"I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them."

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004

Israel and Multilateral Nuclear Approaches in the Middle East

Thomas Lorenz and Joanna Kidd

As most states in the Middle East have expressed an interest in or are already developing nuclear power, regional cooperation can be an important tool to build nuclear confidence and allay proliferation concerns. This article will investigate how Israel could fit into a nuclear energy development paradigm consisting of regional approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle.

In addition, it will argue that early progress in collaborative efforts can help to create momentum for the envisioned 2012 conference on developing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

Countries in the Middle East have cited a range of reasons for their resurgent or new interest in developing nuclear power, including the need to diversify energy sources and to meet increasing electricity demands. There are concerns that the interest is driven at least partly by Iran’s nuclear advances and suspicions that it may have a military dimension. Although nuclear power advancement in the Middle East can be viewed a priori with concern from a proliferation perspective, it could offer an opportunity for a net nonproliferation gain if technological development progresses down the right path of transparency and collaboration. The equation is straightforward. If these budding programs in the Middle East develop as completely separate national programs, mistrust is bound to increase. If they develop more in parallel with each other—with collaboration on such elements as information exchanges, transparency of plans, safety and security issues, and, potentially, fuel cycle activities—there is a real chance that nuclear development can serve instead as a tool to increase trust and confidence, feeding into a wider security-building agenda in the region.

Although nuclear cooperation has been a sensitive topic throughout the atomic era, it is particularly difficult to envision such ventures in the Middle East, with its chronically unstable political-security situation. Recent evidence suggests, however, that crossing the traditional Arab-Israeli divide is possible even in the nuclear area.

Access to Nuclear Technology

Israel is among the countries in the region that have expressed a renewed interest in nuclear energy. National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau used the opportunity of a civilian nuclear power conference in Paris in March to reiterate the country’s interest in developing nuclear power.[1] For the past 40 years, Israel has seen nuclear energy as an integral goal in its energy planning, but it has not yet introduced nuclear power into its energy mix. The Web site of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) says that Israel decided in the 1970s that “an option to produce electricity using nuclear reactors should be prepared and maintained.”[2] The Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) concluded in the 1980s that a site in the northern Negev desert near the town of Shivta would be suitable for a nuclear power plant. In his Paris speech, Landau confirmed that the Shivta site is still being maintained from a scientific and technical infrastructure point of view. The current plan is to have a two-unit nuclear power plant with a generation capacity of 1,200-1,500 megawatts operational by 2020.[3]

Israel considers itself an “energy island” because it is not connected to the grids of any of its neighbors and must import all its energy sources. From these imported sources, Israel produces around 13,000 megawatts of electricity, a figure that is expected to double by 2020. Without an indigenous nuclear power program, Israel will need either to continue relying on energy imports or seek alternative routes to nuclear power, such as regional collaboration. Israel’s energy situation provides an incentive for the country to seek a long-term regional nuclear deal in which it progressively increases the transparency of its nuclear activities in return for integration with neighbors on energy projects, a win-win situation for all countries in the region. Although Israel would not be interested in becoming dependent on any one source of energy imports, it is open to buying electricity generated from, for example, a Jordanian nuclear power plant.[4] Creating grid connections between Israel and neighboring Arab states would be a good peace project and open the door for further technological collaboration in the energy area. The initiation of talks on such grid connections could be plausible in the next couple of years and be a suitable precursor to other energy-related cooperative efforts.

The main constraint on Israel’s nuclear power development has been its exclusion from foreign assistance because it is not a signatory of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Because the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 granted India an exemption from the requirement of full-scope safeguards—meaning that all the country’s nuclear facilities would be open to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors—as a condition for trade, Israel has been lobbying for the group to draw up a list of objective trade criteria for non-NPT states. The NSG has been engaging Israel for the past few years, but the group has received Israeli proposals with lukewarm interest. In May 2009, NSG Chairman Viktor Elbling led a delegation to Israel to discuss export controls and Israel’s relationship with the NSG.

Some, including former IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, have argued that India’s NSG exception amounts to a nonproliferation gain because it draws the country into the regime. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that further erosion of nuclear export controls, by granting Israel similar rights, will benefit nonproliferation. In fact, as the world sees a rising interest in nuclear power, the NSG should play an increasingly important role in anticipation of expanded nuclear trade. Unfortunately, the group has not been able to agree on strengthened guidelines on transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. To regain credibility lost with the India exemption, the NSG must agree on tighter rules related to these technologies and refrain from further exemptions.

Where does this leave Israel as far as partaking in a regional arrangement when it does not have access to nuclear technology? Israel developed its nuclear infrastructure with foreign assistance but prior to the establishment of the NPT and the NSG. It is maintaining its current nuclear activities with limited access to the international nuclear market as controlled by the NSG. An ardent nonproliferation argument would hold that Israel should not even reap the benefit of nuclear energy indirectly, such as by buying nuclear-generated electricity from neighboring states, because of its status as an NPT holdout. Fred McGoldrick, a former U.S. Department of State official, said in March that although an arrangement under which a Jordanian reactor was supplying electricity to Israel “technically” would “probably not violate the NSG guidelines…it would not be faithful to their intent.”[5]

Israel has not breached any nonproliferation commitments because it has not signed the NPT. Most of its nuclear research and development occurred before 1968, when the treaty was opened for signature. Because of its relationship to and dependence on the United States, it could not be transparent about its nuclear activities and thus not be one of the open and accepted nuclear powers of the 1960s. Israel had promised the United States not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East and did not want to defy its protector. The result was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy between the two allies that kept Israel’s program secret.[6] The question is whether it is a net nonproliferation gain to keep Israel outside cooperative activities or whether encouraging and including Israel in potential regional efforts would be better in order to increase trust and confidence that nuclear activities have a peaceful intent. Israel must be integrated into the nonproliferation regime, and one approach could be the establishment of cooperative nuclear activities in the region. Although some supplier states may be opposed on political grounds to seeing Israel benefit indirectly from nuclear energy, for example in the case of the Jordanian nuclear power plant, it is unlikely that this will prevent nuclear trade and the construction of nuclear plants in states neighboring Israel.

Multilateral Nuclear Approaches[7]

Compared to many other countries in the Middle East, Israel has a clear position on multilateral nuclear approaches. According to one Israeli government source, the country has developed a set of prerequisites that it thinks should govern regional nuclear development.[8]

• States must forgo sensitive fuel-cycle facilities, such as uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing plants. Israel categorizes fuel fabrication plants as sensitive as well.[9] Although limiting enrichment and reprocessing technologies is a powerful nonproliferation measure, it goes to the heart of the problem of nuclear haves versus have-nots and infringement of NPT rights.[10] A more pragmatic approach would be to establish multilaterally owned and operated plants in the region.

• States must have an additional protocol to their IAEA safeguards agreements in place. This presents several problems because Israel itself currently would not live up to this criterion. Another stumbling block regarding additional protocols is that Egypt has said it will not sign one unless Israel joins the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state.[11]

• Nuclear fuel supply to the region should be based on lifetime contracts and follow so-called leasing and take-back arrangements. A just-in-time refueling regime can be a powerful confidence-building measure because it aims to deliver fresh fuel right before a reactor needs refueling and return spent fuel to the supplier country as soon as possible, preferably within a year after the spent fuel has been taken out of the reactor.

• A stable regulatory system is needed in each state embarking on a nuclear program. The United Arab Emirates and possibly Jordan are seen in Israel as being on the right track in this respect.

According to the Israeli source, Israel regards multilateral nuclear approaches as having merit, especially in light of its position that no country in the region should have a closed national nuclear fuel cycle. For Israel, the key questions to address are host-country selection and eligibility criteria for such an arrangement, the source said. Pointing to experiences in Iran and North Korea, where years of sanctions have not resolved proliferation concerns after detection of clandestine facilities, he said Israel is skeptical of the effectiveness of IAEA safeguards enforcement.[12]

Regarding current efforts to create a system of assured nuclear fuel supply, for example through supplier state-sponsored guarantees, and the establishment of international fuel banks to provide low-enriched uranium if supply were disrupted for political reasons, Israeli officials fall in line with the majority viewpoint that these types of assurances, if not part of a comprehensive effort to internationalize the nuclear fuel cycle, amount to creating a solution for a problem that does not exist. In other words, current supply mechanisms based on market forces work and do not need fixing.[13]

According to Israeli officials, current nuclear energy planning includes looking into how the national program could feed into efforts to internationalize the fuel cycle. The IEC and IAEC signed an agreement in March 2010 calling for a survey of long-term nuclear energy strategy, including international aspects, to be conducted by a joint task force consisting of all relevant government offices. Although the focus of international cooperation would be on states with developed fuel cycles, such as some EU countries, Japan, and the United States, one government official said the survey would presumably address potential regional approaches as well.[14]

Signs of Cooperation

In general, Israeli officials say their country is open to regional cooperation, especially with neighbors Egypt and Jordan, with which it has peace agreements. Due to the current regional political situation, however, cooperation among these three countries would be very difficult, even if there were a desire for it. A case in point is the Israeli-Jordanian relationship, which unofficially is quite good, despite a more critical tone publicly.[15] In the nuclear area, cooperation is taking place, but it is low key. Officials from the two countries are mainly discussing Jordan’s planned reactor at Aqaba on the Red Sea near the Israeli-Jordanian border. Although the full extent of the talks is unknown, Israel is providing assistance in terms of site selection, nuclear safety and security issues, and seismic data from its Geophysical Institute.[16]

Israeli news media reported in March on talks between Landau and Jean-Louis Borloo, France’s minister of environment and energy, on joint nuclear projects involving France, Israel, and Jordan.[17] Jordan, however, distanced itself from this public discussion, with Jordan Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Khaled Toukan stating that it is “too early to speak of regional cooperation with Israel before resolving the Palestinian issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict.”[18] The episode nonetheless can be seen as representing a trial balloon and an indication from Israel’s side that it is open to regional nuclear cooperation.

Further evidence of the regional willingness to cooperate in the nuclear field is the Jordan-based SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) project. SESAME is the region’s first major scientific research center and aims to be “an international scientific and technological centre of excellence open to all qualified scientists from the Middle East and elsewhere.”[19] The project centers around a synchrotron radiation source, a gift from Germany. Activities are planned in fields such as molecular environmental science, micro-electromechanical devices, x-ray imaging, materials characterization, and clinical medical applications. Current SESAME members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Palestinian Authority.

When considering regional nuclear cooperation in the Middle East, Israel could offer expertise in a number of areas with its long-standing experience in the field. Indeed, it is already assisting Jordan with siting-related issues at Aqaba, as discussed above. Such assistance can be expanded to other countries, such as Egypt. Information exchanges in areas such as nuclear safety and security would be another good starting point for nuclear confidence building. Israel could offer a great deal in the area of education, in particular because it is currently setting up new nuclear engineering and physics courses to maintain its nuclear knowledge base. The SoreqNuclearResearchCenter has acquired a new particle accelerator to replace its 50-year-old research reactor. The accelerator is a joint project with the Weizmann Institute, the Israel Academy of Science, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Language does not necessarily pose a problem. For example, the Weizmann Institute offers all relevant graduate courses in English with open attendance.

Looking to the Future

What would a multilateral approach to the nuclear fuel cycle in the Middle East look like? Setting aside political constraints for a moment, one could imagine a network of regional nuclear facilities servicing the region with nuclear energy. In a best-case scenario, for a regional approach to the fuel cycle in the Middle East to be credible and acceptable, there should be no enrichment and reprocessing facilities. The first hurdle with this scenario is Iran’s expanding enrichment program, which Tehran is not likely simply to dismantle in the foreseeable future. One solution would be to internationalize Iran’s enrichment facilities, as has been proposed in principle by Iran. In a letter to the UN Security Council in June 2008, Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, proposed, as part of a package for constructive negotiations over the nuclear impasse, consideration of “establishing enrichment and nuclear fuel production consortiums in different parts of the world—including Iran.”[20] Geoffrey Forden and John Thomson of MIT have proposed a detailed and compelling plan for how to internationalize Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz.[21] According to Forden and Thomson, the enrichment technology should be “black-boxed,” which would impede access to sensitive know-how. It also should be multilaterally owned and controlled and placed under stringent safeguards, they said.

Another problem with “outlawing” enrichment technologies in the Middle East or any region is the strong objection from developing countries that see this as another infringement of their NPT rights to nuclear technology. A fairer approach would be to establish a global network of multilaterally owned and operated plants. This was envisioned in a 2005 IAEA Expert Group report on multilateral nuclear approaches, which said that, first, nationally owned plants should preferably be internationalized, followed by the establishment of “in particular regional” multilateral nuclear approaches for new fuel-cycle facilities, including enrichment plants.[22]

Jordan and Turkey are good candidates to host front-end fuel-cycle facilities, such as those for conversion and fuel fabrication, to form a regional fuel-production arrangement. Jordan, with its newfound uranium reserves, could be a main contributor of uranium, and Turkey has expressed interest in the past in hosting a regional fuel production center.[23] In general, nuclear power plants may be more troublesome from administrative, political, and technical points of view. Power plants are large, expensive and politically sensitive projects often subject to substantial delays and cost overruns, which could be difficult to manage between several states. Also, the host of the plant would have the technical advantage of being able to cut electricity supply to its co-owners when it wants to. Nuclear plants are preferably national ventures with assistance from, or even run by, established international vendor consortiums.

For the back end of the fuel cycle, a blanket nonreprocessing rule is preferable. The proliferation concerns associated with spent fuel reprocessing and plutonium extraction far outweigh the potential benefits from a so-called closed fuel-cycle arrangement. Although uranium enrichment (the other proliferation-sensitive process) is needed for fueling most reactors in the world, reprocessing is not necessary for electricity generation. Effective and transparent spent fuel disposition approaches should be established whereby the nuclear material is, for example, vitrified and stored in regional or international nuclear waste stations under multilateral control and monitoring.

The main nonproliferation benefit of the regional approach described above is that multilateral control, ownership, and operation will instill trust that the facilities are not used for nonpeaceful purposes. A breakout scenario in which the host country diverts uranium for a weapons program is much less likely if the facility is managed and staffed by people from several countries. It could also be argued that a multilateral approach means that a region needs fewer facilities than if each country develops the necessary production centers. This is attractive from a safeguards perspective because fewer sites would require IAEA monitoring. In addition, multinational ventures make economic sense due to economies of scale. It would be much less costly for a state to join a regional center than embark on developing a national facility.

On the negative side, as the 2005 IAEA Expert Group report on multilateral nuclear approaches pointed out, an internationally staffed enrichment facility could mean broader access to know-how and thus represent a proliferation risk.[24] However, if the facility is black-boxed, the spread of sensitive information would be restricted to a minimum.

Spillover Effect

If regional cooperative efforts in nuclear energy start to take off within the next few years, they could possibly open the door for more constructive discussions on other security-related issues. One opportunity to test this hypothesis will be the envisioned 2012 conference on developing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

The final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference calls for all states in the Middle East to participate in a conference in 2012 on a regional WMD-free zone. For the first time, the action formally sets the stage for moving ahead concretely to implement the 1995 NPT Review Conference Resolution on the Middle East. But the road ahead before a conference in 2012 can be realized will be long and bumpy, with the main task being to persuade Israel actually to participate. One significant task will be to navigate through the diplomatic minefield of international proliferation forums, trying to avoid singling Israel out. Another challenge will be carrying out the regional confidence building that is needed for earnest negotiations on a WMD-free zone to take place. The changing nuclear landscape in the Middle East offers an opportunity to do that.

Volumes have been written on the preconditions for the creation of a Middle East WMD-free zone, and the Arab-Israeli conflict clearly lies at the heart of the difficulties in moving forward. Countless attempts have been made to kick-start negotiations on a WMD-free zone, but as a comprehensive UN study concluded in 2004, “The Middle East seems no closer to realizing the aims of a [WMD-free zone] than it was thirty years ago nor is the region any safer.”[25]

The United States will play a key role not only in persuading Israel to participate in talks about a Middle East WMD-free zone, but also in providing a security environment necessary for Israel to consider signing such a treaty. In recent months, media reports citing unnamed Israeli officials have suggested that the United States has provided “unequivocal guarantees…for the State of Israel’s preservation of strategic and deterring abilities,” as one of them put it.[26] Although public statements have not gone that far, at a July 6 joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama, referring to discussions at the NPT review conference, said that “the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.” This statement signals U.S. willingness to work with Israel to meet its security needs in a way that allows it to participate in earnest discussions on a Middle East WMD-free zone. Another area in which the United States, as well as France, can be constructive is encouraging nuclear trade with Israel conditioned on Israel’s signature on and adherence to a treaty establishing a verifiable WMD-free zone in the Middle East and signature on an NPT-like agreement. There is little prospect of Israel signing the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state in the foreseeable future, but Israel could consider signing a separate document as proposed by nonproliferation experts Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham Jr. Cohen and Graham proposed in 2004 that India, Israel, and Pakistan—the three countries that have never signed the NPT—could sign a free-standing protocol allowing them to keep their current programs but inhibiting further development. The agreement would call for cooperation with export controls, ban nuclear testing, and set a timeline phasing out fissile material production.[27]

It seems clear that if collaborative regional efforts in nuclear energy gain momentum within the next few years, a positive climate surrounding nuclear security issues in general will start to emerge. This would not only benefit the general peace process in the region, but also help to create the right setting for the envisioned 2012 conference on developing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.


As more and more states in the Middle East are jumping on the nuclear renaissance bandwagon, there is an urgent need to build nuclear confidence in the region. Instead of each state having a go-it-alone policy developing its own nuclear fuel cycle, which is likely to increase mistrust and the risk of proliferation, nuclear transparency and collaboration should be the norm. If the intentions behind these new programs are open and clear from the start, the countries involved are more likely to avoid misperceptions. Furthermore, by collaborating more closely on nuclear energy issues, the states stand to gain in economic and technical terms. With increased nuclear confidence through transparency measures and collaborative projects, the region also can reap many benefits regarding security building. There are signs that nuclear cooperation is possible. Regional projects such as SESAME and Israel’s assistance with nuclear power-plant siting in Jordan are evidence. Education is one area in which Israel could contribute to regional nuclear development; safety and security culture is another.

The next step is to promote collaborative efforts on nuclear energy, through joint training programs, exchanges of information and experience, and even talks on joint fuel-cycle facilities. Nuclear confidence building is integrally linked to the wider security agenda in the Middle East, including the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

Thomas Lorenz is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for Security Analysis (ICSA) at the Department of War Studies, King’s College in London. Previously, he was a safeguards information analyst with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Joanna Kidd is director of the ICSA. Prior to joining King’s College in 2003, she worked as a defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. This article is based on field research conducted by the authors for a project on multilateral nuclear approaches in the Middle East commissioned to the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.


1. Uzi Landau, Statement to the International Conference on Access to Civil Nuclear Energy, Paris, March 8-9, 2010, p. 70, www.conferenceparis-nucleairecivil.org/uploads/contents/86928/File/36255//transcriptionsconferenceen.pdf (summarized transcription).

2. Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), “Research and Publications by IAEC Personnel,” www.iaec.gov.il/pages_e/card_report_e.asp.

3. World Nuclear Association, “Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries,” May 25, 2010, www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf102.html.

4. Israeli officials, interviews with authors, Israel, March 2010.

5. Daniel Horner, “Israel States Strong Interest in Nuclear Energy,” Arms Control Today, April 2010.

6. Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham Jr., “An NPT for Non-members,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, May/June 2004, pp. 40-44.

7. This section relies heavily on interviews conducted by the authors in Israel in March with representatives of the IAEC, Ministry of National Infrastructure, Weizmann Institute, Institute for National Security Studies, and NGO Monitor.

8. Israeli energy official, interview with authors, Israel, March 2010 (hereinafter Israeli energy official interview).

9. Israeli official, interview with authors, Israel, March 2010.

10. Article IV of the NPT asserts “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.”

11. Although this linkage is not an official policy, Egyptian officials in public statements regarding an additional protocol typically make the link in no uncertain terms. See, for example, http://mfoa.africanews.com/site/list_message/9319.

12. Israeli energy official interview.

13. For a discussion on fuel assurances, how developing countries view them, and the past year’s negotiations at the IAEA Board of Governors on creating an international fuel bank, see Thomas Lorenz and Joanna Kidd, “An Uncertain Future for International Fuel Banks,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2010, pp. 44-49.

14. Israeli government official, interview with authors, Israel, March 2010.

15. Israeli academics, interviews with authors, Tel Aviv and Istanbul, March 2010.

16. Israeli government officials, interviews with authors, Israel, March 2010.

17. Ehud Zion Waldoks, “Landau to Announce Plans for First Israeli Nuke Power Plant,” Jerusalem Post, March 8, 2010, www.jpost.com/HealthAndSci-Tech/ScienceAndEnvironment/Article.aspx?id=170440.

18. “No Nuclear Cooperation With Israel Before End of Conflict – Officials,” The Jordan Times, March 10, 2010, http://cjpp5.over-blog.com/article-the-jordan-times-com-jordanie-no-nuclear-cooperation-with-israel-before-end-of-conflict---officials-46433756.html.

19. SESAME, “SESAME: Brief Description and Status Report,” www.sesame.org.jo/About/Description.aspx.

20. UN Security Council, “Letter Dated 17 June 2008 From the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations Addressed to the President of the Security Council,” S/2008/397, June 17, 2008, www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/Iran%20S2008397.pdf.

21. Geoffrey Forden and John Thomson, “Iran as a Pioneer Case for Multilateral Nuclear Arrangements,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, May 2009, http://mit.edu/stgs/pdfs/IPCPublicationMay2009.pdf.

22. IAEA, “Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Expert Group Report to the Director General of the IAEA,” INFCIRC/640, February 22, 2005, p. 15, www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/mna-2005_web.pdf.

23. Mark Hibbs, “Turkey Will Press for Fuel Technology Transfer,” NuclearFuel, February 11, 2008.

24. IAEA, “Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” p. 75.

25. UN Institute for Disarmament Research, “Building a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East,” 2004, www.unidir.org/pdf/ouvrages/pdf-1-92-9045-168-8-en.pdf.

26. Attila Somfalvi, “State Official: Obama Provided Israel With Historic Guarantees,” YnetNews, May 30, 2010, www. ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3896361,00.html.

27. Cohen and Graham, “An NPT for Non-members.”


Prospect of Nuclear Deal With Israel Dismissed

Daniel Horner

The United States has no plans in the foreseeable future for civilian nuclear cooperation with Israel, U.S. officials said in recent weeks.

Media reports, seemingly confirmed by an Israeli cabinet minister, indicated that cooperation was at least being considered.

After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama July 6 in Washington, Israeli and other media reported that the two sides had discussed civilian nuclear cooperation.

In remarks at a July 8 conference in Tel Aviv, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said the United States had made a “declaration of willingness,” which he called a “breakthrough,” Bloomberg reported.

Under U.S. law and the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Israel is not eligible for major nuclear trade because it is not a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has not placed all its nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

The George W. Bush administration successfully pushed for an exception to U.S. law and the NSG guidelines to allow nuclear trade with India. (See ACT, October 2008.) Administration officials repeatedly said India’s case was unique and that Israel and Pakistan, which, like India, have never joined the NPT and have nuclear facilities that are not under safeguards, did not qualify for similar treatment. Since then, however, officials from the two countries have argued that they should receive a comparable deal.

At a July 8 press briefing, Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said, “There’s no agreement between the United States and Israel to pursue a nuclear cooperation agreement. There was no discussion of this issue between the president and prime minister.” Asked the following day if the two leaders had had any discussions related to nuclear energy or nuclear weapons, he said, “Not that I’m aware of.” He responded similarly to a question about a reported secret letter.

In an Aug. 25 interview with Arms Control Today, a U.S. official said that although some Israeli officials have raised the issue of an India-style deal, the United States has been “unambiguous” in rejecting it under the Bush and Obama administrations. He indicated that the policy is unlikely to change any time soon. “From our side, there is no interest in having this conversation,” he said.

The geopolitical situation in the Middle East makes a U.S.-Israeli nuclear deal unrealistic, he said. “It is clear, based on our discussions with other countries in the region, that U.S.-Israeli nuclear cooperation of the sort covered in a 123 agreement would be taken as a sign that we are not serious” about establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, he said. U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements are often known as “123 agreements” because they are required by Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act.

At the 2010 NPT Review Conference in May, the parties agreed on steps toward establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, including the convening of a conference in 2012. (See ACT, June 2010.)

The Israeli embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the status of U.S.-Israeli nuclear cooperation.

At a March conference in Paris, Uzi Landau, Israel’s infrastructure minister, strongly reaffirmed his country’s interest in pursuing a nuclear power program and said the program could be “an area for regional cooperation.” (See ACT, April 2010.)


The United States has no plans in the foreseeable future for civilian nuclear cooperation with Israel, U.S. officials said in recent weeks.

Media reports, seemingly confirmed by an Israeli cabinet minister, indicated that cooperation was at least being considered.

Israel States Strong Interest in Nuclear Energy

Daniel Horner

Israel’s infrastructure minister last month strongly reaffirmed his country’s interest in pursuing a nuclear power program and suggested such a program could be “an area for regional cooperation.”

Uzi Landau made the comments March 9 at a conference in Paris.

Observers agree that, to build a reactor on its territory, Israel would need to import at least some key components. Under the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Israel is barred from receiving such imports because it has nuclear facilities that are not safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In his prepared remarks for the Paris meeting, Landau said nuclear power represents “[r]eliable, environmentally clean and high efficiency electricity.” Israel “sees itself as eligible as any other country [for] the peaceful uses of nuclear energy: it has the need, the required scientific and technical infrastructure and know-how and certainly the motivation to engage in such [a] project,” he said.

In 2008 the NSG made an exception to its guidelines for India, lifting a long-standing ban on nuclear exports to a country that conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 and allows IAEA inspections of only some of its nuclear facilities. That initiative was led by the United States, which made a similar exception to its domestic law.

Bush administration officials said the deal was a unique exception for India and explicitly ruled out similar arrangements for Israel and Pakistan, the other two nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) holdouts. However, a congressional source recalled last month that “the Israelis have not been shy” about “linking themselves” to the India deal by suggesting they should receive similar treatment. The source said he was not aware of any recent Israeli effort to make that case. Other sources in Israel and the United States also said they knew of no such effort.

In a March 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a U.S. official indicated that no deal was in the offing. “All nuclear-related technical exchanges between the U.S. and Israel are restricted by U.S. law, which does not permit broad nuclear cooperation with Israel,” she said. She noted that the United States does not have a nuclear cooperation agreement with Israel and said “there is no discussion of negotiating one.”

Real Interest

According to an Israeli source, the country’s “interest in nuclear energy has been and remains real,” and its nonproliferation credentials are “as good as India’s or better.”

In his Paris remarks, Landau said, “Naturally, all nuclear power reactors to be built in Israel will be subject to international safeguards as well as appropriate physical protection measures.” He also said it is “imperative to minimize proliferation risks—especially those associated with the nuclear fuel cycle technologies.”

The Israeli source said he thought Israel would be willing to import fresh fuel for the reactor and send the spent fuel out of the country. This so-called cradle-to-grave approach has been widely supported by nonproliferation advocates and many political leaders as a way to lessen proliferation concerns about countries that are launching nuclear power programs. Such arrangements are designed to give countries an incentive to refrain from pursuing uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing programs.

Israel has an unsafeguarded reactor and reprocessing plant at the Dimona site, where the country is widely believed to have produced the plutonium for its nuclear arsenal.

Recent media reports have said Israel has been in discussions with France and Jordan about a joint reactor project at a site in the latter. One potential advantage of that route is that it might allow Israel to sidestep the NSG ban.

In a March 23 interview, Fred McGoldrick, a former State Department official who handled nuclear trade and nonproliferation issues, said an arrangement under which a Jordanian reactor was supplying electricity to Israel “technically” would “probably not violate the NSG guidelines but it would not be faithful to their intent.” Even though Israel would not have access to nuclear exports from NSG members, it would be getting “the benefits of nuclear energy without making the commitments” that NSG recipients are required to make, he said.

A similar plan was floated in the mid-1980s, and the United States “killed it because it would have been an obvious circumvention of our full-scope safeguards requirements,” he said.

The Israeli source and others said there were several potential obstacles to a joint reactor project built in Jordan. There are “multiple layers of security and politics” that would have to be addressed, the Israeli source said. He said that an overarching question is, “Can you be confident the Jordanians would not only initially commit to but would also be able to keep on supplying Israel energy even if the relationship would become politically sour?” Another issue is that Jordanian trade unions, which support a boycott of Israel, probably would oppose the project, he said.

The Associated Press quoted Khaled Toukan, the head of Jordan’s Atomic Energy Commission, as saying, “It’s too early to talk about any regional cooperation with Israel before a solution is found to the Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts.”

Even though Landau indicated a preference for collaborative projects, Israel would have to “weigh an indigenous option,” the Israeli source said.

In his remarks, Landau recalled that Israel in the 1970s had chosen a site called Shivta in the NegevDesert and prepared some of the preliminary safety and security documentation. “Israel has kept the site and the necessary scientific and technical infrastructure for the safe and reliable operation of the future nuclear power plant,” he said.

Israel is one of about a dozen Middle Eastern countries that have expressed an interest in nuclear energy.

Criteria-Based Approach

The United States was “myopic” in making the U.S. and NSG exemptions specific to India rather than adopting a so-called criteria-based approach that also would have made Israel and Pakistan potentially eligible, the Israeli source said. Nuclear suppliers should establish a principle of “the harder you try, the more you qualify for,” he said. Such an approach would encourage the non-NPT states to come closer to the nuclear mainstream and would help raise the levels of security, safety, and nonproliferation adherence in those countries, he said.

Since the U.S.-Indian deal, Pakistan has repeatedly indicated it would like a similar arrangement. It would be “logical” to hold open the possibility of nuclear trade with Pakistan so as not to alienate Islamabad, the Israeli source said.


Israel’s infrastructure minister last month strongly reaffirmed his country’s interest in pursuing a nuclear power program and suggested such a program could be “an area for regional cooperation.”

Uzi Landau made the comments March 9 at a conference in Paris.

UK Revokes Arms Export Licenses to Israel

Rachel A. Weise

Following public outcry from British citizens and members of Parliament, the United Kingdom in July revoked five licenses for the export of arms components to Israel. The British decision could encourage other European Union (EU) members to review their current Israel export policy, a European Commission (EC) official said. According to a British government official, an EU working group will meet in Brussels Sept. 4 to discuss exports to Israel.

The July 13 British decision came after a lengthy review of all arms-related exports to Israel, following what the United Kingdom has called Israel’s “disproportionate” actions in Gaza in January. The licenses are widely believed to be related to Israel’s Saar-class Navy missile boats that fired on the Gaza coastline to support ground activities during Operation Cast Lead, the code name for Israel’s Gaza offensive to stop Hamas rocket fire. But the British official simply said that this was “speculation” and added that the government has not released information regarding the specific export licenses revoked.

Palestinian officials say that more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the conflict and that most of them were noncombatants. Israel estimates that fewer than 1,200 were killed and claims that most were affiliated with Hamas, an organization that Israel and the United States have labeled a terrorist movement.

Following Israel’s 22-day campaign in Gaza, the British Parliament, particularly the Committees on Arms Export Control (CAEC), demanded that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office review export licenses to Israel to ensure that no British components were used in Gaza. The review led the British government to revoke five of its 182 extant licenses to export arms to Israel.

Under EU policy, a member state that revokes an export license must circulate its reasons for doing so among the other 26 members. That requirement raises the possibility that other EU members will follow the United Kingdom’s lead. According to the EC official, although the United Kingdom’s action does not create a legal obligation on the other countries to follow suit, it is now “incumbent on EU members to actively consider this” as they evaluate their own export licenses. The purpose of the EU Code of Conduct, which regulates export policy, is to “harmonize” export practices across member states, the official said in an Aug. 8 interview. He said, “We take the Code of Conduct very seriously. That’s why we want to harmonize our [trade] practices…. Unless people want to challenge the U.K., probably, the EU will adopt those measures.” But because the specific exports in question were unique to the United Kingdom, there could be questions about the applicability of the British precedent, he said.

Israel has issued statements saying that the British decision will not have an effect on its military. The United Kingdom is not one of Israel’s major arms suppliers. Israel receives the vast majority of its arms imports from the United States, according to an Amnesty International report released in February.

Prior to the decision and in response to the CAEC’s sustained calls for a review of export licenses, Foreign Secretary David Miliband released a written ministerial statement to Parliament. In the April 21 statement, Miliband said all export licenses are assessed against British and EU criteria, which include the EU Code of Conduct and other relevant export policies. Criteria 2, 3, 4, and 7 of the code apply to the Israeli case, Miliband said. Criterion 2 prohibits exports where there is a “clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression,” while Criterion 3 limits exports that would “provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination.” Criterion 4 is related to the “preservation of regional peace, security and stability,” and Criterion 7 requires that exports have a low risk of being “diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions.” The licenses and the review process are not public, which makes it difficult to assess the vigor with which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office evaluates export licenses, said Roy Isbister, an arms transfer analyst at Saferworld, a London-based nongovernmental organization.

Miliband’s statement addressed a variety of claims made about Israel’s use of British exports in Gaza, saying that all existing licenses would be reviewed. He said that most of the claims were unsupported but also said “there are credible reports” about Israel using British components for a 76 mm gun outfitted on Saar 4.5-class vessels, fueling speculation that these components were exported under the recently revoked licenses.

Immediately following the decision, the British Embassy in Israel issued a statement saying that termination of these licenses was not a partial arms embargo, but part of the United Kingdom’s standard export review process. According to the July 13 statement, the United Kingdom also revoked a number of licenses to Russia and Georgia after last year’s conflict in Georgia.

Although the United Kingdom frequently reviews its export licenses, the CAEC’s continued call for a license review and the general outcry from British citizens about Operation Cast Lead contributed to the unusual level of publicity surrounding the license termination, Isbister said.

A similar situation occurred in 2002, when the United Kingdom reviewed its exports to Israel after Israel seized the town of Jenin in the West Bank in response to the second intifada, a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. The British Parliament and citizenry strongly protested British arms exports to Israel when they learned that Israel had sent into the Palestinian territories armored personnel carriers that had been built on the chassis of old British Centurion tanks. In a letter to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Nov. 29, 2000, Israel had pledged that “no UK originated equipment nor any UK originated systems/sub-systems/components are used as part of the Israel Defence Force’s activities in the Territories.” After the 2002 events, Jack Straw, the foreign secretary at the time, said the United Kingdom would no longer accept Israeli assurances and that the United Kingdom would evaluate each export against EU and British licensing criteria. This resulted in a number of refusals to export items to Israel based on Criteria 2, 3, 4, and 7, the British official said. This period of increased scrutiny apparently ended after a few months, in July 2002, when the United Kingdom allowed the export of F-16 components to the United States although the United States exports F-16s to Israel.

This page was corrected on January 13, 2010. The original article failed to note that the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports was replaced on December 8, 2008, by the EU Common Position (2008/944/CFSP) defining rules governing control of exports of military technology and equipment.

Following public outcry from British citizens and members of Parliament, the United Kingdom in July revoked five licenses for the export of arms components to Israel. The British decision could encourage other European Union (EU) members to review their current Israel export policy, a European Commission (EC) official said. According to a British government official, an EU working group will meet in Brussels Sept. 4 to discuss exports to Israel. (Continue)

Israeli Officials Wary of U.S. Shift on Iran

Peter Crail

With the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama pledging to pursue a policy of "tough diplomacy" with Iran, including opening the possibility of direct talks with Tehran, Israeli leaders appear to be warily bracing for the expected shift in the U.S. approach to one of Israel's most serious security concerns. Israeli officials have frequently expressed support for a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue but have focused on strengthening international efforts to place economic and political pressure on Tehran. The rising concern comes as Israel is undergoing its own political transition, with general elections scheduled for this February.

A number of Israeli officials have questioned the utility of U.S. dialogue with Iran. At a Nov. 7 press conference following a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak doubted Iran's willingness to engage in dialogue in good faith, stating that "Iran continues to try to obtain a nuclear weapon and continues to cheat everybody by holding negotiations on the control of such weapons."

In particular, Israeli officials appear wary that a shift in policy toward engagement may weaken the current sanctions efforts aimed at Tehran. Israeli Foreign Minister and potential prime minister Tzipi Livni urged caution about the timing of direct talks, telling Israel Radio Nov. 6 that "premature dialogue at a time where Iran thinks that the world has given up on sanctions may be problematic," adding that such dialogue may be construed as "weakness." When asked if she supported U.S. dialogue with Iran, Livni responded, "[T]he answer is no."

In recognition that U.S. and Israeli aims regarding Iran may diverge, part of Israel's security establishment also appears to fear that a U.S.-Iranian dialogue may be successful in addressing U.S. concerns, but not those of Israel. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported Nov. 23 that a draft Israeli National Security Council annual situation assessment, which is to be presented to the Israeli cabinet in December, "recommends close cooperation with the U.S. to prevent a deal between Washington and Tehran that would undermine Israel's interests."

One key Israeli official, however, suggested a potential benefit from U.S. talks with Iran: the likelihood that such dialogue will be a route to stiffer sanctions. Amos Yadlin, the head of Israeli Military Intelligence, said in a Nov. 17 lecture in Tel Aviv that he is not opposed to U.S.-Iranian talks, highlighting that if such talks should fail, "there could be a greater realization that sanctions and the diplomatic campaign against Iran should be stepped up." He added that Iran is "very susceptible" to economic pressure at present due to the global economic crisis.

Israeli officials have frequently called for strengthened punitive measures to place pressure on Iran. In a Nov. 17 speech to Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called for "greater force" to confront Iran, stating that Washington must lead an international effort to make it "more costly to Iran to pursue nuclear weapons than to give it up."

In addition to being open to direct talks with Iran, Obama has called for expanding sanctions against Tehran to apply pressure on the regime. During a June 4 campaign speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Obama said that the United States and its allies should "find every avenue outside the UN to isolate the Iranian regime," including imposing additional financial sanctions and cutting off refined petroleum exports to Iran.

In the general elections scheduled for Feb. 10, 2009, the leading contenders to replace Olmert as prime minister are Livni, who is also the Kadima party's head, and Likud party leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Although the issue of Iran looms large in Israeli foreign and security policy, it has not been the subject of significant attention during the Israeli elections. A former Israel Defense Forces official told Arms Control Today Sept. 25 that "the nuclearization of Iran is not a partisan issue in Israel. There are hawks and doves in each party."

The issue was on the agenda of the final meeting between the current leaders of the two countries when Olmert visited President George W. Bush in Washington Nov. 24. Olmert told reporters following the meeting that there was a "deep understanding about the Iranian threat and the need to act in order to remove [the] threat." He also rejected the notion that the United States sought to pressure Israel against taking military action against Iran.

Former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton suggested in June that the "optimal window" for Israel to strike Iran would be after the U.S. elections and prior to the inauguration of the new president Jan. 20, noting particularly that "an Obama victory would rule out military action."

Israel has said that it reserves the option to take such an action. In a Nov. 18 Der Spiegel interview, Commander in Chief of the Israeli Air Force Ido Nehushtan said that the air force is "ready to do whatever is demanded of us" to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but that such an action "is a political decision."

In recent months, however, senior Israeli political officials have voiced opposition to military action. In a Sept. 7 interview with the Sunday Times of London, Israeli President Shimon Peres asserted that "the military way will not solve the problem," adding that "such an attack can trigger a bigger war."

Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, a former contender in the Kadima party leadership elections, spoke out in even stronger terms against an Israeli strike against Iran. Ha'aretz quoted Sheetrit Sept. 21 stating that "Israel must on no account attack Iran, speak of attacking Iran, or even think about it."


With the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama pledging to pursue a policy of "tough diplomacy" with Iran, including opening the possibility of direct talks with Tehran...

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.

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