Israel and Iran’s Shared Policy of Nuclear Ambiguity

Israeli blogger Noam Sheizaf has conducted an interesting interview with Israeli historical researcher and expert on Israel’s nuclear policy, Avner Cohen. Cohen’s latest book, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb,  addresses the origins of Israel’s nuclear strategy and its policy of ambiguity. Sheizaf calls attention to the parallels that Cohen draws between Iran’s nuclear policy and the path taken by Israel.

Cohen, in an interview at his home in Washington DC, told Sheizaf (my emphasis):

The bitter irony is that right now, ambiguity serves the interests of Israel’s rival in the Middle East. Iran is creating its own version of ambiguity: not the concealment of its project, but rather ambiguity with regard to the distinction separating possession and non-possession of nuclear weapons. It reiterates that it has no intention of building a bomb, but that it has the right to enrich uranium, and even come close to developing [nuclear] weapons – while still remaining true to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is straddling the line, and in my opinion, Iran wants to, and can, remain for some time with the status of a state that might or might not have the bomb. Iran is a state of ambiguity.

Cohen also addresses the thinking behind Israel’s vehement opposition to Iran becoming a nuclear state. This concern is largely based on the belief that while Israel holds a technological edge in having nuclear weapons, a nuclear arms race in the region would not be in Israel’s interest.

At all government and semi-governmental forums, ministers from the Achdut Ha’avoda party, Yigal Allon and Israel Galili, argued that Israel should maintain its ‘technological edge’ in the nuclear sphere, but that we should be careful not to be the ones responsible for bringing nuclear arms to the region.


They had the concern that if we were to turn into a nuclear state, as Peres and then, later on, [Moshe] Dayan wanted, the Middle East would inevitably go nuclear. Should Israel gain nuclear capability, then it would be impossible to stop the other side from attaining its own nuclear weapon, sooner or later; that would create an arms race. And that was their nightmare.

Cohen explains (my emphasis again):

It’s interesting to look at how far-ranging this thinking was, because it has remained our nightmare to the present day. Were we to believe in mutual nuclear deterrence, we would be able to see that a nuclear Iran is something that can be lived with. But we are aware of an asymmetry, whose gist is: We are a smaller and more vulnerable country, and so even if everyone understands that we are the most advanced and strongest nuclear state [in the region] – a nuclearized Middle East is not in our interest.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.


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