Israeli 1st Lt. Masha Michelson, left, with an Iranian ballistic missile that was intercepted in southern Israel.

Israeli 1st Lt. Masha Michelson, left, with an Iranian ballistic missile that was intercepted in southern Israel. (Heidi Levine/for The Washington Post)

A volley of back-and-forth strikes between Israel and Iran, culminating with explosions in the Islamic Republic on Friday, added a nuclear edge to the regional fallout from the war in Gaza. Here, the world watched two powers with nuclear technology — one with not-so-secret weapons, the other with ambiguous arms ambitions — as they threatened to strike each other’s nuclear sites.

“The situation is extremely troubling, and it reveals some hard truths about why nuclear weapons can be more of a liability than some kind of national security asset,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said that Thursday evening. He was referring to the tit-for-tat strikes this month, which had seen an Israeli strike on an Iranian consulate in Syria as well as hundreds of drones and missiles launched from Iranian soil in retaliation — and the threat of further Israeli retaliation.

Just hours later, explosions shook several sites across Iran — including Isfahan province, home to key nuclear labs. Disarmament experts were cautiously relieved when it emerged that the strikes were limited in scope, not hitting nuclear sites. Instead, Israel just gave a suggestion of what it could do: Satellite imagery showed that the Israeli strike had precisely hit a radar from a Russian-made air defense battery, the S-300, in Isfahan.

It was a reminder of the nuclear fears looming over this regional divide. More than half a century after their covert development began, Israel’s nuclear weapons are a fait accompli. Israel is the only nuclear-armed power in the Middle East — an open secret even if not acknowledged by the country nor governed by international agreements. Iran, meanwhile, does not possess nuclear weapons. However, its pursuit of nuclear technology, which it claims is not for military purposes, has left it internationally isolated.

Worryingly, norms appeared to be changing. Iran’s strike on Israel the weekend before had marked the first time it had struck the country from its soil. Last Thursday, an Iranian official warned that if Israel struck at their nuclear sites, they could reconsider their official stance on the development of nuclear weapons and potentially target Israeli nuclear facilities.

Iran’s president said this week that if Israel attacked Iran again, the situation would be different. “It is not clear whether anything will remain of this regime,” Ebrahim Raisi told an audience in Pakistan on Tuesday, referring to Israel, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

No Israeli government has ever officially acknowledged that the country possesses nuclear weapons. The country never signed the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) nor accepted protocols from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In November, Israeli Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu made a rare mention of the theoretical use of nuclear weapons. “Your expectation is that tomorrow morning we’d drop what amounts to some kind a nuclear bomb on all of Gaza, flattening them, eliminating everybody there,” an interviewer from Radio Kol Berama said. “That’s one way,” Eliyahu responded. Eliyahu, who was suspended from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for the comments, later said he was speaking in metaphor. “Eliyahu’s statements are not based in reality,” Netanyahu said on X.

Experts say the country has 90 nuclear warheads or more, with the plutonium necessary to make hundreds. While these numbers are below those held by countries like Russia and the United States, there are only nine nuclear-armed states in total. Israel is part of a very elite club.

Even at the lower edge of the scale, this number of Israeli nuclear weapons would present “a huge threat” to Tehran, Robert E. Kelley, a former U.S. Energy Department nuclear weapons expert, wrote in an email. Israel had more bombs than targets in Iran, Kelley added.

Israel’s development of nuclear weapons was covert. It began seeking them shortly after their first use in 1945, secretly working with France in 1957 to create a plutonium-based facility in Dimona, a small city in the Negev desert. By the mid-1960s, declassified documents show that U.S. officials had concluded that Israel’s nuclear weapons program was happening. Several U.S. administrations struggled with it, until the Nixon administration reluctantly accepted it on condition that it remained secret.

The secrecy has largely held. With no public tests and no international inspections, there are few details about how Israel’s weapons work in practice. The Dimona site is now known as the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center, officially a research facility. Kelley, who now works with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said Israel’s nuclear weapons were probably held at air force bases “near the missiles or planes that would carry them.”

The country is believed to have missiles, submarines and aircraft, including the U.S.-produced F-35, that are capable of launching nuclear weapons.

Iran claimed, without evidence, last week that it could hit Israeli nuclear sites. “The nuclear facilities of the Zionist enemy have been identified, and we have the necessary information about all the targets,” said Ahmad Haghtalab, a Revolutionary Guards commander who oversees nuclear security, according to the semiofficial Tasnim news agency.

Haghtalab also said strikes on nuclear facilities could result in “a revision of the nuclear doctrine” in Iran.

Iran’s nuclear program started under the Western-backed monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi before he was overthrown in 1979. Officially, it has never been focused on creating the bomb. The country’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was reported to have issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons in 2003, though experts disagree on the edicts’ scope. Unlike Israel, Iran is a signatory to the 1968 NPT that aims to prohibit the spread of nuclear weapons. Iranian officials have voiced support for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

John Ghazvinian, executive director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book on Iran’s nuclear program, said Tehran had maintained a strategically ambiguous stance on nuclear weapons from the start.

“Iran has always hedged its bets and continues to rely on a hedging strategy of developing nuclear capability and putting itself in a position in which it could race for a bomb if it needed to,” Ghazvinian said.

Israel, along with some allies, claims that Iran is hiding its nuclear weapons ambitions. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in 2018, Netanyahu presented evidence he claimed showed that Tehran was not abiding by a nuclear accord it had reached with world powers three years before.

“Israel knows what you’re doing, and Israel knows where you’re doing it,” Netanyahu said.

Before this week’s strikes, nuclear arms experts had voiced concern about the potential direct Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. “Military strikes on nuclear facilities, whether in Ukraine by Russia, or by Israel against Iran, or by Iran against Israel, are prohibited under international law and they must be unequivocally condemned by the international community and the United States in particular,” Kimball of the Arms Control Association said.

There’s precedent. In 1981, Israeli airstrikes destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Israel has mostly refrained from striking Iranian nuclear sites openly, but there have been assassinations of top nuclear researchers and other suspected acts of sabotage.

At the same time, international disarmament structures are struggling. The 2015 Iran nuclear accord — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and negotiated by the United States and five other world powers, plus the European Union — remains in effect technically, but it has been left neutered by the Trump administration’s decision to pull out in 2018.

IAEA inspectors with access to Iranian nuclear sites have said the country’s nuclear program has made considerable gains since then, producing highly enriched uranium that is close to weapons-grade and could allow the country to move quickly to producing nuclear weapons. IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said Friday that Iran could build a nuclear weapon in months. “A very serious conversation is due,” Grossi told Sky News.

Any attack on nuclear facilities in Iran would probably impact the work of the IAEA in the country and perhaps put their lives at risk, said Abdolrasool Divsallar, a nonresident scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington. “It had a huge risk of diminishing the possibility of the IAEA to monitor [Iran’s nuclear sites],” he said.

Historically, Iran’s nuclear program was justified as a way to counterbalance U.S. hegemony in the region, Divsallar said, but now politicians often point toward Israel instead. “The role of Israel in Iran’s nuclear calculus is the highest it has ever been,” he said.

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