Israel and the Threat from Iran's Nuclear Program

By Freedman, Robert O. | Midstream, March-April 2005 | Go to article overview

Israel and the Threat from Iran's Nuclear Program


Freedman, Robert O., Midstream


In a speech at Johns Hopkins University in November 2003, Efraim Sneh, a former general and now a leader of Israel's Labor Party, declared that because of the development of its nuclear program whose aim, he saw, was the construction of nuclear weapons, Iran had become an "existential threat" to Israel. Sneh's assertion, which has been echoed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other leaders of both the Labor and Likud parties, raises a number of serious questions. First, is there sufficient evidence to conclude that as part of its efforts to develop a "full cycle" nuclear program, which includes the enrichment of uranium, Iran is indeed seeking to produce nuclear weapons?

Second, can the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program be dealt with by diplomacy, or only by force? Third, if force is to be used, can Israel count on the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations to do the job, or must it only rely on itself? Fourth, if Israel feels it must act alone, how might such an attack transpire? Finally, what would be the likely reaction, both in the Middle East and in the world to an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear installations?

The first question to be considered is whether Iran is indeed developing a nuclear weapons program, or is only building its nuclear program for "peaceful purposes," such as the generation of electricity, a claim made by both reformers in the Iranian leadership such as President Khatami and hardliners such as the Ayatollah Khamenei and former Iranian President Rafsanjani who gravitated to the camp of the hardliners after leaving office in 1997. Given the controversy over the Iraqi WMD program as the primary cause of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, this is a very important question. To answer the question, it is necessary to review briefly the development of Iran's nuclear program. Under the Shah of Iran, who was deposed in 1979, Iran had begun a nuclear program, including the construction of two nuclear reactors at Bushehr by West Germany, but it was temporarily stopped when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. Under the pressure of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran resumed its nuclear program, but the Bushehr reactor complex was damaged during the war, and once the war was over, Germany refused to repair the complex, fearing that Iran was planning to use it to develop nuclear weapons. In 1995, under Rafsanjani, Iran concluded an agreement with Russia to rebuild and complete one of the reactors, much to the unhappiness of the United States and Israel, which asserted that the fuel produced by the reactor could be used in nuclear weapons. Russia, however, went ahead with the contract, claiming that since Iran had signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would supervise the project to ensure that no uranium could be diverted into nuclear weapons.

However, the question then, and now, is whether the IAEA can be trusted to perform the watchdog task claimed by the Russians. As is now well known, the IAEA, whose charter calls for it to give assistance in the development of "peaceful uses" of nuclear energy, while also ensuring that countries under its supervision do not divert equipment or material into the construction of nuclear weapons, has failed spectacularly on three different occasions. First, it failed to discover the nuclear weapons program that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been developing in the period before the 1991 Gulf War. Second, the IAEA failed to uncover Libya's nuclear weapons program (that program came to light when the U.S. Navy intercepted a ship carrying equipment for nuclear facilities to Libya). Finally, it failed to discover that Iran, in addition to the Bushehr reactor program, had been secretly developing a number of other nuclear programs, including a centrifuge plant to enrich uranium near the city of Nantaz, a heavy water plant near the city of Arak that will produce plutonium, and a laser facility for the enrichment of uranium.

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