Iran and Syria have long been high-profile cases for the UN's atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. This week, the Arab world will urge the IAEA to put Israel's nuclear capability under the spotlight.
Unofficially, Israel is the only atomic power in the Middle East
The IAEA's annual general conference in Vienna this week is expected to be dominated by the escalating row between the Arab and western states over Israel's assumed nuclear arsenal despite the best efforts of the United States to keep the topic off the agenda.
The conference has long been the forum for those Arab nations among the 151 member states of the IAEA which want to see Israel sign up for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and reveal its full nuclear capability.
Last year's summit saw a resolution tabled by Arab states urging Israel to sign up to the treaty pass with a very narrow majority but Israel has since dismissed the non-binding resolution and has refused to become a signatory to the NPT, saying it is a purely symbolic document.
The resolution, however, called on the IAEA's Director General Yukiya Amano to prepare a report on how to implement it and "work with member states toward achieving" the goal of persuading Israel to join the NPT. Amano responded by launching an investigation into Israel's nuclear activities which was expected to include on-site inspections of nuclear facilities.
IAEA report on Israel dismissed by Arab states
The resulting 81-page report, which was published this month ahead of the conference, has only fuelled the Arab states' anger and instead of preventing Israel becoming a major topic of discussion at this year's IAEA meeting has turned a minor point on the agenda into a potential flashpoint, much to the consternation of Washington and, of course, Jerusalem.
The Arabs want the IAEA to visit sites like Dimona in Israel
After the IAEA's latest in-depth and damning reports on the nuclear activities of Iran and Syria, the Arab nations have dismissed Amano's findings as "weak and disappointing," while accusing the IAEA of "double standards" when dealing with Israel and labelling the report as being "devoid of any substance and not up to the typical level of the agency's reporting."
Unsurprisingly Iran has led the calls for the issue of Israel's nuclear capability to be addressed by the IAEA this week, saying the nuclear watchdog has a responsibility to follow up on last year's resolution and send inspectors to Israel's nuclear facilities. Iran and the other Arab nations believe that as Israel is the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, the IAEA is obliged to investigate to the fullest of its capacity.
"Undoubtedly, pressure on Israel to allow inspections is significantly rising over the past year since the IAEA resolution," Anthony Seaboyer, a nuclear security expert with the German Council for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "President Obama's new position as well as the outcome of the 2010 NPT-Review conference and debates during the conference in New York earlier this year have clearly put pressure on Israel."
West warns of agitating Israel over nuclear capability
Western nations led by the United States believe the IAEA conference is neither the place nor the time to table another resolution on Israel or agitate for inspections.
The US doesn't want anything to jeopardize the peace process
The US in particular claims that with newly-launched Middle East peace talks at a very delicate juncture, any extra pressure may jeopardize progress. Washington has stated that Israel has fully cooperated with the IAEA and that there is no need for further debate in Vienna this week.
The Obama administration is also concerned that any undue pressure on Israel at this time regarding its nuclear capabilities may ruin its chances of persuading Israel to attend a conference in 2012 on freeing the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.
Israel's disputed and secretive nuclear programme is a major cause of tension within the Middle East. Some experts say that the belief that Israel has nuclear weapons causes other nations to pursue similar weapons programmes which in turn leads to tension, instability and a potential arms race in the region.
"Israel's programme is certainly convincing many in the Muslim world, that Islamic countries should be entitled to have nuclear arms on their own," Dr. Walter Posch from the Middle East Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Deutsche Welle. "However there is a big step between claiming to be entitled to a right and actually starting a nuclear programme, let alone building a nuclear arms device."
"In the case of Iran, Israel's nuclear arms are certainly a convenient excuse for Tehran to pursue its own programme," he added. "Apparently, Iran's motivation to recommence a peaceful nuclear programme - as they claim - was driven by geopolitical considerations namely to be recognized as a key power in the Middle East."
Nuclear ambuguity policy masks Israel's arsenal
Israel's weapons have inspired others to pursue nukes
Israel has been suspected of having nuclear weapons since the 1960s but has never officially admitted to having them, instead maintaining a policy known as "nuclear ambiguity." Its repeated claim that it would not be the first country to "introduce" nuclear weapons to the Middle East continues to create uncertainty over whether this means Israel will not create, disclose, or make first use of the weapons.
"I think the fear is, if Israel did officially admit the existence of its programme several international disarmament mechanisms would kick in and diminish Israel's nuclear superiority - without getting a political deal, such as recognition in the region, in exchange," said Dr. Posch.
Anthony Seaboyer said that Israel's policy may actually be helping to keep tensions at a manageable level, in contrast to claims that its secrecy is ratcheting up the pressure on its neighbors.
"Israel's reasoning for its 'nuclear ambiguity' policy of not divulging officially that it has nuclear weapons is firstly to hinder an arms race in the region and secondly to stop arguments along the line that countries in the region have a right to have the same technology Israel has," he said.
UN probe would reveal complicity as well as capacity
Vanunu revealed Israel's nuclear secrets to the world
Some light was shone on Israel's capability when Mordechai Vanunu, a former Israeli nuclear technician at the Dimona nuclear power plant from 1976 to 1985, blew the whistle on the program in 1986. Vanunu said at the time that Israel possessed around 200 bombs. It is currently believed to possess as many as 400 nuclear warheads with the ability to deliver them by intercontinental ballistic missile, aircraft, and submarine.
Israel's full capability remains shrouded in mystery but should the IAEA manage to gain access to Israel's nuclear sites, what would UN inspectors be expected to find?
"IAEA Inspectors would find between 150 and 200 nuclear warheads of at least different use usability," Anthony Seaboyer said. "They would also most likely find a variety of delivery systems. Besides Israel’s Jericho Missiles inspectors would find a fleet of nuclear-capable fighter combat aircraft some of which are US-origin F-16s and F-15s. Israel’s Dolphin-class Submarines are also said to be equipped to launch nuclear weapons."
"Not only a highly developed nuclear weapon program would become visible but also how much it has been supported by NPT signatories despite Israel not having signed the Treaty," he added. "This would clearly provide evidence for how unequally the NPT Regime treats members and non-members."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge