The Israeli secret service agency Mossad is thought to be behind several attacks in recent years which have targeted Iran's nuclear program. This image is from television footage in the wake of an attack which killed nuclear scientist Massoud Ali Mohammadi.
Avner Cohen is a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute/ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, DC. He has done extensive research on and written about nuclear weapons including deterrence, morality and proliferation. The following is an exclusive interview with Dr. Cohen.
What prompted you to write your first book, Israel and the bomb, and now the second one, The Worst -Kept Secret?
In the early to mid 1990s, there was still no detailed historical account or a political history of Israel’s nuclear program and I felt, as more and more documents became available particularly in the United States, France and Norway, that one should write a chronicle of its history. Three elements were outlined: first, the American Israeli nuclear relationship, second the regional nuclear dynamics and, third, Israel‘s own domestic nuclear history. The second book attempts to understand how Israel created a unique nuclear posture, what I also call a nuclear “bargain” which is unlike any other country in the nuclear age. I provide some detail about the origins of the bargain that was made between PM Golda Meir and President Nixon and I try to assess it, both in terms of its implications and in today’s context.
What is Amimut?
Amimut is the Hebrew word for (nuclear) ambiguity or (nuclear) opacity. By using this word Israelis refer to the unique nuclear posture of their country. Of course, everybody knows that Israel has nuclear weapons; but Israel has never officially acknowledged it. In the broader sense, it refers to the nuclear bargain as a whole that Israel has made, beyond governmental policy, a way in which Israel has learned to live with the bomb, placing it away in an invisible place. Amimut has features of a national taboo.
You mention in your new book that in 1969, Golda Meir made a deal with Nixon behind closed doors to keep Israel’s nuclear weapons out of the limelight. Henry Kissinger was aware of it. CIA Chief Richard Helms and Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, both expressed their objections. In a letter to Secretary of State, William Rogers, Laird wrote, these “developments were not in the United States’ interests and should, if at all possible, be stopped.” President Kennedy had also been wary of Israel acquiring these weapons. Why didn’t various administrations stop Israel from acquiring them?
There was only one American President who was truly committed in his effort to stop Israel from going nuclear and this was President John F. Kennedy, but his determination was short-lived as he was assassinated in 1963. All others after him, in particular Johnson and Nixon, quietly came to agree with the notion that Israel could have the bomb. Essentially, the Johnson and Nixon administrations, even though they publicly claim to be against Israel acquiring the bomb, in reality they were not. Some would say they were ambivalent, others would say they were sympathetic. Obviously for Israel the nuclear issue was a question of life and death.
Meir Dagan, who retired as head of Israel's secret service agency, the Mossad, late last year, has launched several successful operations against scientists working on Iran's nuclear program. His agency was also likely behind the Stuxnet computer worm, which is alleged to have destroyed dozens of centrifuges in Iran, setting back their nuclear program significantly. Here, Dagan is pictured with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Do you think the creation of the bomb goes back to the tragedy of the Holocaust?
Yes, I do. It is the memory of the Holocaust; the vow “never again” (in relation to the Holocaust) had a very significant role in Israel’s pursuing the bomb and why Israel would not easily give it up. Having that kind of national trauma is a reason why Israel was seeking for the ultimate weapon. One can say that in order to prevent another Auschwitz, Israel felt that it has to be in a position to inflict a Hiroshima to its neighbors who vowed to destroy it.
In 2008, President Jimmy Carter estimated that Israel has 150 nuclear weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research institute, Israel ranks fourth in the world in terms of its stockpile, ahead of India and Pakistan. Wouldn’t you say that, on balance, Israel is potentially more dangerous than Iran, India or Pakistan?
I myself would be reluctant to speculate how many nuclear weapons Israel actually has. The estimated numbers fluctuate between 80 to perhaps 150 or 200. I do not know the exact number and neither does anyone else outside the Israeli government. I also don’t think SIPRI knows exactly whether Israel is fourth in terms of its stockpile. I would also say the number is irrelevant when it comes to the question whether Israel is more dangerous or more cautious than the other nuclear weapons states. From my perspective, Israel has always been cautious in handling its nuclear weapons. Israel had the capability as early as 1967 and 1973 but, of course, never used it. It has never even demonstrated its capability in a public way.
Let’s talk about Iran and Israel; a few days ago it was reported that according to a cable in WikiLeaks, Ahmadinejad was in favor of a swap and that Iranians trusted the US more than the Russians. "Ahmadinejad had said ‘yes,’ that the Iranians agree to the proposal but need to manage public perception," the message said, adding that Turkish officials consider Ahmadinejad "more flexible than others inside the Iranian government." Why do you think the US and Iran cannot come to a compromise? Who or what is preventing it?
It is hard to say. I think the compromise negotiated in late 2009 allowed Iran much more than the resolutions of the Security Council. I must say I was very surprised that a year ago that Iran turned down the American offer. It was a generous offer which essentially would have given Iran the right to enrich even though the Security Council told Iran it should not enrich uranium. It appears that Iran turned it down for all sorts of domestic political reasons, having much to do with Ahmadinejad, the elections and so forth. But I thought it was an offer that, in my view, would have left Iran close to being able to produce the material for a bomb.
It is the role of the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations known as “Mossad” “to collect information, analyze intelligence and perform special covert operations beyond its border.” Would you say that includes assassinating nuclear scientists in Iran?
We know from history that whenever Israel saw that WMD were acquired by its enemies it took it as a threat to its existence and hunted down those involved very vigorously. For example, Israel took direct action against German scientists who worked to develop radiological weapons in Egypt in the early 60’s. It also took action against scientists who were involved in Iraq’s WMD pursuit in the 80’s, including allegedly the assassination of Gerald Bull who was a Canadian scientist working for Iraq. Thus, I would not be surprised at all if Israel was also involved in an effort to scare and deter the scientists involved in the Iranian nuclear program. It does seem to fit the Israeli historical record and pattern in this area.
Before being elected as PM, Netanyahu said, “Against Lunatics, deterrence must be absolute, perfect, including a second strike. The crazies have to understand that if they raise their hands against us, we’ll put them back in the Stone Age.” At the same time, the Israel defense chief said in 2009 that Iran is not a nuclear threat while an ex-Mossad chief also mentioned that it is wrong to say that Iran poses a threat to Israel. Then why make Iran into this evil threat? What is Israel afraid of?
I think one has to be nuanced about it. You are right to point out that there are different views in Israel about characterizing the Iranian nuclear threat. Some refer to it as “existential threat,” while others do not like to use this phrase. Some say “Israel is strong, and nobody in the world can pose an existential threat to Israel.” For example, both Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and opposition leader Tzipi Livni avoid using the phrase “existential threat” in reference to Iran. I personally also believe that it is somewhat a misleading phrase because Israel, at the present time, is much stronger than Iran. Therefore if anybody can pose an existential threat, it is Israel to Iran and not vice versa. At the same time, virtually all Israelis agree that Iran’s nuclear program is a major security challenge to Israel. Simply put, it could end Israel’s monopoly in the region. I think it is fair to say that virtually all Israelis are concerned about such an eventuality. Furthermore, I think almost all Israelis agree that they would not rule out the possibility of military action against Iran’s nuclear program. But the degree of willingness and readiness to actually do it is quite different among various Israeli leaders. I do believe that PM Netanyahu would be more willing to take that path.
But which one is more dangerous, a nuclear Iran even under Ahmadinejad or a Pakistan which is sliding into chaos? Wouldn’t you say that Pakistan would be potentially more dangerous than Iran?
Under some circumstances it could be. It really depends on the circumstances. If Pakistan would be run by a Taliban kind of government, it is not impossible that the U.S. would take action against its nuclear program.
Both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Barak put a number of requests to Bush during his visit to Jerusalem, which were construed as preparations for an aerial attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. When Obama became President, he sent a clear message to Netanyahu saying “don’t surprise me with Iran strike.” Do you think Israel will attack Iran while Obama is in office? What if the Republicans win in the next elections?
Evidently, President Obama is not excited about taking military action against Iran. He is clearly in favor of more negotiations. However, if Iran will truly acquire nuclear weapons and is perceived to be moving toward a much more dangerous nuclear path, I think both Democrats and Republicans will not hesitate to act. They would all seriously consider the military option. Both President Obama and Secretary Gates hinted that way. Frankly, I don’t see anybody within the U.S. government willing to accept a nuclear Iran.
Can you say with precision when Iran will become a nuclear power?
No, I cannot. I tend to think that, at the present time, Iran has not taken the decision to do so. Furthermore, Iran is not even able to enrich uranium at the weapons level. It could get them, probably, at least one to two years, but it appears that Iran has not yet decided to take that route. And then, based on the information from IAEA, it will take them many more years to build a stockpile.
Why doesn’t Israel “come out of the closet” as an American official put it and be honest about its nuclear capability?
The Israelis (and most Americans) believe that they still have many good reasons not to go public. They believe that maintaining the status-quo is better than dealing with the risks of change. In my view, however, much of this is a matter of old habit. Israel feels comfortable to live with this secret. Realistically, short of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, I do not see Israel changing its commitment to amimut.