AZl-Ahram Weekly – 15 July 2004
The first visit in several years of the head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), should have sent a collective shiver down the spine of the Israeli defence establishment. Instead, it passed by with little publicity or tension.
Mohamed El-Baradei’s two-day visit included a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and concluded without any real pressure being exerted on Israel over its policy of “nuclear ambiguity”.
According to Israeli officials, El-Baradei did not test whether he would be barred from the Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev. He did not even ask for access to the site, which is believed to be used in the manufacture of nuclear armaments.
He also did not exercise his right to visit the Nahal Soreq nuclear research centre at Yavne, which was a gift from the United States in 1960 and falls under the remit of IAEA. The facility has not been inspected since 1998.
Israel has always said it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the region, even though it is widely assumed to possess at least 200 warheads.
The problem for the IAEA is that it is little more than an unwelcome guest in the Jewish state. Israel, along with Pakistan and India, refuses to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and so is not subject to inspections by the agency.
Instead El-Baradei used what little influence he has with Israel to publicise his prime objective: the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East along the lines of already-established zones in Latin America, Asia, the South Pacific and Africa. It appears a forlorn hope, but without it a regional arms race, and the death of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is assured in the long term.
After his meeting with Sharon, El-Baradei spoke to a group of academics and journalists at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “The prime minister affirmed to me that Israeli policy continues to be that, in the context of peace in the Middle East, Israel will be looking favourably to the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East… It’s not a new policy but affirming that policy at the level of prime minister I thought to be quite a welcome development,” said El- Baradei.
The Israeli authorities, however, moved quickly to discount the significance of Sharon’s statements. In the first ever press conference held by Israel’s Nuclear Energy Commission, an unnamed senior official said Israel would not change its nuclear policy and that its position of “ambiguity” served only “folklore, the media and academia”. “For years we have been committed to a policy derived from concern for the continued existence of the Jewish people and from a recognition of problems in the region and the absence of stability,” he said.
In fact, it was soon clarified that Sharon rejected the idea of Israel initiating moves towards a nuclear-free zone in the region. The matter might be considered in relation to the second stage of the roadmap negotiations, the international plan designed to establish a Palestinian state. However, the Israeli prime minister long ago jettisoned the roadmap in favour of unilateral measures, such as withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. Tying Israeli accountability for its nuclear arsenal to a discarded Middle Eastern peace process reveals the insincerity of Sharon’s meaningless assurances. The supposed understandings over a regional nuclear-free zone only served to lay bare the different agendas of the IAEA and Israel.
El-Baradei needs any help he can get from Israel to prevent a nuclear arms race developing in the Middle East, as neighbouring states seek to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programmes to protect themselves against a American pre-emptive strike, like the sort inflicted on Iraq, and to realign the regional balance of power that weighs in Israel’s favour.
So far only Iran looks close to developing such weapons, though as a signatory to the NPT it falls under the umbrella of UN atomic inspections. However, it is widely assumed that Tehran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian programme.
Israel, on the other hand, wants to maintain its preeminent position as the only nuclear power in the region. It used El-Baradei’s visit as an opportunity to deflect attention away from its non-inspected nuclear arsenal and towards the possibility of a future Iranian threat. “Time is working against us and we must act energetically in order to prevent [Iran] from acquiring nuclear weapons,” the official from Israel’s Nuclear Energy Commission said. He added, in what is becoming a well-worn Israeli refrain, that the danger posed by a nuclear Iran is a global concern.
In the background Israel is working furiously with Washington and several European countries to ensure that Tehran is punished for its presumed disobedience. A resolution to impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran is due to be discussed by the IAEA in September and possibly reviewed by the UN Security Council.
The biggest fear for El-Baradei is that, if Israel succeeds and Tehran finds itself the one- sided target of UN action over nuclear weapons, Iran may opt out of the NPT, thus fatally undermining his agency’s role in the region.
He insisted that diplomacy should be the first route for dealing with Iran. “You are running the risk that the Security Council might not act and therefore the situation would be exacerbated,” he told the audience at Hebrew University.
The “exacerbation” presumably referred to the possibility that, if it does not get its way, Israel might launch a military attack on any fledgling Iranian nuclear capability — in a repeat of the Israeli air strike against the Osiraq reactor in Iraq in 1981. This is increasingly the concern in Iran, where preparations to resume long-range missile production have reportedly begun.
El-Baradei’s failure to press Israel on its nuclear arsenal, and the fact that, due to Israeli instigation, much of his visit was focussed on Iran’s nuclear role, outraged Tehran. One leading cleric, Mohamed Emami-Kashani, said on state radio: “The Zionists have many warheads, and Mr El-Baradei goes there and instead of asking them to correct their behaviour they sit and discuss Iran.”
El-Baradei did point out that by insisting that Arab countries submit to the NPT when Israel refuses to abide by it undermines the legitimacy of the agency’s inspection role. ” [People] always ask why Israel is outside the NPT regime,” El-Baradei said. “They always ask about this double standard.”
The UN official also told reporters that he had asked Sharon to be allowed to meet with nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu. The meeting was not allowed as Vanunu is currently subject to a severe gag order and is banned from leaving the country.
On Sunday Vanunu appeared in court to challenge the restrictions that were imposed on him in April when he was released from an 18- year jail sentence. His lawyers claim the orders are designed to silence him rather than to protect state security.
According to the testimony of a state expert, notebooks and drawings were found in Vanunu’s cell while he was in prison which indicated that he still had new information. One letter written in August 2000 cited by the prosecution said, “We must open up Dimona and receive clear precise information about what and how much has been produced there… I can report on all these topics, on all the materials which were produced in the Dimona reactor.”
The state’s case for the restrictions rests on the improbable scenario that after 18 years of imprisonment the former nuclear technician at Dimona still has secrets that could damage the country’s security.