Summary: As the world negotiates with Iran about their nuclear program, it is worth remembering lessons from Syria’s nuclear plant in 2007.
In September 2007, something significant happened in the Middle East. While the details were very murky as the news reports were cryptic, it was clear that a major event came-and-went. Over the following months and years, more information emerged about Syria’s nascent nuclear program and Israel’s attack that destroyed it.
Failure to Detect
Syria began to investigate the feasibility of a nuclear program in the 1990s and by the mid-2000s it was building a nuclear facility with the help of North Korea. The facility was being constructed roughly 100 miles from the Iraqi border. During its construction, hundreds of thousands of American troops were busy a few miles from the construction site during the Iraq War. Many reconnaissance missions repeatedly flew over the Syrian site, but US intelligence failed to detect that Syria had embarked on plans to build a weapon of mass destruction. For years.
The New York Times stated that “the Americans were somewhat blindsided…. By their own account, they…only identified the plant at Al Kibar, named for the nearest town, after they received photos of the interior of the plant last spring from Israel… But even this victory [of destroying the plant], some experts note, raises questions about the [CIA]’s focus. The reactor was built within 100 miles of the Iraqi border yet never identified even though the administration was searching for any form of such arms programs in Iraq…. Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and author of “Nuclear Terrorism,” who was in Washington on Thursday to testify about Iran’s nuclear program [said] ‘if you can build a reactor in Syria without being detected for eight years, how hard can it be to sell a little plutonium to Osama bin Laden?’”
The Power of Pride
The incident of the secret nuclear facility remained quiet considering the enormity of both its construction and destruction. Not surprisingly, the Syrians wanted to keep the plant hidden as they saw what Israel did to Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. Israel’s silence on its actions against Syria was a calculated move on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Israel refused to broadcast its strike out of fear that doing so would provoke Syrian President Assad to respond with an attack on Israel. By maintaining silence, Olmert hoped he could allow Assad an escape from reacting to his bruised pride from the crushing setback of Israel’s destroying his plan to become the first Arab nuclear power.
Indeed, the news reports that emerged from Syria about the event were inconsistent. Some reports stated that Israeli planes entered Syrian airspace and were forced to flee due to Syrian fire. Later, the Syrian government said that Israeli planes did enter its airspace, but the warplanes only hit an empty military building. As such, there was no need for an immediate large-scale confrontation with Israel. War averted.
Lessons for the Iranian Nuclear Program
DETECTION: The United States administration is actively negotiating with Iran about the extent to which Iran could build nuclear power. Early reports on the negotiations indicate that the terms would necessitate an examination of the Iranian facilities to make sure that they would not migrate an energy program towards nuclear weapons. However, as the Syrian reactor incident makes clear, inspections are flawed. The US’s track record about bad intelligence of Iraq developing a nuclear weapon must also be considered.
Further, consider that the Iranian facilities (that are known) are spread all over the country. This agreement may enable Iran to operate those current facilities freely. If the US failed to identify the building of large facilities over many years, can the world really be sure it can make a thorough accounting of the thousands of centrifuges and the fissile materials warehoused inside many buildings spread around the country? The Obama Administration essentially has conceded that it cannot, so it will rely on Iran to show them what they have: “Without an agreement we don’t have any of this insight into Iran’s nuclear program.”
In other words, the current working agreement is to let the fox guard the chicken coop.
PRIDE: The second lesson from Operation Orchid, as the Israeli bombing mission was known, was the significance of Arab pride. Israel understood that Syrian pride would have demanded a large response to the Israeli attack. By its keeping its role and the target silent, Israel avoided a large scale war.
The secrecy surrounding Israel’s own nuclear program is for the same purpose. If Israel’s Arab neighbors would publicly acknowledge the existence of their enemy having nuclear weapons, they would demand WMDs as well. By maintaining an undeclared nuclear program, the arms race in the Middle East never occurred.
That will now change.
Iran’s development of nuclear power, and the world’s tacit approval of it will force other players in the region such as Saudi Arabia to seek nuclear weapons. The very public nature of these discussions do not permit the Saudi Kingdom to swallow their pride. People will assume that a quiet side deal was made to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons, or Iran will obtain them against the terms of the agreement. Regardless, approving a nuclear program for Iran will commence an arms race in the most volatile region in the world.
- Iraq’s sole nuclear plant was known and Israel’s attack was public.
- Syria’s nuclear facility was hidden and Israel’s attack was kept silent.
- Iran’s program is large and public and will demand a large and public response to halt the program from the global community.
First published at