By Ellen Laipson
Last week, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a long investigative report on how Israel discovered and then destroyed a nearly completed plutonium nuclear reactor in Syria’s eastern desert in September 2007. The episode, including the ups and downs of the intelligence process that led to the decision to strike in what Haaretz called a “daring, hair-raising operation,” provides a window into how to think about intelligence and policy challenges in other cases involving nascent nuclear programs.
After a decade of secrecy, military censors in Israel lifted the ban on journalists publishing the details of the attack. Haaretz reporters Amos Harel and Aluf Benn provide a riveting account of the debate over Syria’s nuclear intentions in Israeli intelligence circles, the rivalry between then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak over the military operation, and the skill of the Israeli air force. The political class, which was able to prevent a larger conflict with Syria by avoiding public humiliation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through public silence on the operation, also deserves credit.
At the beginning of the century, few regional experts identified Syria as a likely candidate to pursue a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Syria, like other Arab neighbors of Israel, had long realized that Israel held the strategic advantage with its advanced conventional capabilities and presumed nuclear arsenal. Syria, most agreed, considered its chemical weapons program to be the strategic counterbalance to Israel’s nuclear weapons. But after the United States and the United Kingdom persuaded Moammar Gadhafi to give up Libya’s nascent nuclear program in late 2003, the Israeli national security community paid more attention to other possible hidden nuclear programs in the region, including Syria.
The Libya revelations — in the same year that the Bush administration launched its war against Iraq, allegedly for the threat posed by its supposed weapons of mass destruction — represented an intelligence failure for Israel on two levels. The Israelis did not know that Libya had a secret program, and they did not know that the U.S. and the U.K. were negotiating its dismantlement. Motivated by that failure and despite the greater concern about Iran, Israeli intelligence allocated some more resources to the Syria question. By 2006, it had identified a site in the eastern desert near Deir el-Zour on the Euphrates that looked suspiciously like a North Korean plutonium reactor design. By early 2007, after some considerable skepticism about the analysis, the Israeli establishment concurred that this was indeed a major, virtually existential threat to Israel, and the rest is history.
I take some comfort from Haaretz’s reporting that most Israeli intelligence experts and political leaders had earlier concluded it was quite unlikely Assad would accept the costs and risks of a nuclear program. I had reached that conclusion in a chapter on Syria in “The Nuclear Tipping Point,” published in 2005 by the Brookings Institution. My analysis was purely speculative. At the time, experts were watching Syrian positions in the International Atomic Energy Agency and developments in its nuclear research facilities, but no alarm bells had gone off, or at least none that could be heard by researchers outside the U.S. government. After weighing the potential costs and consequences of a clandestine nuclear program, I thought Assad would probably find other ways to strengthen his regime’s security.
In a more transparent era, information about different countries’ nuclear intentions may come from open channels rather than clandestine intelligence.
In other cases, U.S. intelligence analysts failed to find nascent nuclear programs early, or to assess the likelihood of a decision to pursue a weapons program, or to expand an existing program. In 1998, India was on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power. During the national electoral campaign that year, the Hindu nationalist party contending for power, the BJP, took a strong stand in favor of nuclear testing to prove that India was indeed a fully nuclear capable state — and to make the move before a new test ban treaty went into effect. But analysts concluded that once in power, the BJP would modify its stance, when it became aware of the consequences of taking such a provocative position. Diplomats did their best to encourage such restraint. But the BJP, which took power as the head of a coalition government, still proceeded with tests, fulfilling its campaign promise.
With North Korea and Iran, American and other Western intelligence agencies picked up early signs of troubling nuclear activities from the 1990s and the early 2000s, respectively. But intelligence did not always get the timeline right for various milestones in both countries’ nuclear programs. North Korea’s current advanced status in weapons and delivery systems was achieved several years earlier than analysts had predicted, for example, while Iran’s program at some intervals was proceeding more slowly than earlier projections, which could have reflected active measures taken to impede and disrupt its progress.
In other cases, countries are more open and explicit about their nuclear intentions, and how they view nuclear weapons in their own geopolitical context. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been openly telling his American interlocutors that Riyadh would definitely pursue a nuclear weapons program if Iran developed one. So long as the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran remains operative, that worst-case scenario should not play out. But the Iran deal is now in grave jeopardy with Donald Trump in the White House, and the business of watching Saudi nuclear activities will be in high gear. Riyadh’s nuclear energy plans, including pending purchases of foreign reactors and related technology, will be more carefully scrutinized now to ensure compliance with nonproliferation requirements.
Several conclusions can be drawn from these examples. One, the international community cannot be complacent about the future of nuclear weapons. There are simply too many cases of countries openly or secretly considering nuclear weapons as a component of their national security requirements.
Two, in a more transparent era, information about different countries’ nuclear intentions may come more from open channels rather than clandestine intelligence. That may or may not be a good thing, because open declarations from governments will create great instability in places like the Middle East, and may even lead to pre-emptive action that could trigger conventional conflict.
Third is the need to calibrate more carefully what constitutes an “intelligence failure” in all these cases. There is a difference between being totally blindsided, like Israel was about Libya in 2003, and miscalculating a timeline for engineering achievements in a known nuclear program. Both have policy consequences, but of different orders of magnitude.
Of course, intelligence will continue to be key to the vital task of detecting, monitoring and assessing the nuclear dangers around the world. As Israel showed in Syria, sometimes it takes years to get the intelligence right, and to align those intelligence judgments with policy.
Ellen Laipson directs the International Security Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She led the Stimson Center from 2002 to 2015, and served in government for 25 years. Her WPR column, Measured Response, appears every Tuesday.
Originally published at www.worldpoliticsreview.com.