The nuclear ambiguity route

Feb 12 2007
By Avner Cohen

It's hard not to see similarities between Iran's situation today and Israel's in the 1960s.

On May 30, 1961, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York a fateful meeting was held between Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion and the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy. At stake was the future of the Dimona project, the Israeli nuclear initiative, to which Kennedy was vehemently opposed. Ben-Gurion repeatedly promised, both publicly and privately, that the Dimona initiative was for peaceful purposes only, but Kennedy did not seem convinced.

The minutes of the meeting were classified for 30 years on both sides of the Atlantic; in the mid-1990s they were released for publication, first in the United States and afterward in Israel. Only the first 15 minutes of the meeting were devoted to the nuclear issue, the issue of Dimona, but it was the heart of the entire discussion.

Kennedy emphasized the importance of the Israeli promise that the atomic initiative was for peaceful purposes only, and the importance of this commitment being not only declared but seen as well. Ben-Gurion explained Israel's future energy problems, repeated his promise that the Dimona initiative was for peaceful purposes, but concluded his words in a somewhat vague manner: "They are asking us if it [Dimona] is for peaceful purposes. And in fact, at the moment the only purposes are peaceful, but we do not know what will happen in the future ... It does not depend on us ... Maybe Russia won't give bombs to Egypt, but maybe Egypt will be able to develop them on its own." There is no doubt that he wanted to leave himself and Israel a way out of his commitment.

I recalled that discussion in the wake of the words of Ali Larijani, the secretary general of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and the head of its nuclear negotiating team, who recently declared that Iran's nuclear program is presently for peaceful purposes only, but as far as the future is concerned, he said, nobody knows what is in store; and if Iran is threatened, everything is open.

It is difficult not to see a certain historical similarity between Iran's nuclear situation today and Israel's nuclear situation in the early 1960s: countries in the midst of an ambitious national nuclear initiative designed to create a nuclear option, but which do not yet have a clear idea of what its nature will be in the future. Clearly they will have something, some kind of nuclear capability, but in spite of their determination nobody can prophesy what they can achieve: the technological capability to produce fissionable material, a bomb in the basement, or perhaps, in the case of Iran, a manifest bomb. Everything depends on the world's determination to oppose and confront their nuclear ambitions.

But there are also historical differences in the situation of the two countries. In terms of technology, today it is far easier to attain nuclear weapons than it was then, when only four countries had such weapons. Politically speaking, today there is a nuclear arrangement, whose legal and normative heart is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which did not exist then. At the time Israel was free, in terms of the law and international norms, to pursue its nuclear activity. That is not true of Iran, which is a signatory to the NPT - in other words, it has a legal obligation not to develop nuclear weapons.

All the signs point to the fact that Iran wants to achieve nuclear capability in a manner very similar to the way Israel achieved it; in other words, quietly and under a cover of ambiguity. It will apparently attempt to achieve a situation that gives it "a bomb in the basement," but if the world makes it hard for Iran, for the time being, it will make do with less. For example, constructing a nuclear option based on industrial production of fissionable material. The political differences between the two options are not significant for a country that chooses the route of ambiguity; and in any case, it is difficult to locate activity related to the preparation of weapons.

The route of ambiguity is very convenient for Iran precisely because it is a signatory to the NPT. It will gain the political advantages of having a nuclear option, deterrence and prestige, and it will attempt to reduce its friction with the outside world. Iran will continue to claim that its program is for peaceful purposes only, and it has a right according to the NPT to control all the components for producing nuclear fuel, but at the same time it will encourage the rumors that it is on the verge of producing weapons (or even that it has a bomb in the basement), and therefore it should be considered a nuclear nation for all extents and purposes.

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.

The writer is a senior researcher at the University of Maryland, and the author of "Israel and the Bomb."