Nuclear threat increases in Middle East

July 9, 2024
Map of nuclear warheads by country
Israel has an estimated 90 nuclear warheads, according to the Arms Control Association. Image:

As Israel ramps up its threats on Iran, Syria and Lebanon, the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons has never been so urgent.

Now, in the ninth month of its war on Gaza, Israel is boasting of its undeclared nuclear arsenal which, last year, was estimated at 90 warheads, with fissile material stockpiles for about 200 weapons.

More recently, the chairperson of the Israel Aerospace Industries Workers’ Council told the Jerusalem Post that Israel has the means to deliver the warheads.

“If we understand that there is an existential danger here, and that Iran, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and all the countries of the Middle East decide that it is time to settle against us, I understand that we have the capabilities to use doomsday weapons,” Yair Katz said on June 29.

“Doomsday weapons” is a reference to nuclear weapons.

Katz added that “the Americans, the British and the Germans help us in with intelligence. They inform us where there are moves that may endanger us.”

With this war and the 79th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approaching, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is pushing for more countries to sign the United Nations nuclear weapon ban treaty.

China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States are recognised as possessing nuclear weapons by the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). One of its goals is to decommission and eliminate these weapons.

Israel, Pakistan and India have never joined the TPNW and are known to possess nuclear weapons.

Iran did ratify the TPNW but, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it has pursued a secret nuclear weapons development program.

Iran denies this, but following Israel’s April 1 attack on the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, killing more than 16 Iranians, officials said they will rethink the country’s nuclear doctrine if attacked again.

The US elections give rise to even greater foreboding, with Donald Trump ahead in the polls. While Trump has said he will dial down Israel’s wars, his Republican colleagues are sending the opposite message.

Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said in May that the US needs to keep supplying weapons to Israel, as it is facing an "existential threat". He said the US faced the same threat from Japan and Germany in the 1940s, which is why the US was correct to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons.

“That was the right decision,” he told NBC News on May 13. “Give Israel the bombs they need to end the war. They can't afford to lose, and work with them to minimise casualties.”

“Why is it OK for America to drop two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end their existential threat war?" Graham said. “Why was it OK for us to do that? I thought it was OK.”

“To Israel, do whatever you have to do to survive as a Jewish state.”

Melissa Parke, ICAN executive director and a former Labor minister for international development and the Pacific, believes the Gaza war risks “morphing” into a confrontation between Israel and Iran that could draw in more nuclear-armed states.

The tit-for-tat drone and missile strikes between Israel and Iran since the Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy compound in Syria last month seem to be calibrated not to provoke an all-out war. But that is an approach fraught with the risk of miscalculation and cannot be relied on to prevent a wider conflict,” she wrote in The Hill on May 15.

She said any long-term peace settlement in the Middle East had to include nuclear disarmament.

“We need to dispense with the pretense of ambiguity and have an honest and open discussion about Israel’s nuclear weapons and why they must be eliminated, particularly given that they clearly have not had any deterrent effect against conventional attacks.”

She urged Israel and “other countries in the region, along with all other nuclear-armed states” to join the TPNW — “the only existing international treaty that provides a pathway towards fair and verifiable disarmament”.

Parke said that after Israel destroys its stockpile of nuclear warheads, it should sign the TPNW and engage with a process to establish a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

Parke said it is notable that “the state of Palestine is already a party to both treaties” having acceded to the TPNW in 2015 and ratified it in 2018.

Australia’s Labor government, having committed to sign to the TPNW, is yet to do so.

ICAN points to a 2016 defence white paper and a 2017 foreign policy white paper, which show Australia “supports the retention and potential use of US nuclear weapons on its behalf”.

This position is at odds with a 2022 Ipsos poll, which found that 76% of Australians agree with signing the treaty.

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