Iran Watch: What about Israel's nukes?

Iran Watch, part 3.

Last night's Newsnight was pretty disappointing. Diplomatic editor Mark Urban and host Jeremy Paxman had a nice, long chat about the logistics of an Israeli attack on Iran - from refuelling mid-air to the availability of US bunker-buster bombs. I don't recall either Urban or Paxman discussing the legality, legitimacy or catastrophic consequences of such an attack. So much, as I often say, for the "anti-war" BBC. Watch the discussion for yourself.

Then Paxman introduced his main guest on the subject: Daniel Taub, Israeli ambassador to the UK. It was a soft interview by Paxo standards (including questions such as "How long do you think you've got?" and other such curveballs) and I found myself yelling at the television: ask him about the nukes, their nukes.

This is the closest that the Newsnight presenter came to pressing Taub on Israel's nuclear weapons programme, in his penultimate question:

You speak, of course, as a nuclear weapon regime...

To which Taub responded:

The Israeli policy as far as nuclearisation hasn't changed for decades.

And that was that. Taub was allowed to hide behind the Israeli policy of nuclear "ambiguity" (or "amimut" in Hebrew). Paxman moved on. The fact that Israel is the only nuclear-armed nation in the Middle East, refuses to sign up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 487 which "calls upon Israel urgently to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards" and continues to ignore the IAEA's September 2009 resolution calling upon the Jewish state "to accede to the NPT and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards", seems to be off-limits in the current debate about Iran.

In fact, discussing Israel's secret nuclear weapons arsenal has long been a taboo for the west's media. It's as depressing as it is outrageous. My own view is that no Israeli official or spokesman should be allowed to come on the BBC or ITV or Sky News and fear-monger about Iran's nuclear programme unless he is first questioned about Israel's own nuclear weapons programme - and any self-proclaimed "impartial" journalist who fails to ask such questions, or follow up on them, should hang their heads in shame.

Here's the New Yorker's excellent John Cassidy, writing on his blog yesterday:

In case you'd forgotten about them -- and that wouldn't be hard, given how seldom their existence is mentioned in public debates -- Israel has perhaps a hundred nuclear weapons, maybe even a few times more than that, and it has the capacity to launch them from underground silos, submarines, and F-16 fighter bombers.

Outside of the Israeli defense ministry, very few people know precisely how many nuclear-armed missiles the country has. According to a non-classified 1999 estimate from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, which was cited in a 2007 bulletin from the Federation of American Scientists, Israel had between sixty and eighty nuclear warheads. More recent estimates say the figure is considerably higher.

The London-based Institute of Strategic Studies says Israel has "up to 200" warheads loaded on land-based Jericho 1 and Jericho 2 short- and medium-range missiles. Jane's, the defense-information company, estimates that the over-all number of warheads is between a hundred and three hundred, which puts the Israeli nuclear arsenal roughly on a par with the British and French capabilities. And some of these warheads are widely believed to have been loaded onto the new Jericho 3 intercontinental ballistic missile, which has a range of up to four thousand five hundred miles -- meaning it could theoretically strike targets in Europe and Asia.

Cassidy concludes:

The regime in Tehran is a deeply unpleasant one, and many of our other allies, including Britain, France, and Saudi Arabia, are also determined to prevent it from joining the nuclear club. But publicly acknowledging what everybody already knows about Israel -- that it's one of the world's nuclear powers -- would make the United States less vulnerable to the charge of double standards.

Hear, hear! (Read Cassidy's full blogpost here.)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.