The Middle East region is not only the world larder of hydrocarbons and a crossroads of strategic communications; it is also one of the most hazardous areas of the modern world. This is the place where dozens of regional and internal conflicts of different levels and nature are in their active phases or “smoldering”, this is the place from where the threat of Islamic extremism and international terrorism is spreading around the world. Simultaneously, there is a continuous acceleration of the arms race and militarization in the region. Gulf monarchies, Iraq and Israel annually purchase the latest designs of Western weapons worth tens of billions of dollars. The Arab-Israeli conflict, caused by the unsettled Palestinian issue, the confrontation of Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran, the civil war in Syria, the large-scale terrorism in Iraq, the instability in Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen and other Arab countries pose serious threats to regional security. The situation around the Iranian nuclear program is the focus of interest of UN (IAEA). However, it is becoming increasingly evident that the presence of nuclear-missile weapons in Israel blocks all efforts of the international community to establish a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) and provokes other countries (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) to accelerate the development of Nuclear Technology.
As is generally known, Israel remains outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and officially, it neither confirms nor denies the existence of nuclear weapons in the country. In 1986, M. Vanunu, an employee of the Israeli nuclear center, officially confirmed the nuclear arms capability of Israel.
Israel’s nuclear program was started in 1952. In the first stage, Israeli experts, participating in the French nuclear bomb project, had a crucial role in its implementation. France also shared with Tel Aviv data regarding its nuclear tests in the Sahara desert in 1960-64 and helped Israel to create the industrial base for producing weapons-grade plutonium (a heavy hydrogen reactor, operating on natural uranium was built in 1963 in the Negev Desert (Dimona, 120 km south-east of Tel Aviv). A research center was established on the basis of this reactor, where work on the production of nuclear weapons was carried out. According to the SIPRI Yearbook, Israel could have produced 690–950 kg of weapons-grade plutonium by 2011. As for uranium reserves in Israel, they are sufficient to cover the needs of the country.
U.S.-Israeli nuclear cooperation was started in 1955, when the U.S. agreed to build a research light-water reactor in Nahal Sorek (20 km to the south of Tel Aviv), as well as to provide training for the Israeli professionals. Later, this was turned into a research center, where they carry out work of military orientation. The nuclear weapons assembly plant is located in Iodefat (130 km to the northeast of Tel Aviv).
Israel has also cooperated with Taiwan and South Africa in the field of military use of nuclear energy. The first Israeli nuclear weapons could have been made as early as 1967-68, and since then, their production has been continuously increasing. Experts estimate that by 2012, Israel had 100–140 nuclear weapons and their carriers (tactical aircraft such as the F-4, F-15, F-16, mobile missile systems and diesel-electric submarines). It can be stated that by regional standards, Israel has a solid nuclear arsenal and a triad of nuclear delivery vehicles. It seems clear that the geopolitical and demographic advantages of the Arab and Muslim countries, surrounding Israel, are considered in Tel Aviv as an imperative for reliance on nuclear weapons. Avoiding international discussions on the creation of an NWFZ in the Middle East, the Israeli leadership makes every effort to prevent the emergence of other nuclear states in the region (air attacks on targets in Iraq and Syria, cyber-attacks, threats against Iran).
In the foreseeable future, Israel’s “anonymous” nuclear arsenal will remain an essential component of the military and strategic balance in the region, a significant “bone of contention” in Tel Aviv’s relations with other states in the region and the factor that provokes nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. The Israeli leadership directly connects the establishment of an NWFZ in the region with the prospects of a Middle East conflict settlement. Tel Aviv considers that discussions of establishment of an NWFZ are doomed to failure unless Israel is recognized by all the states of the Middle East and they conclude a comprehensive agreement on equal security for countries in the region. However, despite the complexity of this problem, it has to be solved, if the international community does not want to have a nuclear catastrophe in the Middle East.
Most independent experts believe that Iran has also come close to the potential of creating nuclear weapons, but victory in presidential elections of 2013 of the moderate politician Hassan Rouhani has generated high hopes for a peaceful solution of the problem. Unlike Israel, Iran is a party to the NPT and has the right to develop the nuclear fuel cycle (NFC), as many other countries do. However, work on the creation of its own nuclear fuel cycle (uranium enrichment or plutonium separation) is cost-effective only for a highly developed national nuclear industry. Iran’s unique position lies in the fact that it denies the existence of a military component in its nuclear program, but it does not have a large-scale nuclear industry, i.e., it cannot explain its ambition to possess the nuclear fuel cycle. So far, the country has a research reactor in Tehran, a nuclear power plant in Bushehr, they are building a research reactor in Arak and two power reactors in Darkhovin. Although Iran has unveiled its plans to build 16 reactors over the next 15 years, this is a matter of the distant future. In order to prove that the need to create its own nuclear fuel cycle exists, Tehran said it intends to independently provide fuel for the Bushehr Plant, but this contradicts an agreement with the Russian Federation and six UN Security Council resolutions.
The Iranian nuclear program has gained great material and political inertia, it has attracted enormous investments and it is a prestigious national project. It is not so easy to stop it. The Geneva agreements of Iran and the “6+1” agreement signed in November 2013 are a compromise. In exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions, Iran has agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to visit Iran’s nuclear facilities; uranium enrichment over 20% is banned, the existing stock of such material is subject to liquidation; uranium enrichment capacity expansion has been discontinued and the work of centrifuges at the plant in Natanz has been stopped; and the construction of heavy hydrogen reactor in Arak has been stopped. As for the complete removal of sanctions, this is conditional on the conservation of the underground plant in Natanz and of the Fordow facility, freezing of the plant and reactor in Arak, and compliance with all the other requirements of the IAEA. The international community could recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium in connection with its available capacity to assemble fuel cells and the need to charge the NPP with them. Having clarified things with the IAEA, Iran could continue experimental uranium enrichment up to 5% on the pilot (ground) plant in Natanz and save the accumulated stock of 5% enriched uranium for its future needs (about 6 tons) under IAEA safeguards, and also have a small amount of accumulated 20% enriched uranium as material for the Tehran research reactor (1.5 kg monthly) and fuel assemblies (uranium dioxide). In the long term, the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Iran will make reasonable the large-scale uranium enrichment. The West and Russia could invest into the construction of new light-water reactors in Iran, guarantee the supply of uranium fuel for them and transfer the technology of fuel rods assembly to Iran.
Thus, it is topical for the international community to consolidate the first steps towards mutual trust between Iran and the United Nations (Iran and the West) and search for further compromise on Iran’s nuclear program.
(To be continued…)
Stanislav Ivanov, leading researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies, PhD of historical sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.