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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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