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Middle East: IAEA Head El-Baradei In Israel To Discuss Regional Nuclear Policy

The head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency said today he is ready to discuss Israel's concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Muhammad el-Baradei, who is in Israel on a three-day visit, held talks today with Israeli nuclear officials. El-Baradei has said he wants Israel to begin a dialogue to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons, but will not force it to publicly reveal whether it has nuclear weapons. Israel's so-called "ambiguity policy" is to neither admit nor deny whether it has nuclear arms.

Prague, 7 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the United Nations' atomic energy watchdog, met today with Israeli energy officials to discuss ways of ridding the Middle East of nuclear weapons.

El-Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), arrived in Israel yesterday to promote his vision of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

Under its policy of "nuclear ambiguity," Israel refuses to discuss its nuclear capacities. It has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would force it to allow IAEA inspections.
Israel is believed to be the only country in the region to have nuclear missiles ready to launch. Experts say it may already have as many as 300 warheads as well as the capability of building more quickly.

El-Baradei said he would like Israel to cooperate more closely with the IAEA.

"I'd like to see Israel supporting the Non-Proliferation Treaty through maybe concluding an additional protocol with the agency," he said. "This is something I'd like to see -- the beginning of a dialogue on what security and verification -- a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East -- could look like."

El-Baradei met today in Tel Aviv with Gideon Franck, who heads Israel's nuclear energy agency. After the talks, El-Baradei said Israel expressed concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

While declining to go into details about the discussions, El-Baradei indicated that the Israeli fear that Tehran was trying to develop nuclear arms was a dominant theme.

Analysts say Israel's "nuclear ambiguity" policy is meant to deter its enemies, while at the same time denying them a rationale for developing their own nuclear weapons.

Gerald Steinberg, head of the Department of Strategic Studies at Jerusalem's Bar Ilan University, explains in an interview with Reuters: "In many ways, the Israeli policy of the ambiguous deterrent is very odd and unusual. It's a unique policy in the world. But, of course, Israel is also geographically unique, surrounded by enemies on a very small territory, where the idea of a deterrent -- an unannounced deterrent, an untested deterrent but one that works -- is something that is different than what we find in many other countries in the world."

El-Baradei has suggested that the Israelis should at least consider loosening their "nuclear ambiguity" policy.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has shown no sign Israel is prepared to budge. Sharon was quoted ahead of El-Baradei's visit as saying, "I don't know what he is coming to see -- our nuclear policy has proven itself and will continue."

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declined to take a stand yesterday on whether Israel should open its reactors to inspection.

But Powell, speaking at a joint news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, renewed his call for international pressure on Iran to stop what Washington says are attempts to build nuclear arms.

Meanwhile, Israeli military intelligence chief Aharon Zeevi was quoted in "The Jerusalem Post" newspaper today as saying Tehran may have nuclear weapons by 2008 if the international community does not step in.

The IAEA has been investigating Iran's nuclear program since February 2003. Iran's defense minister, Ali Shamkhani, has warned that Tehran will retaliate and abandon its commitments to the UN atomic watchdog agency if its nuclear installations are attacked.

Iran's official IRNA news agency quotes Shamkhani as saying that the "enemies" of the Islamic republic should know that Tehran will respond to any military action with "all our force."

In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Ossirak, which was also suspected of being used for nuclear-weapons research.

El-Baradei was scheduled to meet Sharon today or tomorrow, but there were no plans to grant the IAEA head access to Israel's main nuclear facility near Dimona in the southern Negev Desert, which is the suspected center of its nuclear-weapons program.

Evidence that Israel has nuclear arms is overwhelming. Much of it is based on details and pictures leaked in 1986 by Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu.

Vanunu, who was freed in April after serving an 18-year sentence for espionage and treason, urged El-Baradei to persuade Israeli leaders to allow him into the Dimona plant: "[El-Baradei] should demand that the Israeli government let him go inside Dimona, to be part of the IAEA inspection of Dimona, as the IAEA demanded from Iran, Iraq to report to all the world what every state is doing in secret."

Israel is believed to be the only country in the region to have nuclear missiles ready to launch. Experts say it may already have as many as 300 warheads as well as the capability of building more quickly.