JERUSALEM (AP) — With a few words in a largely conciliatory speech to the United Nations, Iran's new president took aim at an Israeli fear: that international pressure on the Iranian nuclear program could lead to scrutiny of Israel's own secretive nuclear facilities.
Israel is widely believed to possess dozens of atomic weapons under a program dating back more than half a century. But in a major pillar of its national defense strategy, it neither confirms nor denies having these weapons — a policy known as "nuclear ambiguity" meant to keep its enemies off balance.
Iran will likely try to draw attention to the Israeli policy as it prepares to engage the West in a new round of nuclear talks. While Israel does not appear to face any immediate threat of global censure, the issue nonetheless could be embarrassing given Israel's repeated calls for the world to crack down on what it says is an Iranian campaign to develop a nuclear bomb.
Iran, which denies the accusations, has long claimed to be the victim of a "double standard" when compared to Israel — yet it is a double standard the world appears to largely have accepted.
In his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, President Hasan Rouhani appeared to be referring to Israel when he told the world body that he is ready to resolve the nuclear standoff with the West.
"Iran's nuclear program — and for that matter, that of all other countries — must pursue exclusively peaceful purposes," he said. He did not mention Israel directly.
Israel, along with many Western countries, believes that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon — or at least is aiming to become a "threshold," able to quickly assemble a bomb. Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave danger, citing Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, its development of long-range missiles and its support for hostile Arab militant groups.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Rouhani's outreach to the West as a ploy to ease international sanctions and gain more time to build the bomb. He has urged the international community to increase, not ease, the pressure, and to maintain a "credible" military threat until Iran dismantles its nuclear program.
Israeli officials reject Iranian attempts to make Israel part of the debate, calling it a cheap diversionary tactic. Asked about this possible linkage, Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, would only say that Iran would be judged not by words, but by its actions.
Israel launched its nuclear program around the time of independence in 1948, a time when neighboring Arab countries declared war against the fledgling Jewish state, and it has been an undeclared nuclear power since the mid-1960s, said Shlomo Aronson, an expert on Israel's nuclear program at the Hebrew University. The program is believed to be headquartered at a heavily fortified facility in the southern desert town of Dimona.
The international community has quietly tolerated this arrangement out of an understanding of Israel's unique security needs, he said.
"There is an international acceptance that Israel has no choice but to depend on its nuclear power without talking about it," said Aronson. "In today's power relations, where there are 6 million Jews against 400 million Arabs ... Israel has no choice but to be an undeclared nuclear power."
He said many Middle Eastern countries remain committed to Israel's destruction. "What is stopping them from doing it? Dimona," he said.
Israel says only that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. But there is strong evidence that it has a large and sophisticated arsenal.
In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a disgruntled technician at the Dimona facility, handed photos of the facility to a British newspaper that led foreign experts to conclude that Israel had the world's sixth-largest nuclear arsenal. Israeli intelligence agents later seized Vanunu in Rome, and he spent 18 years in prison.
In an apparent slip of the tongue, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared to acknowledge that Israel has nuclear weapons in a 2006 interview with a German TV station. Israeli President Shimon Peres also seemed to admit having nuclear arms in calling for a nuclear-free Middle East in 1995, when he was prime minister.
"Give me peace, we will give up the nuclear capability. That's the whole story," Peres said at the time. Peres is believed to have played a key role in developing Israel's nuclear program in the 1950s and 60s.
Analysts Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris said in an article published earlier this month that Israel has 80 nuclear warheads.
Israel is among four countries believed to possess nuclear weapons that have not joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a landmark 1970 agreement that tries to stop the spread of nuclear arms. The others are India, Pakistan and North Korea, countries that have all declared their capabilities.
For decades, the Israeli strategy of ambiguity has largely worked. Last week, Israel and its allies fended off an Arab-led attempt to censure its refusal to acknowledge that it possesses nuclear weapons and put them under international oversight. But if international engagement with Iran gains traction, calls for Israel to be held accountable could grow.
While Iran recognizes it is unlikely to make much headway with the West, its strategy is aimed at a more global audience.
It has used its prominent position in the Nonaligned Movement, a grouping of more than 100 developing countries, to bash Israel over its presumed nuclear arsenal. Rouhani told a summit of Asian leaders this month that Iran is committed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty while noting Israel's refusal to join.
But there is probably also a visceral pleasure for Iran to land political punches that could unsettle Israel. Iran led the call for a proposed international conference in Finland last year to declare the Middle East a "nuclear weapons-free zone."
The U.S. helped scuttle the plans, apparently to save Israel embarrassment. But in response to the cancellation, the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution 174-6, with six abstentions, calling on Israel to quickly open its nuclear program for inspection and join the NPT "without further delay." Resolutions by the General Assembly are not legally binding, but they reflect world opinion and can carry political weight.
Ephraim Asculai, a former official of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said Israel's precondition to discussing its nuclear program is peace in the region. "As long as there is no peace with our enemies, why should Israel make a step forward on that?" he said.
Associated Press writers Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.