Israeli and US officials have admitted collaborating to deploy US-supplied Harpoon cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads in Israel's fleet of Dolphin-class submarines, giving the Middle East's only nuclear power the ability to strike at any of its Arab neighbors.
The unprecedented disclosure came as Israel announced that states `harboring terrorists' are legitimate targets, responding to Syria's declaration of its right to self-defense should Israel bomb its territory again.
According to Israeli and Bush administration officials interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, the sea-launch capability gives Israel the ability to target Iran more easily should the Iranians develop their own nuclear weapons.
Although it has been long suspected that Israel bought three German diesel-electric submarines with the specific aim of arming them with nuclear cruise missiles, the admission that the two countries had collaborated in arming the fleet with a nuclear-capable weapons system is significant at a time of growing crisis between Israel and its neighbors.
According to the paper, the disclosure by two US officials is designed to discourage Israel's enemies from launching an attack amid rapidly escalating tensions in the region following a raid by Israeli jets on an alleged terrorist training camp near the Syrian capital, Damascus.
In a clear echo of the US President George W. Bush doctrine of pre-emption, the Israeli Foreign Ministry's senior spokesman, Gideon Meir, said, "Israel views every state that is harboring terrorist organizations and the leaders of those terrorist organizations who are attacking innocent citizens of the state of Israel as legitimate targets out of self defense."
The disclosure is certain to complicate UN-led efforts to persuade Iran to make a full disclosure of its nuclear program. It will also complicate US efforts to reach out to moderate Arab states when they are pressing for an equal disclosure of Israel's nuclear weapons program.
Although Israel has long been known to possess nuclear weapons, in the past it has abided by a deal struck with then-US president Richard Nixon in 1969 that it would maintain "ambiguity" about its retention of weapons in exchange for the US turning a blind eye. According to reliable estimates, Israel has around 200 nuclear war heads.
It acquired the three Dolphin class submarines, which can remain at sea for a month, in the late 1990s. They are equipped with six torpedo tubes suitable for the 53cm torpedoes that are normally used on most submarines.
It had been understood they would carry a version of the "Popeye Turbo" cruise missiles being developed by Rafael Armament Development Authority of Israel.
Israel's seaborne nuclear doctrine is designed to place one submarine in the Persian Gulf, the other in the Mediterranean, with a third on standby. Secret test launches of the cruise missile systems were understood to have been undertaken in May 2000 when Israel carried out tests in the Indian Ocean.
"We tolerate nuclear weapons in Israel for the same reason we tolerate them in Britain and France," one of the LA Times' sources told the paper. "We don't regard Israel as a threat."
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