Introducing Nuclear Weapons to the Middle East

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 2019, pp. 36-37

History’s Shadows

By Walter L. Hixson

IF THE NATIONAL INTEREST MANDATES that the United States go to war to stop the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East then we should have begun bombing Israel in the 1960s.

Frequently lost in the discussion over the Iran nuclear program is the irony that it was of course Israel that first introduced nuclear weapons to the region and did so after repeatedly and blatantly deceiving its “special ally,” the United States, in the process. As discussed below, today’s hostility toward Iran may not primarily be about nuclear weapons, but the Trump administration will maximize the “Iran nuclear threat” as a propaganda theme in the buildup toward a possible U.S.-Israel war targeting Iran and Hezbollah.

Israel of course maintains a stony silence about its own nuclear arsenal. On this, as with almost any other matter, the United States complies with Israel’s wishes. History shows the reverse clearly has not been the case.


In December 1960, CIA Director Allen Dulles reported that overflights by U-2 spy planes and other intelligence sources confirmed that the Israeli nuclear complex at Dimona in the Negev Desert probably held a reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium for a bomb. The Eisenhower administration and members of Congress were “unhappy” that Israel had “deliberately misled” the United States by keeping “a development of this importance secret” even as Israel sought economic and military assistance from Washington.

Confronted with the evidence, Israel insisted it had “no plans for the production of atomic weapons,” but this was deliberate deception because the United States posed the “greatest threat” to bring an end to the program and force Israel into compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) efforts to contain the spread of atomic weapons. Until 1964 only the United States, the USSR, Britain and France had the bomb.

The Kennedy administration took up its predecessor’s demand for inspections of the Israeli nuclear site to ensure that it would not develop bomb-making capacity. Avraham Harman, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, protested that Israel “could not conceive why there should be such continuing interest” in Dimona, as Israel had “no intention of manufacturing the bomb.”

When the Americans finally wrangled their way into the facility, the “informal” visits became a “window-dressing exercise” in which the Israelis escorted the visitors through a “bogus control center” built on top of the real one and outfitted “with fake control panels and computer-lined gauges.” U.S. diplomats including Ambassador Walworth Barbour realized the “inspections” were a charade, “a very unrealistic exercise” that “became ridiculous.”

Kennedy hoped that his decision in 1962 to sell Hawk surface-to-air missiles to Israel would deter the Zionist state from continuing with the bomb-making program, yet the administration, taking the advice of Jewish affairs adviser Myer Feldman, failed to pursue a quid pro quo understanding from the sale of the Hawks.

Israel kept up the deception until it could present the U.S. with a fait accompli in the form of an atomic weapons development program on the threshold. The Zionist leaders concluded accurately that “the United States would do no more than display an angry attitude.”

At a historic meeting with Foreign Minister Golda Meir in Palm Beach, Florida, shortly after Christmas in 1962, Kennedy pronounced the existence of the U.S. “special relationship” with Israel “comparable only to that which it has with Great Britain.” He made it clear, however, that relations were a “two-way street” and that Israel should address concerns “on this atomic reactor. We are opposed to nuclear proliferation.”

Despite Cold War tensions, Kennedy and the Soviets were working together to contain the spread of nuclear weapons, which led to the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and five years later to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Kennedy did not want the American ally Israel to shatter the effort to maintain the Middle East as a nuclear- free zone. At the Florida meeting, “Mrs. Meir reassured the president that there would not be any difficulty between us on the Israeli nuclear reactor.”

At the time of his assassination, Kennedy was stepping up the pressure for more stringent inspections, as he knew from the CIA and other sources that Israel was pursuing the bomb despite false assurances to the contrary. Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson, an uncritical supporter of Israel, took up the demand for inspections but these remained informal and un-rigorous. In 1964, intelligence sources revealed that Israel had covertly obtained 80-100 tons of uranium oxide, or “yellowcake,” to fuel the Dimona reactor and enable production of weapons-grade plutonium.

Recognizing that Israel was “closer to nuclear weapons capability than we supposed,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk confronted Israeli officials on the issue. In March 1965, Israel declared that it “will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Arab-Israel area,” but Rusk remained skeptical. He pressed Johnson to compel Israel to agree to place all nuclear facilities under IAEA control, but Israel refused.

While the Soviet Union and the Arab states cooperated with international arms control efforts, Israel would not. Advisers urged Johnson to hold back on providing Israel with Phantom supersonic jets until it signed the NPT, but Johnson would not risk confrontation with the special ally and moreover with its AIPAC-led lobby in Washington.

The Israeli nuclear program reached the threshold in 1966. Had the June 1967 War initiated by the Zionist state gone badly, the Israelis had contingency plans to explode a bomb, perhaps on the Sinai Peninsula.

It turns out that by pledging not to “introduce” nuclear weapons to the Middle East Israel meant merely that it would never admit to its possession of them. The Nixon administration acquiesced to Israel’s status as a nuclear power and called off the demand for inspections and for Israel to sign the NPT. Israel, India and Pakistan are the only major states who have refused to sign the NPT, but the two South Asian nations at least admit to possessing the weapons.


Israel has vowed to attack Iran before allowing it to develop nuclear weapons, and it should not be expected that the Netanyahu government would wait until the last minute to do so. In June 1981, Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear site at Osirak even though the reactor was not close to being operational. The U.S. condemned the attack but President Ronald Reagan nonetheless declared that Israel had “cause for concern.” Asked about Israel bombing a neighboring state that was not close to developing the bomb while stockpiling its own nuclear weapons in violation of the NPT, Reagan offered this naïve and ironic response: “It is difficult for me to envision Israel as being a threat to its neighbors.” The next year Israel launched a punishing assault on Lebanon.

Recognizing that the Iranian nuclear program could easily become a casus belli, the Obama administration acted rationally by forging the multilateral Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Iran and the European allies have faithfully adhered to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—which includes rigorous verification provisions—but now the Trump administration has unilaterally savaged the accord. Israel of course has condemned the nuclear treaty from the outset.

The Trump administration—for which a wrecking ball might be the appropriate symbol of its foreign policy—withdrew from the agreement in order to plague Iran with sweeping economic sanctions. Iran put up with the U.S. action for a year but recently announced that it won’t adhere to limits on uranium enrichment if the sanctions continue. Meanwhile, Washington uses its economic muscle to threaten allies who might otherwise adhere to an international accord that all sides negotiated in good faith.

Not content to put the economic squeeze on Iran, the Trump administration has suddenly dispatched B-52 bombers, Patriot missile batteries, and an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region while stepping up its condemnation of Iran for regional “meddling,” conducting a “revolutionary foreign policy,” and unspecified attacks on U.S. interests.

Since being forced out of Lebanon in 2006, Israel has longed for revenge against Iranian-backed Hezbollah and would dearly love to enlist the United States in the effort. The United States condemns Iran for human rights violations and intervention in Yemen even as it cozies up to the Saudi regime, which is responsible for war crimes in Yemen.

Another war in the Middle East should come as a surprise to no one. To the extent a future conflict focuses on nuclear weapons, it should be clear who started it.

History’s Shadows, a regular column by contributing editor Walter L. Hixson, seeks to place various aspects of Middle East politics and diplomacy in historical perspective. Hixson is the author of Israel’s Armor: The Israel Lobby and the First Generation of the Palestine Conflict (available from Middle East Books and More), along with several other books and journal articles. He has been a professor of history for 36 years, achieving the rank of distinguished professor.