Iran, Israel and Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East

February 14, 2002

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear

Author's Title: 

Michael Donovan


Center for Defense Information

In recent weeks, Israeli rhetoric regarding Iran has grown more truculent, leading some to suspect possible military action. Responding to rumors of an impending Israeli strike on the nuclear facilities at Bushehr, Iranian Defense Minister Adm. Ali Shamkhani asserted his country had no ambition for nuclear weapons and warned of an "unimaginable" response. Israel flatly denies any intention of hitting Bushehr. Nevertheless, Tel Aviv now professes to see Iran as the predominant threat in the region, a view that is gaining favor in Washington. Yet talk of an "axis of evil" belies the complex logic behind weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East that is unlikely to change until a broader political settlement in the region is achieved.

United States-Iranian Relations After 9/11

Following the events of Sept. 11, American and Iranian interests found much in common. Iran immediately denounced the attacks in New York and Washington and offered to assist in the rescue of downed American pilots. Viewing immediate regional stability as fundamental to its economic and commercial relationships, Iran had long since embarked on a good neighbor policy in the Gulf and Central Asia. The one exception was the Taliban, and relations between Tehran and the movement were bitter and often hostile. Iranian acquiescence, if not material assistance, played an important role in American successes in Afghanistan. According to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Iranian diplomats had performed a constructive role in Bonn and Tokyo in the formation of an interim Afghan government. The British government, with Prime Minister Tony Blair in the lead, argued that the time was ripe to strengthen the hand of reformers within Iran through engagement. Continued hostility, they said, played into the hands of hardliners who used Western aggression as an excuse to mask their own failure in governance. Moreover, dual containment of both Iran and Iraq, many critics argued, had proved both costly and ineffectual. There seemed to be compelling reasons to repair the two-decade-old breach between Washington and Tehran.

But hopes for rapprochement now appear to be short lived. In recent weeks, a spate of reports have alleged Iranian involvement in smuggling arms to the Palestinian Authority, supporting Palestinian rejectionists, and destabilizing the interim Afghan government. There undoubtedly is some truth to these allegations. Others raise puzzling questions. What is clear is that the Bush administration now favors confrontation rather than engagement.

Yet President George W. Bush's complaints about Iran say as much about U.S.-Israeli relations as it does about the absence of relations between Washington and Tehran. As Palestinian-Israeli confrontations multiplied, the Bush administration's talk of a Palestinian state quieted, and this reinforced Yasser Arafat's isolation in the West Bank. Naming Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad in his state-of-the-union address evidenced further identification between the White House and Ariel Sharon's policies. Some analysts argue that only the virulently anti-western Hezbollah can be counted as a terrorist organization with "global reach," and it has not attacked an American target in over a decade according to the State Department. Though it clearly fits the criteria, few of America's Arab allies view Hamas as a terrorist group at all, unlike al Qaeda. The seizure of the Karine A in the Red Sea last month exhausted the administration's patience with both Tehran and Arafat, just as the Israelis began stressing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Iran's Nuclear Program

Opinions vary as to Iran's intentions and capabilities regarding nuclear weapons. While in New York recently, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer asserted that Iran will have nuclear a capability by 2005. A recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate states that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade, although one participating agency, assuredly the Department of State, judges it will take longer. Analysts outside the intelligence community, though hardly unanimous, tend to agree with the State Department's estimate.

Iran's nuclear program began under the Shah in 1974, but was abruptly suspended following the Islamic revolution in 1978-79. The Shah also conducted research in the production of fissile material, but these efforts were suspended during the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. It was not until 1984 that Ayatollah Khomeini revived Iran's nuclear weapons program. There are some indications that he did so reluctantly, viewing these weapons as amoral. In 1987 and 1988, the reactor sites at Bushehr I and II were damaged by Iraqi air strikes, and progress was again arrested.

Few doubt Iran's intention to develop a covert nuclear weapons program. Yet the weight of the evidence suggests that its military applied research program remains in its preliminary stages. Most analysts agree that Iran is not able to fund or staff a program equal to that which existed in Iraq prior to the Gulf conflict. Reports from Russian technicians with experience in Iran indicate that even the civilian nuclear program lacks cohesion and is marked by technical deficiencies. Absent a more capable nuclear infrastructure, or a covert input of fissile material from a foreign source, it appears that the focus remains on developing military research capabilities. Such an approach allows for a practical military program to be rapidly instituted at a more opportune time. This approach also allows Iran to walk a fine line of legality insofar as international safeguards and controls are concerned.

Tehran has been careful to follow the letter, as opposed to the spirit, of the law. Both President Mohammad Khatami and his predecessor, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have categorically denied that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran points out that it is party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has accepted full scope safeguards, and is entitled to import nuclear reactors and other technologies under the provisions of the treaty. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has regularly inspected all of Iran's declared nuclear facilities, reports that it is in full compliance with the NPT, and has found no evidence of a nuclear weapons effort. Following revelations about Iraqi clandestine nuclear facilities in 1991, the IAEA invoked its authority to conduct special inspections of undeclared sites. Hoping to avoid suspicion that is was in violation of the NPT, Iran allowed the IAEA to visit any site upon request. The agency has made several visits to undeclared sites in Iran, but has failed to uncover any non-sanctioned activities. IAEA inspections remain an imperfect mechanism for monitoring clandestine weapons programs, and experts are divided as to the value of these visits. Nevertheless, Iranian officials refer to this inspection record with a mixture of pride and defiance. Other nuclear weapons programs in the region, they insist with some justification, are not so transparent.

Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East

The Persian Gulf and the Middle East, though nominally separate geographic identities, are linked fundamentally as one broad political-military region. The dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Israel's relative military superiority, invariably affect the thinking of all the Arab/Persian communities in the region. Even without Israel, there are inter-Arab and regional rivalries that provide impetus for proliferation. The Iran-Iraq war was a powerful formative experience for both these countries and their concept of national security and deterrence. Likewise, Israel's long history of conflict with its neighbors, its innate sense of vulnerability, and the hostility it faces from the Gulf States will drive its own elusive search for security.

Israel's nuclear weapons are an outgrowth of its sense of being besieged and the corresponding doctrine that arises from this psychology. Israeli military strategy has long focused on preemptive conventional capabilities and the ability to carry the battle away from Israeli territory and its population centers. Given the delays inherent in mobilizing a largely reservist Army, the country relies heavily upon its Air Force to stem the tide of battle and supply breathing room. Thus, as the analyst Geoffrey Kemp notes, any threat that undermines the superiority of the air force also calls into question the Israeli concept of deterrence. Arab advances in missile technology, air defenses, and chemical weapons seem to offer just such a threat. Thus, nuclear weapons are seen as a hedge against conventional attack as well as a deterrent against weapons of mass destruction.

Israel's nuclear weapons program dates back to the late 1950s and the construction of the nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev. Here, with French and later South African assistance, the Israelis embarked upon a nuclear weapons program that, according to U.S. Intelligence estimates, is thought to have yielded between 75 and 130 devices. Some reports indicate that Israel instituted a nuclear alert during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and again in 1991 during the Gulf conflict. Information about the Israeli weapons program is somewhat conjectural. The Israeli government does not admit to possessing nuclear weapons and is not a member of the NPT. Dimona remains a closed site not subject to international inspections or safeguards. There exists no official mention of how nuclear weapons fit into Israeli strategic thinking, and their role in the Israeli Defense Force's doctrine is therefore a matter of guesswork.

The states arrayed against Israel hold that it is their right to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the Israeli arsenal. They believe that Washington maintains a double standard by ignoring Israel's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction while opposing the transfer of even peaceful nuclear technologies to others. Both Iraq and Iran have sought a nuclear capability as a strategic equalizer. In the case of Iraq, however, nuclear weapons serve an ambition greater than that of a relative deterrent. Saddam's search for regional hegemony meant that he must both overcome Iran's strategic superiority and stake a claim to leadership of the Arab world. In Saddam's eyes, weapons of mass destruction in general, and nuclear weapons specifically, serve both purposes. They counter Iran's strategic depth and demographic superiority. They are also seen to threaten and confront Israel. Thus they play to broader inter-Arab themes.

Israel is understandably averse to seeing its nuclear advantage eroded. Indeed, as its strike on the Osiraq reactor in Iraq in 1981 demonstrated, Israel is ready to maintain a nuclear monopoly in the region through the use of force. That the world was a safer place following the destruction of the Iraqi reactor is undoubted. And it is noteworthy that Iraq possessed a relatively advanced military program despite its membership in the NPT. However, in the long run, the tactical success of the air raid may prove to be counterproductive. It certainly underscored the Arab belief that their defenses could only be marginally effective against Israel in the absence of a credible nuclear deterrent. Additionally, Arab governments reacted with a mixture of indignation and suspicion at Israel's de facto claim to a monopoly. Applying the logic of the East-West balance of power persuaded some in the region of the stability that nuclear proliferation might impart. This logic may be dubious, but it nevertheless provides a powerful incentive for countries seeking a nuclear weapons capability.

These dynamics tend to reinforce themselves. Iraq's weapons programs may have been intended to confront Israel, but it was the Iranians who suffered from Saddam's obsession with chemical weapons as the world, including the United States, looked on in silence during their eight-year war. This instilled in Tehran the powerful lesson that it must be responsible for its own defense. U.S. acquiescence to the Israeli nuclear program further erodes Tehran's faith in the equal application of international arms regimes. They hesitate to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) despite their own doubts as to the utility of these weapons. Iranian attempts to hedge against perceived threats, couched as they often are in incendiary rhetoric aimed at Israel, simply reinforces Iran's image as a proliferator.

Iran has posited the creation of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East, but this approach is disingenuous. The idea links Israel's nuclear weapons capability to an eventual political settlement that Iran actively opposes. Such a strategy seeks to place the burden of proof on Israel's intention to forgo its nuclear deterrent. Tel Aviv will not address the nuclear question without a prior, far-reaching political settlement and several years of confidence building measures. Thus the mechanics for a regional nuclear arms race are, for the time being, locked into place.

The Israeli nuclear arsenal will continue to drive Iranian and Iraqi WMD acquisition efforts for the foreseeable future. In turn, these ambitions are likely to underscore Israel's sense of vulnerability. Furthermore, the perception that nuclear weapons connote independence, equality, and prestige will likely survive any regime change in Baghdad, further perpetuating proliferation in the region as a whole. Strategies of containment and technology denial may slow the process, but they offer no permanent solutions.

Beginning the long process of integrating Iran fully into the world community as a responsible member could provide a keystone upon which to build a broader settlement. Rejection of Israel and the United States are not necessarily popular or static characteristics of traditional Iranian foreign policy. Ironically, there exists in Iran a far greater popular consensus for engagement than seems to exist in either United States or Israel. Engaging Iran has its share of pitfalls. But talk of an "axis of evil" or bombing the Bushehr reactor sites can only retard progress along the path towards controlling nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.


The Economist
The Washington Post
The New York Times
Federation of American Scientists, "Weapons of Mass Destruction Resources."
Shahram Chubin "Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Persian Gulf Case," Occasional Paper No. 33, (Washington DC: Henry L. Stimson Center, March 1997).
Anthony H. Cordesman and Ahmed S. Hashim, Iran: Dilemmas of Dual Containment (Washington DC: Westview Press, 1997).
Mark A. Heller, Continuity and Change in Israeli Security Policy, Adelphi Paper 335 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Geoffrey Kemp with Shelley A. Stahl, The Control of the Middle East Arms Race (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment, 1991).