Recent weeks have seen an open discussion on the nuclear issue of a kind that I believe has never been seen in Israel.
Two former prime ministers (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert), two former defense ministers (Barak and Moshe Ya’alon), a distinguished historian (Benny Morris) and the editor in chief of this newspaper (Aluf Benn) all discussed the Iranian and Israeli nuclear issue with non-ambiguous ambiguity.
It all began with an article in The New York Times that quoted a statement by a Washington, D.C. think tank to the effect that the United States’ pullout from the nuclear agreement in 2018 allowed Iran to present itself as being one month away from possessing enough fissionable material (weapons-grade enriched uranium) for one bomb. In any case, it was claimed that the time needed for Iran to achieve a breakthrough to fissionable material for one or two must be measured from now on as a matter of weeks, not a year as it was when the nuclear agreement was originally signed in 2015.
Barak said that Iran had apparently already crossed the “point of no return” to nuclear threshold-state status. “The horses have already bolted the stable,” he said, and therefore it was doubtful whether there was even any point in returning to the nuclear accord. And if that fatalism wasn’t enough, he added that with the help of the Times’ report, U.S. President Joe Biden was preparing his country and Israel for his willingness to accept Iran as a nuclear-threshold state.
Impressed with Barak’s logic, Aluf Benn suggested that perhaps the time had come to lift Israel’s veil of nuclear ambiguity and to admit what the whole world, including the Iranians, thinks has been known for decades now: Israel is a nuclear power.
U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk spoke in 1968 about Israel as being in the late eighth month of nuclear pregnancy – that is, a threshold state. Approximately at the same time, in the midst of negotiations over the sale of Phantom jets, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Yitzhak Rabin, spoke with Paul Warnke, who was leading negotiations with Israel regarding nuclear oversight, about the question of whether Israel was indeed a nuclear state.
Warnke claimed that if all the components of a nuclear weapon were present, even in separate places, then Israel was obviously a threshold state. Rabin did not respond with facts, but proposed an alternative: that only carrying out tests and making a public declaration, as nuclear states had done in the past, would show that the nuclear threshold had been crossed. U.S. documents from 1969-1970 show that American officials spoke about Israel as a country as close as the “turn of a screw” to a bomb. From their point of view, the last turn of that screw would be the act of crossing the threshold.
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The expression “nuclear threshold state” emerged from academics researching the subject of nuclear proliferation (full disclosure: including this writer) around 1990, to characterize the pattern of behavior of four nuclear countries of a new kind – countries of the second generation of the nuclear age. According to these publications, the first of these was Israel, followed by India, South Africa and Pakistan.
They had all developed a real capability to produce a nuclear weapon; that is, they were in possession of quite a large quantity of fissionable material for a weapon and they could carry out a nuclear test within days or weeks if they decided to do so. But each of them, for its own reasons, decided not to cross the nuclear threshold: They all characterized themselves as being on it, without crossing it. Not only were they perhaps weeks or days from being able to carry out the requisite tests – the entire world knew it and accepted their threshold status silently.
There is a consensus that Iran is not a nuclear threshold state now in the same way as those ambiguous countries were at that time. Most scholars believe that Iran is not even close today – that is, it’s not a matter of months away – from threshold status, even if the statement by that Washington think tank sounds reasonable. Iran is lacking many more additional elements that it currently does not have before it can be called a threshold state.
Moreover, the time span between Iran and nuclear threshold status is not merely a technical matter, but mainly a political one. Iran knows that the eyes of the world are fixed on it, which thus deter it from reaching the threshold, at least for now. The fact is that Iran willingly signed the nuclear accord in 2015, despite the dismantling of infrastructure and the system of oversight that were to have ensured that it would not become a threshold state, at least not within 15 to 20 years. True, the agreement had its flaws but despite them, as long as Iran met its obligations – and it did – it remained at least a year from the threshold.
There is no doubt that today, the abandonment of the accord by former President Donald Trump – a decision inspired by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – was a foolish move. A reasonable agreement that is honored, even if imperfect, is better than no agreement, not to mention the fact that the pullout from the agreement was not accompanied by any deterrent strategic step, in particular any commitment to act if Iran renewed the production of high-quality fissionable material. The withdrawal from the accord was a gift to Iran’s nuclear aspirations and awarded the extremists there, who were seeking an excuse to get out of the commitments it contained. Trump had no idea what he was talking about, and Netanyahu put Israel’s security in the hands of an unreliable source of support.
The pullout from the nuclear agreement has caused major damage to Israel’s security, but it is not irreversible, as Ehud Barak stated. Correct diplomatic negotiations can bring about a new arrangement, with oversight systems and means of wielding pressure – diplomatic, economic and other kinds – that will continue to deter Iran from reaching the threshold. Moreover, insistent and determined bargaining can create an amended nuclear agreement that will reverse Iran’s progress since 2018. Israel is still very far from the dilemma portrayed in such scary terms by historian Morris, in these pages.
Israel’s nuclear ambiguity is indeed very eroded, and perhaps it is really time to begin thinking, cautiously and responsibly, of a somewhat different policy. The trouble is that the Iranian nuclear challenge makes things very difficult indeed. If the main consideration for a change is strategic, Olmert is correct when he says that continued erosion of ambiguity will not be useful strategically, as Benn suggests.
Thoughts of reforming the policy of nuclear ambiguity should be clarified, but not because of geopolitical or strategic considerations – rather, despite these considerations. The need to look at possible changes stems from considerations related to democracy, values and governance, whose magnitude outweighs considerations of Iran and strategy.
Avner Cohen is professor of nuclear proliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, and author of the book “Israel and the Bomb.”