Israel’s Airstrike on Syria’s Reactor: Implications for the Nonproliferation Regime

Leonard S. Spector and Avner Cohen

IAEA Inspects Alleged Al-Kibar Nuclear Facility Site

On September 6, 2007, in a surprise dawn attack, seven Israeli warplanes destroyed an industrial facility near al-Kibar, Syria, later identified by the CIA as a nearly completed nuclear reactor secretly under construction since 2001.[1]

According to the CIA, the unit was built with North Korean assistance and was modeled on one used by North Korea to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The CIA declared that it had only “low confidence” that Syria was pursuing a nuclear weapons program, however, because the agency had not unearthed evidence of other key facilities that would be needed for such an effort, in particular a plant to fabricate fuel for the reactor and one to extract weapons-usable plutonium from its spent nuclear fuel. Nonetheless, the CIA acknowledged that the reactor was not suited for the production of electricity or for nuclear research, leaving little room for doubt that the unit was intended to produce plutonium for nuclear arms. Although the location of the plant would strongly indicate that it was part of a secret Syrian nuclear weapons program, a recent story in the German weekly Der Spiegel, suggests another possibility: the article cites “intelligence documents” as indicating that the unit was in fact part of a multinational nuclear weapons effort led by Iran, in which Syria and North Korea were collaborating.[2] Both Syria and Iran are non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits such parties from developing and producing nuclear weapons.

What was particularly notable about this attack was what occurred afterward: the near total lack of international comment or criticism of Israel’s action. The lack of reaction contrasted starkly to the international outcry that followed Israel’s preventive strike in 1981 that destroyed Iraq’s Osiraq reactor. To be sure, foreign governments may have reserved comment because of the lack of information after the attack. The Israeli and U.S. governments imposed virtually total news blackouts immediately after the raid that held for seven months, and Syria was initially silent on the matter and then subsequently denied that the bombed target was a nuclear facility. Yet, the international silence continued even after the CIA on April 24, 2008, provided a 12-minute video and an extensive briefing that made a strong case that the target was a North Korean-built reactor designed for producing weapons-usable plutonium.

Was the international community tacitly condoning the 2007 Israeli raid even though it appeared that the Syrian reactor did not pose an imminent threat to Israel, the sole justification under international law for the anticipatory use of military force?[3] Were foreign governments, cognizant that the UN Security Council had been unable to halt Iran’s continuing development of previously undeclared sensitive nuclear facilities, tacitly endorsing Israel’s decision not to invoke the diplomatic tools at its disposal, such as demanding an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) investigation of the site, another traditional prerequisite to the anticipatory use of force?

With the case still unfolding, it is premature to draw firm conclusions about its meaning for the future of global nonproliferation efforts, but two issues will bear close watching. Has confidence in the enforcement of nonproliferation norms eroded to the point that the international community is prepared to accept more readily than in the past the preventive use of force to suppress suspected nuclear weapons programs in certain narrowly defined cases? If so, what does this augur for the future use of military force to arrest Iran’s weapons-relevant nuclear activities?

Contrasting Reactions: Osiraq versus al-Kibar

On June 7, 1981, minutes before sunset, eight Israeli F-16 jet fighters in a surprise raid dropped 16 tons of high explosives on the French-supplied, nearly completed Osiraq research nuclear reactor in Tuwaitha, Iraq’s main nuclear center, some 26 kilometers southeast of Baghdad. Two days later, in a dramatic press conference in Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin took full responsibility for the operation, praised its execution as extraordinary, and justified it both on moral and legal grounds. Begin referred to the strike as an act of “anticipatory self-defense at its best.”[4]

The message that Begin conveyed was that the raid on Osiraq was not a one-time operation but rather a long-term national commitment. He ended his press conference with these dramatic words:

We chose this moment: now, not later, because later may be too late, perhaps forever. And if we stood by idly, two, three years, at the most four years, and Saddam Hussein would have produced his three, four, five bombs.… Then, this country and this people would have been lost, after the Holocaust. Another Holocaust would have happened in the history of the Jewish people. Never again, never again! Tell so your friends, tell anyone you meet, we shall defend our people with all the means at our disposal. We shall not allow any enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction turned against us.[5]

A few days later, in a CBS News television interview, Begin reiterated this doctrinal point: “This attack will be a precedent for every future government in Israel.… [E]very future Israeli prime minister will act, in similar circumstances, in the same way.”[6]

The international community did not share Begin’s view. On the contrary, the Israeli raid against a declared nuclear facility belonging to an NPT signatory state in good standing met with near-universal condemnation. Within two days, the surprised Reagan White House suspended the delivery of F-16 warplanes to Israel (the suspension was cancelled two months later).[7]

If the U.S. reaction, especially in Congress, was somewhat ambivalent, the worldwide reaction from Moscow to Paris was blunt and strongly disapproving. In the UN Security Council, after a week marked by some 40 speeches all fiercely critical of Israel’s action, a tough seven-point resolution, which “strongly condemned” Israel for the strike against Osiraq, was unanimously approved.[8] The resolution characterized the Israeli action as a “clear violation of the UN charter and the norms of international conduct” and admonished Israel to refrain in the future from similar actions. Defending the right of Iraq to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, the resolution urged Israel to accept IAEA inspections on all its nuclear facilities (a step that would force Israel to eliminate its widely assumed nuclear arsenal) and concluded by recognizing Iraq’s right to “appropriate redress.”

The IAEA Board of Governors was equally condemnatory, repeating the Security Council demand that Israel place its nuclear facilities under agency safeguards and warning that Israel might be expelled from the agency if it declined to do so. Finally, on November 10, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution harshly critical of the Israeli attack on Osiraq, with 109 states voting in favor, 34 states abstaining, and only Israel and the United States voting against the measure.

More than a quarter century later, however, after Israel’s similar raid on the al-Kibar reactor, the international repercussions were strikingly different. This time, Israel said nothing after the attack and imposed a tight and unprecedented news blackout on the Israeli press regarding the episode. The Bush administration, which apparently consulted with Israel on its concerns about the site before the attack, was also mute and ordered U.S. officials not to discuss the matter. Although several articles in the U.S. media reported that the Syrian installation was a nuclear facility of some kind, there was no official confirmation of such speculation in Jerusalem or Washington until the CIA release of information in April 2008.[9]

Syria said very little as well. Initially, Syria complained only that Israeli aircraft had violated its airspace and dropped some explosive charges in a remote, desolate area, but Damascus went no further.[10] Two weeks later, Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed in an interview with the BBC that a Syrian military facility under construction was attacked by Israel but provided no details.[11] At the time, Syria (with North Korean help, according to the CIA) was razing the remnants of the al-Kibar facility, in an apparent effort to remove any remaining evidence of the nature of the installation. Within weeks, a new facility was erected, covering the location of the former reactor.

In subsequent statements, Syrian officials categorically denied that the country was building a covert nuclear facility at the site of the Israeli attack.[12] In early June 2008, Syria agreed to an inspection of the site by an IAEA team, to be dispatched later in the month. With Syria having razed the remnants of the facility and built a new structure in its place, it was not clear whether IAEA inspectors would be able to confirm that the site originally housed a reactor. Nor was it clear whether Damascus would grant IAEA monitors access to other undeclared sites that might house the still unidentified fuel fabrication and reprocessing plants that would be needed for a nuclear weapons program.

In a stunning contrast with developments in 1981, no Arab government commented on the Israeli raid, much less pressed for retaliation against Israel, diplomatic or otherwise. The Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly characterized the state of affairs as the “synchronized silence of the Arab world.”[13] The restraint may have reflected the fact that many Arab governments were not displeased that a possible clandestine Syrian nuclear weapons effort had been dealt a serious setback. Iran, Syria’s closest ally, also remained largely silent on the issue (possibly to avoid calling attention to itself, if it was, indeed, helping to build the facility). Surprisingly, given that virtually nothing was known publicly about al-Kibar at the time, North Korea strongly condemned the Israeli attack, the only state to do so.[14] Some in the Western press took this as evidence that North Korean nationals were involved in the project and may have been injured in the Israeli attack.[15]

Similarly, the matter was not brought up for debate at the UN Security Council. Nor did the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, which deals with disarmament and international security, address the attack and Syria’s possible violation of its NPT pledges at its meetings, held from October 8 to November 2, 2007.

Perhaps more importantly, this pattern of silence continued after the CIA video and briefings were published on April 24, 2008, which disclosed that Israel had attacked what the U.S. intelligence agency alleged was a Syrian nuclear reactor in a preventive strike. To be sure, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei issued a disapproving statement on April 25. The statement deplored the fact that the United States and Israel had not provided information to the IAEA “in a timely manner, in accordance with the agency’s responsibilities under the [NPT] to enable it to verify its veracity and establish the facts.” It went on to declare that “the director general views the unilateral use of force by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the nonproliferation regime.”[16] Although expressing concern about the impact of the Israeli strike on the NPT and the IAEA, ElBaradei’s statement did not directly challenge Israel’s exercise of a right to anticipatory self-defense in this case, in sharp contrast to the findings in 1981 of the UN Security Council, the General Assembly, and the IAEA Board of Governors regarding the Osiraq raid.

Indeed, the Security Council, the body that in 1981 had unanimously condemned Israel’s raid as contrary to the UN Charter and “to norms of international conduct,” had an obvious opportunity to debate the matter at its meeting on April 25. At that session, it addressed a major nonproliferation issue, whether to extend the mandate of the council’s committee to oversee implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540. The resolution calls on all UN member states to establish domestic controls and adopt legislation to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Yet, according to the official summary of the debate on the matter, neither the Israeli attack nor Syria’s secret nuclear activities was mentioned.[17]

The Israeli attack also was not criticized at recent international meetings held in Geneva from April 28 to May 9 to prepare for the 2010 NPT Review Conference.[18] Presumably to avoid calling attention to its own alleged misconduct, even Syria did not raise a complaint about Israel’s airstrike in its official statement to the forum but focused instead on the traditional Arab state criticism of Israel for blocking the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East and of the nuclear-weapon states for not making better progress toward disarmament.[19] A number of other Arab states also called for universal adherence to the NPT, the indirect language commonly used to press Israel to renounce its nuclear weapons and join the pact, but again these familiar calls were made without reference to the September 6 airstrike.[20] The United States and Canada complained openly about North Korea assistance to Syria and to Syria’s noncompliance with its obligations under the NPT and under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Both states not only declined to criticize Israel, but they did not even mention that Israel had attacked the site.[21]

At the recent meeting of IAEA Board of Governors in early June, ElBaradei declared in his opening remarks, “It is deeply regrettable that information concerning this installation was not provided to the Agency in a timely manner and that force was resorted to unilaterally before the Agency was given an opportunity to establish the facts, in accordance with its responsibilities under the NPT and Syria’s Safeguards Agreement.” He went on to stress, however, that “Syria, like all States with comprehensive safeguards agreements, has an obligation to report the planning and construction of any nuclear facility to the Agency. We are therefore treating this information with the seriousness it deserves,” noting that an IAEA inspection team would visit Syria June 22-24, 2008.[22] Nonetheless, the IAEA’s official summary of the meeting does not indicate that the matter was further debated, a silence on the matter that at least one official present confirmed.[23]

Bush Doctrine

Adding to the difficulties of understanding the implications of this case is the Bush doctrine, articulated in the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy.[24] The traditionally accepted justification for the use of force in the absence of actual aggression was established in 1837 in a U.S.-British controversy known as the Caroline case, which permitted a state to use appropriate military force when not under attack only in case of necessity, “where the attack was imminent and only forcible action could forestall such attack.”[25]

The Bush doctrine sought to expand this definition to justify pre-emptive military action. Highlighting the catastrophic destructive potential of weapons of mass destruction, the readiness of international terrorist groups and isolated leaders of anti-status quo states to use them, and the ease of concealing such weapons, the doctrine declared that “[t]he greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”[26]

Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice expanded on the new doctrine in an address shortly after the release of the National Security Strategy.

The National Security Strategy does not overturn five decades of doctrine and jettison either containment or deterrence. These strategic concepts can and will continue to be employed where appropriate. But some threats are so potentially catastrophic—and can arrive with so little warning, by means that are untraceable—that they cannot be contained. Extremists who seem to view suicide as a sacrament are unlikely to ever be deterred. And new technology requires new thinking about when a threat actually becomes “imminent.” So as a matter of common sense, the United States must be prepared to take action, when necessary, before threats have fully materialized.

But this approach must be treated with great caution. The number of cases in which it might be justified will always be small. It does not give a green light—to the United States or any other nation—to act first without exhausting other means, including diplomacy. Preemptive action does not come at the beginning of a long chain of effort. The threat must be very grave. And the risks of waiting must far outweigh the risks of action.[27]

The National Security Strategy sparked immediate controversy, in part because it was articulated by the world’s sole superpower and by an administration with a reputation for acting unilaterally and seemingly eager to advance U.S. interests through the use of military force, particularly in the then-looming confrontation with Iraq.[28] The Bush doctrine misfired badly in Iraq, where the U.S.-led intervention was justified as essential to destroy Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs, which were later found not to exist. Nonetheless, the underlying rationale for modifying the norms governing anticipatory self-defense to confront nascent nuclear weapons programs has gained a degree of recognition within the U.S. policy community, even among some who have criticized the Bush administration for its assertive projection of U.S. military might.[29] Internationally, however, the doctrine has remained the target of strong criticism.[30]

Israel’s strike on al-Kibar in September 2007 was, in effect, a clear application of this internationally disfavored doctrine. Given that the al-Kibar reactor had not started to operate and, according to the CIA, Syria’s fuel fabrication and reprocessing facilities had not been discovered and might not yet have been completed, Syria was unquestionably some time away from producing fissile material for nuclear weapons and still further from producing the weapons themselves. Thus, few could argue that Israel met the traditional necessity/imminence standard in the case of the al-Kibar reactor strike. (The same would be true if the reactor was, in fact, part of an Iranian nuclear weapon program.) Moreover, Israel bypassed a key restraint enumerated by Rice, in that Israel did not exhaust or apparently ever initiate other diplomatic means for dealing with this threat. Yet, even then, the international community refrained from condemning the Israeli attack.

Explaining the Silence

What can account for this reaction, now that the major details of the episode have begun to emerge? One senior Middle Eastern diplomat, Egyptian Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, said at a June 2008 forum in Washington that governments in the region had refrained from commenting because so little authoritative information was originally provided officially by the governments involved. He added that the episode had also been overshadowed by other events in the region and that governments would be more likely to speak to the issue once the IAEA had completed its initial investigation of the incident. Yet, the reasons behind the international silence appear to be considerably more complex and could indicate a broader concern about the underlying weakness of the NPT regime.

Regional politics have certainly played a role. An isolated state with close ties to Iran, Syria is perceived as a disruptive influence in the region, even within the Arab community, making it a decidedly less sympathetic victim of Israeli pre-emption than Iraq in 1981. Also, the specific details of the al-Kibar case itself, coupled with the as yet ineffective efforts to enforce the NPT in the case of Iran, have undoubtedly influenced thinking in foreign capitals.

In contrast to the Osiraq reactor, which was openly purchased from France, declared, and subject to IAEA monitoring, the Syrian reactor was secretly built with North Korean aid, undeclared, deliberately concealed, and not subject to IAEA safeguards. These differences in themselves made the Syrian reactor, once revealed, immediately suspect and lent an element of credibility to Israel’s underlying concerns about the installation. The physical characteristics of the al-Kibar reactor reinforce these points. The Osiraq reactor was appropriately sized and designed for nuclear research; only by a complex scheme of emplacing and removing uranium targets around its core between IAEA inspections could it have been used to secretly produce plutonium for weapons. Al-Kibar, in contrast, was modeled on a reactor specifically designed to produce plutonium for nuclear arms, immediately creating an additional cause for suspicion and concern.

At the same time, Israel’s principal diplomatic option for eliminating the risk posed by the facility—seeking an IAEA investigation, possibly leading to UN Security Council action—hardly appeared promising. Israel has never placed trust in international organizations to guarantee its security, particularly in cases where its very existence may be at stake. Indeed, this is the philosophy behind the 1981 Begin doctrine. In recent years, as international nonproliferation enforcement efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program have escalated from IAEA demands to UN Security Council sanctions, Israel has grappled with the profound dilemma of deciding how long it can rely on these efforts before reverting to the Begin doctrine.

By the time of the al-Kibar raid, the Security Council had adopted two resolutions demanding that Iran cease its uranium-enrichment and plutonium-production-related activities and had imposed sanctions against Iran until it did so. Iran has defied these measures, however, as well as demands from the IAEA that it provide a full explanation of evidence that it conducted work on nuclear weapons at least through early 2004.[31] Meanwhile, Tehran significantly expanded its uranium-enrichment capabilities and indicated its intent to continue doing so, in effect bringing it ever closer to the ability to produce material for nuclear weapons. (On April 25, 2008, the council adopted a third sanctions resolution seeking to halt the sensitive elements of the Iranian nuclear program, Resolution 1803.)

Given this history, had Israel brought the matter to the IAEA, Israel would have had reason to fear that Syria would have followed the Iranian example: stalling for time, delaying inspections, removing evidence, asserting (however falsely) that the site was peaceful in nature, and claiming that it had disguised the unit in order to protect it from possible attack. Moreover, for Israel to have approached the agency might have required it to compromise intelligence about the al-Kibar site and would certainly have led Syria to heavily protect the facility, potentially constraining Israel’s option to destroy the reactor if IAEA inspections and other diplomatic measures failed to prevent its operation. Once it was operating, Israel would have been further constrained because destroying the facility could have created significant radiological fallout.

It probably would be an overstatement to interpret the international silence on the al-Kibar attack as constituting tacit endorsement that diplomatic mechanisms for enforcing the nonproliferation regime have proven ineffective and that threatened states have a right to preventively attack clandestine foreign nuclear facilities. Silence is a convenient, noncommittal reaction that avoids the need for a government to openly take sides in a potentially incendiary international controversy. Nonetheless, the persistence of the silence suggests that states are becoming increasingly concerned about the weakness of the nonproliferation regime in enforcing its norms and, therefore, cautiously more tolerant of an affected state using force preventively, beyond the classic rule limiting anticipatory self-defense to cases where a threat is imminent.[32]

Impact on Nonproliferation

If the international response was indeed an unspoken expression of anxiety about current regime enforcement mechanisms, the most important means to begin to restore confidence in the regime is for the IAEA and the Security Council to act decisively to address the Iranian nuclear program. In its most recent report, the IAEA appears to be intensifying its pressure on Tehran, but the Security Council seems incapable of decisive action because of Chinese and Russian reluctance to impose strong sanctions against Iran. The international response to the Israeli attack should be taken as a clear rebuke for their hesitancy.

After all, Iran pursued a clandestine uranium-enrichment program for some 18 years, with secret support from the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear smuggling network, behavior not unlike Syria’s pursuit of the al-Kibar project. Even after placing all of its known nuclear facilities under IAEA inspection, Tehran continues to bring new suspicions on the program. Since 2005, for example, Tehran has rescinded expanded authority it had previously granted the IAEA to conduct inspections on its territory. Moreover, according to U.S. intelligence estimates and documents now in the hands of the IAEA, Iran pursued work specifically on nuclear weapons at least through early 2004, including development of a nuclear warhead for its intermediate-range Shahab-3 missile. As recently reported by the IAEA, Iran has refused to acknowledge or explain this earlier work and has denied the agency the access necessary to confirm that Iran is not currently engaging in any nuclear weapons research or clandestine fissile material production activities.[33]

These are the principal underlying reasons the UN Security Council has demanded, inter alia, that Iran cease all enrichment activities. At the same time, the response to the Syria attack is far from a clear precedent implicitly endorsing the use of military force against the Iranian nuclear program. The cases are not identical. The council has imposed sanctions against Iran under Article 41 of the UN Charter, which excludes the use of military force to implement Security Council mandates. Thus, the al-Kibar strike, even if seen as tacitly expanding the right of preventive attacks against clandestine nuclear programs, can hardly be said to provide Israel or any other state with a green light for attacking threatening nuclear installations in Iran.

Moreover, from an operational military perspective, there is a huge difference between the ability (especially for Israel) to conduct a successful strike against a single, ground-level reactor in nearby Syria and the ability to destroy the dozen or so major nuclear weapons-relevant components of a much larger nuclear program in distant Iran, including Iran’s underground, heavily shielded enrichment facility at Natanz. These are two radically different military missions. Moreover, with allies in Iraq, southern Lebanon, and Gaza, as well as missiles able to reach Israel, Iran would have a wide range of retaliatory measures at its disposal. Thus even if international quiescence regarding the al-Kibar attack might provide a political opening for striking Iran, military realities would make this a very dangerous and daunting effort. Nonetheless, with the recent war of words between Iranian officials, threatening to “erase” Israel and declaring that it will soon disappear, and one potential Israeli candidate for prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, declaring that military strikes to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons looked “unavoidable,” this option cannot be ruled out.[34]

Although other senior Israeli officials criticized Mofaz’s declaration as reckless and driven by domestic considerations, only days before he spoke Israel carried out a major military exercise involving over 100 jet fighters and refueling tankers, apparently intended to rehearse the execution of long-range strikes. Some U.S. officials characterized the maneuvers as a warning to Iran.[35] Moreover, if the Der Spiegel report is accurate and Iran was the hidden hand behind al-Kibar, Israel’s attack against Iran’s nuclear weapon program may have already begun.

Finally, as analysts consider the lasting impact of the al-Kibar attack, some may criticize it as a challenge to the treaty- and inspection-based nonproliferation regime. Although it is still too early to predict the lasting normative legacy of the Israeli action on al-Kibar, the difference in international attitudes between 1981 (Osiraq) and 2007-2008 (al-Kibar and subsequent release of information about the attack) is unmistakable. One explanation may be that in the intervening years, the gross violations of nonproliferation regime compliance rules by Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—all NPT non-nuclear weapon state parties—have altered thinking regarding the legitimacy of unilateral preventive action, at least in cases of undeclared nuclear facilities that are apparently oriented towards the production of weapons.

There may also be a growing appreciation in the international community that military action can sometimes complement and reinforce the regime. Military modalities, such as alliances and security assurances, have traditionally played a supporting role in reducing the motivations of states to go nuclear, but it appears that since the first Gulf War there may be a increased recognition that, in some cases, military action or the threat of such action may also play a more direct role in halting violations of the regime compliance rules. This was the case in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which, with the subsequent work of the UN Special Commission, eliminated Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs; with the threat of military intervention against North Korea in the early 1990s, which facilitated the freeze of Pyongyang’s plutonium program under the 1994 Agreed Framework; and with the enforcement of the inspection requirements in UN Security Council Resolution 687 in Iraq through the threat of invasion in 2002-2003.


Although many details about this incident are yet to be revealed, it is already evident that its reverberations challenging the efficacy of the classic nonproliferation regime and potentially expanding the rights of states to intervene against clandestine nuclear programs in their early stages appear inevitable. Effective investigations by the IAEA in Syria, perhaps unearthing still undiscovered clandestine facilities, and significantly intensified efforts by the agency and the Security Council in addressing the Iranian threat could do much to help restore the regime’s integrity and need to be urgently pursued.

Leonard S. Spector directs the Washington, D.C., office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and heads its new program on nonproliferation policy and law. Avner Cohen is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and author of Israel and the Bomb. Deborah Berman of the James Martin Center and Christopher Neu of the U.S. Institute of Peace provided research assistance and made substantive contributions to this article.

IAEA Inspects Alleged Al-Kibar Nuclear Facility Site

Peter Crail

A team of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors led by Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen carried out inspections at the site of the alleged al-Kibar nuclear facility June 22-24. As of the end of June, the outcome of the inspections was unclear.

Heinonen said June 26 that inspectors were able to take extensive samples at the site in search of traces of evidence and that Syria’s cooperation had been generally satisfactory, Reuters reported.

Saying the inquiry was off to “a good start,” Heinonen indicated that it would take time to evaluate the initial findings and that additional talks with Syrian officials were scheduled. He also hinted that further visits would be needed to resolve all issues.

The inspections were limited to the al-Kibar site although the United States apparently has other sites that it believes the agency should inspect to determine whether Syria had a secret nuclear program. The Washington Post reported May 29 that the United States provided the IAEA with information regarding at least three additional sites it suspects are associated with clandestine Syrian nuclear efforts.

Gregory Schulte, U.S. permanent representative to the IAEA, praised the June visit but warned Syria not to stand in the way of a full inquiry, Reuters reported.

“We call on Syria to fully cooperate with the IAEA and in no way hinder the investigation by refusing the IAEA unfettered access to any site or information needed for the investigation,” Schulte said in a statement e-mailed to the news agency.

Syria claims that the al-Kibar facility was not nuclear related.




1. “Background Briefing With Senior U.S. Officials on Syria’s Covert Nuclear Reactor and North Korea’s Involvement,” April 24, 2008, available at; Ronen Bergman and Ronen Solomon, “Al-Asad’s Atom Program,” Ye’diot Achronot, April 4, 2008.

2. “Syria Turning Toward the West?: Assad’s Risky Nuclear Game,” Spiegel Online News, June 23, 2008, available at and Ian Black, “Syria Planned to Supply Iran With Nuclear Fuel, Israel Says” The Guardian, June 25, 2008.

3. UN Charter, art. 51. For discussion of the scope of Article 51, see Ivo Daalder and James Steinberg, “The Future of Preemption,” The National Interest, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter 2005); Anthony Clark Arend, “International Law and the Preemptive Use of Military Force,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring 2003), pp. 89-103.

4. For the best Israeli narrative of the Osiraq raid, see Shlomo Nakdimon, First Strike: The Exclusive Story of How Israel Foiled Iraq’s Attempt to Get the Bomb (New York: Summit Book, 1987), pp. 230-233.

5. Ibid., p. 240. For a more expanded version in Hebrew, see Shlomo Nakdimon, Tamuz in Flames (Tel Aviv: Edanim, 1993).

6. “CBS News: An Interview with Prime Minister Menachem Begin,” Face the Nation, CBS June 15, 1981 (emphasis added). For the same commitment, in a slightly different wording, see Nakdimon, Tamuz in Flames, p. 384; Nakdimon, First Strike, p. 334.

7. Abraham Ben-Zvi, The United States and Israel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 131-136.

8. UN Security Council Resolution 487, June 19, 2001.

9. See for example Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, “Israeli Nuclear Suspicions Linked to Raid in Syria,” The New York Times, September 18, 2007; David E. Sanger and Mark Mazzetti, “Israel Struck Syrian Nuclear Project, Analysts Say,” The New York Times, October 14, 2007.

10. For a detailed review of contemporaneous Syrian and other international press and foreign official responses to the incident, see Richard Weitz, “Israeli Airstrike in Syria: International Reactions,” CNS Feature Story, November 1, 2007.

11. “Assad Sets Conference Conditions,” BBC, October 1, 2007.

12. Weitz, “Israeli Airstrike in Syria.”

13. Ibid.

14. Sanger and Mazzetti, “Israel Struck Syrian Nuclear Project, Analysts Say.”

15. “Report: Israeli Forces Seized Nuclear Material During Syrian Raid,” Sunday Times, September 23, 2007.

16. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “Statement by IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei,” 2008/06, April 25, 2008.

17. “Security Council Extends ‘1540 Committee’ for Three Years to Halt Proliferation of Mass Destruction Weapons, Encourages States to Map Out Implementation Plans,” SC/9310, April 25, 2008.

18. Oliver Meier, “NPT Meet Buoys Hopes for 2010 Conference,” Arms Control Today, June 2008, pp. 35-37.

19. In a sentence that undoubtedly raised diplomats’ eyebrows but did not elicit comment, the Syrian delegate also declared that “Syria reaffirms its continual commitment to its international obligations under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” “Statement of Dr. Faysal Hamoui, Second Preparatory Committee of the 2010 Review Conference of States Parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” April 29, 2008.

20. See “General Statement of Egypt to the Second Preparatory Committee of the 2010 NPT Review Conference,” April 28, 2008.

21. Christopher A. Ford, “Cluster Two – Nonproliferation: Facing Up to the Most Fundamental Challenge to the NPT,” Remarks at the 2nd Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, May 5, 2008. Statement by Colleen Swords Assistant Deputy Minister, International Security Branch and Political Director Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, 2008 NPT Preparatory Committee, April 28, 2008, Under Syria’s safeguards agreement, Damascus was obligated to declare any new facility to the agency “as soon as the decision to construct” or “authorize construction” of a new facility were taken. “Strengthening Agency Safeguards: The Provision and Use of Design Information,” April 1, 1992. GOV/2554/Att.2/Rev. 2.

22. “Introductory Statement to the Board of Governors by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei,” June 2008.

23. Western government official, conversation with authors, Washington, DC, June 2008.

24. “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” September 17, 2002, chap. 5.

25. Arend, “International Law and the Preemptive Use of Military Force.” See Lee Feinstein and Anne-Marie Slaughter, “A Duty to Prevent,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2004; Daalder and Steinberg, “The Future of Preemption.”

26. “National Security Strategy,” p. 15.

27. Condoleezza Rice, “A Balance of Power That Favors Freedom,” Wriston Lecture, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, October 1, 2002.

28. Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, “The Sources of American Legitimacy,” Foreign Affairs November/December 2004; Richard Falk, “The New Bush Doctrine,” The Nation, June 27, 2002; Roger Speed and Michael May, “Dangerous Doctrine,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2005.

29. See Daalder and Steinberg, “The Future of Preemption.”

30. In Israel, where the Bush doctrine was perceived as an official vindication of the thinking that led Israel to destroy Osiraq in 1981, there was a sense that the United States adopted the Begin doctrine to address new WMD threats. This assertion is based on numerous conversations with Israeli officials and former officials at the senior level. Israelis, of course, are aware of the practical and political differences in the respective application of this doctrine by Israel and the United States. For Israel, virtually any emergence of a nuclear threat in the region is viewed in existential terms. This is not necessarily the case for the United States.

31. IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions 1737 (2006) and 1747 (2007) in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” GOV/2008/4, February 22, 2008.

32. Israel apparently paved the way for this acquiescent response by sharing crucial evidence with a number of key states, in addition to the United States. Ronen Bergman and Ronen Solomon’s “Dangerous IAEA,” Ye’diot Achronot, June 20, 2008.

33. IAEA 2008 Iran implementation report. Like al-Kibar, it may be added, Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is difficult to justify as a peaceful effort, given the fact that the country has no reactors that use enriched uranium other than the Russian-supplied Bushehr nuclear power plant, for which Russia is also providing all the necessary fuel. See also National Intelligence Council, “National Intelligence Estimate - Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” November 2007, 9 pp.

34. “Iran FM Calls on Muslims to ‘Erase’ Israel,” Agence France-Presse, June 1, 2008; “Iran’s Ahmadinejad Says Israel Will Disappear,” Reuters, June 2, 2008; “Mofaz Criticised Over Iran Threat,” BBC, June 8, 2008.

35. Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Says Israeli Exercise Seemed Directed at Iran,” The New York Times, June 20, 2008.