IN A secret special national intelligence estimate (SNIE) in 1960, the American intelligence community concluded that “possession of a nuclear weapon capability . . . would clearly give Israel a greater sense of security, self-confidence, and assertiveness.” For almost half a century since, Israel has possessed a nuclear-weapons monopoly in the Middle East, a monopoly it has fought hard to preserve.
Israel has never acknowledged publicly that it is a nuclear-weapons state, but it has also never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Now the Arabs, led by Egypt, are demanding that Israel do so or they will sabotage the future of the NPT regime. They rightly argue that Washington has a double standard when it comes to Israel’s bomb: the NPT applies to all but Israel. Indeed, every Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion has deliberately taken an evasive posture on the issue because they do not want to admit what everyone knows. Now that era may be coming to an end, raising fundamental questions about Israel’s strategic situation in the region.
Perhaps never before has the government in Jerusalem felt under greater threat than with the Iranian atomic program. The temptation is to attack. It is an exercise in futility with likely disastrous results. The United States should take steps to assure Israel’s deterrence remains strong, as this is the only way to both prevent an Israeli assault on Iran in the short term and to contain Tehran in the future.
FOR ANYONE in doubt of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, first a few facts. Israel’s longtime pursuit of the bomb is fairly well known; recent scholarship in Israel has clarified the details further still.
In 1952, Ben-Gurion set up the Israel Atomic Energy Commission—just four years after independence—and concluded a deal with France a few years later to secretly build the Dimona nuclear reactor. Shimon Peres, today Israel’s president, was the key negotiator and architect of the deal. By 1960, as the declassified SNIE shows, the CIA had uncovered the project and was convinced that “plutonium production for weapons is at least one major purpose of this effort.” President John F. Kennedy tried to persuade Israel to forego the bomb without success.
The program moved quickly, and as of 1974 the U.S. intelligence community believed “that Israel already has produced and stockpiled a small number of fission weapons.”1 Press reporting about the Israeli program became common in the 1970s.
An Israeli employee at Dimona, Mordechai Vanunu, told the London Sunday Times in 1986 that it was a bomb factory. He was then kidnapped by the Mossad and imprisoned in Israel. Vanunu revealed that the Dimona plant had produced enough plutonium to construct between one hundred and two hundred nuclear weapons. Some who interviewed him even suggest that Israel may have found his revelations a useful but deniable way to confirm the existence of its nuclear arsenal.2
The size of Israel’s stockpile today (agreed upon by most think tanks around the world) is estimated at around eighty to one hundred nuclear weapons by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ annual survey of global nuclear arsenals. They can be delivered by aircraft or by multistage Jericho ballistic missiles. We are talking about a well-armed atomic state.
ISRAEL’S POSSESSION of the bomb has given it the self-confidence and assertiveness that the U.S. intelligence community expected it would in 1960. Prime minister after prime minister has been willing to take risks knowing Israel has the ultimate deterrent.
Research in Israel suggests Egypt’s concern about the Dimona bomb was an important factor in Cairo forcing a crisis with Israel in May 1967. Publicly alarmed by the Dimona project, Egypt’s reconnaissance flights over the nuclear site helped set the stage for the Six-Day War. And though it is very difficult to document just how much the bomb factored in decisions such as the Israeli preemptive strike on Egypt that June which won the war less than an hour after its start, or the decision in October 1973 not to preempt the Egyptian and Syrian attack on Yom Kippur, since Israeli leaders carefully avoid any discussion of their nuclear arsenal or its role in their strategy, it is obvious that possession of a nuclear capability must be a factor in the thinking of any state’s leaders in developing their strategy and plans.
It is also abundantly clear that Israel’s nuclear capability has not kept its enemies from attacking. Iranian-backed terrorist groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank have both fired rockets into Israel in two recent wars despite the country’s possession of nuclear weapons that could obliterate them all. This too is no surprise. Other atomic-weapons states, including America, have found that their nuclear deterrents do not prevent conventional war or terrorism. But they can prevent massive retaliation.
The Israelis have threatened to use their capability at least once. In 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War, then–Israeli Deputy Chief of Staff Ehud Barak told King Hussein of Jordan to pass the following message to Saddam Hussein at a secret meeting in England: “If one single chemical warhead falls on Israel, we’ll hit Iraq with everything we have got. . . . look at your watch and forty minutes later an Iraqi city will be reduced to ashes.”3 It worked. Saddam fired conventionally armed warheads at Tel Aviv, Haifa and Dimona, but no chemicals.
ISRAEL SEES its nuclear monopoly as a key factor in its security. Successive Israeli governments have thus ensured that no other state in the Middle East becomes nuclear armed. Time and again, the challenge arises; time and again, the Israelis thwart the attempt. Egypt certainly tried to develop a bomb, but a combination of technical constraints, Israeli sabotage operations and the Soviets’ unwillingness to share technology prevented the Egyptian program from advancing. President Anwar el-Sadat largely abandoned the effort once he made the decision to seek peace with Israel. Iraq was next.
On June 7, 1981, the Israeli air force attacked and destroyed Saddam’s nuclear reactor at Tuwaitha in Operation Babylon, setting back its nuclear-weapons program several years. Ironically, Tuwaitha was also French supplied, and King Hussein saw the Israeli aircraft overfly his yacht on their way to and from the site. Two days later, Prime Minister Menachem Begin said publicly that “we shall not allow any enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction.” The Begin doctrine would be accepted by his successors.
Though the Iraqi nuclear program was delayed, it was not eliminated, and so the Israelis helped to hamper it once again. After the liberation of Kuwait, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered that Iraq had recovered from the Israeli attack and had developed a highly advanced, secret centrifuge-enrichment project. Over the next several years Israel provided considerable intelligence assistance to UNSCOM and the IAEA as these agencies systematically destroyed the Iraqi program. By 1995, Israel was the most important single contributor among the dozens of UN member states that supplied information to UNSCOM according to those (myself included) who were involved in supporting the UN effort.4 Such assistance was entirely appropriate and consistent with Israel’s responsibilities as a UN member state, but it also helped ensure Israel kept its monopoly on the bomb.
On September 6, 2007, the Israeli air force struck once more and destroyed a nuclear facility in Al Kibar, Syria. The Israeli government said almost nothing about the attack at the time and very little since. Unlike Begin, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not make it a public issue, and for their own reasons neither did the Syrians.
The CIA released a remarkable video about the facility in April 2008. According to the video, Al Kibar was a North Korean–built, gas-worked, graphite-moderated nuclear reactor intended to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. It was a clone of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor; only North Korea has built such a facility. Al Kibar was the product of a decade-old Syrian-Korean nuclear partnership, meaning it began under former-President Hafez al-Assad and continued under his son Bashar, the CIA reported. The video made use of both satellite and ground photography as well as other unspecified sources of information. The reactor was externally complete by August 2007. The video reported that since September 2006, Syria had taken great steps to conceal and cover up what was eventually destroyed by the Israelis.
The only exception to the rule is Pakistan—the one Muslim state which has developed a nuclear arsenal. But in this case we are talking about a geographically distant country, and one that has never participated in military operations against Israel. Islamabad developed its bomb primarily during the era of Mohammad Zia ul-Haq’s dictatorship in the 1980s, when it was closely allied with the United States and fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. A. Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, has claimed that Zia warned Israel that if it tried to interfere with Pakistan’s program he would destroy Tel Aviv. When Islamabad did test its bombs in 1998, it tried to argue that Israel was on the verge of attacking its nuclear facilities and the tests were in self-defense. The charade of blaming Israel fooled no one.
ISRAEL NOW faces the biggest-ever challenge to its monopoly on the bomb in the Middle East from Iran. For Israel, Tehran is a dangerous opponent, close and threatening. There is a virtually unanimous consensus in Israel that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. From left to right, Israelis see an existential threat to their very survival. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum in Jerusalem in 2007 that Iran is a “crazy,” even suicidal, state that will be prepared to sacrifice millions of its own citizens in a nuclear exchange with Israel.
Though other Israeli leaders are more cautious, even they are strongly determined to keep Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons. Ephraim Sneh, former deputy defense minister and a much-decorated retired general in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), notes that “the most salient strategic threat to Israel’s existence is Iran.” They fear Israel’s strategic room for maneuver in the region would be constrained by an Iranian nuclear deterrent. The success of Hezbollah and Hamas in the last few years has only added to Israeli concern.
It is clear from statements of Israeli military and intelligence officials and numerous press leaks that planning for a military operation to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is well under way in Israel. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that “the things that we do behind the scenes, far from the public eye, are far more important than the slogan charade,” implying that Israeli covert capabilities are already hard at work trying to cope with the Iranian threat, and preparing to attack it if they must. It is impossible to know what those plans entail in detail without access to the IDF’s classified documents, but Israelis say the mission is not an impossible one.
It is certainly a challenging one. Distance alone makes Iran a much more difficult target than Iraq or Syria. The most direct route from Israel to Iran’s Natanz facility is roughly 1,750 kilometers across Jordan and Iraq. The alternatives via Turkish airspace (over 2,200 kilometers) or Saudi airspace (over 2,400 kilometers) would also put the attack force into the skies of American allies equipped with American fighter aircraft. Moreover, unlike Iraq and Syria, but like Pakistan, the Iranian program is dispersed throughout several facilities and sites around the country, some of which are underground and hardened. An attack might require multiple missions over several days. Israel would have to assume some aircraft and pilots would be lost.
Though Israel is giving diplomacy and sanctions time to change Iranian behavior, few in Jerusalem expect the soft approach to work. Most also doubt the United States will use force. America already is engaged in two wars in the Middle East, and all the disadvantages of an Israeli attack apply to an American one as well. To keep its monopoly on the bomb Israel may well choose to strike.
AN ISRAELI attack on Iran is a disaster in the making. And it will directly impact key strategic American interests. Iran will see an attack as American supported if not American orchestrated. The aircraft in any strike will be American-produced, -supplied and -funded F-15s and F-16s, and most of the ordnance will be from American stocks. Washington’s $3 billion in assistance annually makes possible the IDF’s conventional superiority in the region.
Iran will almost certainly retaliate against both U.S. and Israeli targets. To demonstrate its retaliatory prowess, Iran has already fired salvos of test missiles (some of which are capable of striking Israel), and Iranian leaders have warned they would respond to an attack by either Israel or the United States with attacks against Tel Aviv, U.S. ships and facilities in the Persian Gulf, and other targets. Even if Iran chooses to retaliate in less risky ways, it could respond indirectly by encouraging Hezbollah attacks against Israel and Shia militia attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as terrorist attacks against American and Israeli targets in the Middle East and beyond.
America’s greatest vulnerability would be in Afghanistan. Iran could easily increase its assistance to the Taliban and make the already-difficult Afghan mission much more complicated. Western Afghanistan is especially vulnerable to Iranian mischief, and NATO has few troops there to cover a vast area. President Obama would have to send more, not fewer, troops to fight that war.
Making matters worse, considering the likely violent ramifications, even a successful Israeli raid would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not eliminate it entirely. In fact, some Israeli intelligence officials suspect that delay would only be a year or so. Thus the United States would still need a strategy to deal with the basic problem of Iran’s capabilities after an attack, but in a much more complicated diplomatic context since Tehran would be able to argue it was the victim of aggression and probably would renounce its NPT commitments. Support for the existing sanctions on Iran after a strike would likely evaporate.
The United States needs to send a clear red light to Israel. There is no option but to actively discourage an Israeli attack. There is precedent for Washington telling Israel not to use force against a military threat. In the 1991 Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush pressed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir not to target Iraqi Scud missile launchers that were attacking Israel. Most importantly, Bush refused to give the Israelis the iff codes (encrypted signals to identify aircraft as “friend or foe”) and approval to enter Iraqi airspace, thereby indicating that Israeli aircraft would be flying into harm’s way. Israel’s preferred option of a limited ground-force incursion into western Iraq was also turned down. Of course, in 1991 we were at war with Iraq and committed to stepping up our own attacks on Iraqi Scuds, but the point remains—America does have influence and it should be wielded.
PERSUADING ISRAEL not to attack Iran really means convincing Israel that now is the time to give up its regional nuclear monopoly. If we are going to do so, that means enhancing Israel’s deterrence posture. This is the only way Israel can feel (and will be) safe from an Iranian nuclear threat.
Iran will be subject to the same deterrence system that other nuclear-weapons states have accommodated since 1945: it will try to use its nuclear status to intimidate non-nuclear-weapons nations but will avoid conflict that could escalate into an atomic exchange with another nuclear power. Without doubt, throughout its history the Islamic Republic has behaved very disagreeably, but it has been careful to avoid taking actions that would lead to catastrophic consequences.
In the defining event of modern U.S.-Iran relations, for example, the hostage crisis of 1979–1981, Tehran acted in ways that were in clear violation of international law, but when it perceived a given course would provoke a massive violent American response, it desisted. In the summer of 1980 Iranian leaders repeatedly threatened to put the American hostages on trial for espionage. President Jimmy Carter made clear that any trials would produce a military response and Iran retreated. In the 1988 undeclared naval war in the Persian Gulf between the United States and Iran over reflagged Kuwaiti tankers, Iran attacked U.S. Navy ships but was careful to keep the conflict from escalating into a full-scale war. When the USS Vincennes inadvertently shot down an Iran Air civilian airliner, Ayatollah Khomeini sensed the conflict was getting out of control and agreed to a cease-fire with Iraq and the United States.
Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran also chose to avoid actions that would cross WMD thresholds. It was Iraq that first used chemical weapons on the battlefield, not Iran, and it was Iraq that first used missiles against Iranian cities. In the mid-1990s, when the United States determined Iran was behind the terrorist attack on the U.S. Air Force barracks at Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and warned Iran that any further attacks would prompt military retaliation, Iran desisted from carrying out operations on American military facilities in the Gulf and elsewhere. Today Iran is careful to limit its support of anti-American insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan to low-intensity conflict and asymmetric warfare to avoid a major American military response. Contrary to Netanyahu’s cries, Iran is not a crazy state. A nuclear security guarantee to Israel, if backed by a credible arsenal, will deter Tehran.
IN SUCH a dire (but manageable) situation, the United States needs to bolster Israel’s capabilities now. The administration should take another look at extending the American nuclear umbrella. It is an idea that has long been floated. At the Camp David summit in 2000, then–Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak first raised the idea of a U.S.-Israeli mutual-defense treaty to provide Israel with a nuclear guarantee against Iran while sitting in a meeting with then-President Bill Clinton and two note takers (me and an Israeli). Clinton was positive about the idea if the summit succeeded. The proposal died when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapsed. But it is worth taking another look. And it is a policy prescription not too difficult to employ.
Of course, Israel’s own nuclear arsenal should be sufficient to deter Iran, but an American nuclear guarantee would add an extra measure of assurance to Israelis. If the United States guarantees Israel a nuclear umbrella, then Iran knows no matter what damage it may inflict on Israel, Washington will be able to retaliate with overwhelming force. Iran would have no delivery system capable of striking back at the U.S. homeland. It would be the target of both whatever residual capability Israel retained and the vast American nuclear arsenal. That is a deterrent indeed.
It would be made even stronger if the administration could develop a multinational nuclear deterrent for Israel by making Israel a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Under Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, an attack on any member is an attack on the whole. As a NATO member, Israel would automatically enjoy the same nuclear umbrella as the existing twenty-eight members. Israel is already a member of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue and conducts limited military exercises with several NATO partners besides the United States, notably including both Greece and Turkey.
Of course, getting Israel into NATO would be a very hard sell, as many of the European allies believe Israel has done too little to bring about peace with its Arab neighbors and would probably condition support for Israeli membership on concrete and public moves toward a final peace agreement. European public opinion is increasingly wary of enlarging NATO in any direction, and many would find Israel an unattractive ally which could commit Europeans to fighting Arabs and Persians. In the wake of May’s Gaza flotilla incident, Turkey might veto Israeli membership.
This is why, in the meantime, the administration should go another step and actually assist Israel in developing its own second-strike capabilities further. Already the United States has been deeply involved in building Israel’s defense against an Iranian missile strike. For almost two decades the Pentagon has been working closely with Israel to perfect the Arrow anti-tactical ballistic-missile (ATBM) system. The two countries have shared extensive technology on the question of ATBMs, including integrating Israel into the most advanced American early-warning radar systems to provide the earliest possible alert of an incoming attack. This defensive cooperation should be continued and enhanced.
The next step would be to ensure Israel has the delivery systems that would safeguard a second-strike capability. The F-15I probably already does so for the immediate future, but it is worth examining the wisdom of providing the F-22 stealth aircraft to the IDF as an even-more-sophisticated attack system that would be able to assure Israel’s deterrence far into the future. Prime Minister Barak raised this issue with President Clinton at the Camp David summit in 2000, and it too should be reexamined. We might look at providing Israel with advanced cruise-missile technology or even nuclear-powered submarines with missile capabilities to enhance its capacity to launch from platforms at sea.
THE ERA of Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East is probably coming to an end. Israel will still have a larger arsenal than any of its neighbors, including Iran, for years if not decades. It will face threats of terror and conventional attack, but it already faces those. With American help it can enhance its deterrence capabilities considerably. It has no reason to lose its self-confidence. But to avoid the potential for all-out war not only between Israel and Iran but also between the United States and the Islamic Republic, Washington needs to act now. Only by enhancing Israel’s nuclear capability will America be able to strongly and credibly deter an Israeli attack on Tehran’s facilities.
The clock is ticking on the IDF’s plans. And the lives of hundreds, if not millions, are at stake.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues in the White House on the staff of the NSC.
1 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Special National Intelligence Estimate: Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, SNIE Number 4-1-74, August 23, 1974, declassified DocID: 1472492.
2 This argument was made by the expert the London Sunday Times called in to debrief Vanunu, Frank Barnaby, in his book The Invisible Bomb: The Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East (London: Taurus, 1989).
3 See Avi Shlaim, Lion Of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace (London: Penguin, 2007): 508.
4 Barton Gellman, “Israel Gave Key Help to UN Team in Iraq,” Washington Post, September 29, 1998.