Iran's Secret Nuclear Development Looks a Lot Like Israel's

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Tehran's nuclear program is following a similar path as did Israel a half-century earlier.

nuke march6 p.jpg

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reviews, Iran's long-range Shahab-3 missile at a military parade / AP

During an interview with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2011, Piers Morgan posed a serious question:

Morgan: Do you have nuclear weapons?

Netanyahu: Well, we have a longstanding policy that we won't be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, and that hasn't changed.

Morgan: So you don't have any?

Netanyahu: That's our policy. Not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

Despite the word games, it is well known that Israel has been a nuclear weapons power for forty-five years. As several Israeli historians and journalists have revealed, Israel crossed the nuclear threshold on the eve of the Six Day War in May 1967. Summarized by Patrick Tyler in his book, A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East--from the Cold War to the War on Terror:

"[Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol, according to a number of Israeli sources, secretly ordered the Dimona [nuclear reactor] scientists to assemble two crude nuclear devices. He placed them under the command of Brigadier General Yitzhak Yaakov, the chief of research and development in Israel's Defense Ministry. One official said the operation was referred to as Spider because the nuclear devices were inelegant contraptions with appendages sticking out. The crude atomic bombs were readied for deployment on trucks that could race to the Egyptian border for detonation in the event Arab forces overwhelmed Israeli defenses."

It took years, however, for the United States to verify that Israel had developed a nuclear weapon. This uncertainty persisted despite numerous U.S. inspections of the Dimona reactor--carefully stage-managed by the Israeli government to deceive the Kennedy and Johnson administrations--and assurances that Israel would not "introduce" nuclear weapons into the region. On May 1, 1967, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach wrote to President Johnson under the heading, "The Arab-Israeli Arms Race and Status of U.S. Arms Control Efforts:"

"Nuclear Weapons. Concerned that over the long run the Arabs will achieve superiority in conventional forces, Israel is carefully preserving its option to acquire sophisticated weapons, including, we believe, nuclear weapons. We have no evidence that Israel is actually making a bomb, but we believe Israel intends to keep itself in a position to do so at reasonably short notice should the need arise. The Israeli reactor at Dimona is capable of producing enough plutonium to make one or two bombs a year, but thus far our periodic inspections of this facility (most recently on April 22, 1967) have uncovered no evidence of weapons activity."

If you replaced the words "Israel" with "Iran," it would largely echo the recent findings of the U.S. intelligence community on the suspected Iranian nuclear weapons program. In a twist of historical irony, Iran's contemporary playbook mirrors the one used by Israel to acquire a nuclear weapon in the 1950s and 1960s.

As Tehran worries about an Israeli attack on its nuclear program today, Israeli officials in the 1960s were also deeply paranoid that Egypt would initiate a preventive attack on the Dimona reactor. In 1965, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Yitzhak Rabin, warned, "If Egypt bombs Dimona, and we want to wage a war, we could be issued an ultimatum from the entire world." While Israel assembled its first nuclear weapon in May 1967, Egypt conducted high-altitude reconnaissance flights of Dimona. After sifting through the evidence, historian Avner Cohen concluded, "Egypt may have been very close to launching an aerial attack on Dimona on May 26 or May 27, but it was called off by [Egyptian Prime Minister Gamal Abdel] Nasser on a few hours' notice."

In 1974, the CIA revealed in a special national intelligence estimate (SNIE), "we believe that Israel already has produced nuclear weapons," but, "we do not expect the Israelis to provide confirmation of widespread suspicions of their capability, either by nuclear testing or by threats of use."

[That same SNIE assessed: "[Iran] is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and all its reactors and other facilities will be safeguarded. Although withdrawal from the NPT or abrogation of safeguards is possible, no Iranian leader is going to take that step while a nuclear energy program is in the middle of implementation." Of course, we now know this was wrong, because by April 1984 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had already decided to restart the Iranian nuclear program to defend the Islamic Revolution from external threats.]

Today, Israel's nuclear arsenal is estimated to include up to two hundred nuclear warheads that can be delivered by F-16 fighter-bombers, Jericho missiles, and Diesel-powered Dolphin-class submarines supplied by Germany.

The existence of this vast destructive power--with secure second-strike capability--has never been acknowledged by Israeli officials, and is rarely vocalized by U.S. policymakers. In his recent interview with The Atlantic last Thursday, echoed before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference, President Obama warned that if Iran had a bomb, "It is almost certain that others in the region would feel compelled to get their own nuclear weapon, triggering an arms race in one of the world's most volatile regions."

Concerns regarding a cascade of proliferation instigated by an Iranian nuclear weapon are as likely today as when Israel built the bomb forty-five years ago. It is no coincidence that nuclear weapons were introduced to the region primarily by adversaries of Iran: the United States via its nuclear-weapons capable submarines; the Soviet Union's vast arsenal that included deployments in countries bordering Iran; Pakistan's nuclear capabilities that emerged in the mid-1980s; and the 60-70 B-61 bombs that still remain in Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Excluded from this list are Iraq's dual-track covert uranium enrichment efforts in the 1980s, which were eliminated by the Gulf War in 1991.

Israel gains nothing by sacrificing its moral and political authority to maintain the farce of "nuclear opacity" that no one believes. As I've written elsewhere, Israel should come out of the nuclear closet by following three concrete steps:

  1. Provide transparency about the size, command and control, nuclear security features and nonproliferation objectives of its nuclear arsenal as other non-NPT nuclear powers do.
  2. Sign a safeguards agreement with the IAEA covering all existing or future civilian nuclear facilities
  3. Participate in legitimate international forums where the issue of a WMD-free Middle East is debated.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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