. During a June 4 campaign speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama said that the United States and its allies should "find every avenue outside the UN to isolate the Iranian regime," including imposing additional financial sanctions and cutting off refined petroleum exports to Iran.

In the general elections scheduled for Feb. 10, 2009, the leading contenders to replace Olmert as prime minister are Livni, who is also the Kadima party's head, and Likud party leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Although the issue of Iran looms large in Israeli foreign and security policy, it has not been the subject of significant attention during the Israeli elections. A former Israel Defense Forces official told Arms Control Today Sept. 25 that "the nuclearization of Iran is not a partisan issue in Israel. There are hawks and doves in each party."

The issue was on the agenda of the final meeting between the current leaders of the two countries when Olmert visited President George W. Bush in Washington Nov. 24. Olmert told reporters following the meeting that there was a "deep understanding about the Iranian threat and the need to act in order to remove [the] threat." He also rejected the notion that the United States sought to pressure Israel against taking military action against Iran.

Former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton suggested in June that the "optimal window" for Israel to strike Iran would be after the U.S. elections and prior to the inauguration of the new president Jan. 20, noting particularly that "an Obama victory would rule out military action."

Israel has said that it reserves the option to take such an action. In a Nov. 18 Der Spiegel interview, Commander in Chief of the Israeli Air Force Ido Nehushtan said that the air force is "ready to do whatever is demanded of us" to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but that such an action "is a political decision."

In recent months, however, senior Israeli political officials have voiced opposition to military action. In a Sept. 7 interview with the Sunday Times of London, Israeli President Shimon Peres asserted that "the military way will not solve the problem," adding that "such an attack can trigger a bigger war."

Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, a former contender in the Kadima party leadership elections, spoke out in even stronger terms against an Israeli strike against Iran. Ha'aretz quoted Sheetrit Sept. 21 stating that "Israel must on no account attack Iran, speak of attacking Iran, or even think about it."


With the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama pledging to pursue a policy of "tough diplomacy" with Iran, including opening the possibility of direct talks with Tehran...

The United States, Israel, and Iran: Defusing an “Existential” Threat

Chuck Freilich

Iran is an existential threat to Israel. This apocalyptic warning call has become a mantra continually repeated by virtually all Israeli leaders and defense officials and has been adopted by much of the U.S. national security establishment. President George W. Bush even warned that Iran’s declared intention of destroying Israel could lead to World War III.[1]

There is no doubt that Iran poses a severe threat to Israel, not only in the nuclear field, but what kind of danger does its nuclear program constitute? Is Israel’s future in imminent danger if Iran goes nuclear? The answer is probably not. Although somewhat reassuring, this response is less than satisfying.

First, the good news. It is difficult to imagine a practical scenario in which Iran would initiate the actual use of nuclear weapons against Israel. Iran has to take into account that Israel is reputed to be a nuclear power. Thus, any nuclear attack might result in a counterstrike and in a “Tel Aviv for Tehran” exchange or even a broader one. Iran certainly has a deep theological commitment to Israel’s destruction and has already proven its willingness to devote considerable resources in pursuit of this divine vision, but what price is Iran ultimately willing to pay? At what point does its cost-benefit calculus change? Would it accept thousands dead, tens of thousands? Probably. Hundreds of thousands, as it lost in the Iran-Iraq war? Maybe. Untold destruction?

Again, presumably not. As extreme as Iranian ideology is, Iran has pursued a largely “rational” policy over the years, in which its national interests have usually taken precedence over theological ones and which has generally adhered to a carefully calculated course. Iran has fundamental national security reasons, totally unrelated to Israel, for seeking a nuclear capability. Iran fears a future resurgence of Iraq, its traditional nemesis, and views the United States as the primary long-term threat to its security. It also lives in a highly unstable region in which two of its neighbors are already declared nuclear powers and many more are exploring nuclear capabilities. As aggressive as Iran’s stance toward Israel is, it genuinely fears Israel’s intentions, totally unwarranted as this may be, except in a reactive sense.

Now for the bad news. Iranian policy toward the United States and particularly Israel has been a partial exception to its generally rational strategic approach and is clearly heavily affected by nationalist and especially theological sentiment. Furthermore, Iranian rationality, at least that of the ruling mullahs, may simply be different than that of the West. When God is invoked, all bets are off. We cannot simply dismiss the possibility that the divine objective of destroying Israel is, somehow, worth the price, especially given the regime’s apocalyptic character. This is not to say that Iran is irrational when it comes to the United States and Israel, but there is certainly an element of doubt here that we cannot ignore.

An Iran emboldened by a nuclear capability will undoubtedly play a more influential, hegemonic role in the region. The unanswerable question, about which we cannot afford to be mistaken, is whether it will seek to throw its weight around and engage in potentially destructive behavior, even at the risk of devastation. As unlikely as an Iranian nuclear attack may be, there is simply no margin for error when national existence is at stake. Therefore, Israel has to take the Iranian threat deadly seriously and treat it as an existential threat, even if it most likely is not.

Furthermore, the greatest practical danger may lie not in an intentional Iranian use of nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, but in a variety of lesser scenarios. A renewed confrontation with Hezbollah seems only a matter of time, and one with Syria is quite possible. Either scenario may provide the setting for an unintended escalation that gets out of hand. Iran might threaten to use nuclear weapons to dictate the outcome of a future conflict of this sort or even as a means of affecting the Arab-Israeli peace process. Its nuclear umbrella might merely embolden Tehran to take harsher conventional measures or allow a regional ally to do so, for example, heightened terrorist or conventional missile attacks against Israel.
The danger of an Iranian transfer of nuclear weapons to Hezbollah or covert deployment of Iranian nuclear weapons in Lebanon also cannot be dismissed. Indeed, Iranian involvement in nuclear terrorism against Israel, directly or indirectly, with or without the knowledge of the Iranian leadership, may pose the greatest danger of all. The danger also exists of an Iranian nuclear capability falling into the hands of an even more extremist regime, if the current one is replaced, or of a loss of control over it in a scenario of internal chaos.

Finally, a nuclear Iran is viewed by its Sunni neighbors as a severe threat and has already led many of them, including Egypt, Jordan, some Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, to begin pursuing “civil” nuclear programs of their own. Civil programs have this nasty tendency to morph into military ones. The prospect of a multinational nuclear Middle East is a nightmare scenario, which makes the complexity of the U.S.-Soviet confrontation pale in comparison. An Israeli-Iranian balance of terror may possibly be feasible, but what about one in which multiple adversarial actors are involved?

The Options

U.S.-Iranian Engagement

What can be done to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon? Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns recently participated in negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue. Others have floated the idea of establishing an interests section in Tehran. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama speaks of engagement as a necessity. On all sides—the United States, Europe, and Israel—the preference for a diplomatic solution is manifest.

In the past, Israel appears to have feared that a U.S.-Iranian dialogue would lead to appeasement and a slippery slope in which Israeli interests would be harmed. The European example of endless dialogue, what the European Union first termed a “critical dialogue,” then a “constructive” one, and which may ultimately become a “perpetual” one (my term), looms large. Even the change for the better in the European approach, starting around 2003, is beginning to look like more of the same: diplomats who become so infatuated with dialogue that they forget that talks must ultimately lead to a practical outcome, not become an end in themselves. Many U.S. critics of the engagement approach fully share these concerns.

Today, too, Israel’s immediate response to a U.S.-Iranian dialogue might be one of alarm, even a fear of abandonment in the face of a possible existential threat. After further reflection, however, Israeli officials might actually support such an effort, not out of belief in its efficacy, although it would be nice to be proven wrong, but as an essential way station on the route to stronger measures. Indeed, given the overwhelming importance Israel attaches to ending the Iranian nuclear threat, it would likely welcome virtually any agreement that put an end to it or at least to Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, even at the expense of its other concerns in regard to Iran (e.g., support for terrorism). The terms of reference set for such a dialogue would clearly have an important impact on Israel’s approach to the issue and confidence in its outcome.

In exchange for an end to Iran’s military nuclear program, Israel would presumably support the concept of a grand bargain, a broad set of incentives, such as rapprochement with the United States, a U.S. commitment to forgo regime change and provide security guarantees, end sanctions, and enable Iran’s integration into the world economy. Both the United States and Israel would clearly prefer an agreement that provides for complete cessation of all nuclear activity in Iran, at least of fuel cycle-related activity, although what precisely this means is a complex technical issue and they may have to accede to some limited, fully safeguarded, civil program. Israel’s only demands would likely be Iranian agreement to suspend all enrichment activity for the duration of the dialogue and establishment of clear benchmarks, with a deadline for assessing the outcome of the dialogue. Many if not most U.S. supporters of engagement favor these same conditions. Given the short timeline until Iran has the capacity to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon—early 2010 and even sometime in 2009 in the current worst-case analyses—the importance of these conditions is greater than ever.[2]

Iran will probably reject the offer, as it has all others, but we will only know if the attempt is made fully, explicitly, and wholeheartedly. U.S. hard-liners on Iran in particular should support a policy of engagement. The exigencies of realpolitik are such that, if Obama wins or possibly if his opponent, John McCain, does, the United States will only be able to pursue severe measures, let alone future military action, if it proves to domestic and world opinion that it has exhausted all other options.

In any event, engagement must be conducted from a position of strength. Just as a policy of sticks with no carrots is doomed to failure, the opposite is true as well. Iran must be made to clearly understand the consequences of a failure to reach terms, and the timeline is short.


To date, Iran has shown no inclination to reach a negotiated end to its nuclear program, and Western inducements to do so have only heightened its bellicosity. Indeed, under its radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and more importantly its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who is the real source of power, Iran seems to welcome gratuitous tension with the international community. Until now, however, its defiance has been cheap. Western rhetoric aside, Iran has not been called on to pay much of a price and has not been faced with the need to make difficult choices. It has truly been a case of eating one’s (yellow) cake and having it too.

Given the strategic importance Iran attaches to its nuclear program, it is highly questionable whether any combination of inducements, positive and negative, will be sufficient to engender a change in its policy. We will only know, however, if the attempt is made. Iran is a proud and ancient civilization, with a sense of its own unique place in history, affronted by the temerity of a 232-year-old “new kid on the block” attempting to dictate policy to it. Nonetheless, Iran does not want to be the subject of severe international opprobrium or an international pariah. Even the highly limited steps taken thus far by the UN Security Council generated something of an internal debate in Iran.[3]

Iran is likely to demonstrate flexibility, if at all, only in the face of imminent and severe measures. Pinprick sanctions in the Security Council will not do the trick. Iran will only get serious when the international community does.

Iran must be convinced that a failure to cut a deal will lead to truly painful sanctions, even at this time of tight oil markets. A leading oil exporter, Iran imports 40 percent of its refined gasoline products. If the West banned these sales, its economy could be brought to its knees.

Some fear that Iran could respond to such a threat by cutting off its oil exports. Oil exports make up 80 percent of Iran’s state budget. Without such funds, its economy would be devastated, and this would be tantamount to cutting off its nose to spite its face. The far-greater “stick” is thus in the hands of the West, even if the price of oil would rise again significantly.

Similarly, Iran’s domestic automotive industry is highly dependent on foreign components and could be rapidly shut down. Many other measures remain to be applied, as the United States has successfully demonstrated in recent months through pressure on international banks.

Russia is the key to sanctions in the Security Council. If Russia can be convinced to support effective sanctions, it is difficult to imagine that China will remain the odd man out among the permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council. For years, Russia has professed to view a nuclear Iran as a threat to its security and to oppose this eventuality. If taken as genuine, and there is no reason to doubt this, then a common basis does exist for a joint approach. Israel’s dialogue with Russia on the topic, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent visit to Moscow, appear to have contributed to some caution on Russia’s part, but only the United States may be able to affect a change in Russia’s policy. Achieving this, however, would require a major change in the U.S. approach to issues of fundamental concern to Russia, such as NATO expansion and deployment of the anti-missile system in Europe. These may be important objectives, but it is arguable whether NATO expansion is essential at this time. Bargaining away an anti-missile system designed to prevent an Iranian attack against Europe, which is almost unimaginable to begin with, in exchange for Russian cooperation in preventing the emergence of the very threat the system is designed to foil, also appears worthy of consideration. Indeed, the “grand bargain” needed may not be just between the United States and Iran, but between the United States and Russia.

Even before recent events in Georgia and the subsequent deterioration in Western relations with Russia, the prospects of the Security Council being the source of relief were meager at best. Short of quasi-military and direct military action, the only realistic hope for a change in Iranian policy is through severe extra-UN multilateral sanctions. Here, too, the prospects are limited. To date, U.S. allies and friends, including the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), have not shown much willingness to take the necessary measures. To this end, it may be necessary for the next president to make it clear that if cooperation is not forthcoming, the United States will be left with little choice but to go it alone, with all of the attendant consequences. The fear of a replay of U.S. unilateralism, such as in Iraq in 2003, may be enough finally to get the Europeans and other allies on board for serious sanctions and ultimately even a naval blockade.

Naval Blockade

Should the sanctions fail, a further ratcheting up of the pressure on Iran, short of actual military attack, could take the form of a naval blockade, preferably multilateral but unilateral if necessary. The blockade could be comprehensive from the outset or graduated (e.g., initially limited to Iranian imports of refined petroleum and then expanding over time). A partial air and ground blockade might also be feasible. Only if this, too, failed, would there be a need to consider direct military action.

Some will oppose the option of a unilateral naval blockade on the grounds that it would constitute a violation of international law and even an act of war. So be it. Illegal development of nuclear weapons also constitutes a violation of international law, as does dealing a killer blow to the international nonproliferation regime and repeatedly threatening the annihilation of a fellow member state of the United Nations. The issue is not one of niceties or international norms, but of the cold world of realpolitik. A naval blockade may be the only way of ending the Iranian threat without having to resort to direct military action.

For the economic reasons argued above, Iran would be extremely vulnerable to a blockade, and the prospects of its acquiescence to international demands are high. For the reasons argued in the next section, its military response can be expected to be quite limited. Iran talks a very good and scary game, but its behavior is far more cautious; even more importantly, its actual ability to respond significantly would most likely be very limited. Those who truly wish to deal with the problem but are wary of direct military action should give careful consideration to the blockade option.

Military Attack

In recent months, there has been extensive media speculation regarding Israeli preparations for a military strike against Iran, as well as dramatically overblown assessments of the disastrous consequences of military action, whether Israeli or U.S. Only one thing is clear: Regardless of who actually conducts a strike, Iran will hold both responsible.

The operational objectives of a military strike would be to set the Iranian program back by a few years, convince Iran that attempts to reconstitute it would result in renewed attacks and thus be futile, and make use of the time gained in order to promote an effective international regime that would make reconstitution harder, should Iran choose to do so. Preventing the program’s reconstitution would also require the capability and determination to conduct repeated attacks over the course of years and to withstand the ensuing military and political backlash. Hopefully—but no more than hopefully—a more moderate regime might emerge in the interim, whose very character would diminish the threat and which might possibly even be persuaded to dismantle the program. Of course, the opposite could occur too and may be more likely.

There is little doubt that Iran will respond to a direct attack or even a naval blockade, but its options, heated rhetoric notwithstanding, are actually limited. What can it truly do? Attack U.S. ships, block the Persian Gulf? Maybe a pinprick to make it look good at home, but beyond that, the risks of escalation and the costs to Iran’s economy are probably too great. Iran is extremist but most evidence to date indicates that it is not irrational. It may very well cause the United States greater difficulty in Iraq, a serious problem at a time when trends there have finally taken a turn for the better, and increased levels of terrorism can be expected against U.S. and Western targets. It is highly unlikely, however, that Iran would be willing to go beyond limited actions and risk direct military escalation with the United States, and it too has an interest in preserving the emerging order in Iraq. Moreover, U.S. preparations can greatly reduce, although not eliminate, the dangers of Iran’s potential responses.

Oil prices will rise, and Iran could add to the crisis by cutting output, but anything beyond temporary measures would be self-defeating. There will be a strong public reaction in the Muslim world, although Arab regimes will be quietly relieved to be free of a nuclear Iran. If the United States plays out the diplomatic route first, international reaction will be comparatively muted.

Iran is far more likely to respond against Israel, even if the attack is clearly American. Indeed, it can be expected to open up with everything it and its Hezbollah and Hamas allies have, including large-scale terrorism, rocket attacks blanketing Israel, and ballistic missiles. Israel will pay a heavy price, and there is a significant danger of confrontation with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and even Syria, possibly all at once. Relations with Egypt and Jordan will suffer a serious blow. This is a price Israel should be willing to pay. Whether the price the United States will have to pay is also justified is a strategic and normative judgment call, to be weighed against the dangers of a nuclear Iran.

The real issue regarding military action is the anticipated operational outcome. Iran has dispersed and hardened its nuclear sites and may have a parallel covert program. Thus, even a fully “successful” strike would only destroy the known program; and Iran, having largely mastered the technology, might be able to reconstitute it in a comparatively short time. Clearly, U.S. operational capabilities far exceed Israel’s, especially if repeated attacks are required, but the crucial factor is time. Given Iran’s anticipated responses, as well as the fact that they would presumably be far less reticent about hiding their nuclear efforts after an attack, how long a delay in the nuclear program makes an attack worthwhile? Two to three years? No. Five or more? Probably yes.

Regime Change

Even if one believes that regime change is feasible, it will apparently happen only well after Iran has gone nuclear. To date there is little if any evidence to indicate that regime change is in the offing in the next few years, whereas a nuclear capability is highly likely. Moreover, there are no assurances that the next regime will be any better than the current one. Most of all, simply no one seems to know how to do it. The option has been roundly explored ever since 1979. Israel, in any event, would be foolish to pin its hopes on this possibility.

Living With a Nuclear Iran

Coming to terms with Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power is a further possibility, albeit one that no one in Israel wishes even to contemplate but that may become a necessity if all other measures fail. The primary options in this regard are U.S. or multilateral security guarantees for Israel or all nations in the region facing a similar threat and a change in Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. The ramifications of these and other options for U.S. and Israeli policy have been analyzed in detail elsewhere but are briefly presented here.[4]

Option 1: Unilateral U.S. deterrence of Iran.
A clear U.S. declaratory policy, stating that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against any state in the region, or Israel specifically, would be viewed as a threat against the United States itself and would result in a devastating response. Unless Iran is irrational or a severe miscalculation is made, the combined effect of U.S. “extended” deterrence, when added to Israel’s own strategic capabilities, should provide a good response to the threat. Israel may be unwilling to suffice with a deterrent posture, however, when the price of error is existential. The possibility that otherwise “unacceptable” consequences might be tolerable for Iran’s theological and apocalyptical regime is at the heart of the problem. Moreover, in practical terms, most countries in the region, Iran included, already believe that Israel enjoys a de-facto U.S. security guarantee. It is thus not clear that a further expression of this will alter their strategic calculus.

Option 2: U.S.-Israeli defense agreements.
Extended U.S. deterrence might be further strengthened by a bilateral defense agreement, whether an overall commitment to Israel’s security or one more narrowly focused on nuclear, chemical, or biological threats. Assuming U.S. willingness to provide a formal commitment of this sort, something it has done exceedingly sparingly since the 1960s and thus a big assumption, Iran would know that it faced a contractual U.S. commitment to its “assured destruction” above and beyond Israel’s own capabilities. For reasons deeply entrenched in Israel’s national security thinking, however, it is unlikely that it would be willing to base its existence on a security guarantee, even with the United States, unless all other possible options had been exhausted.

Option 3: A multilateral guarantee, for example, with NATO.
If Israel might be hesitant to place its fate in a bilateral security agreement with the United States, it would certainly be loath to do so with a multilateral alliance, not all of whose members are very favorably disposed to it. The protracted NATO decision-making process would probably make this a moot point for Israel in any event.

Option 4: A regional security system.
This would entail a system in which the United States provides security guarantees to countries in the region. For the United States and Israel, this would have the benefit of adding a stabilizing element to the region as a whole and of alleviating Arab anger over what would otherwise be a one-sided commitment to Israel. The very breadth of the arrangement, however, is also its primary drawback. It is doubtful that many of the countries in the region would join an arrangement in which Israel was a part and that would presumably include a demand that they forgo their weapons of mass destruction programs. Israel has made it clear that it will only consider limiting its own strategic capabilities if this applies to all potential adversaries in the broader region and in the context of a regional peace settlement.

Option 5: Changes in Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. It is commonly assumed that Israel is a nuclear power and that the United States is willing to accept this as long as Israel maintains its “ambiguous” status. The emergence of an Iranian nuclear capability, declared or assumed, might provide the United States and Israel with a diplomatically conducive pretext for changing their approach. Removing any lingering doubts, especially if it was thought that Israel had a guaranteed second-strike capability, would presumably add some measure of clarity and thus of deterrence. In point of fact, however, Iran must take into account that Israel is thought to already possess a nuclear arsenal and thus the added utility would appear to be marginal. Moreover, an end to Israeli ambiguity might further spur Arab nuclear development programs. The question that the United States and Israel would have to address would be whether the marginal increase in deterrent value, in itself or as part of a broader package, would justify the costs.


Sixty years after the Holocaust, Iran’s repeated threats to wipe Israel off the face of the earth are unconscionable, not just for Israel but for people of good will everywhere. To an extent, it is a moot point whether or not the Iranian nuclear capability poses an existential threat to Israel. If just one Iranian nuclear bomb hit Tel Aviv, resulting in “only” a few hundred thousand deaths, Israel as we know it would cease to exist. True, the national population today numbers close to seven million; but the economic and intellectual heart of the nation, its driving spirit, would be extinguished, national collapse would follow, the blow irreversible. One may debate the prospects of this scenario ever materializing. Indeed, this author belongs to those who believe that Iran is fundamentally rational and thus deterrable. Nevertheless, no one in a position of authority, certainly in Israel but abroad as well, has the luxury of dismissing the severity of the threat and treating it as anything less than potentially dire.

The precise timeline until the first Iranian nuclear weapon exists, as well as a more mature arsenal, is not known. Time, however, is truly of the essence, the critical factor for virtually all of the options. We may simply not have the time to play out the graduated process described in this article. As things stand today, we have something on the order of a year in the worst-case scenario, a few years at best. One way or the other, it appears increasingly likely that the moment of truth will come about during the next president’s first term, possibly early on. Very tough decisions will have to be made in Washington and Jerusalem, some of them jointly, if neither side is to be presented with highly unwanted fait accompli.
At this point, conditional but all-out engagement, limited in time and closely combined with stringent multilateral sanctions, rapidly followed by a naval blockade, appear to hold the best prospects for success at an acceptable cost, possibly even without bloodshed. Hopefully, further measures will not be required down the line. In any event, let us not engage in unwarranted, self-deterring risk aversion. Iran at least has a good appreciation of the true balance of power and for power politics. ACT

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Schusterman fellow.

Updated online November 5, 2008.


1. “[W]e got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Press Conference by the President,” October 17, 2007.
2. Barak Ravid, “MI: West Won’t Halt Iran Nuke Program,” haaretz.com, October 27, 2008. Barak Ravid, “Sarkozy Views Obama Stance on Iran as ‘Utterly Immature’,” haaretz.com, October 28, 2008.
3. See, for example, Michael Jacobson, “Sanctions Against Iran: A Promising Struggle,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Summer 2008), pp. 69-88. Nazila Fathi, “Debate Grows in Iran Over Nuclear Program,” The New York Times, January 23, 2007; “Iranian Press Abuzz Over Nuclear Standoff,” BBC News, September 19, 2004.
4. See Chuck Freilich, “Speaking About the Unspeakable: The U.S.-Israeli Dialogue on the Iranian Nuclear Program,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 2007.

Iran is an existential threat to Israel. This apocalyptic warning call has become a mantra continually repeated by virtually all Israeli leaders and defense officials and has been adopted by much of the U.S. national security establishment. President George W. Bush even warned that Iran’s declared intention of destroying Israel could lead to World War III. (Continue)


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