"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020

The United States, Israel, and Iran: Defusing an “Existential” Threat

Chuck Freilich

Iran is an existential threat to Israel. This apocalyptic warning call has become a mantra continually repeated by virtually all Israeli leaders and defense officials and has been adopted by much of the U.S. national security establishment. President George W. Bush even warned that Iran’s declared intention of destroying Israel could lead to World War III.[1]

There is no doubt that Iran poses a severe threat to Israel, not only in the nuclear field, but what kind of danger does its nuclear program constitute? Is Israel’s future in imminent danger if Iran goes nuclear? The answer is probably not. Although somewhat reassuring, this response is less than satisfying.

First, the good news. It is difficult to imagine a practical scenario in which Iran would initiate the actual use of nuclear weapons against Israel. Iran has to take into account that Israel is reputed to be a nuclear power. Thus, any nuclear attack might result in a counterstrike and in a “Tel Aviv for Tehran” exchange or even a broader one. Iran certainly has a deep theological commitment to Israel’s destruction and has already proven its willingness to devote considerable resources in pursuit of this divine vision, but what price is Iran ultimately willing to pay? At what point does its cost-benefit calculus change? Would it accept thousands dead, tens of thousands? Probably. Hundreds of thousands, as it lost in the Iran-Iraq war? Maybe. Untold destruction?

Again, presumably not. As extreme as Iranian ideology is, Iran has pursued a largely “rational” policy over the years, in which its national interests have usually taken precedence over theological ones and which has generally adhered to a carefully calculated course. Iran has fundamental national security reasons, totally unrelated to Israel, for seeking a nuclear capability. Iran fears a future resurgence of Iraq, its traditional nemesis, and views the United States as the primary long-term threat to its security. It also lives in a highly unstable region in which two of its neighbors are already declared nuclear powers and many more are exploring nuclear capabilities. As aggressive as Iran’s stance toward Israel is, it genuinely fears Israel’s intentions, totally unwarranted as this may be, except in a reactive sense.

Now for the bad news. Iranian policy toward the United States and particularly Israel has been a partial exception to its generally rational strategic approach and is clearly heavily affected by nationalist and especially theological sentiment. Furthermore, Iranian rationality, at least that of the ruling mullahs, may simply be different than that of the West. When God is invoked, all bets are off. We cannot simply dismiss the possibility that the divine objective of destroying Israel is, somehow, worth the price, especially given the regime’s apocalyptic character. This is not to say that Iran is irrational when it comes to the United States and Israel, but there is certainly an element of doubt here that we cannot ignore.

An Iran emboldened by a nuclear capability will undoubtedly play a more influential, hegemonic role in the region. The unanswerable question, about which we cannot afford to be mistaken, is whether it will seek to throw its weight around and engage in potentially destructive behavior, even at the risk of devastation. As unlikely as an Iranian nuclear attack may be, there is simply no margin for error when national existence is at stake. Therefore, Israel has to take the Iranian threat deadly seriously and treat it as an existential threat, even if it most likely is not.

Furthermore, the greatest practical danger may lie not in an intentional Iranian use of nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, but in a variety of lesser scenarios. A renewed confrontation with Hezbollah seems only a matter of time, and one with Syria is quite possible. Either scenario may provide the setting for an unintended escalation that gets out of hand. Iran might threaten to use nuclear weapons to dictate the outcome of a future conflict of this sort or even as a means of affecting the Arab-Israeli peace process. Its nuclear umbrella might merely embolden Tehran to take harsher conventional measures or allow a regional ally to do so, for example, heightened terrorist or conventional missile attacks against Israel.
The danger of an Iranian transfer of nuclear weapons to Hezbollah or covert deployment of Iranian nuclear weapons in Lebanon also cannot be dismissed. Indeed, Iranian involvement in nuclear terrorism against Israel, directly or indirectly, with or without the knowledge of the Iranian leadership, may pose the greatest danger of all. The danger also exists of an Iranian nuclear capability falling into the hands of an even more extremist regime, if the current one is replaced, or of a loss of control over it in a scenario of internal chaos.

Finally, a nuclear Iran is viewed by its Sunni neighbors as a severe threat and has already led many of them, including Egypt, Jordan, some Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, to begin pursuing “civil” nuclear programs of their own. Civil programs have this nasty tendency to morph into military ones. The prospect of a multinational nuclear Middle East is a nightmare scenario, which makes the complexity of the U.S.-Soviet confrontation pale in comparison. An Israeli-Iranian balance of terror may possibly be feasible, but what about one in which multiple adversarial actors are involved?

The Options

U.S.-Iranian Engagement

What can be done to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon? Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns recently participated in negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue. Others have floated the idea of establishing an interests section in Tehran. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama speaks of engagement as a necessity. On all sides—the United States, Europe, and Israel—the preference for a diplomatic solution is manifest.

In the past, Israel appears to have feared that a U.S.-Iranian dialogue would lead to appeasement and a slippery slope in which Israeli interests would be harmed. The European example of endless dialogue, what the European Union first termed a “critical dialogue,” then a “constructive” one, and which may ultimately become a “perpetual” one (my term), looms large. Even the change for the better in the European approach, starting around 2003, is beginning to look like more of the same: diplomats who become so infatuated with dialogue that they forget that talks must ultimately lead to a practical outcome, not become an end in themselves. Many U.S. critics of the engagement approach fully share these concerns.

Today, too, Israel’s immediate response to a U.S.-Iranian dialogue might be one of alarm, even a fear of abandonment in the face of a possible existential threat. After further reflection, however, Israeli officials might actually support such an effort, not out of belief in its efficacy, although it would be nice to be proven wrong, but as an essential way station on the route to stronger measures. Indeed, given the overwhelming importance Israel attaches to ending the Iranian nuclear threat, it would likely welcome virtually any agreement that put an end to it or at least to Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, even at the expense of its other concerns in regard to Iran (e.g., support for terrorism). The terms of reference set for such a dialogue would clearly have an important impact on Israel’s approach to the issue and confidence in its outcome.

In exchange for an end to Iran’s military nuclear program, Israel would presumably support the concept of a grand bargain, a broad set of incentives, such as rapprochement with the United States, a U.S. commitment to forgo regime change and provide security guarantees, end sanctions, and enable Iran’s integration into the world economy. Both the United States and Israel would clearly prefer an agreement that provides for complete cessation of all nuclear activity in Iran, at least of fuel cycle-related activity, although what precisely this means is a complex technical issue and they may have to accede to some limited, fully safeguarded, civil program. Israel’s only demands would likely be Iranian agreement to suspend all enrichment activity for the duration of the dialogue and establishment of clear benchmarks, with a deadline for assessing the outcome of the dialogue. Many if not most U.S. supporters of engagement favor these same conditions. Given the short timeline until Iran has the capacity to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon—early 2010 and even sometime in 2009 in the current worst-case analyses—the importance of these conditions is greater than ever.[2]

Iran will probably reject the offer, as it has all others, but we will only know if the attempt is made fully, explicitly, and wholeheartedly. U.S. hard-liners on Iran in particular should support a policy of engagement. The exigencies of realpolitik are such that, if Obama wins or possibly if his opponent, John McCain, does, the United States will only be able to pursue severe measures, let alone future military action, if it proves to domestic and world opinion that it has exhausted all other options.

In any event, engagement must be conducted from a position of strength. Just as a policy of sticks with no carrots is doomed to failure, the opposite is true as well. Iran must be made to clearly understand the consequences of a failure to reach terms, and the timeline is short.


To date, Iran has shown no inclination to reach a negotiated end to its nuclear program, and Western inducements to do so have only heightened its bellicosity. Indeed, under its radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and more importantly its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who is the real source of power, Iran seems to welcome gratuitous tension with the international community. Until now, however, its defiance has been cheap. Western rhetoric aside, Iran has not been called on to pay much of a price and has not been faced with the need to make difficult choices. It has truly been a case of eating one’s (yellow) cake and having it too.

Given the strategic importance Iran attaches to its nuclear program, it is highly questionable whether any combination of inducements, positive and negative, will be sufficient to engender a change in its policy. We will only know, however, if the attempt is made. Iran is a proud and ancient civilization, with a sense of its own unique place in history, affronted by the temerity of a 232-year-old “new kid on the block” attempting to dictate policy to it. Nonetheless, Iran does not want to be the subject of severe international opprobrium or an international pariah. Even the highly limited steps taken thus far by the UN Security Council generated something of an internal debate in Iran.[3]

Iran is likely to demonstrate flexibility, if at all, only in the face of imminent and severe measures. Pinprick sanctions in the Security Council will not do the trick. Iran will only get serious when the international community does.

Iran must be convinced that a failure to cut a deal will lead to truly painful sanctions, even at this time of tight oil markets. A leading oil exporter, Iran imports 40 percent of its refined gasoline products. If the West banned these sales, its economy could be brought to its knees.

Some fear that Iran could respond to such a threat by cutting off its oil exports. Oil exports make up 80 percent of Iran’s state budget. Without such funds, its economy would be devastated, and this would be tantamount to cutting off its nose to spite its face. The far-greater “stick” is thus in the hands of the West, even if the price of oil would rise again significantly.

Similarly, Iran’s domestic automotive industry is highly dependent on foreign components and could be rapidly shut down. Many other measures remain to be applied, as the United States has successfully demonstrated in recent months through pressure on international banks.

Russia is the key to sanctions in the Security Council. If Russia can be convinced to support effective sanctions, it is difficult to imagine that China will remain the odd man out among the permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council. For years, Russia has professed to view a nuclear Iran as a threat to its security and to oppose this eventuality. If taken as genuine, and there is no reason to doubt this, then a common basis does exist for a joint approach. Israel’s dialogue with Russia on the topic, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent visit to Moscow, appear to have contributed to some caution on Russia’s part, but only the United States may be able to affect a change in Russia’s policy. Achieving this, however, would require a major change in the U.S. approach to issues of fundamental concern to Russia, such as NATO expansion and deployment of the anti-missile system in Europe. These may be important objectives, but it is arguable whether NATO expansion is essential at this time. Bargaining away an anti-missile system designed to prevent an Iranian attack against Europe, which is almost unimaginable to begin with, in exchange for Russian cooperation in preventing the emergence of the very threat the system is designed to foil, also appears worthy of consideration. Indeed, the “grand bargain” needed may not be just between the United States and Iran, but between the United States and Russia.

Even before recent events in Georgia and the subsequent deterioration in Western relations with Russia, the prospects of the Security Council being the source of relief were meager at best. Short of quasi-military and direct military action, the only realistic hope for a change in Iranian policy is through severe extra-UN multilateral sanctions. Here, too, the prospects are limited. To date, U.S. allies and friends, including the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), have not shown much willingness to take the necessary measures. To this end, it may be necessary for the next president to make it clear that if cooperation is not forthcoming, the United States will be left with little choice but to go it alone, with all of the attendant consequences. The fear of a replay of U.S. unilateralism, such as in Iraq in 2003, may be enough finally to get the Europeans and other allies on board for serious sanctions and ultimately even a naval blockade.

Naval Blockade

Should the sanctions fail, a further ratcheting up of the pressure on Iran, short of actual military attack, could take the form of a naval blockade, preferably multilateral but unilateral if necessary. The blockade could be comprehensive from the outset or graduated (e.g., initially limited to Iranian imports of refined petroleum and then expanding over time). A partial air and ground blockade might also be feasible. Only if this, too, failed, would there be a need to consider direct military action.

Some will oppose the option of a unilateral naval blockade on the grounds that it would constitute a violation of international law and even an act of war. So be it. Illegal development of nuclear weapons also constitutes a violation of international law, as does dealing a killer blow to the international nonproliferation regime and repeatedly threatening the annihilation of a fellow member state of the United Nations. The issue is not one of niceties or international norms, but of the cold world of realpolitik. A naval blockade may be the only way of ending the Iranian threat without having to resort to direct military action.

For the economic reasons argued above, Iran would be extremely vulnerable to a blockade, and the prospects of its acquiescence to international demands are high. For the reasons argued in the next section, its military response can be expected to be quite limited. Iran talks a very good and scary game, but its behavior is far more cautious; even more importantly, its actual ability to respond significantly would most likely be very limited. Those who truly wish to deal with the problem but are wary of direct military action should give careful consideration to the blockade option.

Military Attack

In recent months, there has been extensive media speculation regarding Israeli preparations for a military strike against Iran, as well as dramatically overblown assessments of the disastrous consequences of military action, whether Israeli or U.S. Only one thing is clear: Regardless of who actually conducts a strike, Iran will hold both responsible.

The operational objectives of a military strike would be to set the Iranian program back by a few years, convince Iran that attempts to reconstitute it would result in renewed attacks and thus be futile, and make use of the time gained in order to promote an effective international regime that would make reconstitution harder, should Iran choose to do so. Preventing the program’s reconstitution would also require the capability and determination to conduct repeated attacks over the course of years and to withstand the ensuing military and political backlash. Hopefully—but no more than hopefully—a more moderate regime might emerge in the interim, whose very character would diminish the threat and which might possibly even be persuaded to dismantle the program. Of course, the opposite could occur too and may be more likely.

There is little doubt that Iran will respond to a direct attack or even a naval blockade, but its options, heated rhetoric notwithstanding, are actually limited. What can it truly do? Attack U.S. ships, block the Persian Gulf? Maybe a pinprick to make it look good at home, but beyond that, the risks of escalation and the costs to Iran’s economy are probably too great. Iran is extremist but most evidence to date indicates that it is not irrational. It may very well cause the United States greater difficulty in Iraq, a serious problem at a time when trends there have finally taken a turn for the better, and increased levels of terrorism can be expected against U.S. and Western targets. It is highly unlikely, however, that Iran would be willing to go beyond limited actions and risk direct military escalation with the United States, and it too has an interest in preserving the emerging order in Iraq. Moreover, U.S. preparations can greatly reduce, although not eliminate, the dangers of Iran’s potential responses.

Oil prices will rise, and Iran could add to the crisis by cutting output, but anything beyond temporary measures would be self-defeating. There will be a strong public reaction in the Muslim world, although Arab regimes will be quietly relieved to be free of a nuclear Iran. If the United States plays out the diplomatic route first, international reaction will be comparatively muted.

Iran is far more likely to respond against Israel, even if the attack is clearly American. Indeed, it can be expected to open up with everything it and its Hezbollah and Hamas allies have, including large-scale terrorism, rocket attacks blanketing Israel, and ballistic missiles. Israel will pay a heavy price, and there is a significant danger of confrontation with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and even Syria, possibly all at once. Relations with Egypt and Jordan will suffer a serious blow. This is a price Israel should be willing to pay. Whether the price the United States will have to pay is also justified is a strategic and normative judgment call, to be weighed against the dangers of a nuclear Iran.

The real issue regarding military action is the anticipated operational outcome. Iran has dispersed and hardened its nuclear sites and may have a parallel covert program. Thus, even a fully “successful” strike would only destroy the known program; and Iran, having largely mastered the technology, might be able to reconstitute it in a comparatively short time. Clearly, U.S. operational capabilities far exceed Israel’s, especially if repeated attacks are required, but the crucial factor is time. Given Iran’s anticipated responses, as well as the fact that they would presumably be far less reticent about hiding their nuclear efforts after an attack, how long a delay in the nuclear program makes an attack worthwhile? Two to three years? No. Five or more? Probably yes.

Regime Change

Even if one believes that regime change is feasible, it will apparently happen only well after Iran has gone nuclear. To date there is little if any evidence to indicate that regime change is in the offing in the next few years, whereas a nuclear capability is highly likely. Moreover, there are no assurances that the next regime will be any better than the current one. Most of all, simply no one seems to know how to do it. The option has been roundly explored ever since 1979. Israel, in any event, would be foolish to pin its hopes on this possibility.

Living With a Nuclear Iran

Coming to terms with Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power is a further possibility, albeit one that no one in Israel wishes even to contemplate but that may become a necessity if all other measures fail. The primary options in this regard are U.S. or multilateral security guarantees for Israel or all nations in the region facing a similar threat and a change in Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. The ramifications of these and other options for U.S. and Israeli policy have been analyzed in detail elsewhere but are briefly presented here.[4]

Option 1: Unilateral U.S. deterrence of Iran.
A clear U.S. declaratory policy, stating that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against any state in the region, or Israel specifically, would be viewed as a threat against the United States itself and would result in a devastating response. Unless Iran is irrational or a severe miscalculation is made, the combined effect of U.S. “extended” deterrence, when added to Israel’s own strategic capabilities, should provide a good response to the threat. Israel may be unwilling to suffice with a deterrent posture, however, when the price of error is existential. The possibility that otherwise “unacceptable” consequences might be tolerable for Iran’s theological and apocalyptical regime is at the heart of the problem. Moreover, in practical terms, most countries in the region, Iran included, already believe that Israel enjoys a de-facto U.S. security guarantee. It is thus not clear that a further expression of this will alter their strategic calculus.

Option 2: U.S.-Israeli defense agreements.
Extended U.S. deterrence might be further strengthened by a bilateral defense agreement, whether an overall commitment to Israel’s security or one more narrowly focused on nuclear, chemical, or biological threats. Assuming U.S. willingness to provide a formal commitment of this sort, something it has done exceedingly sparingly since the 1960s and thus a big assumption, Iran would know that it faced a contractual U.S. commitment to its “assured destruction” above and beyond Israel’s own capabilities. For reasons deeply entrenched in Israel’s national security thinking, however, it is unlikely that it would be willing to base its existence on a security guarantee, even with the United States, unless all other possible options had been exhausted.

Option 3: A multilateral guarantee, for example, with NATO.
If Israel might be hesitant to place its fate in a bilateral security agreement with the United States, it would certainly be loath to do so with a multilateral alliance, not all of whose members are very favorably disposed to it. The protracted NATO decision-making process would probably make this a moot point for Israel in any event.

Option 4: A regional security system.
This would entail a system in which the United States provides security guarantees to countries in the region. For the United States and Israel, this would have the benefit of adding a stabilizing element to the region as a whole and of alleviating Arab anger over what would otherwise be a one-sided commitment to Israel. The very breadth of the arrangement, however, is also its primary drawback. It is doubtful that many of the countries in the region would join an arrangement in which Israel was a part and that would presumably include a demand that they forgo their weapons of mass destruction programs. Israel has made it clear that it will only consider limiting its own strategic capabilities if this applies to all potential adversaries in the broader region and in the context of a regional peace settlement.

Option 5: Changes in Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. It is commonly assumed that Israel is a nuclear power and that the United States is willing to accept this as long as Israel maintains its “ambiguous” status. The emergence of an Iranian nuclear capability, declared or assumed, might provide the United States and Israel with a diplomatically conducive pretext for changing their approach. Removing any lingering doubts, especially if it was thought that Israel had a guaranteed second-strike capability, would presumably add some measure of clarity and thus of deterrence. In point of fact, however, Iran must take into account that Israel is thought to already possess a nuclear arsenal and thus the added utility would appear to be marginal. Moreover, an end to Israeli ambiguity might further spur Arab nuclear development programs. The question that the United States and Israel would have to address would be whether the marginal increase in deterrent value, in itself or as part of a broader package, would justify the costs.


Sixty years after the Holocaust, Iran’s repeated threats to wipe Israel off the face of the earth are unconscionable, not just for Israel but for people of good will everywhere. To an extent, it is a moot point whether or not the Iranian nuclear capability poses an existential threat to Israel. If just one Iranian nuclear bomb hit Tel Aviv, resulting in “only” a few hundred thousand deaths, Israel as we know it would cease to exist. True, the national population today numbers close to seven million; but the economic and intellectual heart of the nation, its driving spirit, would be extinguished, national collapse would follow, the blow irreversible. One may debate the prospects of this scenario ever materializing. Indeed, this author belongs to those who believe that Iran is fundamentally rational and thus deterrable. Nevertheless, no one in a position of authority, certainly in Israel but abroad as well, has the luxury of dismissing the severity of the threat and treating it as anything less than potentially dire.

The precise timeline until the first Iranian nuclear weapon exists, as well as a more mature arsenal, is not known. Time, however, is truly of the essence, the critical factor for virtually all of the options. We may simply not have the time to play out the graduated process described in this article. As things stand today, we have something on the order of a year in the worst-case scenario, a few years at best. One way or the other, it appears increasingly likely that the moment of truth will come about during the next president’s first term, possibly early on. Very tough decisions will have to be made in Washington and Jerusalem, some of them jointly, if neither side is to be presented with highly unwanted fait accompli.
At this point, conditional but all-out engagement, limited in time and closely combined with stringent multilateral sanctions, rapidly followed by a naval blockade, appear to hold the best prospects for success at an acceptable cost, possibly even without bloodshed. Hopefully, further measures will not be required down the line. In any event, let us not engage in unwarranted, self-deterring risk aversion. Iran at least has a good appreciation of the true balance of power and for power politics. ACT

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Schusterman fellow.

Updated online November 5, 2008.


1. “[W]e got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Press Conference by the President,” October 17, 2007.
2. Barak Ravid, “MI: West Won’t Halt Iran Nuke Program,” haaretz.com, October 27, 2008. Barak Ravid, “Sarkozy Views Obama Stance on Iran as ‘Utterly Immature’,” haaretz.com, October 28, 2008.
3. See, for example, Michael Jacobson, “Sanctions Against Iran: A Promising Struggle,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Summer 2008), pp. 69-88. Nazila Fathi, “Debate Grows in Iran Over Nuclear Program,” The New York Times, January 23, 2007; “Iranian Press Abuzz Over Nuclear Standoff,” BBC News, September 19, 2004.
4. See Chuck Freilich, “Speaking About the Unspeakable: The U.S.-Israeli Dialogue on the Iranian Nuclear Program,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 2007.

Iran is an existential threat to Israel. This apocalyptic warning call has become a mantra continually repeated by virtually all Israeli leaders and defense officials and has been adopted by much of the U.S. national security establishment. President George W. Bush even warned that Iran’s declared intention of destroying Israel could lead to World War III. (Continue)

Israel: Hezbollah Violating Arms Embargo

Meredith Lugo

In the wake of Israeli claims that the militant group Hezbollah is smuggling weapons into southern Lebanon in an attempt to illegally rearm, the UN Security Council Aug. 27 unanimously extended the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The extension comes on the heels of a UN report detailing lax border security in Lebanon.

During the Security Council meeting, Israeli ambassador Daniel Carmon stated that the “continuing transport of weapons” from Iran and Syria into Lebanon was in violation of Security Council resolutions. Lebanese representative Nawaf Salam affirmed the importance of the UN report but pointed to Israel’s refusal to aid or participate in the UN and Lebanese effort to disarm cluster munitions Israel dropped during the 2006 conflict between Lebanon and Hezbollah. (See ACT, October 2006.)

UNIFIL has been deployed in Lebanon since 1978, and its current mandate includes the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which was passed in August 2006 to end that summer’s conflict. The resolution prohibits any armed militias from operating or smuggling weapons within Lebanon and specifically calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah. It also calls on Israel to provide maps of submunitions used in Lebanon.

Israel maintains that Hezbollah never fully disarmed after the 2006 hostilities. In a June 5 press release, the Israeli Foreign Ministry claimed that Hezbollah is focusing on “rebuilding its military infrastructure” and constructing a “new rocket arsenal.” Israel says that the group is using the “period of calm” to gain strength without UNIFIL or Israeli interference, has armed itself beyond the 20,000 rockets it had at the beginning of the 2006 conflict, and has sent militants to Iran for training.

An Israeli official told Arms Control Today Sept. 26 that Hezbollah has been arming itself “on a constant basis” for the last two years and estimated that Hezbollah has acquired about 42,000 short-, medium-, and long-range missiles. The official said that Iran and Syria manufactured the weapons and transported them mainly through land border crossings between Lebanon and Syria.

The UN border security report, submitted Aug. 25 to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by an independent task force, stated that no arms smuggling had been detected through seaports, airports, or land border crossings. The report was emphatic, however, in its calls for improvement in border security. Stating that Lebanese border control officials lacked necessary equipment, procedures, and coordination among various agencies, the report concluded that the “overall situation renders Lebanon’s borders as penetrable as they were one year ago.”

The Israeli official indicated that lack of detection of smuggling was mainly due to ineffective border monitoring. “The deployment of the Lebanese army is not effective,” the official said. “If [Hezbollah has] 42,000 missiles, they had to get them somewhere. That is the proof.”

Major General Claudio Graziano of Italy, the UNIFIL commander, claimed at an Aug. 14 press conference that the UN mission to Lebanon is succeeding. A June 27 UN report on the implementation of Resolution 1701 stated that UNIFIL has found “no evidence of a new military infrastructure” but acknowledged that past violence against Israel and UNIFIL has “demonstrated that there are unauthorized arms and hostile groups prepared to use them.” The report notes that UNIFIL and Lebanese troops found 92 banned items in the UN-controlled area south of the LitaniRiver, including arms, ammunition, explosive devices, and two rockets. There was no indication that any of these arms had been used recently, and the report concluded that the equipment dated back to the 2006 conflict or earlier. Ban has reiterated several times that he believes the disarmament of Hezbollah should be conducted “through [a] Lebanese-led political process” and not forcefully by UNIFIL troops.

An earlier report from the secretary-general, dated February 2008, stated that Hezbollah “has not challenged allegations regarding the development of military facilities…and has publicly announced that it will use its arsenal against Israel if provoked.” More recently, the Associated Press reported that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah remarked in a televised speech Aug. 14 that keeping its arsenal “secret” is part of Hezbollah’s battle against Israel.

At the Aug. 27 Security Council meeting, Salam echoed previous calls from Ban for Israeli cooperation with efforts to clear land contaminated by cluster munitions dropped by Israel during the 2006 war. The United Nations and Lebanon have asked Israel to provide information on the number and location of cluster munitions deployed during the 34-day conflict. Between August 2006 and the middle of July 2008, the UN reports that 27 civilians were killed by cluster munitions, and 231 were injured. By late June 2008, 984 contaminated locations had been identified. The Israeli official told Arms Control Today that Israel had disclosed the necessary information to the UN.

In the wake of Israeli claims that the militant group Hezbollah is smuggling weapons into southern Lebanon in an attempt to illegally rearm, the UN Security Council Aug. 27 unanimously extended the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The extension comes on the heels of a UN report detailing lax border security in Lebanon. (Continue)

The Middle East and Nonproliferation: An Interview with Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s Ambassador to the United States

Interviewed by Peter Crail and Miles A. Pomper

Ambassador Nabil Fahmy has served in Egypt's Foreign Ministry for 30 years and has focused particularly on disarmament and regional security issues. Most recently, he acted as Cairo's ambassador to Washington from October 1999 to August 2008. On July 21, Arms Control Today spoke with Ambassador Fahmy on a variety of issues, including Egypt's perspective on the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, and concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program.

ACT: We recently marked the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT]. Many have characterized the treaty as under stress from a variety of factors. As someone who has worked for many years on arms control issues, what is your opinion of the state of the NPT, and what should be done to address the challenges it faces?

Fahmy: To say that the NPT is under stress is an understatement. If you read the preamble to the NPT, it talks about trying to achieve nuclear disarmament and ultimately working toward general and complete disarmament. Forty years later, we actually have more nuclear-weapon states than we had at the beginning,[1] and you continue to have nonproliferation problems and compliance problems.

Over the last 18 months, we have had not only the North Korean issue, [but] people are talking about Iran and the Middle East; we still have Israel as a nonparty to the NPT with an unsafeguarded nuclear program. That does not mean that the NPT itself as originally adopted was a bad agreement, if it was implemented in the spirit in which it was approved. It was meant to be a step where the nuclear-weapon states commit to nuclear disarmament and negotiations and the non-nuclear-weapon states commit to nonacquisition as part of a process where these parallel lines ultimately reach a point of contact.

The problem with the NPT is while it was meant to be an active, even a proactive, agreement, it has become a static agreement. Any agreement that remains static and reflective of the environment of 40 years ago will be under stress. The real problem of the stress is that we have not dealt with the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation problems head-on and have preferred to push them down the road.

Nevertheless, if its parties acted in a manner that is consistent with the principles and the spirit of the treaty-and took that as the kernel of the nonproliferation regime that we are trying to establish-not as a status quo agreement, the NPT will remain relevant. If they don't, I am not sure we will be able to witness too many anniversaries again without seeing more problems.

ACT: In the 1995 NPT review conference, there was a resolution calling for the Middle East to work toward the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.[2] This goal has been reiterated for many years, including during a Mediterranean summit just a few weeks ago.[3] How do you view the pledge by the summit participants to work toward a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East?

Fahmy: The 1995 extension conference was important for several reasons. One, in extending something indefinitely, it brought forth a lot of the prominent issues. It brought forward also the whole issue of how we pursue nuclear disarmament or not, and that is why you saw a lot of principles and points adopted at that conference.

Among the regions that were considered to be most critical was the Middle East, and that is why the only region where the conference actually adopted a specific resolution was the Middle East. So the conference took a political statement saying the Middle East is a particular concern.

Now, since 1995, very few steps have been taken to bring that resolution to fruition. It is illogical and politically untenable for the NPT party states to adopt one regional resolution over a decade ago and to this day do nothing to implement that. Or that their cooperation with nonparty states in the region in the nuclear domain is actually larger and more extensive than with members of the NPT itself.

ACT: Besides pressure from the NPT member states on these nonparties-obviously Israel-are there other practical steps that can be taken by the countries in the region to achieve such a zone?

Fahmy: Sure, to achieve a zone agreement, it will have to entail negotiations between the parties themselves. NPT parties have an obligation to promote and pursue that. We, nevertheless, know that the negotiations will be regional. And therefore we have proposed-not only all the way back in 1974, but even in the '90s again, in the ACRS [Arms Control and Regional Security] context of the Middle East peace process-we proposed discussing how to achieve the creation of such a zone.[4] In terms of concrete steps, I suggest that the members of the region actually negotiate all of the details and technicalities of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, learning from different experiences of different regions and different case studies.

I would negotiate all these details irrespective of the fact that we may differ as to when it can actually come into force. And even if we differ about when it comes into force, the mere negotiation of this agreement gives a seriousness of purpose, indicates intentions, and, I think, greatly enhances the sense of security vis-à-vis the outcome.

ACT: In addition to the issue of nuclear weapons, some states of the region have been reluctant to ban chemical weapons and join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Over the last several years, a majority of the states in the Arab League have decided that they would no longer tie their accession to the CWC to Israel becoming an NPT state-party, and now these countries are party to the CWC.[5] What is the prospect of Egypt reversing its stance as well and joining the CWC?

Fahmy: Very little, if any. Not because we are against the CWC. Quite the contrary, we were the first to make proposals to pursue the prohibition of chemical weapons. If, on the other hand, we saw some movement on the Israeli side regarding the NPT or the zonal agreements, we would review our position quite quickly. We do not have a commitment to chemical weapons. We have a commitment to equal standards for all in the Middle East, and we don't believe that this commitment has been respected by others.

ACT: Egypt is a country that has spoken out against efforts by the United States and others to limit the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. At the same time, some states in the region have agreed as part of their nuclear cooperation agreements or at least certain framework agreements with the United States to voluntarily forgo enrichment and reprocessing technologies in return for incentives, such as nuclear fuel guarantees and technical capacity building. Do you view the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies as a valid concern?

Fahmy: What we've spoken out against are any attempts to limit the right of state-parties to the NPT to the full fuel cycle. Not the motivation. If state-parties feel that their requirements are being met without pursuing the full fuel cycle, that is their right. That is not an issue for us. What we do not agree on is limiting even further the scope of the NPT. The scope of the NPT does not only regard nonproliferation and disarmament, there is also a commitment to cooperate on peaceful uses and to ensure full access to peaceful uses. There is a fundamental difference here between "Do I have the right to buy or to acquire this technology?" and "Do I decide that it's the right thing for me to do?" If I am assured assurances of supply, and I am assured that the same criteria apply to all, the capital costs may not make it logical for me to go down that line [of acquiring fuel cycle technology].

A fundamental criterion that we have applied to ourselves and insist on applying to others is that one standard applies to everyone in our region. We would like it to apply to everybody in the world, but we are pragmatic and realistic and look at our own region. If the existence of reprocessing and enrichment facilities is a danger or a problem in states-parties to the NPT who have full-scope safeguard agreements, then it is even more of a danger in states not party to the NPT who have unsafeguarded facilities.[6] We have no ambitious program to pursue anything that increases proliferation problems around the world, but double standards create insecurity.

ACT: Leaving the issue of rights to such technologies aside, is the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies a valid concern?

Fahmy: It is a valid concern if they are unsafeguarded. The technology will spread anyway. The issue is if you have these facilities around the world, and you don't have safeguarded transparent programs, then needless to say the potential for problems increases. If, on the other hand, they're safeguarded and transparent programs, then yes, while the existence of increased number[s] may create a problem, they are less of a problem.

ACT: Would this apply to Iran? Iran is an NPT state-party, and there is certainly concern about Iran.

Fahmy: Yeah, but I chose my words very carefully. I said the probability that they would be of concern is much less. For every Iran, there are 150 other countries who are compliant, have not been violating their agreements, and don't forget, by the way, you [the United States] are the guys who gave Iran the nuclear program.[7] So, we'll see what, exactly, the Iranian program is. But ultimately, there will be exceptional cases that will be in violation of the NPT, but the majority of states [party] to the NPT have been compliant and have transparent programs.

If you want to move the extra mile and say "even you guys need to do more," well, that is fine, provided you get others who are outside the treaty to do more. I am not against dealing with the technical realities that have led to the emergence of more problems. I am against ignoring the real problems and focusing on the tangential problems.

ACT: Given what you said earlier about rights, if there were sufficient nuclear fuel guarantees and other incentives, would Egypt consider forgoing enrichment and reprocessing for a period of time? Or for some kind of agreement, like those that the United Arab Emirates and others have signed with the United States?

Fahmy: We are not ready to talk about our rights. In other words, if you want to get into a debate about our rights to pursue any component of a peaceful nuclear program while we are fully compliant and transparent, we will oppose it. Whether we decide to pursue enrichment or not is a different issue completely. I mean, the debate about our rights, I won't get into. It's a waste of my time. We will not get into a discussion about our rights to pursue enrichment technology.

Now, whether we decide to enrich depends on what the offers are. There are two components to this. If we are looking at enrichment by way of peaceful nuclear programs, then needless to say it is a matter of assurances of sustained supply, depoliticizing the supply process, and all that. If we're looking at enrichment by way of a proliferation issue, then you bring a lot more components in, you bring in other factors, such as what are other states doing, who has it, who does not. We are a fully compliant NPT member. We have full-scope safeguards agreements, and we will continue to pursue our peaceful nuclear technology program with nonproliferation higher on our priorities. We are not belittling potential threats. How we are responding to them is where we differ. Not that we are denying that there may be a threat.

ACT: The United States has been pushing for Egypt to join the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.[8] Why has Egypt so far declined to join?

Fahmy: It has not dealt with non-states-parties enough. We will continue to listen to the proponents of the partnership and make our decisions down the line.

ACT: How would you have them deal with non-states-parties? It is more about the partnership among the countries rather than the NPT as a whole.

Fahmy: It does not deal with our problems. We will continue to listen to the proponents of the initiative and take our decisions down the line. We have not rejected the initiative. We just have not agreed to it yet, or at least agreed to participate in it.

ACT: One of the key challenges regarding the nuclear fuel cycle is the concern about Iran's nuclear activities. What is your opinion about the recent proposals that have been offered by Iran and by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the P5+1) in order to resolve the issue?[9]

Fahmy: It is clear that, at a certain point in time, Iran was not fully compliant with its safeguards commitments to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. That is registered, and there is no question about that. Secondly, it is also clear that it took them a very long time to start responding to the IAEA's questions and concerns, and that raised suspicions as to their intentions and motivations behind them. Because of those two points, serious concerns were raised about Iran's intentions and its nuclear program. Now, our position has been [that] we are concerned about the emergence of any proliferation programs in the Middle East, and therefore we are concerned about the Iranian one.

Given the fact that Iran is an NPT member, it is obliged, legally, to accept the parameters of the NPT and the constraints of the NPT to its program, but going beyond that is something it may or may not do unilaterally and voluntarily. It would be very useful if Iran could take confidence-building measures to respond to the concerns and suspicions raised by its tardiness in responding to the IAEA and accept to put a cap or a limitation on its enrichment process in exchange for assurances of supply. That should be the first step.

I would add, however, that the issue of proliferation, if you look at the history of the Middle East since the late 1960s, if not, even going before our 1974 proposal, if you do not deal with the core issues and establish a zone free of nuclear weapons throughout the Middle East, you will have the emergence of these problems, and they will be repeated again at a more dangerous level. So I would like to see Iran respond positively to the IAEA. I would applaud an agreement they could possibly reach with the P5+1. But ultimately, once that occurs, you will not put this issue to rest unless you establish a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

ACT: If the situation with Iran continued in the same vein that it is now and ultimately Iran develops what is seen at least by some as a latent nuclear weapons capability in the form of an industrial-scale enrichment facility, what do you see is a likely response in the region and by Egypt in particular?

Fahmy: I have very often heard the question, "Well, if they go nuclear, will you go nuclear?" I find the question rather silly, one, because it is so obvious, and two, because it is so simplistic. Any country in the world, the United States included, has an obligation to defend its national security. So if it feels threatened, it is legally obliged to pursue measures to ensure its national security. Now, that is the first point. Of course, we will react. Any country in the world would react, and they should react. But I also find the question simplistic because it immediately implies that, "Well if they do this, then we're going to pursue a nuclear weapons program." Pursuing a nuclear weapons program is not that simple. You do not decide, "Well ok, you did it, so I'm going to turn mine on." Secondly, it is not the only option. You can pursue your national security by taking measures politically, to deal with this problem. You can pursue your national security concerns by balancing with other weapons systems. And you can pursue your national security concerns by limiting your commitments to agreements, as well as dealing with the states involved by trying to get them to redress their actions. Finally, of course, you can pursue your national security concerns by trying to have a symmetrical response. So it would have very serious ramifications on security in the region, negative ones, yes, of course, because it creates more insecurity.

Look at the region over the last 20 to 25 years. There is an Israeli program that is unsafeguarded, and you have seen an arms race throughout the Middle East. You have had the tensions between Iraq and Iran, and you saw their weapons systems increase. At a certain point in time, Iraq was in violation of its NPT agreements. Now you have a proliferation concern raised about Iran, and people are talking about how do you ensure security by getting engaged in agreements with larger countries and alliances, and so on and so forth. So there will be a response. But the knee-jerk reaction is, "Well, if they do it, would you go nuclear?" I find this rather simplistic.

ACT: There has been some talk among some countries that security guarantees[10] should be more formal, that a guarantee should be extended by the United States and other powers to countries in the region as a way of protecting against the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Fahmy: That is a very valid point. Again when the NPT was adopted, there was a serious effort to have negative security assurances given to the states-parties that were non-nuclear and legalizing them by adopting them in the Security Council in a codified format. Now, they were adopted or accepted as a concept, but they have not been codified legally. You can also look at- and I am not a proponent of this-but you can also look at positive assurances.

ACT: But you are not a proponent of that for Egypt?

Fahmy: I think what you should do at this point is, at the very least, codify the negative assurances and make them consistent with each other. They are not all exactly the same. But again, it is not necessarily only negative assurances that we've been dealing with traditionally. Others have talked about entering into alliances. There are many different formats for dealing with the emergence of further nuclear-weapon states in the region. They're all worse than establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Because they all are based on a more aggressive military posture rather than dealing with the core of the issue.

ACT: Egypt has said it wants to develop a nuclear energy program as many other countries in the region are. Some have suggested that some kind of agreement, like there is between India and Pakistan not to attack each other's civilian nuclear facilities, might make sense in the Middle East. Is that something that you think or Egypt thinks would make sense as the region is developing this kind of nuclear power?

Fahmy: Interesting question. Possibly. It is important that you do not limit it to peaceful nuclear reactors by establishing an exclusion clause for nonpeaceful facilities. I can see some constructive attributes to it, but I also can see some concerns in what you do by default, if you want. But it is an interesting thing to look at.

ACT: You've been serving as ambassador in Washington for quite some time, and much of that time has been while the Bush administration has been in office. We are going to see a new administration next year. How do you think the next U.S. administration can best address some of the issues we addressed today, particularly as they relate to the Middle East?

Fahmy: To deal with arms control and disarmament issues generally, but particularly regarding weapons of mass destruction, meaning nuclear, chemical, [and] biological [weapons], and their means of delivery, you need to have international momentum and a regional focus. If you were to argue that the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain-and then we'll just leave aside for a second India, Pakistan, and possibly Israel-these guys were increasing their procurement of weapons of mass destruction, which they're not, but if they were to do that, it would be very difficult to convince states in particular regions to join a nonproliferation initiative or to apply restrictions to themselves, or to motivate them. Why aren't you limiting your access voluntarily so you don't create a potential problem in the future? On the other hand, if you see a disarmament process reducing warheads and missiles and, if you want, detargeting, and you have a strong disarmament momentum internationally, then there is much more credibility to proposals that "you on a regional level need to take certain steps, do not make this problem worse by creating a problem here, and we will catch up with you."

I think that if you are looking at nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, the first thing is the nuclear-weapon states have to lead in making this issue a prominent issue for them. Secondly, if you are talking about our region in the Middle East, you have to look [at] the security concerns in the Middle East itself. You cannot come and say, "What we did in Latin America is what applies to you." It may or may not apply. The security concerns will involve the hard security concerns regarding armaments and the soft ones regarding the political tensions that exist.

I would greatly encourage the next American president to take arms control or disarmament, which I prefer to use, [and] to make that a priority issue for the U.S. government and allow the United States to lead the way on this because it would have a trickle-down effect, that this is very useful in our region. And then you can look at different security paradigms applicable to a new world at the point. And I would love to see him embrace the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East as a short-term objective.

ACT: Thank you.

For a complete transcript of the interview, please visit www.armscontrol.org.


1. At the time the NPT opened for signature in 1968, five states (China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States) were known to possess nuclear weapons and were recognized by the treaty as nuclear-weapon states. Three additional states (India, North Korea, and Pakistan) have carried out nuclear weapons tests since that time. Israel is also widely believed to possess an arsenal of nuclear weapons. However, South Africa gave up its small nuclear arsenal and acceded to the NPT in 1991. In 1992, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons they inherited following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

2. The 1995 Resolution on the Middle East was one element of a three-part package agreement leading to the indefinite extension of the NPT during a review and extension conference held that year.

3. The leaders of 43 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa participated in the first Mediterranean summit on July 13, 2008. A declaration adopted by the 43 leaders called for the creation of "a verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction."

4. The Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) process was a working group of the Arab-Israeli peace process established during the 1991 Madrid peace conference. It was intended to foster regional confidence-building measures that would eventually lead to formal arms control agreements. However, due to continuing disagreements over the purpose of the process and the subject of the discussions, the dialogue collapsed in 1995.

5. Of the 22 Arab League members, 17 have joined the CWC. Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, and Syria have not signed the treaty.

6. Safeguards agreements are concluded between states and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the purpose of ensuring that nuclear technology is only used for nonmilitary purposes. NPT members are required to conclude safeguards with the agency.

7. Iran initiated its civilian nuclear efforts under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program during the 1950s in which it received nuclear technology assistance from Washington, including the Tehran Nuclear Research Reactor. During the 1970s, the United States held discussions with Iran regarding the provision of uranium-enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technology, but those plans never came to fruition. In 1975, Iran contracted with a German firm to construct its first nuclear power reactor at Bushehr, but this project was abandoned following the 1979 Iranian revolution. By the mid-1980s, Iran turned to different suppliers for its nuclear technology, including the black market.

8. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is a U.S.-led initiative intended to develop new nuclear energy technologies and nuclear fuel arrangements in order to address the anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy. Egypt is an observer to the 21-member group.

9. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), along with Germany, have been engaged in a diplomatic process with Iran since 2006 to try to resolve the nuclear issue. In June, the six countries provided Iran with a revised version of a 2006 proposal offering incentives in return for Iran halting its sensitive nuclear activities.

10. A negative security assurance is a declaration by a nuclear-weapon state not to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapon state. A positive security assurance is a pledge to aid a non-nuclear-weapon state if it is the victim of a nuclear attack. The United States has pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), except if attacked by a state associated or allied with a nuclear-armed state. At the same time, successive U.S. administrations have maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity by refusing to rule out nuclear weapons use in response to biological or chemical weapons attacks. In 1995, UN Security Council Resolution 984 acknowledged negative security pledges by the five NPT nuclear-weapon states. At the 1995 NPT review and extension conference, these negative security assurances were incorporated in its final document's "Principles and Objectives for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament," which was seen as vital to securing indefinite extension of the NPT.

Ambassador Nabil Fahmy has served in Egypt's Foreign Ministry for 30 years and has focused particularly on disarmament and regional security issues. Most recently, he acted as Cairo's ambassador to Washington from October 1999 to August 2008. On July 21, Arms Control Today spoke with Ambassador Fahmy on a variety of issues, including Egypt's perspective on the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, and concerns regarding Iran's nuclear program. (Continue)

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 dni.gov/interviews.htm; 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 www.spiegel.de 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, http://www.international.gc.ca/canada_un/geneva/2008-04-28-en.asp 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.


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. (Continue)

Israel's Airstrike on Syria's Nuclear Reactor: Preventive War and the Nonproliferation Regime



A public event co-sponsored by the United States Institute for Peace, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Arms Control Association

On July 14, 2008, USIP, along with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation and Studies and the Arms Control Association, co-sponsored an event to examine the nuclear nonproliferation implications of Israel’s September 2007 attack on a Syrian facility believed to have been a clandestine nuclear reactor under construction with North Korean assistance. The panel of speakers included David Albright, Institute for Science and International Security; Avner Cohen, USIP; Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr., Cypress Fund; Dr. Fiona Simpson, New York University; Leonard S. Spector, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies; and Robin Wright, noted journalist. Daryl Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, moderated.

The speakers addressed various aspects of the Israeli airstrike and Syria’s secret nuclear activities, including Israel’s rationale for taking military action against the facility, the implications of the airstrike, Syria’s actions with respect to the International Atomic Energy Agency and what the IAEA might uncover in relation to the facility.

Albright pointed out the significant evidence that the facility was a nuclear reactor under construction. However, he said, there is little indication of other aspects of a nuclear weapons program in the country. He also argued that Syria’s nuclear proliferation highlighted the need to pay greater attention to the global illicit nuclear trade.

Cohen contrasted the September 2007 airstrike to Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, noting the differences in the nature of and international reactions to each attack. Spector called the muted reaction of the international community to the event “quite striking.” He speculated that the silence was because observers worldwide were “recalibrating” their reactions to such attacks in light of the Bush doctrine of preemptive warfare.

Wright discussed the Middle Eastern political dynamics behind Israel’s strike and suggested that Syria and North Korea did not protest the attack because of their fear of publicity about their own illicit nuclear activities. She also surmised that knowledge of the facility was closely guarded, and that many elements of the Syrian leadership, as well as other states in the region, were unaware of its existence prior to its destruction.

Simpson highlighted the differences between preventive and pre-emptive military action and noted the limitations of the IAEA inspection regime with respect to cases in which evidence of noncompliance is unclear. Finally, Graham discussed the roles of two different types of IAEA states—nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states, with respect to the attack.

Cohen said, “It was a perhaps the first public discussion in town of an event which is still so publicly obscure. There are still many questions that need to be answered before we can fully evaluate the impact that the attack and Syria’s activities had on efforts to deal with nuclear proliferation.”

For more detailed information, transcripts and audio, go to the USIP Webpage.


A public event co-sponsored by the United States Institute for Peace, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Arms Control Association.

Country Resources:

Subject Resources:

Should Israel Close Dimona? The Radiological Consequences of a Military Strike on Israel’s Plutonium-Production Reactor

Bennett Ramberg

Much ink has been spilled about apprehensions in Israel and the West that Iran could develop nuclear weapons, prompting calls in American, Israeli, and now even Arab circles for the application of military force to stop the mullahs. Yet, there is another, more immediate nuclear-related danger to the Jewish state that has received far less attention: the possibility that Israel's adversaries could use more easily acquired conventional weapons to force a deadly release of radioactivity from Israel's plutonium-production reactor at Dimona.

In Middle Eastern tit-for-tat, the concern generated currency when the London Sunday Times reported in late 2007 that Israel went on "red alert" 30 times as anxiety grew that Damascus would retaliate against Dimona for Israel's September 6 strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear site. On Israeli state television, a commander of a Patriot air defense missile battery stated, "Every civilian aircraft en route from Cairo to Amman, or from Jeddah to Cairo and vice versa, which deviates even slightly from its route, sets off an alarm and risks a missile being fired."[1]

Israel's fear reflects the Middle East's unique history: since World War II, the only military strikes on nuclear facilities have taken place in the region.[2] In 1980, Iranian aircraft attempted to destroy Iraq's Osirak reactor but missed the mark, hitting adjacent structures. In June 1981, Israel finished the job in a dramatic cross-regional raid. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iraqi aircraft mounted multiple attacks on Iran's two partially constructed power reactors at Bushehr.[3] In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, the United States bombed a small Iraqi research reactor at Tuwaitha,[4] and Saddam Hussein launched several Scud-B rockets toward Dimona.[5] In 2003, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq to halt its presumed nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs.

Yet, in no case did these raids on nuclear facilities cause radiological consequences. Either the plants were still under construction (Osirak and Bushehr), had radioactive elements removed prior to the strike (Tuwaitha), or the attacker simply missed the mark. The outcome of a successful strike on the decades-old Dimona reactor could be different. Today, multiple factors may drive Israel's adversaries to hit the plant: its perceived centrality to Israel's nuclear weapons program, revenge for Israeli strikes on neighboring states, Dimona's symbolic significance as one of the Jewish state's most valued assets, and, most disturbingly, an attack to intentionally release the radioactive contents of the plant as a weapon of war or terrorism.

This raises a question: given the likely and serious consequences of a successful attack for Israel's public health, economy, and society, should Israel close Dimona? Does the centrality of the reactor for Israel's nuclear arsenal argue otherwise? On balance, shutting down or mothballing the Dimona reactor would reap both important security and political benefits.

Radiological Consequences of an Attack on the Dimona Reactor

Situated in a relatively remote desert at the Negev Nuclear Research Center, the Dimona reactor, also referred to as IRR-2, lies approximately 25 kilometers west of Jordan, 75 kilometers east of Egypt, and 85 kilometers due south of Jerusalem. Dimona is a heavy-water-moderated, natural-uranium-fueled reactor. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates its power at 26 megawatts thermal (MWt),[6] most independent analysts believe that in the mid-1970s Israel upgraded the installation to generate between 70 and 150 MWt.[7] That output makes it not only the region's largest reactor for the moment-once Iran's Bushehr atomic power plant goes online, it will have more than 20 times the power[8]-but the sole evident producer of plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons.[9]

Although Israel neither confirms nor denies its atomic arsenal, experts generally accept that it has been a nuclear-armed state for several decades. Its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, inaugurated the enterprise to compensate for the country's strategic vulnerability, a fledgling army, and the West's unwillingness to enter into a formal alliance to defend Israel's survival.[10] Estimates of the nuclear arsenal range from 75 to 200 weapons, comprising bombs, missile warheads, and possibly tactical weapons.[11] Since it went into operation in the mid-1960s with initial French assistance, the reactor has produced plutonium and tritium for these nuclear weapons, which Israel has fabricated in a nearby underground chemical separation plant and a nuclear component fabrication facility.[12]

To model the consequences of a successful missile attack on the installation, the U.S. Department of Defense's Hazard Prediction and Assessment Capability code (HPAC) was utilized. Described as a counterproliferation and counterforce modeling tool, HPAC estimates the effects of hazardous material discharges and of the use of weapons of mass destruction, including casualties. HPAC's Nuclear Facility model calculates the properties of radioactive material released during incidents at nuclear reactors and related facilities. For Dimona, HPAC provides an input data file that lists the reactor core inventory of radioactive materials (fuel and fission products) for each MWt of operating power.

Given the uncertainties in the precise operating power of Dimona, separate HPAC calculations were performed assuming the reactor generated 26, 70, or 150 MWt, although the lower power level of 26 MWt would have produced only plutonium for a few dozen nuclear warheads over Dimona's lifetime, a figure well below Israel's presumed weapons inventory. To estimate the radionuclide release from a military strike, the first day of the April 26, 1986, Chernobyl Unit 4 accident[13] served as a model, as characteristic of a catastrophic incident involving an explosion, fire, and the bypass of containment (Chernobyl Unit 4 did not have a containment structure). The consequences were scaled to the much smaller release Dimona could emit. It was hypothesized that a military strike could breach the reactor's containment dome, which is visible in ground photographs and satellite imagery; disperse the heavy water surrounding the reactor core; and create explosions and fire involving the nuclear fuel elements, ejecting radioactive material into a puff carried away from Dimona by prevailing winds.

In a military strike, like a reactor accident, two key radionuclides, iodine-131 and cesium-137, would constitute important components of the public impact of elevated cancer risk. Although a short-lived element with an eight-day half-life, iodine-131 poses unique, early health concerns because it concentrates in the thyroid. Cesium-137, with a 30-year half-life, poses a longer-term "ground shine" risk to populations resident or working in contaminated zones. The risk increases with the concentration of the element.

Of the many release scenarios HPAC could generate, three are displayed to communicate a reasonable range of outcomes. The chosen maps also illustrate the broad impact of different reactor power levels and seasonal prevailing winds. In general, estimates show that large populations could receive acute low doses within the first 24 hours, at or below the average total annual dose from natural background radiation and medical procedures. Nevertheless, these low doses slightly increase the cancer incidence. Closer to the Dimona reactor, the release could generate substantially higher doses, risking the health of the nearby communities and the thousands of workers at the site, in addition to the emergency response teams who, at Chernobyl, bore the brunt of the most acute radiological impacts.

Figure 1 (see print edition) characterizes a November attack on the reactor operating at 150 MWt carrying the radioactive plume in the northwesterly direction over the city of Dimona (a community of 30,000 inhabitants) and then toward Beersheba before scattering toward Israel's heavily populated coastal plain housing approximately four million inhabitants. Statistically, this scenario could generate several hundred cancers above the expected natural rate for the exposed population. In a scenario exhibiting lesser impacts, were the reactor operated at only 26 MWt, an August attack would produce a narrower plume concentrated within Jordan's thinly populated south. Finally, in a February attack with the reactor generating 70 MWt, contaminants would settle in the West Bank. This scenario predicts the maximum number of excess cancers, exceeding 600 at the 70 MWt level and 1,000 at 150 MWt level, because of the more concentrated populations and collective doses that population would receive.

Given the secrecy shrouding Dimona, the maps and table provide rough probabilities that change with the input of different variables. Not factored into the calculations are such complicating but unascertainable factors as the age of the fuel (fresh fuel will have a lower buildup of radioactive elements, and as a matter of course, Dimona may not accumulate two-year-old fuel similar to that that blew apart at Chernobyl);[14] reductions in the quantity of iodine-131 in the reactor core were the plant shut down for weeks prior to an attack; operations at very low power to produce tritium; or the possibility that an attack would so fracture and scatter the reactor core that the absence of concentrated fires would diminish the release. Nor, due to the absence of data, do the calculations include the potentially significant contributions that could come from on-site spent fuel and high-level waste from reprocessing or separated plutonium. The modeling does suggest that were the Jewish state's adversaries bent on affecting the greatest number of Israelis, they would take advantage of late fall winds. To wait for winter would risk contaminating Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

In sum, because of Dimona's relatively small size and remote location, only in the worst cases are populations in the hundreds or more found to be at risk, distributed over a large fraction of the Israeli and Palestinian population. Israeli authorities have recognized the jeopardy to communities near Dimona in response to reactor accident concerns, particularly the vulnerability of the thyroid to iodine-131. To address the problem, they have distributed potassium iodide tablets to the nearby towns of Aruar, Dimona, and Yerham to block the absorption of iodine-131.

Risk and Response

These findings suggest that a successful strike on an operating Dimona reactor that breached containment and generated an explosion and fire involving the core would present effects similar to a substantial radiological weapon or dirty bomb. Although consequences would represent only a small fraction of the Chernobyl release, for Israel, a country the size of New Jersey with a population of some six million, the relative economic dislocation, population relocation, and immediate and lingering psychological trauma could be significant.[15]

Israel has not been unmindful of these challenges. From the outset of its nuclear program, it acted to reduce the dangers. It placed the reactor in the Negev. It placed critical facilities for manipulating nuclear material in deeply buried cells. It heavily defended the installations with anti-aircraft and missile defenses.[16] For some years, however, a hubris crept into the evaluation of the plant's vulnerability. Following decisive military defeats of its neighbors in past wars, some Israeli advisers disdained their ability to strike the plant. For example, in May 1984, after I published a book about the consequences of military attacks on nuclear power plants, an Israeli intelligence officer came to the United States to inquire about the book's conclusions regarding reactor vulnerability as Israel planned a nuclear power plant. The officer belittled the peril, arguing that no Arab air force had ever overcome Israeli air defenses and none ever would.

At that time, history provided odd support. Although Soviet reconnaissance aircraft flew over the reactor in May 1967 without incident,[17] during the June 1967 war, Israel shot down one of its own Ouragan jet fighters when it strayed over the facility.[18] In 1973, Dimona's defenders downed a wayward Libyan civilian airliner heading for the reactor, killing 108 people.[19] The 1991 Gulf War upset whatever solace Israel could take from the past. Iraqi Scud missiles rained on Tel Aviv, and one came close to striking Dimona. Hezbollah's bombardment of northern Israel in 2006 further demonstrated the country's vulnerability to crude rocket attack. Although Israel's Arrow ballistic missile defenses, which surround Dimona today, may be superior to the Patriot system that failed in 1991, Syria's more advanced Scuds and Iran's Shahab-3 rocket present a more capable challenge than Saddam's projectiles.

Furthermore, interest in "taking out" the installation, which reached an early pinnacle during Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt in the 1960s,[20] has now renewed. Following Israel's September 2007 strike, Syrian legislator Mohammad Habash said, "If Syria feels threatened by Israel, it will be hard to stop our missile operators from responding to the Israeli aggression by attacking the Dimona nuclear reactor."[21] Iranian General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr remarked in 2004 that "[i]f Israel fires one missile at Bushehr atomic power plant, it should permanently forget about Dimona nuclear center, where it produces and keeps its nuclear weapons, and Israel would be responsible for the terrifying consequence of this move."[22] The March 2008 announcement by Israeli defense officials that Hezbollah had acquired rockets with the range to hit the plant raised further concerns that Dimona continues to be in the crosshairs of Israel's enemies.[23]

The Costs and Benefits of Shutting or Mothballing Dimona

Given mounting regional tensions and the capacity of Israel's adversaries to strike Dimona, does prudence dictate closure of the plant? Certainly Israel would sustain costs. Its capacity to produce weapons-useable plutonium and tritium would end. Absent an enrichment program or nuclear-weapon design improvements, closure would freeze the total size of the Israeli nuclear arsenal based on its current inventory of plutonium. Israel's supply of tritium, which is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.5 years, would decrease, but that element could be produced in an accelerator.

Israel could manage these challenges and take advantage of substantial benefits by closure. Dimona has produced all the plutonium Israel's armed forces could possibly utilize. The numbers of nuclear weapons in the arsenal, even if the weapons were not tritium boosted, suffice to destroy any collection of adversaries multiple times over and are therefore sufficient for deterrence. Closure would eliminate a radiological hostage and a reactor, which is among the world's oldest and which has already suffered minor mishaps, that Israel should shut because it is nearing the end of its life expectancy of safe operation.

In addition, Israel could derive political and strategic benefits. It could demand compensatory security guarantees from the United States and NATO.[24] More broadly, in the public relations war, it could claim that closure marks a step toward a regional fissile material cutoff treaty in the effort to demonstrate its commitment to reducing regional nuclear tensions.

Alternatively, the Jewish state could mothball the plant, removing all radioactive elements from the site while keeping the facility in cold standby in the event circumstances required a restart.

Israel may conclude that avoiding the squeeze a shutdown would impose on weapons production outweighs the environmental threat posed by a successful attack. It may bank on the effectiveness of its defenses, the ineffectiveness or poor accuracy of enemy munitions, or the reluctance of adversaries to risk contamination of Arab populations in Jordan and the West Bank. It may also take solace from the failure of adversaries to effectively attack the plant in past conflicts. Were Israel to anticipate a strike, it could shut the plant and, as Iraq did in 1991, remove the "hot" material to a safe location.[25] A shutdown alone could reduce the inventory of iodine-131.

Public banter about striking Dimona and Iran's nuclear plants raises a host of other troubling questions. Looking to the future, should atomic installations expand through the Middle East-Iran's Bushehr power reactor will be the first to fire up, possibly later this year-Israel's neighbors will see in the mirror their own reactors' vulnerability to military attack. Like Israel, they may take comfort in reactor defenses. Additionally, similar to India and Pakistan, they could replicate the 1990 treaty that the South Asian adversaries negotiated forbidding attacks on nuclear sites.

Nonetheless, such an accord, defenses, or mutual vulnerability acting as a deterrent to attack would not provide a guarantee that plants will be immune from military or even terrorist strikes in such an unstable part of the world. This ought to raise the question whether the planned growth of plants, many orders of magnitude larger than Dimona, should go forward. Until the region resolves its political differences, nuclear energy planners ought to take a second look. In the meantime, Israel would do well to reflect whether, given its own reactor vulnerability, keeping Dimona operating is worth the risk. I believe it does not.

Corrected online September 3, 2008. See explanation.


Click here to comment on this article.


The Radiological Dangers of an Israeli Attack on Iran's Nuclear Facilities

Bennett Ramberg

In a region where an "eye for an eye" has defined adversarial relations for millennia, it merits examining what response Israel could exact for an attack on Dimona. Although Syria has the capacity to strike the plant, which it has threatened to do, Syria's proximity to the Jewish state makes it an easy target for reprisal. Given Israel's September 2007 attack on Damascus's suspected nuclear site, Israel would have to apply any revenge on Syria to other, non-nuclear targets.

Iran, Israel's most capable adversary, is another matter. Clearly, a successful blow on Dimona by Iran or Hezbollah surrogates would generate an Israeli public outcry for revenge even were Tehran's attack in response to Jerusalem's destruction of Iran's enrichment facilities.

Although Iran operates several small nuclear research reactors, two larger plants would dominate the attention of Israel's military planners, the 40-megawatt thermal heavy-water reactor at Arak and the 1,000-megawatt electric Russian-supplied nuclear power plant at Bushehr. The Arak installation shares many of Dimona's features as a dedicated plutonium generator but is years away from completion. Obviously, were Israel to strike before the plant commenced operations, as it did in the 1981 bombing of Iraq's Osirak reactor, no radiological consequences would ensue.

Bushehr is quite another matter. The plant may go critical in a matter of months. It is evidently a nuclear power plant, the first of many Iran plans to build over the next decades. Nonetheless, some warn that it could serve as a plutonium mine for nuclear weapons despite the inefficiency of civil-reactor plutonium for bombs.[1] Iran could have such an option once its enrichment program is up and running. At that point, it could rely on its own fuel rather than its current practice of relying on Russian fresh fuel. Moscow has insisted that it will only provide such fuel if the spent fuel and its plutonium content is remitted back to Russia.

Relying on its own fuel would allow Tehran to conduct reprocessing without international encumbrance, unless it violated International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. This risk could also make Bushehr a target for Israeli military action.

Given Bushehr's size and some recent analyses concluding that Israel has the capacity to destroy any Iranian nuclear plant, the radiological releases from Bushehr's destruction could approach the scope of Chernobyl.[2] Fortunately, however, the plant's remote location along the Persian Gulf coupled with prevailing northwesterly winds would carry the most concentrated radioactive plumes south into lightly inhabited parts of Iran and the waters of the gulf, likely limiting public health impacts.

Still, as one of the most valued assets in Iran's economy and one that could contaminate vast regions of the Iranian countryside and beyond, Tehran could not treat the plant's loss lightly. Arguably, the radiological mutual hostage relationship in which Israel and Iran would find themselves could discourage attacks. India's decision not to strike Pakistan's nuclear weapons complex, fearful that retribution would include attacks on its civil nuclear sector, and the subsequent agreement the two countries negotiated provides a precedent that Israel and Iran should consider.[3]


1. Victor Gilinsky, Marvin Miller, Harmon Hubbard, "A Fresh Examination of the Proliferation Dangers of Light Water Reactors," Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, October 2004.

2. Whitney Raas and Austin Long, "Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities" International Security, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Spring 2007).

3. George Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).


Lessons From Chernobyl for Dimona

Bennett Ramberg

The 1986 Chernobyl accident marks the most significant release of radiation from a nuclear reactor mishap to date. The radiological consequences of a successful military strike on Dimona, a reactor with an output of well under 5 percent that of the Soviet plant, would pale in comparison. Still, because a successful attack could generate harmful radiological contamination, Israel could learn much from how the Soviet Union and successor states coped with the tragedy.

Similar to Chernobyl, the heaviest radiological consequences likely would fall within the immediate vicinity of Dimona, although downwind hotspots could emerge. At Chernobyl, Soviet emergency responders performed heroically, but they were ill prepared to deal with the disaster. Many hours elapsed before authorities provided radioiodine blocking tablets to nearby populations. That interval increased the number of thyroid cancers. The additional 40 hours it took authorities to evacuate the nearby community of Pripyat and the weeks it took to remove 100,000 inhabitants residing in more distant but heavily contaminated zones added to the problem.

Still, postmortem analyses concluded that what evacuation did occur "substantially reduced radiation exposures and the radiation-related health impacts of the accident."[1]

Israel can learn from this finding. It should have in place sheltering and evacuation protocols for all potential radiological impact zones. Future national civil defense exercises, such as the April 2008 exercise that tested the country's response to a missile and chemical weapons attack, must include the radiological risks presented by Dimona. Also, authorities should consider a much wider distribution of radioiodine blocking tablets beyond the communities near the plant.

Contaminated foodstuffs, particularly radioiodine-laced milk that impacts the thyroid of its principal consumers-children-posed an additional problem during and following the Chernobyl releases. Israel must prepare to address this and other contaminated-produce risks by stocking food, e.g., powdered milk, in secure warehouses for distribution. Replicating Chernobyl, agriculture will require monitoring for years. In time, natural processes such as rain and soil migration will concentrate radionuclides in some areas and remove some elements from others. Human intervention will help. Land and urban reclamation, along with population relocation and medical monitoring, proved costly in the former Soviet states, running into the hundreds of billions of dollars. The relatively small radionuclide release Dimona could generate should make meeting Israel's challenge and costs somewhat more bearable.

Finally, the failure of Soviet public officials to tell the public the truth about Chernobyl marked one of the most grievous errors in the handling of the accident.[2] The result contributed to a rate of long-term psychosomatic illness three to four times greater than unaffected control groups. The sense of victimization and associated depression continues to be the largest lingering impact on the broadest population. Israeli authorities could reduce needless fears by educating citizens that Dimona is no Chernobyl and that they are well prepared to manage the radiological challenge that destruction of the country's nuclear reactor may pose.


1. Chernobyl Forum, "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environment and Socio-Economic Impacts," IAEA/PI/A.87 Rev.2 / 06-09181, April 2006, p. 7.

2. Evelyn Bromet et al., "Psychological and Perceived Health Effects of the Chernobyl Disaster: A 20-Year Review," Health Physics, Vol. 93, No. 5 (November 2007), pp. 516-521.

Bennett Ramberg served in the Department of State in the George H. W. Bush administration and is author of Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy: An Unrecognized Military Peril (1984).


1. Uzi Mahnaimi, "Israel on Alert for Syria Airstrike," The Sunday Times (London), November 11, 2007.

2. For the history of the use and contemplation of force to halt nuclear weapons programs from World War II to the present, including in the Middle East, see Bennett Ramberg, "Preemption Paradox," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2006, pp. 48-56.

3. Leonard Spector, Nuclear Ambitions: The Spread of Nuclear Weapons 1989-1990 (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1990), pp. 190, 208-209.

4. Burrus M. Carnahan, "Protecting Nuclear Facilities From Military Attack: Prospects After the Gulf War," American Journal of International Law, Vol. 86, No. 3 (July 1992), p. 524, fn. 1, 5.

5. "Iraq Says It Aimed Missiles at Israeli Reactor, Says Allies Face Defeat," Associated Press, February 17, 1991; "The Gulf War: Nuclear Plant Is Targeted by Iraq," The Guardian (London), February 18, 1991.

6. The IAEA provides multiple citations establishing Dimona's operating power of 26 MWt. For example, see IAEA, Safe Decommissioning for Nuclear Activities: Proceedings of an International Conference (Vienna: IAEA, 2003) (held in Berlin, October 14-18, 2002). Megawatt thermal (MWt) refers to the thermal or heat output of a reactor in contrast to megawatt electric (MWe), which measures the electrical output from the reactor.

7. For a discussion of the range of values for Dimona's thermal power and implications for plutonium production, see David Albright, Frans Berkhout, and William Walker, Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities, and Policies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 260-263.

8. The Bushehr nuclear power plant is a 1,000 MWe, 3,000 MWt light-water-moderated, light-water-cooled power reactor. See G. Raisali et al., "Calculation of Total Effective Dose Equivalent and Collective Dose in the Event of a LOCA in Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant," Radiation Protection Dosimetry, Vol. 121, No. 4 (2006), pp. 382-390.

9. Research reactors elsewhere in the Middle East include Algeria's reactors at Es Salam (15 MWt) and Nur (1 MWt); Egypt's ETRR-1 and ETRR-2 at the Inshas Complex (2 MWt and 22 MWt, respectively); Iran's research reactors at the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Centre (.03 MWt) and Tehran Nuclear Research Center (5 MWt); Israel's IRR-1 at Soreq Nuclear Research Center (5 MWt); Libya's IRT-1 at the Tajoura Nuclear Research Center (10 MWt); Morocco's MA-R1 at the National Center for Science and Engineering (2 MWt); Syria's SRR-1 Reactor in Dayr al-Hajar (0.03 MWt); and Turkey's ITU-TRR at the Technical University of Istanbul (0.25 MWt). See IAEA, "Nuclear Research Reactors of the World," www.iaea.org/worldatom/rrdb/.

10. For an excellent history of Israel's nuclear weapons program, see Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

11. Robert S. Norris, Hans M. Kristensen, and Joshua Handler, "Israeli Nuclear Forces, 2002," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 2002, pp. 73-75.

12. For a comprehensive description of the weapons activities at the Negev nuclear research center, see Frank Barnaby, The Invisible Bomb (London: I.B. Tauris, 1989), pp. 24-45.

13. To estimate the magnitude of a radiation release following an attack on Dimona, the fractions of various radionuclides released during the first day of the Chernobyl accident were multiplied by the Dimona core inventory of radionuclides assuming the 26 MWt, 70 MWt or 150 MWt power levels. Radiation releases from Chernobyl Unit 4 occurred over a 10-day period before the reactor fire was extinguished. During this period, 20 percent of the core inventory of iodine-131 was released along with 13 percent of the cesium-137 inventory. On the first day, beginning with two explosions involving the reactor core, 5.1 megacuries (MCi) of iodine-131 and 0.6 MCi of cesium-137 were emitted, accounting for 8 percent of the iodine-131 and 4 percent of the cesium-137 core inventory. For the Dimona calculations, iodine-131 releases of 1.7 percent, 4.4 percent, and 9.4 percent of the Chernobyl releases were estimated for Dimona operating powers of 26 MWt, 70 MWt and 150 MWt, respectively. Cesium-137 releases of 0.2 percent, 0.4 percent, and 1.1 percent of the Chernobyl releases were estimated for Dimona operating powers of 26 MWt, 70 MWt and 150 MWt, respectively. Other categories of reactor-core radionuclides were also scaled accordingly from Chernobyl to Dimona. The calculations also assume the reactor's discharge occurs over a one-hour period (one surmises that Israeli emergency response and fire-fighting at the Negev Nuclear Research Center would be more effective than the Soviet response at Chernobyl). Once the radioactive source term is calculated by the HPAC system, HPAC's atmospheric dispersion model calculates the path of the radiation plume from the site, the degree of contamination, and doses to exposed populations based on historical weather and population databases in the code. The radiation dose for a 24-hour exposure to the plume was then tallied (the duration of evacuation or sheltering may be more or less rapid).

14. Frank von Hippel, communication with author, April 2008.

15. The Chernobyl accident has generated much debate about the extent of its consequences. Current documentation finds that several thousand often treatable thyroid cancers dominated evident physical impacts, apart from the 28 people who perished from acute radiation syndrome at the time. However, the mental health effects may have impacted the most people by increasing the rates of serious depressive anxiety and unexplained physical symptoms by 100-300 percent as compared to control groups. Projections out to 2065 suggest that Chernobyl will generate tens of thousands of additional cancers across Europe and the former Soviet states resulting in fatalities that could exceed 15,000. In addition, combating the accident, evacuation, relocation, cleanup, and lost productivity cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Future costs include construction of a new protective structure. Chernobyl Forum, "Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts," IAEA/PI/A.87 Rev2/06-09181, April 2006; Elizabeth Cardis et al., "Estimates of the Cancer Burden in Europe from Radioactive Fallout From the Chernobyl Accident," International Journal of Cancer, No. 119 (2006), pp. 1224-1235; Evelyn Bromet, et al., "Psychological and Perceived Health Effects of the Chernobyl Disaster: A 20-Year Review," Health Physics 93 (5), November 2007, pp. 516-521.

16. Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, Foxbats Over Dimona, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 124.

17. Ibid., p. 122-133; David Horovitz, "Russia Confirms Soviet Sorties Over Dimona in '67," Jerusalem Post, August 23, 2007.

18. Warner D. Farr, "The Third Temple's Holy of Holies: Israel's Nuclear Weapons," The Counterproliferation Papers, Future Warfare Series, No. 2 (September 1999), www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/cpc-pubs/farr.htm.

19. Ahron Bregman, A History of Israel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 146.

20. Ginor and Remez, Foxbats Over Dimona, pp. 30-31, 38, 123.

21. "Syrian MP Threatens Attack on Dimona," Jerusalem Post, December 24, 2007.

22. "Iran Warns of Preemptive Strike to Prevent Nuclear Attacks," Agence France-Presse, August 18, 2004.

23. "Defense Officials: Hizbullah Has Rockets That Can Reach Dimona," Jerusalem Post, March 27, 2008.

24. For elaboration, see Bennett Ramberg, "Defusing the Nuclear Middle East," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2004, pp. 45-51.

25. Mordechai Vanunu told the London Sunday Times in September 1986 that Dimona, which normally stored high-level waste in liquid form above ground, had the capacity in an emergency to pipe the material into storage tanks in the bottom floor of the six-story underground reprocessing plant. Barnaby, Invisible Bomb, p. 38.

Much ink has been spilled about apprehensions in Israel and the West that Iran could develop nuclear weapons, prompting calls in American, Israeli, and now even Arab circles for the application of military force to stop the mullahs. Yet, there is another, more immediate nuclear-related danger to the Jewish state that has received far less attention: the possibility that Israel's adversaries could use more easily acquired conventional weapons to force a deadly release of radioactivity from Israel's plutonium-production reactor at Dimona. (Continue)

Clues Emerge Surrounding Airstrike in Syria

Peter Crail

In the wake of a Sept. 6 Israeli airstrike in Syria, members of Congress and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have pressed for more information regarding the attack and any undeclared Syrian nuclear facilities that may have been hit. Since the airstrike, press reports have continued to speculate regarding the target and purpose of the attack. The most detailed reports have recently suggested that the target was a construction site for a nuclear reactor similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor.

After nearly a month of denials or silence regarding the Israeli incursion into Syrian airspace, officials in Syria and Israel have acknowledged that Israel struck a target in northern Syria.

Syrian officials originally denied that Israel successfully bombed any targets during the raid. (See ACT, October 2007.) On Oct. 1, however, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the BBC that Israel attacked a building “related to the military” that was still under construction. A day later, Israel provided its first official admission that an attack was conducted in Syrian territory. Israel Army Radio reported Oct. 2, “Israeli air force planes attacked a military target deep inside Syria on Sept. 6, the military censor allowed for publication today.” Israel has not provided any further details regarding the target of the attack.

The New York Times reported Oct. 14 that U.S. and Israeli intelligence analysts assessed that the suspected site of the attack was a nuclear reactor in the early phases of construction. Citing unnamed sources, the Times reported that the site resembles North Korea’s five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, which was used to produce the plutonium for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

A subsequent assessment of commercial satellite images by the nongovernmental Institute for Science and International Security also suggested that the structure could house a reactor similar to the Yongbyon reactor. However, the early level of construction prevented any definitive comparisons. Satellite photography taken since the attack has shown that Syria rapidly dismantled the remains of the facility and covered its foundations. Satellite images released from Sept. 2003 also demonstrate that the structure is at least four years old.

If Syria was constructing a reactor, it would still need to develop a plutonium reprocessing capability to separate the plutonium for weapons from the reactor’s spent fuel.

Requests for Briefings to Congress

In an Oct. 20 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Representatives Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), ranking members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, respectively, criticized the Bush administration for its secrecy regarding the strike. Noting that they were among the few members of Congress that were briefed on this issue, they argued that all members of Congress should receive information on the incident.

The lawmakers discussed the airstrike and reports of suspected Syrian nuclear cooperation from North Korea, Iran, or other rogue states in the context of current efforts in the six-party talks to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (see page 26). Noting that Congress will be asked to provide funds for energy assistance to North Korea as part of the agreements brokered in the six-party talks, Hoekstra and Ros-Lehtinen assert that “until Congress is fully briefed, it would be imprudent for the administration to move forward with agreements with state proliferators.”

On Sept. 25, Ros-Lehtinen introduced the North Korean Counterterrorism and Nonproliferation Act, which would apply conditions to the provision of nonhumanitarian assistance to North Korea or to Pyongyang’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. One such condition would require the president to certify that North Korea is not engaged in the proliferation of nuclear or missile technology.

The administration has maintained that concerns regarding North Korean proliferation must be addressed within the six-party talks. (See ACT, October 2007.)

IAEA Inquiries Into the Nuclear Angle

The IAEA issued a press release Oct. 15 indicating that the agency did not have any information regarding an undeclared Syrian nuclear facility and that the IAEA is in contact with Syrian authorities to verify the veracity of reports regarding such a facility. The release also stated that “the IAEA Secretariat expects any country having information about nuclear-related activities in another country to provide that information to the IAEA.”

In an Oct. 22 interview with Le Monde newspaper, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei reiterated the agency’s request for information states might have regarding nuclear activities in Syria. He also expressed hope that states would attempt to address any such nuclear concerns through the IAEA prior to taking military action, stating, “Frankly, I venture to hope that before people decide to bombard and use force, they will come and see us to convey their concerns.”

On Oct. 18, the agency also began to examine commercial satellite images of the suspected site of the Israeli airstrike. The IAEA has not yet been able to determine whether the building in question was a nuclear facility, although it is continuing this examination.

Syria has a safeguards agreement in force with the IAEA and, according to a February 1992 decision of the IAEA Board of Governors, Syria is required to provide the agency with design information on any nuclear facilities “well before construction actually begins.”

Syria is prohibited from receiving nearly any nuclear technology from North Korea due to the obligations imposed by Security Council Resolution 1718. Adopted Oct. 14, 2006, in response to North Korea’s nuclear test, Resolution 1718 requires that all states prevent North Korean nationals from exporting or providing technical training, advice, services, or assistance related to items on the trigger list of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The NSG is a group of 45 states that comprise the world’s primary suppliers of nuclear technology and that are required to provide notification prior to transferring any of the items on a list of nuclear-related technologies. North Korea is also obligated not to transfer or provide any assistance regarding items on the trigger list.

In the wake of a Sept. 6 Israeli airstrike in Syria, members of Congress and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have pressed for more information regarding the attack and any undeclared Syrian nuclear facilities that may have been hit. Since the airstrike, press reports have continued to speculate regarding the target and purpose of the attack. The most detailed reports have recently suggested that the target was a construction site for a nuclear reactor similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor. (Continue)

Israel’s Nuclear Trade Proposal in the Context of the U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal


For Immediate Release: September 27, 2007
Press Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 x107

Documents surfaced this week outlining an Israeli proposal for criteria that nuclear suppliers should use in determining eligible recipients for nuclear commerce. That “criteria-based” approach contrasts sharply with the Bush administration’s pursuit of “India-specific” exemptions to existing U.S. and international nuclear commerce rules. Not only does the Israeli proposal underscore that bending rules for one state will increase pressure from others for similar favours, Israel’s dozen criteria highlights shortcomings in India’s bid for special treatment.

Israel tendered its proposal to the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in March 2007. The group’s 45 members, including the United States, aim to coordinate their nuclear export policies in order to prevent the spread of materials and technologies that could aid nuclear weapons programs. In 1992, the group adopted a rule significantly restricting nuclear trade with any non-nuclear-weapon state that does not subject all of its nuclear facilities and activities to international full-scope safeguards, such as inspections. That rule currently constrains India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan from engaging in international civilian nuclear trade because they do not allow such comprehensive safeguards and, despite possessing nuclear arms, they all are classified as non-nuclear-weapon states under the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

In July 2005, the Bush administration committed itself to nullify for India that full-scope safeguards rule, which was originally promoted by the United States. Pakistan has indicated that it wants a similar arrangement and Israel’s March proposal suggests it does not want to be left out. If any one or all three succeed, the result would be that current nuclear-armed NPT outliers would reap benefits previously reserved for countries abjuring nuclear weapons. That could have severe consequences for global efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. Other states might re-evaluate their policies to forswear nuclear weapons or conclude that global norms and treaties have little value.

Israel’s proposed criteria illustrate some of the reasons why India does not deserve preferential treatment. For instance, one criterion notes that non-NPT states should be “in full compliance with any nuclear cooperation agreement previously entered into.” India had a previous agreement with the United States but blatantly broke it by testing a nuclear device in 1974 that was partially derived from U.S. materials supplied solely for peaceful purposes. India’s government still insists that test was a “peaceful” nuclear explosion, and it also maintains that it has a “right” to conduct future nuclear tests. Other criteria also raise questions for India because of its ongoing relations with Iran, which has violated its international safeguards and is charged by the United States and other countries as illicitly pursuing nuclear arms.

The Israeli proposal, however, fails to include as criteria two other essential measures of good nonproliferation behaviour: signature and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which outlaws nuclear explosions, and cessation of the production of fissile material, plutonium and highly enriched uranium, for nuclear weapon purposes.

When pondering changes to existing nuclear rules, governments should proceed with extreme caution to avoid undermining the global nonproliferation regime and maintain common sense conditions on nuclear trade that enshrine standards for and require responsible behaviour by all.

A copy of the Israeli proposal and additional information on the proposed U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement are available at http://www.armscontrol.org/projects/india/.


Documents surfaced this week outlining an Israeli proposal for criteria that nuclear suppliers should use in determining eligible recipients for nuclear commerce. That “criteria-based” approach contrasts sharply with the Bush administration’s pursuit of “India-specific” exemptions to existing U.S. and international nuclear commerce rules. Not only does the Israeli proposal underscore that bending rules for one state will increase pressure from others for similar favours, Israel’s dozen criteria highlights shortcomings in India’s bid for special treatment. (Continue)

Country Resources:

U.S. Plans Major Middle East Arms Sales

David Houska

Citing threats from Iran, Syria, and various terrorist groups, the Bush administration is offering more than $60 billion in new weapons and military assistance to Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the latest U.S. Middle East arms sales campaign July 30 just before she and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to the region. The specifics of the deals must still be negotiated, but the agreements are anticipated to be ready for formal congressional notification by mid-September.

Although Rice characterized the proposals as the continuation of long-standing U.S. policy, she said that the deals were intended to “help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns underscored the threat from Iran, saying that the future sales will “provide a deterrence against Iranian expansionism and Iranian aggression in the future.”

Under the proposed agreements, the United States will supply $3 billion and $1.3 billion of military aid to Israel and Egypt, respectively, each year for 10 years starting in fiscal year 2009, which will begin Oct. 1, 2008. The United States has provided military assistance to Israel and Egypt since the 1970s. The new proposals represent a 25 percent increase in aid to Israel and a continuation of Egyptian aid at present levels. Burns signed the agreement with Israel on Aug. 16.

U.S. negotiators also are discussing major new arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the other five countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates). The sales have been widely reported to be worth around $20 billion with the lion’s share going to Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency catalogues almost $17 billion in U.S. arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia since fiscal year 1998. An October 2006 Congressional Research Service report says that Saudi Arabia has imported more than $50 billion of weapons over that general period, making it far and away the largest arms importer in the developing world.

Some U.S. lawmakers quickly denounced the Saudi arms sale and have said that they will attempt to block any sale of “high technology armaments” presented for congressional approval. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) had the harshest words for the proposed sale, citing lack of Saudi support for U.S. efforts in Iraq and in fighting terrorism. In an Aug. 2 press release, he called the deal “mind-bogglingly bad policy because the [Saudis] at every turn have been uncooperative. The idea that we are going to reward the [Saudis] with precision weaponry is a stunningly bad idea.”

The 1976 Arms Export Control Act mandates that Congress be notified of all proposed arms sales above $14 million, with a higher threshold for sales to Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and NATO members. By law, Congress has 30 days after notification to stop proposed sales by passing a resolution with a majority vote in each house. However, a two-thirds majority would effectively be required in each house to override an expected presidential veto.

Weiner and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) have announced that they intend to introduce such a resolution when Congress is formally notified of the sales. In an Aug. 2 letter to President George W. Bush, a bipartisan group of 114 representatives questioned whether Saudi Arabia was a true U.S. ally. The letter noted that Saudi King Abdullah recently called the U.S. mission in Iraq an “illegitimate foreign occupation” and that more than 50 percent of all suicide bombers in Iraq were Saudis.

Other members of Congress were more ambivalent. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) has said that he is seeking a complete briefing once the sales are finalized and will “see where we are then.” Lantos said in a July 28 statement that although he was glad that U.S. allies had seen the danger of Iran, “we particularly want to ensure that these arrangements include only defensive systems.” The Saudi deal reportedly would include satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (J-DAMs), fighter aircraft upgrades, and new warships.

Israel historically has opposed U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and members of the Israeli media and political right have expressed concern that weapons sold to Saudi Arabia could be used against Israel or even the United States. The critics fear that the Saudi government could be overthrown and the weapons fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. Iran’s air force currently flies F-14 fighters that were sold to the pro-American shah just before the 1979 revolution that brought the current regime to power.

Still, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave tacit approval to the proposal. He told the Israeli Cabinet that “[w]e understand the need of the United States to support the Arab moderate states and there is a need for a united front between the U.S. and us regarding Iran.” State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey told reporters July 30 that the United States will abide by its long-standing policy of ensuring Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors.

The U.S. arms effort coincides with several other confirmed and rumored arms sales to the Middle East. France announced Aug. 2 a $405 million arms deal with Libya in which it would provide Libya with anti-tank missiles and radio equipment. Israeli media have reported that Iran is preparing to place a massive order with Russia for fighters and airborne tankers, but these unconfirmed stories have been categorically denied in Moscow and Tehran.

Citing threats from Iran, Syria, and various terrorist groups, the Bush administration is offering more than $60 billion in new weapons and military assistance to Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies in the Middle East. (Continue)

Israel, Neighbors Mull Nuclear Power Programs

Miles A. Pomper

Soon after the United States and India concluded negotiations on a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, Israeli officials announced in August that they too may be seeking U.S. help in furthering a civilian nuclear power program. The move comes at a time when Israel is pressuring the international community to clamp down on Iran’s nuclear program and as several other Middle Eastern states have declared their interest in civilian nuclear power programs.

Officials at Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission and Ministry of National Infrastructure confirmed Aug. 1 that the government would be conducting a preliminary feasibility study on constructing a nuclear power reactor. If built, the 1,200-1,500-megawatt reactor at Shivta, in the Negev desert near Egypt, would be the first power reactor to be built in the country. It would meet as much as one-tenth of Israel’s electricity demand, according to the Aug. 16 edition of Nucleonics Week. The publication reported that Israel would be looking to a U.S. vendor to supply the reactor.

Israeli officials said they would subject any new reactor to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, which aim to prevent the diversion of fissile material from peaceful uses to military ones. An Israeli research reactor at Soreq is already subject to facility-specific safeguards.

Nonetheless, Israel has a widely acknowledged nuclear weapons program using plutonium from an unsafeguarded reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert but has never publicly confirmed that it possesses a nuclear weapons arsenal. Like India and Pakistan, Israel has not signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which would bar it from possessing nuclear arms as a non-nuclear-weapon state.

If Israel moves forward with its plans, it could pose a dilemma for the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The voluntary group, in which nuclear suppliers seek to coordinate their export controls on nuclear transfers to non-nuclear-weapon states, must give its consent to rule changes to allow the pending U.S.-Indian deal to go forward. The United States has proposed a one-time India-specific exception to NSG rules prohibiting nuclear trade with non-nuclear-weapon states that do not subject all of their nuclear facilities to IAEA safeguards (see page 22 ).

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns reiterated that approach at a July 27 briefing on the U.S.-Indian deal. “I can assure you that the United States is not going to suggest a similar deal with any other country in the world,” Burns said. Current Pakistani and former senior Israeli officials have argued that cooperation with NPT outliers should not be decided on a country-by-country basis but by a set of common criteria.

Israel is not the only Middle Eastern state indicating an interest in advancing a civil nuclear power program. About a dozen nations in the region have declared their interest in such programs in the past year.

“The rules governing the nuclear issue have changed in the entire region,” Jordan’s King Abdullah II told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in January.

Some states have hinted at the need to develop a hedge against Iran’s nuclear program. Officials have also cited environmental and economic reasons, saying they need a source of power other than fossil fuels for peaceful purposes such as electricity generation and desalination.

Among the leaders are Egypt and Turkey. Officials in Egypt, which abandoned a previous nuclear program after the 1986 Chernobyl accident, have proposed building a 1,000-megawatt reactor on its Mediterranean coast in the next decade with plans for more. Turkey wants to build at least a pair of power reactors along its Mediterranean or Black Sea coasts within the next five to six years.

In addition, Libya, which abandoned a fledgling nuclear weapons program in December 2003, has signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with France under which Paris would provide a reactor to power a Libyan desalination plant (see below). Algeria and Russia signed a nuclear development agreement in January 2007 as the North African nation, which has operated two research reactors for well more than a decade, aims to produce nuclear power. More controversially, Iran has also offered to share nuclear expertise with Algeria.

At the end of 2006, Saudi Arabia and the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates [UAE]) commissioned a year-long joint study on “the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has discussed nuclear cooperation with Riyadh, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has agreed to help the UAE launch its own nuclear program.

Not to be left out, Jordan’s Abdullah discussed the possibility of purchasing Canadian reactors with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in July. In March, Jordanian Energy Minister Khaled Sharida said Amman wants to build its first reactor by 2015.

Morocco, Tunisia, and Syria have also indicated interest in peaceful nuclear power programs.

It is not clear how many of these proposals will come to fruition. Previous plans to build such plants in the region never went forward due to lack of financing or because of drops in the price of oil.

Soon after the United States and India concluded negotiations on a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, Israeli officials announced in August that they too may be seeking U.S. help in furthering a civilian nuclear power program. The move comes at a time when Israel is pressuring the international community to clamp down on Iran’s nuclear program and as several other Middle Eastern states have declared their interest in civilian nuclear power programs. By Miles A. Pomper (Continue)


Subscribe to RSS - Israel