The not so secret Dimona nuclear plant in Israel is a taboo subject [AFP]
Across the globe, headlines pronounced that a “breakthrough agreement” had been reached in Geneva. Iran’s atomic ambitions had been curbed in exchange for limited sanctions relief, thus deflating the long-standing military standoff.
The deal hammered out between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia stipulates that Tehran will halt progress on enrichment capacity, stop developing its heavy water reactor at Arak, and open access to international weapons inspection. While this deal paves the way for Iran’s reintegration into the family of Western nations, and can therefore be conceived as a real milestone, in terms of the Middle East nuclear problem, any robust agreement,however, will have to include Israel.
Within Israel, speaking about the nuclear programme in Dimona is taboo. Mysteriously, however, there is also a broad-based agreement to keep silent about it in Washington and in most European capitals. Despite claims made by independent analysts that Israel likely has around 80 warheads, and is believed to be the only state in the region that has produced separated plutonium, and possibly highly enriched uranium, the two key ingredients in nuclear weapons. Indeed, it may now have enough plutonium, including the plutonium already in weapons, for up to 200 nuclear warheads.
Creating a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East is actually not a new idea. Ironically, it was first proposed in the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 by no other than the major ‘culprit’ in the recent fray
The IPFM experts emphasise that Israel’s eventual nuclear disarmament would be a necessary condition for any Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone, while regional measures would serve to bring the Middle East closer to that goal, and make the zone more robust. These measures would include stopping the separation of plutonium, a ban on the use of highly enriched uranium or plutonium as fuel, and the end of national enrichment plants.
As the only country in the Middle East with a national civilian enrichment programme, the experts from Princeton suggest that Iran could play a pioneering role precisely by advancing a global shift away from national enrichment plants. Countries in the region with plans to construct nuclear power plants (so far, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt) could join in the management of Iran’s enrichment plants and help set the goals for the programme and fund any expansion. This would create a major barrier to Iran using its enrichment plants for making material for a nuclear weapon .
Israel, too, must take initiative to demonstrate that it is seriously interested in a regional zone free of weapons of mass destruction. The experts propose a series of steps: Israel should begin by ending any further production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, declaring the size of its stocks of these materials, and placing portions of its fissile material stocks under IAEA safeguards for elimination. By the time a Middle East zone comes into force, Israel would need to have eliminated all of its nuclear weapons and placed all of its fissile materials under international safeguards – as South Africa did when it gave up its nuclear weapons in the early 1990s.
To keep everyone honest, the IPFM proposes that discussions be launched among the members of a possible Middle East free zone committee, on the design of regional verification arrangements strong enough so that all countries in the region can have confidence in the absence of secret nuclear weapon programmes, and that countries are complying with the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions. This regional inspection system would be in parallel to the international verification systems associated respectively with the NPT and the Chemical Weapons Convention. There is currently no international system to verify the Biological Weapons Convention.
photograph of some nuclear device that Vanunu supplied
The experience of creating nuclear free zones following the end of the Cold War, suggests that progress can be made in the absence of a larger or more comprehensive settlement of political conflicts and disputes.
Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation and can be reached through his website.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.