As United States and European governments seek to turn up international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, Germany has agreed to sell Israel two sophisticated submarines that could be equipped with nuclear devices.
The sale, decided by outgoing chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, was endorsed by his conservative successor, Angela Merkel, who took office this week. The two new Dolphin class submarines will cost $1.17 billion and Germany will cover one-third of the price tag, according to reports in the German magazines Der Spiegel and Focus.
Media reports said that Israel could outfit the new submarines with nuclear missiles in order to develop “second-strike capability,” the term used to describe a country’s ability to respond with nuclear weapons even after being subject to a nuclear attack.
The Israeli Defense Ministry declined comment.
A spokesman for the German Defense Ministry, Dirk Gross, confirmed that Germany had agreed to the sale but declined to comment on the possible use of nuclear devices.
The submarine sale comes just weeks after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drew international condemnation, especially from Western governments, for declaring that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” It also comes after Iran resumed its uranium processing activities, breaking an agreement that Tehran had reached with Germany, France and England a year ago. Officials from the three European governments have voiced increasing doubts over their ability to secure a commitment from Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
Germany sold two Dolphin submarines to the Israeli navy in the early 1990s, following the Iraqi Scud missile attacks during the Gulf War, after it surfaced that German companies had aided Saddam Hussein’s weapons program. A few years earlier, the Israeli navy had abandoned a program to build similar submarines. But the German gift prompted Jerusalem to reverse course and eventually buy a third submarine at a greatly reduced price a few years later.
While those three submarines were powered by traditional means, the new ones will be outfitted with fuel cell engines that will allow them to remain submerged for weeks at a time. This would allow the Israeli navy to have two submarines out at sea on a permanent basis, thereby bolstering significantly Israel’s deterrent capacity against a nuclear foe.
Speculation that Israel is outfitting the old submarines with nuclear weapons is fueled by the fact that the torpedo hatches on the Dolphin submarines supplied to Israel have been widened substantially — an indication that they are intended for launching nuclear missiles.
Such speculation contributed to a delay in the sale, with German authorities worried that Israel would make similar modifications to the new submarines, thereby further threatening stability in the region. The two sides also reportedly took time to settle on a price.
The decision of Germany — which along with France and Great Britain has formed a troika known as the EU-3 to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue — to go ahead with the sale appears to be a sign of Europe’s frustrations with Tehran.
The EU-3 nations have been negotiating with Iran for the past two years to convince Tehran to forgo its nuclear program in exchange for a package of economic and political incentives.
Iran agreed a year ago to suspend all its uranium-processing activities pending negotiation of a final deal, but the talks broke off in August after Iran ended the suspension. In addition, the confrontational rhetoric of the newly elected Ahmadinejad fueled speculation that a diplomatic settlement was doomed and that the International Atomic Energy Agency would refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions.
Jean-David Lévitte, the French ambassador to the United States, acknowledged in an interview with the Forward that the situation with Iran is in a “very difficult phase.” But he also said he hopes that a diplomatic breakthrough is still possible.
European and American officials retreated this week from their threats to ask the 35-nation board of the atomic agency to refer Iran to the Security Council. Instead they are reportedly preparing for a new round of discussions with Tehran, based on a Russian proposal.
Earlier this month, Moscow dispatched a delegation to Tehran with an offer that would allow Iran to continue converting uranium ore into gas on the condition that the most critical stage of nuclear fuel production — uranium enrichment — is transferred to Russia as part of a joint venture. The offer, backed by the United States and the EU-3, is aimed at preventing Iran from producing weapons-grade uranium.
Tehran officially rejected the proposal, but discussions are ongoing in the hope of organizing a meeting between Iran, Russia and the EU-3 in early December.
“The Security Council referral is a tool we can use, but let’s not lose sight of the overall objective: the denuclearization of Iran,” Levitte said. “We want to build an international consensus.”
In an appearance at Columbia University last week, Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. and, until recently, a participant in the nuclear talks with the E.U.-3, reiterated his country’s position that it is pursuing its nuclear program solely for civilian purposes.
Jarif said that the three European countries and the United States were changing their demands constantly. He warned that Iran had decided not to give up its right to develop a civilian nuclear program, and he said his country refused to be “bossed around.”
The Iranian ambassador said that he had presented an enticing package deal to the Europeans in March that included solid guarantees, but the offer was spurned after American officials pressured the EU-3.
“I still believe this package is a good basis for negotiations and they’d be well advised to take it, unless we head toward a crisis,” said Zarif, who since has been removed from the nuclear negotiating team and is rumored to be leaving his position soon because of a disagreement with the hardline stance of the new government in Tehran.