McClatchy DC
August 18, 2015
By Jonathan S. Landay

Israel has as many as 100 nuclear warheads and systems to deliver them

But U.S. officials don’t mention them under a 1969 agreement

Iranian nukes would challenge Israel’s unique Middle East position

Mordechai Vanunu was released in 2004 after serving 18 years in prison for revealing details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. The U.S. agreed in 1969 not to discuss Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which has not been mentioned during the current debate on the agreement with Iran.

There’s one major issue that President Barack Obama, his supporters and his critics assiduously have avoided as they battle over the deal designed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons: Israel’s own nuclear arsenal.

An open secret for decades, the Israeli stockpile is estimated at some 80-100 warheads, though Israel refuses to confirm or deny its existence under a policy of deliberate ambiguity. The arsenal was developed as the ultimate guarantor of the Jewish state’s survival against threats from its hostile neighborhood.

Yet as the sides joust over the Iran deal’s impact on Israel’s security, Obama has been silent on the Israeli arsenal as a potential deterrent against Iranian cheating on the accord. Opponents, led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, haven’t touched the issue, either. And it hasn’t figured in the public hearings that Congress is holding as part of a 60-day review that will culminate in a Republican-led bid to kill the Iran accord next month.

To some experts, the fierce debate over whether the Iran deal endangers Israel or makes it safer will be incomplete and misleading as long as it skirts the Middle East’s only nuclear arms stockpile.

Israel has been a well-established nuclear weapons state for about 40 years.

“I refer to it (Israel’s arsenal) as the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said Avner Cohen, an Israeli-American academic who’s written several ground-breaking histories of the Israeli nuclear program. “In all the discussion about Iran and Israel, one must keep in mind that Israel has been a well-established nuclear weapons state for 40 years. It has a very strong, credible deterrent that Iran doesn’t have.”

Cohen, an Iran deal supporter, also believes that it’s difficult to understand Israeli leaders’ fervent opposition to the accord – especially Netanyahu’s unprecedented interference in domestic U.S. politics – without understanding that they’re worried about maintaining an undeclared nuclear monopoly they’ve enjoyed for decades.

“Part of the 800-pound gorilla missing in the debate is an indication of Israel’s true interest,” said Cohen, a professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif. “Israel’s primary but unstated interest is to keep its own nuclear monopoly, in other words, not to allow anyone else (in the region) to have the bomb, not to allow anyone else to even get close to the bomb. The Israelis are concerned that the nuclear deal with Iran effectively provides Iran certain international legitimacy for being a special nuclear status, and the Israelis don’t like it.”

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