In Iran, this summer was a season of combustions. As fires and explosions followed hard upon one another, the New York Times reported that “for many Iranians, anticipating what will blow up next has become a kind of parlor game.”
Some of these conflagrations must have been natural occurrences: A string of forest fires owed much to a period of intense heat. Some fires or blasts at industrial facilities were likely the consequence of derelict maintenance due to foreign sanctions or managerial incompetence. Others, however, were attributed to arson or the detonation of bombs. The culprits may conceivably have been local: militant Kurds, Arabs, or Baluchis, fighting for independence. Or they may have been agents of the U.S. or Saudi Arabia or other Arab Gulf states.
But most speculation understandably focused on Iran’s chosen main enemy, Israel. In May Israeli officials had made little effort to conceal their responsibility for a computer disaster at Bandar-Abbas, Iran’s main southern port, which caused long delays of ships and trucks and severe disruption of operations. This was generally recognized as retaliation for the foiled Iranian cyberattack on Israeli water systems a few weeks before.
In general, however, Israel claims credit for few of its attacks on foreign enemies. While things were going bang in Iran, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared, “Not every event that happens in Iran is connected to us.” But of course, buried in this deflection of responsibility was an implicit acknowledgment that some such events are indeed of Israel’s making. And Gantz’s predecessor, Avigdor Lieberman, took to the floor of the Knesset shortly after to denounce an unnamed intelligence official, understood to be Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, for leaking to the New York Times confirmation that Israel was behind the most consequential of this summer’s explosions, which destroyed a strategic factory at Natanz.
Natanz is the center of Iran’s nuclear program, where thousands of centrifuges enrich uranium. They have been placed in deep underground facilities to make them difficult to attack. But most of these centrifuges are behind the times, limited in speed and the degree of enrichment they can achieve and therefore in their effectiveness for making nuclear bombs. Presumably to remedy this deficit, Iran had set about manufacturing more modern centrifuges capable of producing more bomb-quality enriched uranium faster. This factory sits above ground. Or at least it did—until it was blown up this July.
This was not the only facility of military significance to go up in flames this summer. A missile-production site at Khojir in eastern Tehran Province was also destroyed by an explosion. A power plant in Isfahan, delivering electricity to Natanz, caught fire. And complete power blackouts in other locales were said to affect military capabilities.
The implication, it seemed, was that Israel had opened a new chapter in its efforts to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Some observers speculated about Iran’s possible retaliation—including against the U.S.—while others expressed alarm. Indeed, ever since an Iranian opposition group laid bare Iran’s secret nuclear program in 2002, much of the world has seemed as anxious about what Israel might do to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout as about Iran’s quest for the bomb. Israel’s latest apparent tactic was “audacious and risky,” wrote a Washington Post columnist. It amounted to “a dangerous gamble,” warned the head of the Rand Corporation’s Middle East program.
Perhaps so: Audacious and risky tactics, dangerous gambles, have been hallmarks of Israel’s self-defense, which has enabled it to survive in the face of endless threats that few other nations have had to face. It has emerged as the strongest and most stable country in the Middle East, a reality that is recognized universally by unbiased observers. What is less often acknowledged is that actions taken in Israel’s self-defense have also redounded to the benefit of America and, indeed, of the world.
Israel has refused to sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and is widely believed to possess a nuclear arsenal, an inference it has steadfastly refused to confirm or deny and for which it has often been criticized. Nonetheless, it has been responsible for some of the world’s most important measures of what is called “counterproliferation.”
THE FIRST was the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. As early as 1974, Saddam Hussein, who was not yet president of Iraq but was already the power behind the throne, was named, or named himself, to head a three-member Strategic Development Committee charged with generating weapons of mass destruction.
That year, France agreed to sell Iraq a light-water “research reactor” together with uranium fuel, after turning down a request for a graphite reactor deemed more conducive to weapons manufacture. Italy provided equipment for recovering plutonium from the reactor’s fuel. According to Iraqi scientist Khidhir Hamza, who worked on the program, and David Albright, a former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector of Iraq’s nuclear programs, “Iraqi teams calculated that the Osirak reactor could conservatively produce about 5 kilograms to 7 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium per year,” and possibly more, enough for a bomb.
This known potentiality led to its being attacked—by Iran. That was in 1980 at the outset of the war between Iraq and Iran. The Iranians damaged some of the facilities at Osirak but not the reactor. In protest, an Iraqi government newspaper addressed the Iranians rhetorically:
We ask Khomeini and his gang, “Who would derive benefit from damaging the Iraqi nuclear reactor, Iran or the Zionist entity?” It does not stand to reason that this reactor would constitute a danger to Iran, because Iraq sees the Iranian people with a brotherly regard. It is the Zionist entity which is afraid of the Iraqi nuclear reactor … because it constitutes a great danger to Israel.
And so it seemed, too, to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The following year, as Iraq was preparing to feed fuel into the reactor, making it “hot,” meaning that its destruction would have released radioactivity into the air that might have killed thousands, Begin ordered it destroyed.
The airstrike constituted a remarkable feat of aeronautics. The round trip from Israel to the reactor site was longer than the normal fuel range of Israel’s F-16 bombers. It entailed overflying Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and western Iraq, forcing the planes to extremely low altitude to evade radar, and meaning the pilots had no safe place for an emergency landing or to parachute into. Yet all eight planes returned safely, seven having succeeded in hitting the target, destroying it completely. A French technician working there was quoted in the press, saying, “If [the Iraqis] want to resume work, they will have to flatten everything and start from scratch.”
The world responded with indignation. The New York Times delivered this pronouncement in a lead editorial: “Israel’s sneak attack… was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression… . Prime Minister Begin embraces the…code of terror.” Few eyebrows were raised when Moscow branded the attack “barbarous,” but even Israel’s friends were condemnatory. Margaret Thatcher called the strike “a grave breach of international law.” Secretary of State Alexander Haig deemed it “reckless.” UN Representative Jeane Kirkpatrick said it was “shocking.” With U.S. assent, the UN Security Council voted to “strongly condemn” Israel and called upon it “urgently” to place its own nuclear program under IAEA safeguards. As a sanction, the Reagan administration delayed delivery of more F-16s to Israel.
In reality, the attack was highly beneficial, and the first to benefit, ironically, was Iran, which Saddam had invaded in 1980, taking advantage of the chaos created by the overthrow of the shah. In the latter half of 1981, Iranian forces reversed the tide, and by late 1982, the war shifted to Iraqi soil. Losing, Iraq reverted to chemical weapons. Starting in 1983, it used mustard gas, sarin, and another nerve agent, Tabun, inflicting thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries.
Had Israel not destroyed the reactor, Iraq might have had a nuclear weapon by this time, or a few of them. The likelihood would have increased after a couple more years, say, by 1985 when the two sides began to fire indiscriminately on each other’s population centers in what was dubbed “the war of cities.” If he had had them, what would have restrained Saddam from using them? Mercy? Prudence? He was a ruler notorious for exhibiting none of the first and too little of the second.
Had technical factors delayed Iraq’s acquisition of the bomb until it was too late to use against Iran, then almost surely it would have had one—or rather, several—by 1990 when Iraq invaded and swallowed Kuwait. Would the U.S. and the coalition it assembled to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty have been able to operate in the shadow of Iraqi nuclear weapons? Not that Saddam could have easily attacked the United States with them, but they might have been deployed against massed U.S. and allied forces.
With international intervention held at bay, Saudi Arabia, too, would have come under threat. Saudi oil fields lie to the eastern edge of that country, just beyond Kuwait, within easy reach of Saddam’s forces once Kuwait had been incorporated as the 19th province of Iraq. Whether or not the impulsive Iraqi ruler would have helped himself to any territory beyond Kuwait, the Saudi and other monarchies of the Gulf would have felt compelled to accept a subservient relationship with a nuclear-armed Iraq, propitiating it with cash and political support. Saddam would have been well on his way to the role he coveted: kingpin of the Arab world. The geopolitical and humanitarian consequences would have been grim.
When U.S.-led forces completed the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, in effect withdrew America’s criticism of Israel’s actions a decade earlier. He sent an aerial photo of the destroyed Osirak reactor to the man who had commanded the Israeli mission, inscribed: “For Gen. David Ivry, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981—which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.” Nor was this a partisan judgment. Bill Clinton, who had to struggle the length of his presidency with trying to root out what was left after Desert Storm of Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program, said later: “What the Israelis did at Osirak, in 1981, … I think, in retrospect, was a really good thing.”
This is disputed by some scholars who claim that the Osirak attack was unnecessary, arguing variously that international inspections by the IAEA and France would have impeded Iraq’s bomb development, that other technological challenges would still have taken Iraq time to overcome, and that Iraq responded to Osirak’s destruction by redirecting its pursuit of nuclear weapons along a different, clandestine path. But none of these claims is convincing. First, Hamza and Albright write, “the Iraqis believed that the safeguards on the reactor, which would have included periodic inspections and surveillance cameras, could have been defeated” by various subterfuges. Second, while no doubt it would have taken Iraq time to produce a weapon, amassing the requisite nuclear material—plutonium or highly enriched uranium—is the critical step. With that in hand, it might have taken a year or two or five to form it into a bomb, but eventually that would have been achieved.
As for the third point of the skeptics, it is true that Saddam continued his nuclear program by other means. When coalition forces defeated Iraq in 1991, they were surprised to discover how far along toward a bomb Iraq had come since Osirak. Estimates varied but seemed to center on the guess that Iraq would have had a bomb in three years, that is, by 1994. That is surely many years later than it would have happened had Osirak been left unmolested in 1981. Of course, Israel’s action only forestalled Iraq’s nuclear-weapon status and did not prevent it for all time. But that postponement was crucial. Iraq never got the bomb; and with Saddam Hussein gone, there is no reason to suppose it will ever try again.
THE SECOND Israeli act of counterproliferation that made the world safer was its September 2007 bombing of a secret nuclear reactor recently built at al-Kibar, a remote corner of northeastern Syria. In 2006, Israeli intelligence analysts were viewing with growing suspicion satellite photos showing a large square building just west of the Euphrates with little else nearby. They dubbed the mysterious structure “the cube,” and some suspected nuclear activity, however surprising this seemed.
When one of Syria’s top nuclear experts attended a meeting of the IAEA in Vienna, Mossad took the opportunity to sneak into his hotel room and introduce a “trojan” into his laptop that rendered its contents visible to Israel. On it, they found a series of photographs of the interior of the building, showing that it harbored a reactor. To boot, a few of them showed Syrian functionaries together with some from North Korea, including a known official of Pyongyang’s nuclear program. “The cube” turned out to be a replica of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon—a type of reactor that had been made nowhere else in the previous 35 years.
Top Israeli officials traveled to Washington to show these photos to Vice President Dick Cheney and other U.S. officials. By phone, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked President George W. Bush whether the U.S. would destroy the reactor. With the U.S. mired in Iraq and the administration profoundly embarrassed by the erroneous information it had touted about Iraq’s nuclear program, all senior officials except Cheney counseled against military action in Syria, and Bush followed their advice.
Disappointed, Olmert determined that Israel would do the job itself. Available intelligence indicated that the reactor could soon go hot, so time was of the essence. But first, Israel took an extraordinary step to further verify the nature of the facility. A team of agents from the special unit that operates in Arab territory was fitted out with Syrian military uniforms and Syrian weapons and even Syrian-type jeeps. It was delivered by helicopter to the vicinity of “the cube,” where it recovered soil and plant samples. (“Audacious and risky” indeed.) These samples reconfirmed that it housed a reactor.
The bombing of al-Kibar was easier than that of Osirak simply because it was much nearer to Israel. Still, it entailed remarkable military execution. Israel did not want a war with Syria and designed its operation for complete secrecy—not merely beforehand, which of course was necessary, but even after the mission was accomplished. No doubt, the Syrian regime would understand at once what had happened, but how would it react? Israeli leaders calculated that Syrian President Bashar Assad might feel compelled to strike at Israel to save face, even knowing he would lose a war. If, however, no one other than high officials of the two countries and the personnel directly involved discovered what had happened, then no one would lose face. Both sides might be able to go on as if nothing had happened.
Israel used a small number of planes. Flying low and maintaining radio silence, the pilots were instructed even to avoid dogfights should they encounter enemy aircraft. Mission accomplished, the bombers were back at their base within four hours. Olmert called Bush on a secure line and said cryptically: “Do you remember that thing in the north that was bothering me? It isn’t there anymore.” Bush is reported to have replied, “Very good.” Of course, scores of Israeli military and intelligence officers knew what had happened, but strict military censorship was imposed, and the story did not get out for many years, by which time Assad had a rebellion on his hands, and this episode seemed too far past to justify, much less require, retaliation.
Preserving its regional nuclear monopoly manifestly serves Israel’s security. But it serves the general interest as well. Israel is neither a proliferator nor an aggressor. Not every forceful action it has taken over the years has been wise, but all have been rooted in self-defense. Its nuclear deterrent encourages its neighbors to accept that it cannot be driven into the sea, and this conduces to peace. Were a neighbor such as Syria to deploy nuclear weapons, Israel’s deterrent would be eroded, making future large Israei–Arab war more likely. With nuclear weapons on both sides, the region would live nearer the edge of catastrophe.
Apart from the impact on Israel’s security and Israeli–Arab stability, a range of dire consequences would have flowed from Syria’s achievement of a nuclear weapon. To start, Assad would have had to share them with Iran and Hezbollah, whose soldiers have kept him in power. Of course, this would put Israel in danger, but others, too.
The region’s Sunnis would not feel safe, and the rush would be on for Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt to acquire their own bombs—and who knows who else? North Korea, an economic basket case apart from weapon sales, would be only too happy to help build other Yongbyon-type reactors—and no doubt to sell missiles to go with them. The region is a tinderbox, with Syria, Yemen, and Libya aflame in civil war and with other conflicts simmering in Iraq, the Sinai, and Western Sahara. Adding nuclear bombs to the mix might well lead to disaster.
In addition, there is the question of what would have happened to Syria itself. Would Assad’s regime, which repeatedly used chemical weapons against dissident regions of his own country, have refrained from using, say, very small “battlefield” nuclear weapons? Would it have exercised such self-restraint even at the moments in the civil war when the regime seemed on the brink of collapsing? For seven or eight years now, a war of all against all has raged among Assad, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, ISIS, the relatively liberal Free Syrian Army, the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), a range of local militias, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Even if Assad did not turn his nuclear guns on his own people, the presence of such weapons, of facilities for manufacturing them, and of fissile material would have fiercely intensified the mayhem.
One possible outcome is that one or another terrorist group might have fallen into possession of a nuclear weapon or of the nuclear material from which a crude weapon could be constructed or, even more easily, a so-called dirty bomb. (A “dirty bomb” is not a nuclear weapon but rather a conventional weapon attached to radioactive material that is spread about by its detonation.) Indeed, at its height, ISIS’s caliphate controlled most of both banks of the Euphrates in Syria and most of Deir Ez Zor Province, probably including the site of “the cube.” Of course, the various states involved presumably would have fought harder to block ISIS from winning that strategic prize were it still standing, but then again ISIS and other terror groups would have gone all out for it, too.
The possibility of a terrorist group acquiring a nuclear weapon or material is not far-fetched. It alarmed President Barack Obama, who inaugurated a series of biannual global Nuclear Security Summits devoted to raising awareness of this peril. Few things, if any, would have made that nightmare more likely to come true than the production of such weapons in Syria.
IF THE door has been slammed on the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iraq or Syria, the same cannot be said for Iran—which brings us back to this summer’s combustions. It is easy to understand why an Israeli hand is suspected. Israel has good reason to fear an Iranian nuclear bomb.
In 2005, when Iran’s volatile President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared the goal of wiping Israel off the map, various apologists insisted he had been mistranslated. But the thought has been expressed by other Iranian leaders, most recently Brigadier General Hossein Salami, now the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, that country’s most powerful institution. “Our strategy is to erase Israel from the global political map,” he said last year, adding this poetic touch: “The Israelis will not have even a cemetery in Palestine to bury their corpses.”
The antipathy behind such threats is useful to Iran, bridging the gulfs between Persians and Arabs and between Shiites and Sunnis by posing as the champion of all those who remain unreconciled to Israel’s existence. But just as Hitler’s anti-Semitism was no mere contrivance to help win elections in the Weimar Republic, so neither is the hatred that inspires Iran to sponsor global contests for the best cartoon that makes fun of the Holocaust. The Iranian-American scholar Karim Sadjadpour put it:
Distilled to its essence, Tehran’s steadfast support for Assad is not driven by the geopolitical or financial interests of the Iranian nation, nor the religious convictions of the Islamic Republic, but by a visceral and seemingly inextinguishable hatred of the state of Israel…. Though Israel has virtually no direct impact on the daily lives of Iranians, opposition to the Jewish state has been the most enduring pillar of Iranian revolutionary ideology. Whether Khamenei is giving a speech about agriculture or education, he invariably returns to the evils of Zionism.
Israel does not, however, stand alone as an object of Iranian rage. Israel, in Iran’s lexicon, is the “Little Satan” while the United States is the “Great Satan.” The latter may be too formidable to tackle frontally, but Iran does what it can to inflict injuries.
A U.S. district-court ruling in 2011 found that Tehran had “provided material aid and support to al-Qaeda for the 1998 [U.S.] embassy bombings” in Kenya and Tanzania in which more than 200 people were killed. According to the report of the 9/11 Commission, “senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive training in explosives.” Others were trained in Lebanon by Iranian or Hezbollah experts. The commission also found “strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers.” Regarding the 1996 truck-bombing of U.S. military housing, Khobar Towers, in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. service members and wounded 372 others, the commission concluded that the operation had been carried out “by Saudi Hezbollah, an organization that had received support from the government of Iran.” In 2012, under President Barack Obama, the Treasury Department “designated” (i.e., placed on a list for sanctions) Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security for having “facilitated the movement of al Qa’ida operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports” and for having “provided money and weapons to al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), a terrorist group” and having “negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives.”
The 9/11 Commission found no evidence that Iran was directly involved in the 9/11 attack; rather, it had a history of setting aside sectarian differences to give low-key aid to a group whose main purpose was to attack America. Likewise, in Afghanistan, although Iran opposes the Taliban’s return to power (the Taliban are Sunni, and Iran backs its own militia of Shiite Afghans, the Fatemiyoun), it has given the Taliban modest support to bleed America. An article early this year in Military Times reported that “U.S. military intelligence assessments dating back to 2010 suggest Iran’s elite paramilitary unity, the Quds Force, has a track record of providing training and lethal arms to the Taliban.” It added that one report “from the Theater Intelligence Group based out of Bagram Air Base said that Iran’s Quds Force was paying $1,000 for every U.S. soldier killed and $6,000 for American vehicles destroyed.”
In Iraq, Iran trained and supplied Shiite guerrilla groups that inflicted many casualties on U.S. forces. Still today, long after the American combat role ended, such groups continue to take a toll. Last December, Kata’ib Hezbollah launched some 30 rockets into an Iraqi base used by U.S. personnel, killing one American civilian and wounding four U.S. servicemen. When America responded by bombing the group’s military storage facilities, inflicting casualties, Kata’ib Hezbollah organized a violent invasion of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps boats have also harassed U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships in the Persian Gulf, and last year Iran shot down a U.S. drone. “The only way for our enemies to be safe is to respect our sovereignty, national security, and the national interests of the great Iranian nation,” intoned Salami.
Despite the bluster, Iran has no wish to tackle the Great Satan head-on, and these actions amount to nipping at its heels. Iran’s imperial ambitions, however, pose a real threat to many countries and to the broader structure of peace that America built and upholds in its own long-term interest. Tehran is not very guarded about these goals. At a 2015 conference in Tehran, an official adviser to President Hassan Rowhani spoke of the “Iranian empire.” Later he explained, according to a report in Al Arabiya News, “that he was alluding to cultural similarities [of Iran] with Iraq, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan, adding that ‘unification’ of these countries could halt expansionist agendas of powers foreign to the region.”
Iran’s ambitions are defined by three concentric circles, girding the region, the Islamic world, and the entire globe. This last, widest one may not be on any immediate action agenda, but it provides a framework in which the Iranian regime views itself in relation to the outside. Ahmadinejad once boasted: “Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen. . . . The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world.” True, other Iranian presidents have been less provocative, but Ahmadinejad was the one most closely aligned with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Indeed, Ahmadinejad’s thoughts are congruent not only with Khamenei’s but with those of Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic. Its constitution specifies that “faith and ideology” must be the “basic criteria” of the country’s military policies:
Accordingly, the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps … will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.
The middle circle is the entire Islamic world—roughly a billion and a half people and some 40-odd countries with Muslim majorities, about half of which lie beyond the Middle East. Here, too, Iran’s constitution has relevant directives. “All Muslims form a single nation, and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran… must constantly strive to bring about the political, economic, and cultural unity of the Islamic world,” it says. Moreover, much as the Soviet Union once appropriated to itself authority over all Communists everywhere, so Khomeini and then Khamenei have described the Islamic Republic of Iran as the Umm al-Qura, meaning the “mother of Islam.” More traditionally, that term was applied to Mecca, birthplace of the prophet. But one of the regime’s ideologues, Mohammad Javad Larijani explained, “A state in which the Islamic regime is in complete control has a select status, called Umm Al-Qura.” (In this view, Saudi Arabia would not qualify because it is Sunni and the monarchy is not a religious institution.)
In keeping with the idea that the Islamic Republic is the mother of the entire global Umma, Iran’s support for armed groups and its exertion of “soft power” extend beyond the Middle East to South and East Asia, Central Asia, East and West Africa as well as the Magreb.
The inner circle of Iran’s imperial mission is the Middle East, and it is here that its pursuit of that ambition is most intense and consequential. Lebanon is today dominated by Hezbollah, which was created by Iran and is unabashedly subservient to it. Next door in Syria, Hezbollah together with Iran’s own forces and a collection of Shiite fighters from as far as Pakistan, all recruited and organized by Iran, have rescued Bashar al-Assad’s regime from imminent collapse and restored its rule over most of the country. Meanwhile, Iraq is dominated by Shiite militias and parties with which Iran holds great sway, although there are countervailing forces supported by the U.S. And the largely Shiite Houthi movement, widely seen as another Iranian proxy, has gained control of much of Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa.
Thus, when Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards and the architect of Iran’s regional adventures, exulted that “today we see signs of the Islamic revolution being exported throughout the region, from Bahrain to Iraq and from Syria to Yemen and North Africa,” it was no idle boast. In a like vein, when Sanaa fell to the Houthis, the Iranian politician and publisher, Ali Reza Zakani, regarded as a confidant of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s, enthused that it had just become the fourth Arab capital “in the hands of Iran and belonging to the Islamic Iranian revolution.”
Zakani also predicted, “The Yemeni revolution will not be confined to Yemen alone. It will extend, following its success, into Saudi territories.” This specter may have contributed to Riyadh’s decision to enter the war against the Houthis whose forces have also repeatedly fired into Saudi Arabia. Last year, when a flock of drones and missiles hit Aramco’s facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia, temporarily knocking out half of the Kingdom’s oil production, the Houthis claimed responsibility. But this was revealed to be a lie that the Houthis may have been coached to tell by their Saudi patrons. The projectiles were determined to have come from the north, and Yemen lies to the south of the kingdom. U.S. intelligence concluded that Iranian forces had staged this attack from their own soil, and their proxies were helping them deflect blame.
In light of these acts and these ambitions, it is easy to see that Iran’s nuclear aspirations do not threaten only Israel, perhaps not even primarily Israel, which has a nuclear deterrent of its own. They would be brandished to further Iran’s drive to dominate the region, a shield behind which Iran could become still more aggressive and a Damoclean sword with which to intimidate its neighborhood. The Saudi newspaper Asharq Al Awsat wrote years ago, as paraphrased by Israeli regional expert Uzi Rabi, “The nuclear capability Iran is striving for is not aimed at attacking Israel but rather is intended to facilitate Iranian dominance.” Bahrain’s foreign minister called it “the greatest threat to the region.” Clearly the Iranian threat helps to explain the rapid rise in the willingness of the Arab Gulf states to have open contact with Israel.
Were Iran to launch additional damaging attacks against Saudi Arabia, or even more grievous ones, would a nonnuclear Riyadh dare to retaliate if Iran possessed nuclear weapons? Indeed, would mighty America be ready to rescue a Gulf state from aggression, the way it did Kuwait in 1991, if the aggressor was so armed? The answer to either of these questions might still be yes, but the calculus of the defender would become much more fraught than it is today, while the calculus of Iran would be more tempting.
Thus, Israel is far from alone in fearing the advent of an Iranian bomb. The rest of the region, except for Iran’s proxies, fears it, too. And many outside the Middle East also have a critical investment in the security of that region. Western Europe and Japan still depend on oil imports from the Gulf. Thanks to “fracking,” the United States no longer does, but the dependency of its principal allies gives it an enduring vital interest there as well.
Fortunately, despite decades of efforts, Iran has not yet achieved entry into the nuclear weapons-club. That eventuality was forecast to have happened long before now. In January 2006, soon after Iran was censured by the Board of Governors of the IAEA Commission, an article by New York Times diplomatic correspondent Steven Erlanger described various estimates of the time needed until Iran could make a bomb. David Albright, noted nuclear-weapons authority, said, “Iran could have its first nuclear weapon in 2009.” European officials estimated five years, while those of Israel said four to five, and “American officials have offered estimates of six to 10 years,” wrote Erlanger. He added, however, that another respected American arms-control expert, Gary Milhollin, was skeptical of the longer range and thought the Israeli and European timeline more likely.
It is now nearly 15 years since that was written, and Iran is still not a member of the club. Some of that is due to President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, but that was signed already years beyond most of these estimates. The delay, it would seem, was due largely to Israel’s efforts—all of which have been undertaken in the hazy world of covert action, so they cannot be known with certainty.
A joint project of Israel and the U.S. begun during the George W. Bush administration and continued by President Obama introduced a “worm” (later dubbed Stuxnet) into the computer systems of Iran’s nuclear program. It caused the centrifuges at Natanz to function incorrectly, leading to the destruction of an estimated 1,000 of them, one-sixth of Iran’s total. Other equipment used in the program—computers, transformers—was sabotaged, and the shipment of some needed parts or materials was impeded by other means. Without American collaboration, Israel identified the top scientific personnel in the nuclear project, and six out of 15, according to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, met violent deaths inside Iran. Bergman interviewed then–CIA director Michael Hayden, who told him, “This program… .is illegal, and we never would have recommended it or advocated such a thing. However, my broad intelligence judgment is that the deaths of those human beings had a great impact on their nuclear program.” In fact, Bergman reports that Hayden told him these killings were the single most effective measure in slowing Iran’s progress.
Stuxnet was part of a larger sabotage project called Olympic Games that began in the latter years of the century’s first decade. Did it continue in some form after 2010, when the computer worm was discovered? Nothing has been revealed about this. The deaths of the scientists occurred in 2011 and 2012. And then there were this summer’s mysterious combustions. It seems unlikely that Israel undertook no efforts to impede Iran’s nuclear progress between 2012 and 2020. But whatever may have been done remains undiscovered.
The spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said the country could make up for the 2020 destruction of the centrifuge plant at Natanz in 12 to 14 months. Some Western experts have estimated it will take two years. And after that? Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have asserted the wish to negotiate a new deal with Iran; at a minimum, the Natanz attack has bought them time. At this point, 18 years after an Iranian exile group revealed Tehran’s hidden nuclear enrichment, Iran still has no bomb, confounding expectations. Israel’s actions, so it seems, have had much to do with the delay from which many have benefitted.
ISRAELI GENIUS has made significant contributions to the world. For example, in the realm of environmental protection, Israelis invented drip irrigation and rooftop solar water heating. In medicine, the flexible stent, keeping coronary arteries open, and also the “pillcam,” which, once swallowed, transmits pictures of the GI tract. In computing, the firewall and flash disk drives. In automotive travel, Waze and Mobileye, built into vehicles to prevent crashes. This is to mention just a few highlights of the much larger phenomenon of Israeli ingenuity and creativity. Earlier this year, the Iranian parliament, or Majlis, passed a law banning the use of all Israeli hardware and software. To this, the appropriate Israeli rejoinder might be, “Make my day.” So ubiquitous are Israeli contributions to the world of cybernetics—via Israeli outposts of Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, etc.—that were Tehran to enforce this law, its nuclear program, and much else, would be stopped in its tracks.
Unlike Iran, much of the world recognizes Israel’s contributions to technology. Its contributions to global security are less well recognized but no less significant. The world has been blessedly free from really big wars since 1945. This is primarily the result of American efforts to build and uphold a structure of relative peace. In that effort, the U.S. has had many partners, but by and large, America has contributed not only the lion’s share of capabilities but also of will and courage. Having one ally that has brought to the table its own remarkable capabilities as well as a powerful sense of will—expressed in the courage to undertake “audacious and risky” acts in confronting threats—has been of considerable benefit. A world without nuclear weapons in the hands of Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad or, for the time being, those of the supreme leader, is a much safer world than it would have been otherwise. More people than know it owe Israel a debt of gratitude.