Iran's Nukes: 2 Elephants in the Room

Israel's Dimona Reactor

Israel's Dimona Reactor

You want chutzpah? This is chutzpah: an Oped piece this week in the New York Times by a prominent Israel journalist, Ari Shavit, lambasting George W. Bush—not Barack Obama—for the fact that Iran is on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power. Instead of going after Iraq in 2003, says Shavit, instead of fatally draining Americas’s resources and prestige, Bush should have organized a coordinated coalition of powers to throttle a much weaker Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Where’s the chutzpah? Well, for one thing, if you want to blame an American president for failing to prevent nuclear weapons being introduced into the Middle East—and then passively accepting their presence--the list of culprits begins with Dwight D. Eisenhower, and continues through just about every American President since.  


The nuclear weapons we’re talking about are not Iran’s feared--but not yet existing-devices, but Israel’s very real nuclear arsenal.  Somehow Shavit, like most Israeli and American commentators analyzing the standoff with Iran, never gets around to the fact that Israel has had nuclear weapons for the past half a century.

The New York Time’s Tom Friedman—who also rarely mentions Israel’s nukes--points out that we’re right to distrust Iran’s assurances, because its government “has lied and cheated its way to the precipice of building a bomb.”  That’s an excellent description of the tactics Israel used to obtain its nuclear arsenal.  But it would never have succeeded without the willingness of so many leaders—American and others—to turn their back to what was going on.

For instance, in 1963-64, Argentina played a major role in providing Israel with 80-100 tons of uranium oxide (“yellowcake”) vital for Israel’s clandestine nuclear program.

Those secret Argentine shipments were quickly discovered by Canadian intelligence officials in 1964, who passed on the news to their British and American colleagues, who passed it on to their civilian leaders. That revelation cast strong doubts on Israel’s claims that its nuclear program was completely peaceful.

So, what happened? “In response to U.S. carefully worried diplomatic queries about the sale, the government of Israel spent years dancing around any straightforward replies. The U.S. and its allies showed no appetite to seriously challenge Israel’s on-going evasions.

Theirs, as I’ve previously blogged,  was the continuation of an ostrich-like policy that began under Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950’s---and continues to this day.

As Seymour Hersh chronicled in “The Sampson Option,” in 1958 or 1959 America’s U2 spy planes spotted what looked almost certainly to be a nuclear reactor being built at Dimona in southern Israel. Two analysts rushed the raw images to the White House, expecting urgent demands from the Oval Office for more information: this was, after all, a development that could initiate a disastrous nuclear arms race in the Middle East. 


But there was absolutely no follow-up from the White House.


“By the end of 1959,” writes Hersh, “the two analysts had no doubts that Israel was going for the bomb. They also had no doubts that President Eisenhower and his advisers were determined to look the other way.” 

France—which is now in the forefront of nations demanding that Iran forswear the right to enrich uranium to its end--was also secretly helping the Israel build its nuclear facilities.

When the Eisenhower administration finally acted indirectly--leaking word of Dimona and France’s involvement to the New York Times in December 1960, Israel’s David Ben Gurion flatly denied the Times report.

He assured American officials –as well as the Israeli Knesset--that the Dimona reactor was completely benign. French officials guaranteed that any plutonium produced at Dimona would be returned to France for safekeeping (another lie).

The Eisenhower administration, however, had no stomach to take on Israel and its American lobby. Despite the continued reports of CIA analysts, Ben Gurion’s denials went unchallenged.  

That hypocrisy remains official American policy—and mainline media coverage of Israel--to this day: a wink and a nod about Israel’s nuclear program. .


The hardnosed attitude is: Yeah, o.k. the Israelis have nukes. But, what the hell. They’re threatened with extinction by their neighbors, like that half-crazed Iranian-leader whatshisname? Amunjihad?, and terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas, eager to wipe Israel off the map. 

The fact, however, is that Israel also has its share of  political crazies, some of whom have been increasingly powerful over the last few years, crazies who have talked openly of using nuclear weapons on Iran, and continue to advocate a Greater Israel free of all Arabs. And as far as attacking its neighbors, Israel has invaded Lebanon twice over the past few years, swarmed into Gaza, bombed and carried out air strikes in Iraq and Syria,

But it’s not just Israel’s nuclear weapons that are only whispered about in Washington, there’s another elephant in the room: the major force driving U.S. policy on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program is not cool, rational logic, but the pro-Israel lobby.  

Twenty years ago, when we did a report at Sixty Minutes on the most influential part of that lobby, AIPAC, not a single sitting senator or congressman would talk to us on the record; though all agreed on the lobby’s enormous power, second only to the NRA. (As if to prove the point, when our report aired, it generated more vicious calls and condemnation than any other report I’d ever done. )

Twenty years later, the issue of the pro-Israel lobby is still so sensitive that the New York Time’s Tom Friedman, created a sensation of sorts by stating a fact that that most mainstream columnists have are still leery of tackling.  

 “Never,” Friedman wrote, “have I seen more lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — more willing to take Israel’s side against their own president’s. I’m certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.”

For his efforts, Friedman’s column was viciously and immediately attacked by the usual suspects, with the usual charges.

[MJ Rosenberg, who spent 20 years dealing with AIPAC as an aide to a senator and several House members, has also written several accounts of Aipac’s influence. “Initially,” he wrote, “I felt like a voice in the wilderness.”

The bottom line is this -- whatever your view about Iran or Israel's right to nuclear weapons -- how can statesmen or reporters or anyone seriously discuss the current crisis over Iran when a key part of the dispute is officially hidden from view? 

How can the U.S. and Israel deal with proposals for non-proliferation and a nuclear free Middle East when they still refuse officially to acknowledge that the region is not nuclear free -- and hasn't been for the past 50 years?

How can they discuss and vote on these issues intelligently when many of the congressional players are acting not for the good of the country or the Middle East but according to the wishes of a very narrow and partisan lobby—whose influence many won’t even acknowledge?

Barry Lando has just recently finished a novel “The Watchman’s File” about the attempts of an American TV reporter to unravel the secret behind Israel’s most powerful weapon (it’s not the bomb). The book is available on Amazon in soft cover and Kindle edition.