Australia/Israel Review

Scribblings: Nuclear Sophistry

Dec 18, 2013 | Tzvi Fleischer

Scribblings: Nuclear Sophistry
Israel's Dimona nuclear facility

Tzvi Fleischer


Nuclear Sophistry

When debating policy on Iran’s illegal nuclear program, one argument that always gets raised is the supposed “double standard” of forcing Iran to give up its efforts to build nuclear weapons when Israel is believed to have nuclear weapons capabilities.

Morally, the question is not that hard to address. Basically, unlike Iran, Israel is not a revanchist state seeking to control or subvert neighbouring states and spread its “revolution”, nor is it the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism, nor does it go around demanding neighbouring states be destroyed. 

Over several decades, Israel has never threatened to use its nuclear capabilities and it is clear they exist only as a last, defensive resort for a country facing the most serious existential threats of virtually any nation in the world. Moreover, there is unequivocal empirical evidence that Israel’s reported nuclear capabilities are not viewed as a threat even by Arab states with which it remains ostensibly at war, because these never showed the frantic concern about Israel’s alleged actual nuclear capabilities that they do over Iran’s potential ones.

There’s also a legal answer. Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – which forbids building nuclear weapons – while Israel is not. In addition, due to repeated serious violations of NPT obligations by Iran, the UN Security Council passed six legally binding Chapter VII resolutions demanding Iran cease enrichment of uranium.

But apologists for Iran typically say, so what? Israel may not have signed the NPT but it should. Almost every other country has – excepting only Israel, India, Pakistan and South Sudan (North Korea has withdrawn). That makes Israel an outlier, almost a rogue state, they say. Furthermore, doesn’t the decision of everyone else to join the NPT create “customary international law” – rules most scholars say can be legally binding if a large majority of state adhere to them – forbidding developing nuclear weapons?

But this argument ignores the timeline of events. As Washington Post Foreign Affairs blogger Max Fisher pointed out in an important post on Dec. 2 (, Israel is believed by most experts to have had full nuclear capabilities before the NPT was even opened for signatures on 1 July 1968.

Fisher explains well how this came about and why. But what it means is that Israel could not have been violating “customary international law” created by the NPT when it developed nuclear capabilities because at that point there was no NPT.

Furthermore, by rights, Israel should have been recognised as a nuclear state under the NPT – as was every every other state which had nuclear weapons capability in 1968: the US, USSR, France, Britain and China. These were allowed to keep their nuclear weapons in exchange for a vague promise to work towards disarming at some unspecified time in the future, while every other signatory had to promise not to seek to develop nuclear weapons. Israel should have been recognised as part of the “nuclear club” according to the principles which underlie the treaty. It was not, principally because Israel had, under US pressure, adopted a policy of concealing its nuclear capabilities, and because of the usual discrimination against Israel present in international forums.

Thus, despite pseudo-“sophisticated” comments about how there is a double standard on nuclear issues between Iran and Israel, there really is no argument to that effect that withstands detailed scrutiny. (One can argue on principle that all states should give up their nuclear weapons along with Iran – but that applies to nine countries, not just Israel.)

Now can we focus on how to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons – destabilising the vital Persian Gulf region and wider Middle East, likely sparking a regional nuclear arms race, destroying the NPT regime, and vastly increasing the risks of either a nuclear war or nuclear terrorism – rather than sophomoric arguments about nuclear “fairness”?


The Supposed 2003 Iranian Offer

Another writer at the Washington Post actually took on a different myth about the Iranian nuclear crisis – the claim that the US under the Bush Administration ignored or turned down a serious Iranian offer to settle the nuclear issue in 2003.

The Post‘s “Fact Checker” Glenn Kessler checked on a claim made in November by US Secretary of State John Kerry about that supposed offer, “In 2003, Iran made an offer to the Bush Administration that they would, in fact, do major things with respect to their [nuclear] program; they had 164 centrifuges. Nobody took that [deal].”

While it is very much worth reading Kessler in full (, the key points he makes are:

1. The “offer” was presented as a fax from a Swiss diplomat in Teheran, but it was unclear how much of the offer was a Swiss bridging proposal and how much Iranian.

2. The fax did not actually offer any Iranian promises of concessions on the nuclear issue – only presenting WMD “transparency” as one US “aim” in a proposed discussion to canvass a number of issues.

3. Most importantly, the day before the faxed “proposal” arrived, US diplomats had actually held a secret meeting with the man the Swiss diplomat had presented as co-author of the document – Mohammad Javad Zarif, then Iran’s UN Ambassador and now Iran’s Foreign Minister. Zarif had not hinted at any such deal. The US State Department concluded, reasonably enough, that talking to Zarif directly made more sense than going through a Swiss diplomat who claimed to be presenting Zarif’s ideas, but appeared to be putting his own spin on it.

Kessler, who was actually the Post‘s diplomatic correspondent in 2003, awards Kerry’s claim “Three Pinocchios”, meaning “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.”



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