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Israel’s nuclear precedent

They built their bomb in secret, under the cover of a peaceful nuclear reactor. After aerial photographs caught them constructing a massive plutonium plant in the desert, they claimed it was just a research laboratory. Under US pressure, they let American inspectors in, but managed to conceal for years what they were really doing.

This may sound like the history of Iran's nuclear program, but it's not. It's the story of Dimona, Israel's plutonium complex built in the late 1950s with French assistance.

Israel's nuclear arsenal, constructed despite promises to Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson that the program was purely peaceful, is a taboo subject in both Washington and Tel Aviv. Indeed, Israeli officials never publicly acknowledge what has now become an open secret. But to many in the Middle East, it's the elephant in the room. Egyptian officials say the key to dismantling Iran's program is getting the rest of the region to renounce the possession of nuclear weapons.


"Success in dealing with Iran will depend to a large extent on how successfully we deal with the establishment of a nuclear-free zone" in the Middle East, Maged Abdelaziz, Egypt's UN ambassador, told reporters in 2010.

But that's a nonstarter. Israelis struggled against all odds to get the bomb. They are not about to give it up now.

Yet, even that history of struggle colors the current debate on Iran.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands that Iran's plutonium reactor at Arak be completely dismantled because it has "no peaceful purpose," he is speaking from experience. Israel had built a similar plant, and engaged in similar deception, at Dimona.

That's what spooks Israeli policymakers: Iran's nuclear playbook feels all too familiar.

"When Israel looks at Iran, they see Iran as if Iran is like Israel 50 years ago," said Avner Cohen, professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and author of "Israel and the Bomb" and "The Worst Kept Secret."

If you look at things that way, the Iranian bomb feels downright inevitable.

But Iran isn't Israel, Cohen points out. There are plenty of reasons the Iranian program could turn out differently.


Israel had a much deeper reason to seek the bomb. Surrounded by hostile neighbors bent on its destruction, Israel felt that nuclear weapons were the key to the Jewish state's very survival. Iran faces no such existential threat.

And, unlike Israel, Iran signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran is therefore subject to far stricter inspections than Israel ever allowed at Dimona. If Iran does decide to try to start producing weapons-grade fuel, the world is likely to discover it in time to stop it.

And while Johnson's administration pressed Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, he looked the other way when Israel refused. Drawing attention to Israel's refusal would have doomed the treaty. Arab countries would have jumped ship. At the end of the day, Americans could live with an Israeli bomb, as long as Israelis didn't advertise it by testing it. Iran can't expect the same deal.

"I think Iranians know the world is not going to allow them" to have a nuclear weapon, Cohen said.

Instead, he said, Iran appears to be trying to keep its nuclear options open, inching as close to the ingredients for a bomb as the Nonproliferation Treaty allows, while refraining from actually building one.

Still, nuclear competition in the Middle East is something Israelis have long feared. In the early 1960s, respected Israeli intellectuals warned that a bomb would actually make Israel less safe, because it would trigger a regional arms race that would put Israel at a huge disadvantage. Due to its small size, Israel coudn't withstand a nuclear attack like its larger neighbors.


That's just the thing about nuclear weapons: They only make you safer until your enemy gets them. It took less than five years for the Soviet Union to follow the United States into the nuclear weapons age. Israel has maintained its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East for nearly half a century. How long that lasts remains to be seen. Perhaps once it is gone, Israel will support what others have been pushing all along: a nuclear weapons-free Middle East.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.