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Iran May Hide Its Nuclear Ambitions From Some, but Not Israel

December 10, 2003|Bennett Ramberg | Bennett Ramberg was a policy analyst in the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs during the first Bush administration. E-mail: bennett

In early 1981, Moshe Arens, then chairman of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security, declared with striking bluntness that Israel would never allow Iraq to acquire nuclear weapons. Months later, Israel made good on Arens' remark: It bombed Iraq's Osirak reactor.

Without question, no nation is more concerned about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East than Israel. Furthermore, no nation is more willing to take action to halt it.

Recent statements by Israeli officials raise the specter that Iran is now on Israel's target list. Appearing before a Knesset committee, Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, warned on Nov. 17 that Iran's nuclear activities posed the gravest "threat to the existence of Israel" since the state's creation in 1948. A week earlier, in a visit to Washington, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz declared that Iran was reaching the "point of no return" in its nuclear ambitions.

Has Israel initiated a countdown to destroy Iran's capacity? Certainly, it would be understandable if Israel doesn't believe that others will take care of the problem. The International Atomic Energy Agency's attempt to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions have failed. Despite the agency's finding that Tehran violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for nearly two decades, it decided to not apply sanctions or require that Iran abandon facilities that could produce material for the bomb. Rather, the IAEA agreed to accept Iran's new "spirit of cooperation" while promising that "further significant [safeguard] failures" would "trigger" United Nations Security Council consideration.

Israel is unlikely to accept this solution. Its skepticism stems from a unique perspective: It is quite familiar with the artful, secret path Iran is traveling as it builds the bomb under the noses of international inspectors and concerned countries. After all, Israel pioneered the technique.

At the beginning of the Jewish state, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, understandably obsessed with Israel's vulnerability to Arab attack, proposed a three-part solution: robust conventional forces; defensive alliances with the United States, NATO and others; and nuclear weapons. Although Israel never found an alliance partner, it did establish the preeminent conventional military force in the region and it did successfully build the bomb.

To do so, Israel shrouded its nuclear program in secrecy, repeatedly misrepresented its intentions to the international community, received nuclear assistance from benefactors who should have known better and conned U.S. nuclear inspectors.

The program gained steam when France agreed to export a nuclear reactor to be situated in Dimona, Israel, after the Jewish state promised to use the plant for peaceful purposes. In time, France got wind that the program was going in another direction but took no action. Ditto Norway, from which Israel imported heavy water.

As the years passed, the United States became a stumbling block. Responding to the Eisenhower administration's suspicions, Israel stated that its nuclear efforts promoted the "development of scientific knowledge for eventual industrial, agricultural, medical and other scientific purposes." Further, nuclear enterprises would help develop the Negev. Ben-Gurion called claims that Israel sought the bomb a "deliberate or unwitting untruth."

Publicly, President Eisenhower bought this representation. In a report to Congress, the administration stated that it had "been assured categorically at the highest level of the Israeli government that Israel has no plans for the production of atomic weapons."

The Kennedy administration pressed for additional assurances by demanding inspections. Reluctantly, Israel agreed to multiple visits by U.S. scientists, who found no evidence that a nuclear program existed. These findings were never fully believed by the White House, which warned Israel that if it didn't come clean, U.S. military assistance would be jeopardized.

Israel dithered. It declared that it would never be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. It also agreed to give careful consideration to NPT membership. By this time, 1968, the matter was moot: Israel already was well on the way to becoming a nuclear weapons state, and Washington's threat to cut off conventional military sales proved to be a bluff.

Today, as it ponders Iran's false declarations, concealed importation of nuclear technology, construction of secret nuclear fuel cycle facilities and the impediments to inspection, Israel well understands what Iran is up to. And, just as Arens concluded in early 1981, it now believes it must stop this nuclear challenger.

The clock is ticking: Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant will come on line in 2005, and Iran can break its own moratorium on operating nuclear enrichment plants at any time.

If past is prologue, Israel could initiate an attack soon. Only a mea culpa by Tehran coupled with a thorough dismantling of its nuclear weapons capacity -- akin to what South Africa and Ukraine undertook -- would satisfy Israel. Absent that, the Jewish state will not allow the mullahs, who call for Israel's elimination, to follow in its own nuclear footsteps.

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