Welcome to Israeli Nuclear Weapons 101

There are a lot of mysteries surrounding Israel’s nuclear arsenal. We break down five big concepts you need to know.

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The Iranian nuclear nonproliferation agreement has been the top foreign policy issue throughout Washington for the past two months.  Approving or disapproving the deal was the first order of business for the U.S. Congress until the very last day of congressional action under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (September 17).  Hours of debate have been conducted on the floors of the House and Senate, both chambers have held roll call votes, and Senate Democrats bonded together to filibuster a motion of disapproval — a resolution that would have prevented President Obama from providing the Iranians sanctions relief.

The Obama administration’s main selling point for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is based on the theory that forcing Tehran to downgrade its nuclear program will make the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East — the world’s most frenetic and violent region even without nuclear weapons— far less urgent.  Yet we should remember that there is in fact a state in the region that already possesses nuclear weapons. That state happens to be Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East: Israel.

There are a lot of mysteries surrounding Israel’s nuclear arsenal. That is partly due to the Israeli security establishment’s unwritten rule of never speaking about the country’s nuclear weapons program in public in order to preserve the principle of deterrence.  But there are indeed some basic elements of Israel’s nuclear program that are acknowledged by defense analysts in the United States and around the world.

1.    The Number is in Doubt:

While everyone believes that the Israelis possess a sizable nuclear arsenal, no one really knows how big that arsenal is.  In 2008, President Jimmy Carter estimated that Israel probably had a minimum of 150 weapons in stock ready to use if the most dire circumstances warrant.  Six years later, the former President revised that estimate and put the figure in the 300 range, which—based on Carter’s calculations—would mean that Israel doubled its arsenal from the 2008-2014 time-period.  Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters at the United Nations at the height of the P5+1-Iran nuclear talks that Israel is “sitting on 400 nuclear warheads.”  The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists believes Zarif’s figure is far too large and unrealistic given the fact that Israel’s weapons are designed for deterrence purposes rather than actual hire-trigger use.  A better figure, the board writes, is “sixty-five to eighty-five warheads” as cited in a Rand Corporation study.

To put it bluntly, the world doesn’t have a clue about how many nukes Israel possesses.  And that’s precisely the point for the Israelis: the guessing game swirling over the proliferation community keeps Israel’s enemies in the region on their toes.

2.  Israel Fooled the U.S. to Get Its Program Off the Ground:

The Iranian Government has been caught building enrichment facilities by western intelligence agencies twice before.  In 2002, a dissident Iranian group provided information to the United States pointing to a large-scale enrichment facility at Natanz.  In 2009, U.S. and European intelligence uncovered another enrichment facility at Fordow buried deep into a mountain.  But Iran isn’t the only country that has deliberately deceived the United States and the international community in order to provide time for a full-on nuclear program; the Israelis, as Walter Pincus wrote in a Washington Post story earlier this year, “blazed [the] trail decades ago.”

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Israeli Government repeatedly stonewalled U.S. requests for information on possible weapons development and at times purposely lied to their U.S. allies in the hope of giving the nuclear program more room to breath.  In 1960, Israel referred to its Dimona reactor both as a “textile plant” and as a “metallurgic research installation” to the U.S. State Department.  Foreign minister Shimon Peres assured President John F. Kennedy in a 1963 meeting in the Oval Office that Israel would “not introduce nuclear weapons to the region.”

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