TEL AVIV — Israel has modified American-supplied cruise missiles to carry nuclear warheads on submarines, giving the Middle East’s only nuclear power the ability to launch atomic weapons from land, air and beneath the sea, according to senior Bush administration and Israeli officials.
The previously undisclosed submarine capability bolsters Israel’s deterrence in the event that Iran — an avowed enemy — develops nuclear weapons. It also complicates efforts by the United States and the United Nations to persuade Iran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Two Bush administration officials described the missile modification and an Israeli official confirmed it. All three spoke on condition their names not be used.
The Americans said they were disclosing the information to caution Israel’s enemies at a time of heightened tensions in the region and concern over Iran’s alleged ambitions.
Iran denies developing nuclear weapons and says its nuclear program is solely for generating electricity. Iranian leaders are resisting more intrusive inspections by the United Nations, setting the stage for a showdown in coming weeks.
The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency has given Tehran an Oct. 31 deadline to accept full inspections and prove it has no nuclear arms program.
Arab diplomats and U.N. officials said Israel’s steady enhancement of its secret nuclear arsenal, and U.S. silence about it, has increased the desire of Arab states for similar weapons.
“The presence of a nuclear program in the region that is not under international safeguards gives other countries the spur to develop weapons of mass destruction,” said Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States. “Any future conflict becomes more dangerous.”
Late last month, Egypt joined Saudi Arabia and Syria at the U.N. General Assembly in criticizing the U.S. and U.N. for ignoring Israel’s weapons of mass destruction while pressuring Iran.
A senior Iranian official raised the same issue at a nonproliferation conference in Moscow in September.
“Stability cannot be achieved in a region where massive imbalances in military capabilities are maintained, particularly through the possession of nuclear weapons that allow one party to threaten its neighbors and the region,” said Ali Asghar Soltanieh.
Israel will not confirm or deny that it possesses nuclear arms. Intelligence analysts and independent experts have long known that the country has 100 to 200 sophisticated nuclear weapons.
Israel, India and Pakistan are the only countries with nuclear facilities that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which was initiated in 1968 to stop the spread of nuclear weapons through inspections and sanctions. India and Pakistan also have nuclear bombs.
Iran and Arab states with civilian nuclear programs have signed the treaty. The Arab countries have refused to agree to tougher inspections because Israel will not sign it, U.N. officials said.
“A big source of contention is Israel,” said a senior official trying to win acceptance of the additional inspections. “This is a magnet for other countries to develop nuclear weapons.”
Israel and its U.S. backers regard its nuclear weapons as a centerpiece of the country’s security. The development of the arms over several decades, with tacit U.S. approval, has been rarely mentioned, but it is becoming an increasingly compelling component in discussions about lasting peace in the Middle East.
While not acknowledging the country’s nuclear capability, Israeli officials have promised they would not “introduce” such weapons to the Middle East. Israeli and U.S. officials said that means Israel would not launch a first strike using the weapons. They argue that other countries have nothing to fear from Israel’s nuclear arms, whereas Israel has everything to fear from its neighbors.Even so, Israel’s nuclear stockpile confers military superiority that translates into a high degree of freedom of action, from bombing a suspected terrorist camp in Syria last week to the destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
“Nuclear capabilities give the owners enormous political maneuverability which otherwise they do not have,” a senior Western security official said.
Since 1969, Washington has accepted Israel’s status as a nuclear power and not pressured it to sign the nonproliferation treaty.
“We tolerate nuclear weapons in Israel for the same reason we tolerate them in Britain and France,” a senior administration official said. “We don’t regard Israel as a threat.”
To avoid triggering American economic and military sanctions, U.S. intelligence agencies routinely omit Israel from semiannual reports to Congress identifying countries developing weapons of mass destruction. The Clinton administration even barred the sale of the most detailed U.S. satellite photographs of Israel in an effort to protect that country’s nuclear complex and other targets.
The Bush administration’s determination to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons means Israel’s worst-kept secret is likely to loom large in negotiations with Tehran.
“You are never going to be able to address the Iranian nuclear ambitions or the issues of Egypt’s chemical weapons and possible biological weapons program without bringing Israel’s nuclear program into the mix,” said Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based nonprofit organization promoting international cooperation.
Israel is smaller than New Jersey and its population of 6 million is within reach of missiles from Iran and other neighbors. As Iran and other countries in the region improved their long-range missiles in the 1990s, Israel’s land-based nuclear weapons became vulnerable to attack.
The strategic alternative was to develop nuclear-armed submarines, which would be almost invulnerable, said Robert S. Norris, a nuclear historian at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.
Israel ordered three specially designed submarines from Germany in the mid-1990s and they were delivered in 1999 and 2000. The diesel-powered vessels have a range of several thousand miles and can remain at sea for up to a month.
The attempt to arm them with nuclear missiles was first disclosed in a book published in June 2002 by the Carnegie Endowment. The Washington Post published an article about the effort a few days later.
Recent interviews with officials in Washington and Tel Aviv provided the first confirmation that Israel can now deliver nuclear weapons from beneath the sea.
The Israeli official refused to provide details, but the U.S. officials said the warheads were designed for American-supplied Harpoon missiles, which can be launched from the subs and have sea-skimming cruise guidance systems. Harpoons usually have conventional warheads and are common in the arsenals of the United States and other countries.
Norris said Israeli engineers would have had to reduce the size of a nuclear weapon to fit the warhead of a Harpoon and alter the missile guidance system to hit land-based targets, both relatively simple tasks with a sophisticated weapons program.
“They have been at it for more than 30 years, so this is something within the realm of capability for Israel’s scientists and engineers,” said Norris, who added that the normal range of the missiles — 80 miles — might have been extended as well.
The submerged submarines send missiles to the surface in capsules fired from torpedo tubes. When a capsule reaches the surface, its top blows off and the missile is launched.
An Israeli government spokesman, Daniel Seaman, confirmed that the three new submarines carried Harpoon missiles, but he declined to specify the type of warhead.
Israel has about 150 miles of coast on the Mediterranean Sea and its submarines are deployed so that at least one is in the water at all times, ensuring that Israel can retaliate if attacked.
The Israeli government rejected requests for interviews with officials from its atomic energy agency and refused to answer questions on nuclear-related matters.
The consensus in the U.S. intelligence community and among outside experts is that Israel, with possibly 200 nuclear weapons, has the fifth- or sixth-largest arsenal in the world.
Under the nonproliferation treaty, five countries are permitted nuclear weapons. Britain has 185, the smallest number among the five, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The group estimated that Russia has 8,232 weapons; the United States, 7,068; China, 402; and France, 348.
Israel has about double the number of India and Pakistan. North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons, but U.S. intelligence officials are uncertain whether that is true. Estimates of the number have ranged from one or two to six.
A Deal With France
Israel began building a nuclear bomb in the mid-1950s when hostile neighbors surrounded the young country and the Holocaust was fresh in the minds of its leaders.
A secret agreement with the French government in 1956 helped Israel build a plutonium nuclear reactor. France and Israel were natural partners then; they had been allies with Britain in a brief attempt to seize the Suez Canal after Egypt nationalized it and had shared concerns about the Soviets and unrest in North Africa.
The reactor site was in a remote corner of the Negev desert, outside the village of Dimona.
It was a massive project, with as many as 1,500 Israeli and French workers building the reactor and an extensive underground complex on 14 square miles. French military aircraft secretly flew heavy water, a key component of a plutonium reactor, from Norway to Israel, according to the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
American U-2 spy planes spotted the construction soon after it began in 1958. Israel initially said it was a textile plant and later a metallurgical research facility. Two years later, U.S. intelligence identified the site as a nuclear reactor and the CIA said it was part of a weapons program, according to documents at the National Archives in Washington.
In December 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion told the Israeli parliament that a nuclear reactor was under construction, but he said it was exclusively for peaceful purposes.
It was the first and last time that an Israeli prime minister made a public statement about Dimona, according to “Israel and the Bomb,” an authoritative book by Avner Cohen, an Israeli American scholar.
Soon after taking office in 1961, President Kennedy pressured Israel to allow an inspection. Ben Gurion agreed, and an American team visited the installation that May.
A post-visit U.S. memo said the scientists were “satisfied that nothing was concealed from them and that the reactor is of the scope and peaceful character previously described to the United States.”
American teams visited Dimona seven times during the 1960s and reported that they could find no evidence of a weapons program.
In June 1967, on the eve of the Middle East War, Israeli engineers assembled two improvised nuclear devices, according to published accounts and an interview with an Israeli with knowledge of the episode.
By early 1968, Carl Duckett, then deputy director of the CIA office of science and technology, had concluded that Israel had nuclear weapons, according to testimony he gave to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1974.
Duckett said his assessment was based on conversations with Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, who visited Israel several times and supported its nuclear program. Duckett said Richard Helms, CIA director, ordered him not to circulate his conclusions.
In 1969, President Nixon struck a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir: As long as Israel did not go public with its program or test weapons openly, the United States would stop its inspections and turn a blind eye, according to Cohen’s book.
The proof surfaced 17 years later. On Oct. 5, 1986, the Sunday Times of London published an article in which a former Dimona technician, Mordechai Vanunu, provided a detailed look at Israel’s nuclear weapons program. His cache included diagrams and photographs from inside the complex, which he said had produced enough plutonium for 100 bombs since it went online in 1964.
To conceal the weapons work from U.S. inspectors, a false wall had been built to hide elevators that descended six stories beneath the desert floor to facilities where plutonium was refined and bomb parts were manufactured, Vanunu said.
Shortly before the article was published, a female agent from Israel’s intelligence service lured Vanunu from London to Rome. He was kidnapped and smuggled back to Israel, where he was convicted of treason in a secret trial and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Vanunu is scheduled to be released next year. He has been denied parole because prosecutors say he still has secrets to tell, according to his lawyer and supporters.
Meanwhile, Israel was enhancing its ability to launch its nuclear weapons.
The U.S. sold Israel F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, both of which can be used to deliver nuclear bombs or missiles. In the 1960s, the French helped Israel develop its first generation of Jericho missiles and the Israelis had built a longer-range Jericho II by the mid-1980s.
The Jericho I and II are equipped with nuclear warheads, and satellite photos indicate that many are hidden in limestone caves southeast of Tel Aviv, near the town of Zachariah, which is Hebrew for “God remembers with vengeance.”
The Jericho II has a range of 930 miles, which means it could probably hit targets in Iran. The F-16 has a range of 1,000 miles, and the F-15 can hit targets more than 2,000 miles away.
Israel has never openly tested nuclear weapons. Experts said the Israelis have used supercomputers, some supplied by the U.S., to conduct simulations for designing weapons. Components also can be tested using conventional explosives.
“Nonnuclear tests would not be picked up by satellites and other monitoring systems,” said Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington. “You can do a lot in secret and without a nuclear explosion.”
An Open Secret
Israel’s nuclear program remains shrouded by a policy it calls “nuclear ambiguity.” The phrase means Israel does not acknowledge its nuclear capability and suffer the accompanying political and economic fallout, yet it gains the benefit of deterrence because other nations know the weapons exist.
Though Israel is a democracy, debating the nuclear program is taboo. The Israeli Atomic Energy Commission is one of the country’s most secretive organizations. Its budget is secret, its facilities are off limits, and employees face harsh sanctions if they talk about its operations. Even the name of the chief of nuclear security was a secret until three years ago.
A military censor guards Israel’s nuclear secrets. Journalists writing about any security or defense matters must submit articles or broadcast scripts for pre-publication review. The censor, an army general, can block publication or broadcast. Decisions can be appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, but journalists said the government usually prevails.
Foreign journalists in Israel are subject to the censorship law, though foreigners rarely submit material to the censor and enforcement is less strict. This article, for example, was not submitted to Israeli censors.
However, some foreigners have run afoul of the authorities.
In late June, the British Broadcasting Corp. aired a documentary examining the Israeli nuclear establishment’s history, Vanunu’s imprisonment and illnesses among former workers at the Dimona complex.
The Israeli government retaliated within days. It stopped providing spokesmen for BBC stories and prohibited BBC reporters from attending government news conferences. “They are trying to demonize the state of Israel,” Seaman, the head of the press office, said of BBC in an interview in August. “We are not cooperating with them.”
Tim English, a BBC spokesman, said the broadcaster stood by the accuracy and fairness of its program.
Censorship extends to academics too. Cohen, the Israeli American scholar, has written a second book that criticizes Israel’s nuclear secrecy as “anachronistic.”
In July, his Israeli publisher submitted the manuscript to the censor in hopes of publishing it in Hebrew. Cohen said a decision was expected soon.
“This will show how far the Israeli government is willing to go to allow serious discussion of the issue,” he said.
Uproar in Parliament
Israel’s parliament was dragged into the nuclear debate briefly on Feb. 2, 2000. Issam Makhoul, one of 10 Israeli Arabs in parliament, got the item on the agenda by petitioning the Supreme Court after being rebuffed seven times.
“The entire world knows that Israel is a huge warehouse of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that serves as a cornerstone of the nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” said Makhoul, whose speech was protected by parliamentary immunity.
Several members of parliament walked out. Others responded with angry shouts. “This is putting lives in danger,” said one member, Moshe Gafni.
Haim Ramon, a Cabinet minister, said no democratic country invites its enemies to listen in on discussions of nuclear arms policy. “Do you want us to announce to Iran and Iraq exactly what we have?” he asked.
Sitting in his cluttered office in Haifa recently, Makhoul defended his attempt to spark a debate and argued that the issue was more pressing now.
“The American administration decided to destroy weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and they are threatening Iran,” he said. “They cannot continue giving a blind eye to what is going on in Israel.”
Some experts contend Israel no longer needs nuclear weapons because Iraq is no longer a threat and Israel’s conventional forces are superior to any combination of Arab armies. Israel’s problems with Palestinian extremists, they argue, cannot be remedied by nuclear strikes.
“Israel has a direct interest in making sure no Muslim state acquires the one weapon that could offset its conventional superiority, a nuclear bomb,” said Cirincione, the nonproliferation director at the Carnegie Endowment. “One way to do that is by putting its own nuclear weapons on the table.”
Some Arab leaders advocate declaring the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. The process would be long, starting with mutual pledges to give up weapons and the creation of a mechanism to verify compliance.
Few Israelis think this is the right time to discuss it, because of the level of violence with the Palestinians.
“Israel could accept the idea after two years of comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” said Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. “Only then could we consider changing our nuclear position.”