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The Lessons Israel Can Learn From the Syrian Nuclear Reactor Strike

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A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran, September 27, 2017.
A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran, September 27, 2017.Credit: \ Reuters Photographer/ REUTERS

To most Israelis, the recently released information on the Israel Air Force’s destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor at Deir al-Zour over 10 years ago made for interesting reading regarding the details of the decision making-process and the operation that followed, but was not really a surprise. The news from “foreign sources” at the time and the belief in the IAF’s capabilities led us to trust the “foreign sources” in this case.

>> No longer a secret: How Israel destroyed Syria's nuclear reactor>>

And yet, the detailed description of the verification of the suspicion that the building in the Syrian desert housed a nuclear reactor, the cabinet discussions led by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the decision to destroy the reactor and the smooth IAF operation that destroyed it are a source of pride to all Israelis. The system works, and works well.

And yet, some lingering questions remain. Why did it take years to notice the building housing the reactor and begin the process of verifying its contents? How were the Syrians and their North Korean partners able to build the reactor and the building holding it without being discovered by Israeli intelligence? The questions are pertinent even now, so that any deficiencies in our intelligence agencies that for years prevented an awareness of something going on under very noses can be corrected. There may be some lessons to be learned.

>> The intelligence failure: It took years for Israel to discover Syria's reactor >>

The lack of alertness to the potential danger to Israel of the proliferation of nuclear and ballistic missile technology in the Middle East is even more puzzling, since much of this has become common knowledge in recent years.

The story begins with Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist sometimes called the “father” of the Pakistani nuclear bomb. Receiving his graduate education in the Netherlands, he went to work for URENCO there, a company that produces nuclear fuel using centrifuge technology. In 1974 he returned to Pakistan, bringing plans for centrifuges, and joined the team developing Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. In due time his absconding with centrifuge plans became public knowledge.

His activities did not stop there. He began selling nuclear technology to others, and there were customers for his wares also in the Middle East. His first customer seems to have been North Korea, at the time in the early stages of developing a nuclear bomb. In exchange Pakistan received from North Korea ballistic missile technology, which served as the basis for Pakistan’s ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The next customer was Iran, which was in the early stages of its nuclear weapons development effort. Next was Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya. This connection became public knowledge when Gadhafi, after a number of U.S. airstrikes, agreed in 2003 to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction programs. The Libyan foreign ministry announced at the time that “Libya had bought nuclear components from various black market dealers” and gave the names of the suppliers, including Khan. Now we learn that the American announcement in 2004 regarding the existence of a Libyan nuclear program and its subsequent dismantlement caught the Israeli intelligence community by surprise.

Is it possible that the comings and goings over the years of North Koreans in Middle Eastern countries, against the background of the stories appearing in the international media, did not arouse the suspicion of the Israeli intelligence community? That the attention given over the years to the Iranian nuclear program did not lead to identifying the North Korean contribution to that program and examining the possibility of such a contribution to a Syrian program?

Evidently, for years it passed under the radar of Israeli intelligence. Possibly the procedure for assigning priorities to the intelligence community needs to be reexamined.

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