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Ed Warner's interview with Joseph Cirincione about Israel's Nuclear Weapons - 2004-08-27


Ed Warner’s interview with Joseph Cirincione, Director of Nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Mr. Warner - What are we to make of this nuclear situation in the Middle East, where the one power has it and the others are aspiring. What is the outlook?

Mr. Cirincione - I think Israel would hope to maintain the status quo; that is, to keep itself the only nuclear power in the Middle East and deter anyone else from acquiring those weapons, but that is very unlikely to happen. Even if Iran can be convinced not to go ahead with its nuclear program, the long term pressures are just unstoppable. Sooner or later, countries are going to acquire those nuclear weapons, and Israel might be presented with not just one but two, three, maybe four countries in the region with nuclear weapons. That is why it’s really in Israel’s interest to be acting now to work toward a region where there are no weapons of mass destruction. It has to choose what scenario is better for Israel’s long-term national security interests because the present situation is just unstable.

Mr. Warner - Is there any sign that Israel might be moving in that direction?

Mr. Cirincione - Not yet. The director of the IEA went to Israel just a few weeks ago, encouraging that country to reengage in negotiations for Middle East free weapons of mass destructions. There had been a lot of movement in that direction. After the last Gulf War, the U.S. and Russia convened a Middle East peace conference. There seemed to be some momentum, but then it fell apart and it’s never been revisited. This administration hasn’t taken this up as a priority. So it’s unlikely that Israel is going to make any move in that direction unless it feels that the U.S. wants it to, that there is some pressure or leadership from the U.S. to encourage Israel to do so.

Mr. Warner - There is some talk also of Israel striking the nuclear facilities in Iran. Is that a possibility?

Mr. Cirincione - I would find it very unlikely that Israel is going to strike at Iran. Many people bring this up because this is exactly what Israel did in 1981, bombing the Osirak research reactor in Iraq to try to stop that country’s program, but two things are different here. One, we now know that that really didn’t work, that that strike was not effective. It simply drove the program underground, and in fact Saddam expanded the program after 1981 to produce a program that had several thousand people working for it by 1991. And Iran’s facilities are much more dispersed, much more comprehensive then Iraq’s were. Remember, Iran is doing this under their declared intention of having a peaceful program to produce fuel rods for its nuclear reactors. So it has established four or five major facilities in the area and aware of what Israel did, has actually moved to bury some of these, give them some protection from air strikes. So it would be a much more difficult task and one that would certainly have huge repercussions in the Middle East. I don’t think Israel could get away with it now the way they did in 81.

Mr. Warner - I presume Iran has ways of striking back?

Mr. Cirincione - Not really. It would be really hard for Iran to strike back. They do have some short range ballistic missiles that go about 1000 kilometers that might be able to hit Israel, but they really don’t have any long range fighter bombers that could strike, and even if they did, they are no match for Israel. Israel enjoys military conventional superiority throughout the region. It could defeat any country or combinations of countries that would be so foolish as to try to attack Israel. So I doubt that an Israeli strike would be met by a military response from Iran.

Mr. Warner - And finally, any sign that the U.S. is trying to do anything to bring about the nuclear free zone in the area or are we just sort of going along with the status quo?

Mr. Cirincione - A nuclear free zone remains official U.S. policy, in fact, Israeli official policy, but we are not doing anything about it. There is no real initiative about it in that area. The current administration doesn’t seem interested in it. If John Kerry were elected president, you might see some change in that direction.

We estimate that Israel has about 100 nuclear weapons, and we base this primarily on estimates of how much nuclear material they should have been able to produce. Some estimates go higher, as high as 200, but we don’t think they have a need for that many nuclear weapons. They have a variety of delivery mechanisms. They have a U.S. dial triad with spider bombers F-16's and F-15's that could deliver these short and medium range missiles, Jericho 1 and the Jericho 2 that could hit any target in the Middle East. And finally, they have added in the past couple of years, three submarines that they purchased from Germany with cruise missiles, which we believe have been equipped with nuclear warheads. So it’s a quite substantial nuclear arsenal.

Mr. Warner - Finally, what about sentiment within Israel itself? I realize we are not there. But is there any movement?

Mr. Cirincione - Within Israel, there are conservative elements who don’t want anything to do with giving up their nuclear weapons. But I think there is some sentiment for doing so if Israel could resolve its internal security problems, the Palestinian terror attacks that continue and if this is done in the context of a regional peace settlement. Right now, this is a huge psychological barrier for Israelis to overcome. They feel insecure, and even though nuclear weapons do nothing to protect them against suicide bombers, they are still very hesitant to give up any military capability in the current situation. So the only way to bring about a weapons-free Middle East is really to simultaneously address the regional issues including resolving the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. That sounds like a big agenda and it is, but it’s a lot easier to deal with those issues than with the Middle East with three or four nuclear weapons states and the current unresolved regional and territorial disputes.

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