Contextual Content

Israel’s nukes and Iran

Intelligence experts Ray McGovern and Greg Thielmann respond to a question from the floor on
the significance of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal in the discussion of Iran. McGovern notes that
"an unpardonable mistake in US politics is to mention the Israeli arsenal as a motivation for Iran."
Adding that, "by acknowledging the Israeli nukes, one realizes that Iran is surrounded on all sides
by nuclear powers. Russia to the North, Pakistan to the East, Israel to the West, and US ships in
the Persian Gulf to the South.

Thielmann cautions US figures on the danger of ignoring the fact that, "between Iran and Israel,
only one of these two states is currently under existential threat, and that is Iran."

thielmannmcgovern1007

Story Transcript

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Really thought-provoking comments. There’s been some reporting recently that President Obama has extended an agreement with Israel that has been in existence since the time of President Nixon, that the United States will protect the secrecy of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, which seems pretty ridiculous since it’s probably the worst-kept secret in the world. So I think a question comes up around the issue of is there a legitimate reason for Iran to actually wish to have a nuclear deterrent, nuclear-weapons deterrent capability, as a result of the fact that it’s widely believed, at least, that Israel has something in the vicinity of 700 nuclear warheads, with all three elements of the capability that Greg described? And kind of corollary to that, it was very noteworthy a few months back that Israel played a very major role in killing off the nomination of Ambassador Chas Freeman to be the head of the National Intelligence Council. And there was a pretty vicious smear campaign against him as an antisemite and all kinds of things like that. But do you think that’s related to the fact that Chas would have been somebody who would have pursued the honest approach to national intelligence estimates that would have would have gotten at some of these underlying issues—Afghanistan, maybe even the Israeli question? Thank you.

RAY MCGOVERN, FMR. CIA SENIOR ANALYST: You have introduced the elephant into this room. The word "Israel" has not been pronounced yet, but, you know, it’s a major, major factor here. But everybody’s very nervous about saying this. The last time I testified before Congress and said the word "Israel" just indicating that it was a factor in our attack on Iraq, that we—seems foolish in retrospect, doesn’t it? We thought that attacking Iraq would make that part of the world safer for Israel. No, no, we really thought that, we the people who made these decisions. Now, of course, it’s quite different. But, you know, I’m thinking about Senator Lugar, for whom I have some respect. I remember him being on a Sunday morning TV show, and he was asked that question: why do you think that the Iranians are hell-bent on getting a nuclear weapon? And he said, "Well, you know, Israel—. Israel is alleged to have some nuclear weapons." That’s exactly what he said, okay? It was early in the morning. He probably hadn’t had enough coffee yet. But he did, he made the unpardonable mistake: he mentioned Israel in terms of what might be motivating Iran. Now, if Israel has 200 nuclear weapons, and, you know, if they are very, very bellicose in their rhetoric about, you know, taking out, or regime change, or this kind of thing, one would think that Iran might have something to fear. Now, I mentioned Robert Gates before, and he made a very unusual admission during his confirmation hearings. This was in November or December of 2006. And he said this, and I quote—it’s very brief. Why is Iran motivated to acquire nuclear weapons? Quote, "They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons—Pakistan to the east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us in the Persian Gulf." That’s what he told the Senate committee during his confirmation hearing. Now, not all of you can see this. Iran is in green here. But look at—that’s pretty tough neighborhood there, okay? East, west, north, and south, surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons, okay? Now, Gates—very rarely does this happen, but he said that Israel has a nuclear weapon, and since then [Ehud] Olmert himself has admitted that. So let me just finish with two things. One is why. You know, sometimes you need to quote people who are immersed in this kind of thing and actually have axes to grind. Philip Zelikow, head of the 9/11 Commission—the staff, at least—he said, when he was asked to explain why we did Iraq, you know, with no weapons of mass destruction, with no ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, this is what he said at the University of Virginia: quote, "Why would Iraq attack America or use nuclear weapons against us? I’ll tell you what I think the real threat is. It’s the threat to Israel. And this is not a threat that dare speak its name. The American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell." Now, you all realize that Israel is our ally, right? Okay. How many don’t realize that? Wow. Wow. Folks, I got news for you in. Israel is not our ally. Look it up in your Webster’s. Here’s what Webster’s says: "ally: a sovereign state associated with another by treaty." There is no treaty. Now, one of the congressmen we were briefing last night said there should be a treaty. Well, you know what, folks? We sounded the Israelis out on that 30 years ago. We said, "How about a treaty? That would make you feel so secure, being in a treaty relationship with us. Maybe you could give up the occupied territories." You know what the Israelis said? "Thanks, but no thanks. We’ve got the equivalent of a treaty. You call us an ally anyway." And, you know, treaties require clearly defined international boundaries, and the Israelis didn’t want any part of that. Okay? So let’s be aware of the rhetoric; let’s be aware that these things are realities. One of the congressmen said, "Well, it doesn’t matter that there’s no treaty." Well, I think it matters. I am sort of a strict constructionist on things like that. And for the president and others to say that we’re treaty-bound to spring to Israel’s defense if it gets in trouble, even by its own provocation, you know, that’s really a distortion of the Constitution. It’s a distortion of what George Washington warned about when he talked about "passionate attachments" of one country to another.

GREG THIELMANN, FMR. STATE DEPT. INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: I would only add one thing to that. I think both the American public and certainly the Israeli public have every right to be indignant and outraged by the statements of [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and [Ali] Khamenei about the Holocaust or about the state of Israel. But if indeed words do matter, then US commentators have to be very careful with saying things like "We want to make sure that nuclear weapons are not introduced into the Middle East." Or we can’t rely too heavily on the existential threat argument. With every sympathy for the fear that the Iranians generate in Israel, it’s worth noting that there is only one state between these two that is currently under an existential threat, and that is Iran. And this was noted by Anthony Cordesman the other day, pointing out that with a few concentrations of very heavily populated cities in Iran, that Israel poses a potential existential threat to the state of Iran. Today, anyway, Iran does not pose an existential threat to Israel. It poses a threat of those dozens of medium-range ballistic missiles could deliver conventional explosives to Israel, or the Iranians could—and have—supplied rockets to their allies, Hezbollah in particular, in a way that threatens Israeli citizens. But we have to be careful in the words we use to describe the situation in the Middle East and not let careless use of words carry the agenda of parties not necessarily interested in helping people understand the reality.

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