Peace or the Nuclear Option

If Iran should suddenly announce it is ready for peace talks with Israel, then Jerusalem would face a dilemma.

The news emerging from Cairo astonished Israel. The new Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak's successor, announced his country was withdrawing its membership from the International Atomic Energy Agency and would lay the cornerstone of its new nuclear reactor. "We are pursuing peaceful use of nuclear power," the Egyptian head of state declared. "We do not need foreign bribes. We are not interested in their supervision nor do we accept another country having a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region." Egypt's announcement reverberated in Jerusalem. It was perceived as a clear break by Cairo with Washington, which would lead to the cessation of U.S. aid to Egypt. What could Israel do then, bomb Egypt?

This scenario is not as fantastical as one might imagine. Soon Israel will have to choose between two contradictory policies: Seeking peace with its neighbors, or denying them nuclear capability. Until now, Israel has avoided such a dilemma because its neighbors either tried and failed to obtain nuclear capabilities (Iraq and Syria), or have accepted the status quo. But what if a change in government or policy in Jordan or Egypt, or in one of the countries with which Israel may sign a peace deal in the future, leads to an attempt to acquire nuclear capabilities? Such a course of action would not constitute a breach of any peace accord. After all, a clause prohibiting nuclear capabilities would be reciprocal. Israel's dilemma, then, will be whether to risk violating the accord by launching a strike against its neighbor's nuclear facilities or restrain itself and accept a nuclear Middle East.

In the wake of briefings by the Bush administration last weekend, the measure of justification for bombing the Syrian reactor has been questioned. It still seems justified, but only partly rather than entirely. The operation was a preemptive strike against a serious, but not existential, threat. Indeed, Syria was still far from developing nuclear weapons. In addition, Israel's deterrence against Iran has been weakened because it exposed its mode of operation.

In Israel, the bombing was portrayed as a triumph of the intelligence services. The U.S. version of events undermines that thesis. Those who believe the strike was necessary could argue it was launched almost when it was too late: Former Syrian president Hafez Assad began nuclear cooperation with North Korea in 1997; construction on the reactor began in 2001 and its nuclear fuel arrived in 2006.

All those who believe that every snore in Bashar Assad's bed at night is picked up by sensitive detectors in Tel Aviv should be humbled by the nuclear reactor affair. It proves, once again, that Syria, Iran and Hezbollah know how to keep a secret. After successfully staying in power for eight years, Bashar Assad, too, should not be underestimated.

One must also keep in mind that building a nuclear reactor and obtaining nuclear weapons are not one and the same. During the CIA briefing, officials repeatedly differentiated between the facts and their estimations. They said there was a high probability that the target was a nuclear reactor aimed at producing plutonium and that nuclear cooperation had existed between North Korea and Syria for a long time. They added, however, that there was only a possibility that the North Koreans were involved in the nuclear reactor that was targeted and only a small probability that the Syrians intended to produce nuclear weapons.

Based upon these claims, Israel's attack was aimed at preventing the construction of a nuclear facility that could in the future produce nuclear material from which nuclear weapons could be made. If in Iraq, and again in Syria, Israel launched attacks prematurely because its policy prevents it from attacking an active nuclear reactor, whether because the radiation might hurt nearby civilians or because it could serve as a pretext for an attack on Israel's reactor in Dimona, then Iran can rest assured. Iran's reactors, just like North Koreas, are already active. If Iran should suddenly announce it is ready for peace talks with Israel, then Jerusalem would face a dilemma.