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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.