Case study - The danger of proliferation - Iran and Israel, two examples

Aided by France, Israel built a nuclear research reactor in Dimona, in the Negev desert in 1956. Later on, a subterranean reprocessing plant was added that produced weapons-grade plutonium. It is said that as early as in 1967, Israel was in possession of its first operational nuclear warheads (Bar-Joseph 2012, p. 94). Today, it is assumed that Israel has between 80 and 200 nuclear warheads as well as their means of delivery—aircraft, land- and submarine-based missiles (Arms Control Association, 2012). The Israeli government, however, officially neither admits to being a nuclear power nor negates it.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Tel Aviv considered nuclear weapons as the last 'security' against the assumed superiority of the jointly operating armies of Arab countries as concerns conventional weapons. The Israeli government argues that only after a comprehensive solution for peace in the Middle East can disarmament in the region be negotiated. Critics contest that Israel does not need any nuclear weapons to safeguard against its Arab neighbours because of the superiority of its conventional weapons (Bar-Joseph, 2012).

Israel has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty—the only country in the Middle East. A vast majority of states demand precisely this, as can be read in the decisions of the UN General Assembly such as the one of 03 December 2012 resulting in a UN resolution that was adopted with 174 votes in favour, six against and six abstentions (UN-General Assembly, GA/11321). A conference on a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction that the 189 member states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty had requested did not take place in December 2012 as originally planned because Israel refused to participate.

The United States and many other Western countries are not particularly concerned about Israel's nuclear weapons. They rather consider the main danger in the region to be the Iranian drive towards nuclear weapons. In the 1960s, Iran initiated its nuclear programme assisted by the United States. After the revolution in 1979 in the course of which the Shah regime—a close ally of Washington— was brought down, the United States attempted to prevent the construction of any nuclear installations in the country. This, the United States argued, was driven by the concern that the Islamic Republic of Iran, considered an enemy by the United States, might use civilian factories a stepping stone for their ambition to build nuclear weapons.

Since the 1990s, Israeli and some Western politicians have expressed warnings that Iran may possess atomic bombs in a few years. Such alarmist predictions have so far not materialized. In 2011, a civilian nuclear power plant, built with the support of Russia, became operational. Iran also has uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz and Fordow. There, Iran could theoretically produce not only low-enriched uranium for civilian fuel rods used in nuclear reactors but also high enriched uranium, the material needed for nuclear weapons. So far, Iran has only produced low enriched uranium. Enriched further, it could produce weapons-grade fissile material for about five atomic bombs. These facilities are subject to constant controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has confirmed that so far no nuclear material has been diverted for military means.

Before 2002, Iran had kept its nuclear research secret for many years, which conflicted with the security provisions of the IAEA. The country had also only reported on its uranium enrichment plants shortly before they became operational. This secrecy has created a climate of distrust between the international community and Iran. Additionally, the Iranian Republic did not fulfil all of the IAEA's control requirements, and this is why the UN Security Council decided in 2006 that Iran was to stop all uranium enrichment activities. Tehran, however, does not comply with that as Iran considers that decision to be illegal. They argue that as a member country of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has the inalienable right to the civilian use of nuclear energy—and thus also the right to uranium enrichment for civilian purposes.

There is no clear evidence, for instance, any production of high-enriched uranium, that Iran is indeed aiming to possess nuclear weapons. US intelligence officers continue to believe in what they had already stated in 2007 that Iran stopped its structured nuclear weapons programme in 2003 and has so far not decided to take it up again. Accordingly, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated in 2012: "Is Iran in the process of developing nuclear weapons? No". US intelligence services estimate that, in principle, Iran would have the technical means to produce nuclear weapons. The attempt to manufacture atomic bombs, however, would quickly be detected by the IAEA and the CIA, according to US administration estimates.

Iran rejected the suspicion of having conducted a nuclear weapons programme before 2003 and the allegation to generally aspire to have nuclear weapons. The religious leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared in a fatwa, a legal opinion handed down by an Islamic religious leader, that the development and use of nuclear weapons "was religiously forbidden under Islamic law". The proliferation of nuclear weapons, he said, is "senseless, destructive and dangerous". For this reason, "the Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons" (Ayatolla Ali Khamenei). Other Iranian politicians, too, argue that even if Iran possessed some nuclear weapons, it would not stand a chance against the nuclear superiority of the United States. An arms race in the Middle East that would have to ensue as a consequence would also run counter to Iranian interests. It cannot be ruled out that such a statement is pure propaganda from the Iran's leadership. The distrust of the possible intentions of Iran is nurtured by the fact that Iran did not report all its nuclear facilities to the IAEA long before they started operating and that there was no satisfactory answer to questions by the IAEA on possible military dimensions of its nuclear programme.

As the limited sanctions the UN Security Council had imposed on Iran did not induce the government to give up its uranium enrichment programme, in 2012, the United States and the European Union imposed severe economic sanctions that severely affected Iran’s primary source of income: its oil and gas exports and that obstructed all financial transactions with Iranian banks. Beyond economic sanctions, computer viruses were planted in Iran's nuclear facilities, and Iranian nuclear scientists were murdered in targeted attacks. According to research and reports by the media, such as the New York Times, these activities originated in Israel or the United States. At the same time, negotiations between the six powers United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France and Germany with Iran have been ongoing for years but achieved no results. Responsible for this is Iran's refusal to stop its uranium enrichment activities corresponding to the demands of the UN Security Council and the fact that the United States is not prepared to accept internationally controlled uranium enrichment activities and to lift its sanctions as a response to Iranian concessions.

Israel in particular but also the United States threatens with a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Yet experts like former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warn that this "would prove catastrophic". They also agree that, indeed, an attack would set back Iran's nuclear programme at best a few years, but in reaction to such an attack, Iran would most likely decide to secretly develop atomic bombs as quickly as possible. Should such an attack take place without the consent of the UN Security Council—and such consent is not to be expected—this would constitute "a clear breach of the UN Charter" (Carl Bildt, Erkki Tuomioja), as stated by the Swedish and Finnish Foreign Ministers.

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