Israel sees no pressure on nuclear ambiguity policy

HERZLIYA, Israel Wed Feb 4, 2009 6:37pm GMT

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HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) - Israel does not expect to come under pressure to scrap the secrecy around its nuclear capabilities as the United States reviews strategies towards Iran's atomic ambitions, an Israeli official said on Wednesday.

Israel is widely assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, but neither confirms nor denies this under an "ambiguity" policy billed as deterring foes while avoiding the sort of public provocations that can spur arms races.

Yet Western concern over Iran's uranium enrichment has led some analysts to suggest Israel could be asked by its U.S. ally to submit its own nuclear facilities to inspection as part of a drive to guarantee a region free of weapons of mass destruction.

Asked at a security conference whether he expected such a proposal from the new administration of President Barack Obama, who expressed readiness to talk directly to Iran, Israeli Atomic Energy Commission deputy director-general David Danieli said:

"Israel has always had a responsible and wise nuclear policy, and this was recognised as such by others in the international community, and there is no reason to doubt that it will continue to be so in the future."

He added that he looked forward to "good dialogue with the upcoming American administration on all arms control and national security issues." Obama, in office since January 20, has begun a broad review of foreign policy that under predecessor George W. Bush sought to isolate rather than engage Iran without preconditions. Tehran has rejected that approach and expanded enrichment meanwhile.

According to declassified American documents cited by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists magazine, under President Richard Nixon the United States knew Israel had developed nuclear weapons but opted against insisting that its ally come clean on the capability and accept international regulation. This sanctioned reticence is a major irritant for Arabs and Iran, which see a double standard in U.S. policy in the region.

By not declaring itself to be nuclear-armed, Israel also skirts a U.S. ban on funding countries that proliferate weapons of mass destruction. It can thus enjoy some $3 billion (2 billion pounds) in annual military aid from Washington.

Israel, like the United States, has vowed to prevent Iran -- which denies having any hostile intent -- from getting the bomb.

But some Israeli experts believe Iran will not be stopped and that the Jewish state may have to resort to an enhanced policy of deterrence by lifting some of the secrecy and making clear it can still outgun its arch-foe in any nuclear war.

(Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna; editing by Andrew Roche)

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