The Forgotten Player in Nuclear Chess

On 5 October 1986, the British newspaper The S...

On 5 October 1986, the British newspaper The Sunday Times ran the story on its front page under the headline: “Revealed: the secrets of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



This article originally appeared in The Sydney Globalist’s “Faith Game” Edition in 2013. It explores Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program and recommends their inclusion in the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

From the deplorable events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the Cuban Missile crisis, and more recently the seemingly endless impasse over possible future proliferation in the Middle East, nuclear weapons remain a pertinent topic of discussion within International Security .

However, an oft-neglected component of this debate lies in the weapons capacity of the Middle East’s only established nuclear power – Israel. Whilst officially maintaining a status of nuclear ambiguity, ‘whistle-blowers’ such as Mordechai Vanunu have estimated Israel’s nuclear capacity is approximately 150-200 nuclear warheads. Yet Israel, along with India, Pakistan and North Korea remains one of only four countries outside the scope of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This article explores Israel’s clandestine nuclear program and concludes by suggesting Israel’s nuclear weapons must become an integral part of the debate in tackling nuclear proliferation.

Israel’s Nuclear Weapons Program

Israel’s intentional policy of nuclear opacity has made it considerably difficult to piece together information on the origins of its nuclear program. Yet this blanket censorship has failed to silence all of those involved in its development. These select individuals have provided compelling evidence of the existence of Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program.

It is widely believed that the program began under the guise of the first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, in response to their perceived security predicament. By developing a formidable nuclear arsenal , Israel aimed to gain significant strategic advantages over their neighbours by utilising the nuclear bomb as a deterrent.

Indeed, Israeli nuclear expert Avner Cohen has argued that their capacity was bolstered by support from the French government in the 1950s and 1960s, under a French-Israeli nuclear deal. France, which developed its own nuclear weapons program around the same time, provided Israel with the know-how to develop weapons capabilities. Specifically, the Dimona nuclear facility was established to enrich uranium, enabling Israel’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

As prominent realists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have argued, the United States has, since 1968, acknowledged Israel’s nuclear weapons and “tacitly supported Israel’s effort to maintain regional military superiority by turning a blind eye towards its various clandestine WMD programs.”

Vanunu the Whistleblower:

Former Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu has revealed important logistical details on the country’s nuclear program. Vanunu’s leaked reports and photographs of his work at the Dimona facility have provided systematic evidence of the existence, nature, and scope of Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Subsequently, Vanunu has become a prime target of the Israeli secret service. Whilst abroad in Rome in 1986, following a revealing interview with the Sunday Times, he was poisoned and abducted. Forcibly removed to Israel, Vanunu was sentenced to 18 years in gaol and continues to face significant restrictions on his civil liberties.

Vanunu’s efforts have thus shed considerable light on the extent of the Israeli nuclear program – and the extent to which their security apparatus was willing to silence opposition.

International Law:

Yet Israel remains one of only four countries not bound by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Their nuclear program has avoided significant inspections since the 1960s, and, alongside security risks, has posed a health hazard to nearby residents in Dimona who have complained of radiation poisoning. More recently, secret ministerial documents suggest Israel offered to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa in 1975 at the height of the Apartheid regime.

Israel’s blanket refusal to join the 189 other states party to the NPT suggests a necessary player has been excluded from the debate on nuclear proliferation.  Whilst an NPT Review Conference Resolution was passed in 2010 urging Israel to place its nuclear weapons program under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), US veto power within the Security Council, and the absence of any international treaty obligations mean this is of little practical value.

The Future

Rather than being isolated, sanctioned or criticised, the Israeli nuclear weapons program is deliberately overlooked by countries such as the United States, France and the UK. Indeed, America continues to support Israel, providing in excess of three billion dollars of unconditional aid annually – more so than any other country.

Yet these supporters are quick to condemn and impose sanctions on nation-states for pursuing nuclear programs which, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, remain civilian-oriented, and under the supervision of the IAEA. Whilst Israel continues to criticise countries for pursuing nuclear programs, it refuses to submit to international obligations itself.

Equipped with such an understanding of Israel’s clandestine nuclear program, it is hard not to see the hypocrisy and inconsistency of its nuclear rhetoric.

It is only by engaging Israel on an even playing field and placing Israel’s nuclear program under the auspices of the IAEA that the efficacy and credibility of the NPT may be bolstered. This will go some way to reducing double standards, by dealing with issues of nuclear proliferation in a more transparent and consistent manner.

Jahan Navidi recently completed his final year of a combined Bachelor of Laws / Bachelor of International & Global Studies at the University of Sydney.

Available on page 13, of “The Faith Game” edition of The Sydney Globalist, accessible here:


About jahannavidi

Lawyer from Australia. Views are very much my own and written in my personal capacity. Twitter: jahan559
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