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Israeli Nukes on German-built Submarines?

October 14, 2003

Recent media reports have highlighted the growing international awareness of how German-built submarines are expanding Israel's nuclear capacity.

Israel received the first of its three "Dolphin"-class submarines from Germany in 1999.Image: dpa

A report this weekend by the Los Angeles Times on how the Israelis have modified American-supplied cruise missiles to carry nuclear warheads has re-ignited concern about Germany’s role in providing the country submarines that can launch them from the sea.

Although it’s long been an open secret that Israel has nuclear weapons, the paper cited senior Bush administration and Israeli officials confirming that Israel now has the ability to launch atomic weapons from the sea, as well as land and air.

Critics have long questioned Germany’s sale of three “Dolphin”-class submarines to Israel in 1999 and 2000. At the time, they demanded to know what the ships would be used for, and criticized Germany for ignoring its potential complicity in the Middle East nuclear-weapons build-up.

But according to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Germany’s Economy Ministry has confirmed that Israel has put out feelers about acquiring two further submarines, which could be used for the same purposes. That, in turn, has sparked renewed concern over the submarine sales.

The magazine said German-provided submarines could make possible a pre-emptive attack on Iran, an avowed enemy of Israel, in the case Tehran develops nuclear weapons.

Israel modifies subs

The first three Israeli submarines were modified in German shipyards fur undisclosed reasons. In 1999, the German Defense Ministry responded to inquiries by Green Party politicians Angelika Beer und Winfried Nachtwei by saying: "It is not clear to the government for what reason the Dolphin-class submarine have been fitted out with 650 millimeter artillery pieces that are able to launch submarine harpoon-rockets.”

"It was like, ‘What I don’t know won’t hurt me,’" said Otfried Nassauer, head of the Information Center for Trans-Atlantic Security in Berlin. He said he assumes that the first delivery of a submarine – the contract was signed in 1991 in the wake of the first Iraq war -- was an attempt to make amends for the fact that the Germans had previously provided weapons to Iraq.

Outfitting submarines for nuclear use brings a part of Jerusalem’s unacknowledged nuclear program to the sea. From the sea, Israel would be less vulnerable than in the air should it wish to lead a pre-emptive attack on Iranian targets.

The request for the two new Dolphin-class subs puts pressure on its long-established arms supplier, Germany, for aiding in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Tight spot for Germany

"Politically it would be impossible to justify. It would dangerously heat up the Middle East conflict," Nassauer said.

Israel’s Arab neighbors had already strongly criticized the first delivery of subs to Israel. "Given the knowledge that the first three boats have been transformed into atomic launching pads, Germany can only answer the request with a clear ‘No’," Nassauer said.

According to Der Spiegel, it is unlikely that Berlin would flat out deny Israel’s request. More likely, Germany’s Security Committee, which makes decisions on weapons contracts, would try to put off the awkward decision.

The leaks from the U.S. and Israeli officials are likely an organized attempt to dissuade Iran from continuing work on its suspected nuclear program. Iran denies developing nuclear weapons and claims it only wants nuclear power plants for generating electricity.

Israel has never officially confirmed having nuclear arms, but Washington has accepted it as a nuclear power since 1969 and analysts say it has up to 200 sophisticated nuclear weapons.

Arab countries have criticized the United States and the United Nations for pressuring Iran to accept tougher inspections while ignoring the stockpile in Israel, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.