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Weapons of Mass Distraction

by MARSHA B. COHEN

29 Oct 2009 02:497 Comments
ibcover.jpgThe 41st anniversary of the commencement of American-Israeli negotiations over Israel's nuclear program.

[ region ] If Iranian negotiators haven't read Avner Cohen's book Israel and the Bomb, they should. They'd find out that Oct. 30 is the 41st anniversary of the beginning of the series of negotiations that culminated in American recognition of Israel's "nuclear ambiguity." They might learn some useful lessons.

As the worldwide media weighs and critiques Iran's dilatory response (or lack of satisfactory response) to western pressures over its nuclear program, Israeli diplomats and pundits are reiterating that, no matter what Iran says, it is nonetheless trying to exploit the pretext of a peaceful nuclear program to develop a nuclear weapons program.

After all, Israelis know how the game is played. They wrote the rules.

On Oct. 30, 1968, US Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Warnke began a series of negotiations with then-Israeli Ambassador Yitzchak Rabin, who would become Israel's fifth Prime Minister in 1974. [Awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for shaking hands with Yassir Arafat, Rabin was assassinated by a right wing Jewish fanatic at a Jerusalem peace rally a year later.] Although Warnke had not been provided with the CIA's assessment of Israel's nuclear weapons program, he nevertheless suspected that Israel had the capability of producing a nuclear bomb and quite possibly had already done so. He proposed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that linked Israel's signature on the NPT not only to the sale of the Phantom jets Israel wanted from the U.S. but to the transformation of the U.S. into Israel's main arms supplier, a role that had, until the 1967 "Six Day" war, been filled by France.

As reconstructed and recounted by Avner Cohen in his 1998 book (pp. 307-318), based on once-classified documents, Warnke met with Rabin on Nov. 12, and attempted to clarify the assertion, "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the area." Rabin replied that it meant, "We would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons."

"What do you mean by 'introduce'?" Warnke asked.

"What is your definition of nuclear weapons?" Rabin responded.

Warnke said the question he was asking had two parts: the definition of what was or was not a "nuclear weapon" and the definition of what was or was not "introducing" nuclear weapons. "If there are components available that could be assembled to make a nuclear weapon -- although part A may be in one room and part B may be in another room -- then that is a nuclear weapon," Warnke declared.

General Mordechai Hod, who had accompanied Rabin, asked whether there was any accepted usage of the word "introduction" in international law. Warnke admitted there wasn't. Rabin and Hod then focused on 'testing' as the hallmark of any operational nuclear weapons system. The five nuclear-weapons states had all tested nuclear weapons, and since Israel had not conducted any nuclear tests, it was abiding by its pledge not to have "introduced" nuclear weapons to the region.

Warnke still wanted to define "introduction" in terms of physical presence. But Rabin insisted that, since the purpose of nuclear weapons was to deter, their presence would have to be publicly acknowledged in order to make a case that they had been introduced, since an unacknowledged nuclear weapon had no deterrence value. Rabin further argued that both "notoriety and pretesting" were both necessary in order to meet the Israeli definition of "introduction." Warnke asked Rabin, "In your view, an unadvertised, untested nuclear device is not a nuclear weapon? Rabin responded affirmatively.

Israel's nuclear research program, explains Cohen, originated during its War of Independence in 1948. Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, based his survival strategy for the new state on two major components: a formal military alliance with one or more Western powers, and nuclear weapons. Initially, he considered the possibility of a defense pact with the U.S. that would guarantee the 1949 cease-fire borders. By the mid 1950s, he was convinced that Israel's security needs would best be served by nuclear deterrence it provided for itself. Ben Gurion regarded nuclear weapons as "insurance" in an arms race with the Arab states, as a weapon of last resort, and even as a means of persuading Israel's Arab neighbors to reconcile themselves to Israel's existence.

At this point, the US government itself lacked a coherent non-proliferation policy. Promoting atomic assistance to foreign governments in the peaceful use of nuclear energy (including Iran under the Shah's rule) became a significant component of U.S. foreign policy. Israel had no reason to disguise its research and development of civilian nuclear technology.

In 1960, Time magazine reported that Israel was building an atomic bomb in the Israeli desert town of Dimona. Ben Gurion would only admit to building a nuclear power plant there. He feared that a debate among government officials and policymakers, let alone any public input, might endanger his plans for the nuclear deterrent. Funding was secured outside "normal government channels." The project became off-limits for any discussion. In 1962, two Knesset (parliament) members from the Israeli left wing parties Mapam and Maki, proposed a debate on the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East in order to avoid a "holocaust" resulting from the use of nuclear weapons in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The proposal was scrapped from the Knesset's agenda at Ben Gurion's request.

According to Cohen, Israel had completed the development stage of its first nuclear weapon by 1966-67. CIA reports distributed in early 1967 indicated that Israel had produced all the necessary components to allow it to assemble a nuclear bomb in 6-8 weeks. Nevertheless, Israel refused to admit to having a nuclear weapons program, insisting it was sufficient for it to assert, "it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East."

Rabin and Foreign Minister Abba Eban and Ambassador to the U.S. Yitzhak Rabin met with U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk in October 1968. Rusk explained to them that Israel's development of nuclear weapons confront the U.S. with the embarrassing question of whether or not the U.S. was serious about the NPT, "which we are." It would also raise the disconcerting issue, within the larger context of the Cold War, of what the Soviet Union might do to provide Arab countries with access to nuclear weapons if Israel were to have them. Rusk and the State Department attempted to link the sale of U.S. F-4 Phantom jets to an agreement to sign the NPT, while CIA Director Richard Helms privately briefed President Lyndon Johnson that Israel's nuclear capability would preclude its signing as a non-nuclear weapon state.

Israel didn't sign the NPT. It got the Phantoms anyway. To avoid embarrassing the U.S., "ambiguity--Cohen calls it "opacity," i.e. lack of transparency--became the watchword whenever Israel's nuclear weapons program was mentioned.

There were some close calls. Disclosures to British Sunday Times journalist Peter Hounam in October 1986, concerning the activities at Israel's nuclear facility at Dimona by a technician who had been employed there, Mordechai Vanunu, met with a major disinformation campaign by the Israeli government. Vanunu was kidnapped by Israeli intelligence before his story could be verified.

The taboo on nuclear policy within Israel was nearly broken on Feb. 2, 2000. Knesset Member Issam Makhoul of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality Hadash ("New") Front, a small Arab-Jewish political party, challenged Israel's policy on nuclear ambiguity. Makhoul attempted to point out the dangers not only of nuclear spiraling in the Middle East, driven by Israel's existing stockpile of "hundreds of nuclear bombs" and Israel's recent acquisition of the German submarines, but the possibility of nuclear terrorism carried out by Israelis. What defense was there, Makhoul asked, "if a nuclear Baruch Goldstein [a radical settler who burst into the mosque at the Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron on Feb. 25, 1994, and opened fire on the Muslim worshipers there, killing 29 and wounding 150] should infiltrate the system and, equipped with a religious sanction from some rabbi, launch a nuclear Armageddon?"

Makhoul also called attention to the unsupervised buildup of nuclear waste that had accumulated at Dimona during the past 40 years, as well as Dimona's precarious position on the earthquake-prone Syrian-African rift. He questioned the placement of the nuclear missile site near Kfar Zechariah, the Biological Institute at Nes Tziona, where biological weapons are manufactured, and other facilities producing Israeli weapons of mass destruction in residential districts of the most densely populated areas of Israel, calling it "a crime against the residents of Israel and the neighboring countries."

CNN Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers, who was present, reported that several Knesset members walked out during Makhoul's speech. Five Arab members of Israel's Parliament were ejected, and Makhoul was gaveled down by the Knesset speaker. According to Rodgers, the debate had made possible small, though very slow steps by the Israeli government toward a more open nuclear policy. He lamented that "instead of a constructive discussion, the harsh tones of this first debate, with Israeli Arabs on one side and Israeli Jews mostly on the other, may have closed the door on this issue for a while longer" (CNN, 2/2/2000, 6:08 pm ET).

The Makhoul episode was repressed and quickly forgotten. Far more disturbing to Israeli policymakers were Avner Cohen's revelations in Israel and the Bomb. Two years after it was published in the U.S. in English, it was scheduled to appear in Hebrew, in Israel, during the summer of 2000. Cohen had not only provided a comprehensive chronology of Israel's secret nuclear program, he had brought Israel's policy of deliberate ambiguity, which he referred to as "nuclear opacity," to light a mindset, deeply embedded in Israel's national security culture and in the norms, values and attitudes of anyone initiated into Israeli culture:

The culture of opacity is rooted in several convictions: that it is vital to Israel's security to posses nuclear weapons; that the Arabs should not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, thus maintaining an Israeli nuclear monopoly; that Israel cannot openly make a case for nuclear monopoly and thus must keep its nuclear status unacknowledged; that the nuclear issue must be kept out of public discourse; that the issue should be left to anonymous nuclear professionals; and finally, that the policy of opacity has served Israel well and has no alternative. Even in today's Israel, when all other security-related organizations and issues, including the Mossad and the Shin Bet, have become a matter of public debate and criticism, the nuclear complex is conspicuous in its absence from the public agenda (Israel and the Bomb, p.343).

On June 5, 2006, this author (who, though sharing the same last name, is unrelated to Avner Cohen) posed the following question to Cohen, in an online Q&A in Shmuel Rosner's Haaretz blog:

Israel claims that the real danger of Iran acquiring nuclear capability is that it would result in other Middle Eastern states also wanting to acquire nuclear capability, and is not just an Israeli concern about being "removed from the arena of time" (Israeel bayad az sahneye roozegar mahv shavad, usually translated as "Israel must be wiped off the map").
I find it somewhat ironic that in chapter 13 of your book "Israel and the Bomb," this was exactly the concern expressed by the Americans about Israel's nuclear capability in the 1960s, and the reason that the Israeli policy of "opacity" was grudgingly accepted by the U.S. -- i.e. so that the Arab states would not claim the right to nuclear weapons since Israel had them. Could you please comment?
Also, while Iran is being derided for its clandestine nuclear research, if the politics were different, couldn't that secrecy also be considered "ambiguity" or "opacity" from an Iranian point of view (a notion which Israel clearly is unwilling to admit or permit)?
Marsha B. Cohen

Cohen responded at great length and in surprising depth about the historiography of Israel's nuclear program. A short segment of his response--the most directly related to Iran--is reproduced below):


This leads me to your last and probably most intriguing point. You noted that "while Iran is being derided for its clandestine nuclear research, if the politics were different, couldn't that secrecy also be considered "ambiguity" or "opacity" from an Iranian point of view (a notion which Israel clearly is unwilling to admit or permit)?"

Yes, I agree with you that it is a great irony that there is a great deal of resemblance in the mode of opacity -- via secrecy, concealment, ambiguity, double talk and denial -- between the way Iran is pursuing its nuclear program today and the way Israel was pursuing its own program in the 1960s.

In fact, I would not be surprised if some Iranian policy makers and nuclear technocrats have deliberately decided to try to adopt or mimic the Israeli model of nuclear opacity, IF the world would permit them to pursue that mode.

If this line of thinking is correct, it means that Iran's nuclear program would not be aimed at a test of a nuclear device, nor towards declaring Iran as a nuclear-armed state. Instead, while most likely maintaining a secret weaponziation program (but without testing), Iran would continue to insist publicly on its right to enrich uranium.

Over time, while remaining within the NPT, Iran would be seeking to acquire a perception and reputation (by ways of leaks, rumors, double talk, etc) that they have actually built a "secret" nuclear arsenal or at least secretly accumulated a sufficient amount of weapons-grade fissile material.

It may well be that some Iranians have come to believe that by mimicking the Israeli model, as much as they could, they would get all the prestige and deterrence effects they need but without leaving the NPT, let alone without testing or declaring such a bomb. Let the question of the Iranian bomb remain opaque, just like Israel. This would mimic the way Shimon Peres for decades used to talk about "deterrence by way of uncertainty." Let the world guess.

In fact, the world is already guessing now where Iran is in its nuclear pursuit. Some say that Iran is as far as five to 10 years away from producing the bomb, while others, including some mavens in Israel, are fearful that if Iran has been closely imitating Israel it may well already have the bomb. What a remarkable irony indeed.

If Iran indeed follows the Israeli model of nuclear opacity, this would put Israel in a great dilemma of its own. Should Israel call the bluff over Iranian opacity, and in doing so expose its own opacity, or should Israel prefer to acquiesce, just as the world had acquiesced over its own two generations ago.

Thank you again Marsha, for allowing me to reflect on history.

Cohen was indeed intrigued by the irony I had suggested and proceeded to further (and publicly) reflect on it. About two months later, he was quoted in a Reuters news dispatch by Bernd Dubussman (Sept. 26, 2006, 11:36 am):

"Whether deliberately or inadvertently, there are elements of resemblance between the way Iran is pursuing its nuclear program today and the way Israel was pursuing its own program in the 1960s," Avner Cohen, author of a landmark study entitled "Israel and the Bomb," in a telephone interview.

"This is a great irony of history but Iranian policymakers and nuclear technocrats may be strategically mimicking the Israeli model," said Cohen, senior research scholar at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies.

As Cohen sees it, the elements the Israeli and Iranian nuclear programs have in common are secrecy, concealment, ambiguity, double talk and denial.

Iran's probable strategy, he says, is to create the perception of having a secret weapons program, or being close to it, without actually testing a bomb or declaring its possession or impending possession.

That echoes the Israeli program, which began in the late 1950s at the Dimona nuclear complex in the Negev Desert. Since then, Israel has declined to confirm or deny it has nuclear weapons, saying only it would not be the first to "introduce" them into the Middle East.

Over the decades, Israel's attitude has been "let the world guess" or as former Prime Minister Shimon Peres called it, "deterrence by uncertainty."

Writing for Haaretz on Feb. 12, 2007, Cohen elaborated on the political implications of the Israeli-Iranian nuclear analogy:


Iran's choice of nuclear ambiguity will be a political challenge for the international nuclear system, but a far greater challenge to Israel, which granted legitimacy to such ambiguity. There is an important difference between Israel and Iran: Israel's nuclear ambiguity succeeded as an international phenomenon because the world, and particularly the U.S., decided to accept it as a country maintaining such a policy. Israel received a kind of exemption from the international community, which closed its eyes to the nuclear issue for political, legal and even ethical reasons unique to Israel. Israel's ambiguity succeeded because the world preferred it to all the other options.

But that is why the Iranian challenge is so powerful: Is it preferable to remove the mask from Iranian ambiguity and to call it by name, or is a vague Iran preferable to an openly nuclear Iran? At what point in time should we remove the masks and insist on international nuclear transparency? And what will be the future of Israeli ambiguity in such a world? These are all questions that until now have hardly been asked, but they demand a great deal of thinking, both worldwide and in Israel.

In the two years since Cohen wrote this, zero progress has been made in addressing these questions, either in Israel or the "international community."

Forty-one years after the Warnke-Rabin negotiations, Israeli's advanced level of development of nuclear technology, including its production of nuclear weapons, remains "opaque." Apologists insist that, since Israel never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is not bound by its dictates, while Iran, which signed the Treaty in order to reap the benefits available to non-nuclear weapon states, is accountable to an ever-shifting higher standard.

Israel has been at the forefront of accusations that Iran is in the process of developing nuclear weapons, frequently trumpeting its threat to carry out unilateral military strikes at Iranian nuclear production and research facilities. Military sources in the U.S. and Israel (unnamed, of course) drop hints that Israel is being provided by the U.S. with the bunker-buster weapons, and equipped with the necessary delivery devices to be used against Iran. Yet to this day, the western media carefully qualifies all references to Israel's own possession of nuclear weapons as "alleged" or in other waffling terminology that implies that there exists some question about the extent of Israel's nuclear capability.

If Iran had the luxury of an administration whose electoral legitimacy were less in doubt, or that had done less to deliberately cultivate worldwide opprobrium by its appalling human rights violations, these questions could, should and might possibly have been raised. This is the reason why the Israeli diplomatic corps was mobilized and ready to spring into action to delegitimize the Iranian election results had Mousavi emerged as the victor.

The questions confronting Iran's interlocutors are far larger than the grim shadow of any one man, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The words being spoken in and about the current debate over Iranian nuclear enrichment are a pale and rather pathetic substitute for those that still need to be debated. Until then, the current nuclear campaign against Iran will be limited to largely discussing weapons of mass destruction, while ignoring the danger of the weapons of mass distraction.

Marsha B. Cohen covers Israel for Tehran Bureau.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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7 Comments

The apartheid Israelis and apartheid South Africans joint tested a nuclear weapon in the Indian Ocean in 1979.

Iran's supreme leader has declared a fatwa against nuclear weapons. Have any prominent Israeli leaders disavowed them? None come to my mind.

In your article, you mention Iran's "benefits" for being in the NPT. Specifically, what benefits have there been recently? It would be more to the point to specify exactly what benefits are being DENIED Iran under the NPT.

Don't get me wrong, Marsha. I love your articles. Quite amusing. Please keep them coming.

Question: is former Israeli President Katsav a victim of an anti-Iranian political conspiracy?

Pirouz / October 29, 2009 8:07 AM

Yes, Marsha, there are parallels that can be drawn between the Israeli and Iranian nuclear weapons programs. But the implied equivalence depends upon ignoring the larger context.

The asymmetries are many, stark, and dire.

First, the few millions of Israeli Jews are surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arab and Muslim enemies.

Second, the Arabs have repeatedly invaded Israel to destroy it and its Jewish citizens. For its part, Israel has not, except in military defense, invaded any Arab country, and that temporarily, and it has never expressed an intention, and has no desire to destroy Arab countries and their citizens.

Third, Iran has explicitly and repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel. The "moderate" Rafsanjani bragged that Iranian Islamic nuclear bombs could destroy Israel. Its annihilationist rhetoric is backed by a wide range of programs, including missile development, nuclear bombs, and proxy forces. In contrast, there is no interest in Israel in destroying Iran.

You may recall that NATO kept nuclear weapons in Europe as deterrence against the massive Soviet land forces. Thus in Europe these weapons provided a balance against overwhelming odds. Israel is in a much worse position, and, after 60 years, continues to have its survival threatened.

Iran has pursued a vigorously aggressive and expansionistic foreign policy, about which its Arab neighbors are seriously concerned. It has also directed its proxies against Israel. There is no parallel on the Israeli side (although I have full expectations that Israel will, in due course, be blamed for Jondullah).

Philip Carl SALZMAN / October 29, 2009 5:52 PM

Salzman, you're one of those funny Zionists- aren't you.

Expansionist foreign policy? You mean like invading and occupying Palestine? The West Bank? Gaza? Sinai? Lebanon? Shebaa farms? Golan Heights? Stealing the region's water resources?

Iran's foreign policy hasn't been expansionist. They assist in liberation! Surely you remember being expelled in 2000 and repulsed in 2006.

How many times in recent years has the Zionist entity threatened to attack Iran? Thousands. So Khomeini and Ahmadinejad have predicted that Israel will vanish from the pages of time. Not exactly a threat of violence, more of a prophecy.

Pirouz / October 29, 2009 10:30 PM

If Iran is really attacked by Israel then I think this time Arab worlds will be crush and humiliated for there for rest of the life by Zionist regime.

Paul Rai / October 30, 2009 11:39 AM

Paul, I think the results would be quite to the contrary.

The Arabs, particularly the Sunni Arabs, would be delighted to see the Shia Persians brought down a notch. Not only is there the historic antipathy between Arabs and Persians, and between Sunni and Shia, but the Arabs feel threatened by Iran's growing power.

If Israel struck the Iranian nuclear sites, the Arabs would wink and smile.

Philip Carl SALZMAN / October 31, 2009 8:35 PM

Thanks for the article, Marsha. It's good to see an honest and clear-eyed analysis of something which is so often shrouded in fog and misinformation.

Evan Siegel / November 2, 2009 8:02 AM

Iran is not expansionist?

"Saudi Daily: Iran is Expanding its Activity in the Red Sea"

http://www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP263109

Philip Carl SALZMAN / November 5, 2009 12:45 AM