Riyadh My Lips (2): Netanyahu’s Nuclear Nightmare

Israel’s no-nukes doctrine at stake if the Saudis follow Mideast Atomic pioneers. Peace for Proliferation?



By Amir Oren


Israel’s determination to deny Iran nuclear weapons, should the Islamic Republic decide to cross the threshold between material and military, is a constant, indeed a dogma. There is no doubt that any government in Jerusalem could live with a sudden revelation of an Iranian proximity to a first warhead, let alone an initial operational capability of a missile battery or a fighter-bomber flight.


Earlier this week, in a part of a cabinet meeting intended as a media release, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeated the usual warning, though only after referring to more pressing issues, such as the COVID-19 crisis. Iran’s announcement that it will raise its uranium enrichment level and advance its industrial ability to enrich uranium underground, which came as a response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 JCPOA Nuclear deal (a fact conveniently ignored by Netanyahu), “is a gross and total violation of its commitments,” the only possible explanation for which is Iran’s intention “to manufacture nuclear weapons”. Not develop or acquire – manufacture. Israel, Netanyahu reiterated, “will not allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons”.


So far, so normal, but three days later, seemingly out of the blue, Netanyahu tweeted another warning, this time obviously aimed at the incoming Biden administration. “If we” – we? Israel retroactively included? – “return to the dangerous nuclear deal with Iran, many other countries in the Middle East will hasten to arm themselves with nuclear weapons. It’s a mistake – should not happen!”


Netanyahu’s friend, Cigar and Champagne supplier and soon to be witness for the prosecution in his corruption trial, Arnon Milchan, summed up a similar insight in a different context – well, maybe not him personally, but the screenwriter for Julia Roberts’ part in “Pretty Woman”, which he produced – in similar words: “Big mistake. Huge!”


The mistake Netanyahu is concerned with has to do with an old subject, nuclear proliferation. It goes back more than 60 years, to the realization that if the United States and the Soviet Union and Great Britain have The Bomb, so must France, and then China, which will force India, and therefore Pakistan…and so on and so on. The attempt to cap this race by having a regime in which the have-nots agree to refrain from going nuclear and the haves commit not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers and to gradually get rid of their own nuclear arsenal was the basis for the 1970 NPT – the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Its regime is still a work in progress, with efforts to establish regional arrangements, including a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.


That is all old news, and Netanyahu presumably would not have bothered to fall back on the Mideast proliferation argument, which weakens Israel’s definite case against Iran rather than strengthens it. Israel’s simple and convincing opposition to Iran going nuclear rests on Tehran’s express determination to destroy the Jewish State, or at least give its proxies – Hezbollah and Hamas – a nuclear umbrella when they attack Israel. It is not for Israel to pretend to worry about the region in general following in Iran’s atomic footsteps, as it would surely bring about charges of a double standard, one for itself and another one for others.


Netanyahu’s problem, the big mistake he alluded to, can also be summed up in two words: Saudi Arabia. If Riyadh goes nuclear, up to and including the manufacturing stage, Israel will be in a strategic bind, as its unilateral non-proliferation doctrine, implemented in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, would hardly be applicable.


In theory, a cascade of nuclear arms starting with the Shah’s Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and engulfing Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia was spoken about from the 1970’s on. But with Saddam’s demise and Iran suspending its nuclear weaponization project (while keeping the infrastructure needed to restart it, per a political decision), both in 2003, this concern was also left dormant. It changed in 2018, with the convergence of two vectors – Trump’s revocation of the JCPOA and the rise of Trump’s ally and de-facto protege, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MBS.


Trump highly valued Saudi purchasing power of American military and aviation products. MBS had a free hand, domestically (Jamal Khashoggi) as well as regionally (Yemen). And Iran suddenly loomed again as a nuclear threat, pushed into this role by Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions. Interviewed on American TV, MBS did not mince words. “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible”.


Sounds suspiciously familiar to that legacy formula, launched in the early 1960’s, “Israel shall not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East”, or more precisely – as the US Sixth Fleet already had nuclear weapons in the Eastern Mediterranean – “into the Arab-Israeli conflict”.


When Prime Ministers from Levi Eshkol on issued this statement, elaborating that by “introduction” they mean “testing” and “displaying”. Before a system is tested, it does not exist as a weapon, super-computing and simulation notwithstanding; and as long as it is hidden in a basement ir a closet, it cannot even serve as a deterrent. Thus, whatever Israel is doing can only be construed as an “option”.


In war, diplomacy and business, an option means an actual capability and a potential intent. When Israel struck the Iraqi and Syrian reactors, they did not even reach the first level, of gaining the capability without which decision makers could not act upon whatever they intend to do. Israel argued that it would have been too late, as a risk for itself and for the Arab civilian population in the vicinity of the facility it was dead-set on striking.


Before 1981, Israel worked covertly to sabotage the Iraqi nuclear project. Key scientists and managers were killed, a precedent to be followed decades later vis-a-vis Iran. Only when these actions and dilpomacy – mostly aimed at France, Iraq’s main vendor – failed, did the Israel Air Force hit Osiraq. This has become known as “The Begin Doctrine”, of denying Israel’s enemies nuclear weapons by whatever means necessary, but surprisingly it’s not Israeli, but the exact opposite, all rights reserved to Egypt’s President Nasser.


In the mid-60’s, as activity at the Dimona facility progressed, Nasser had contingency plans to attack it before Israel gets its first bomb, or warhead married to French-made MD-660 missiles. Egyptian Mig’s, probably helped by Soviet reconnaissance, sneaked around and sometimes above it – the Sinai border they came from being only a few minutes’ flight away. In the May 1967 crisis, one reason the IDF General Staff pressed Eshkol to pre-empt was the fear that Nasser will strike Dimona first.


The Nasser Doctrine was never implemented and indeed had a negative effect on Egypt, pushing Israel into a “use it (Air Force) or lose it (Dimona)” state of mind. The Three-Front, Six-Day-War followed.


Fast forward to the present and Israel’s acute dilemma- how to deal with neutral or non-hostile neighbors who forgo nuclear non-proliferation. Foes are easy to handle. Operationally complicated, perhaps, but intellectually easy. But what about friends?


The UAE, for instance. Its first of four planned nuclear reactors, built by a South Korean company, started operating last spring. The Emiraties are on record as objecting to any military use of their atomic power. But they could change their minds if circumstances or rulers change. By that time they may even have F-35’s, courtesy of Trump and Netanyahu. F-35 is a Dual Capability Aircraft. In 2023 it will be able to carry and drop nuclear bombs. Surely, the Emiratis, like the Israelis, will not get the software needed to nuclearize their conventional version, but in this Cyber and hacker day and age it does not seem to be beyond their power – and purse – to buy the talent to adapt their fleet to nuclear missions.


The UAE case is of less concern than the Saudi one. MBS was less ambiguous than his Israeli predecessors, who at most said that while Israel will not be the first, etc., neither could it afford to be the second. The Saudi second-in-command put it in no uncertain terms. If the Iranians have the bomb, so will we.


If this policy has any chance of being credible, with Iran having decades of headstart, it means that Saudi Arabia is already in the process of laying the ground for a crash program to catch up with Iran. At the very least, it means Israel has to simultaneously watch nuclear developments in both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Assuming it will know the facts, it will have to decide what to do about them.


The first task is then intelligence collection and assessment. Last summer, three Mideast and nuclear affairs experts with the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies published a paper warning that following a detection in Saudi Arabia of a Chinese-contracted facility for extracting yellowcake from uranium, Israel should monitor “suspicions” of activities there, lest it be surprised by an “indepedent nuclear capability” by Riyadh.


The South Korean help to the UAE and the Chinese work (of two companies) in Saudi Arabia of course bring to mind the North Korean construction of the Syrian reactor, which was detected quite by chance and almost too late. This was only several years after Israeli intelligence missed the secret Libyan nuclear project. The suggestion that Israel should be more alert regarding Saudi Arabia seems quite logical.


IDF military intelligence, however, hardly needs a think tank paper to awaken from slumber. INSS is very close, perhaps too close for comfort, to the Israeli defense establishment and enjoys excellent access to its principals, who used to be colleagues and subordinates to INSS staff. The institute is led by retired Major-General Amos Yadlin, a former Director of Military Intelligence, who served in that position when the Syrian nuclear reactor was struck. Having been one of eight Air Force fighter pilots to bomb the Iraqi reactor, Yadlin is in fact the only person to play a role in both operations. Surely, he keeps current on nuclear developments in the Middle East.


So when the INSS researchers call on Israeli intelligence to note what is happening in Saudi Arabia, they are using a familiar tactic imposed by the culture of censorship imposed in Israel on all defense-related issues, especially those having to do with nuclear and intelligence. Rather than forward-looking and laying out what has to be done, they are reflecting what is already done by the much-maligned military bureaucracy.


Indeed, it is to Military Intelligence’s credit that its leadership, specifically recently retired Assessment Division chief Dror Shalom and Director of Military Intelligence Tamir Hayman, identified the problem and took action to address it. Brigadier-General Shalom, with the blessing of Major-General Hayman, set up a “Nuclear Farm”, where experts in several disciplines, uniformed and civilian, decipher the direction and rate of events in this domain in the region. It obviously means that Israel has to spy, by whatever means, Humint and Sigint, Cyber and soil sample collection, on all nations – and organizations – of interest, as well as on potential suppliers and contractors from outside the Middle East.


This is an on-going first part of the task. The second part is less complicated technically and creatively, but more challenging strategically, as it has to do with countries the current Israeli government takes pride in being friendlier towards it than ever without having to pay a territorial price for solving the conflict with the Palestinians.


What would Netanyahu do if MBS were to announce that the Saudis have crossed a critical threshold? Or, if MBS keeps silent and Maj.-Gen. Hayman and his experts present the security cabinet with damning proof that the Saudis are almost there?


The Nasser-Begin Doctrine would not do. Israel could not act unilaterally and violently. President Biden would have to be consulted. The Saudis would be approached. It seems that they have already been, and that disagreement on this issue is averting normalization of relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem (or at least Tel Aviv). It would not come as a great shock if it turns out that this was a major bone of contention between Binyamin and bin Salman in their meeting at Nome last November. This could also explain the Saudi decision to stop their feud with Qatar before Biden is inaugurated.


Netanyahu is anxious to add Saudi Arabia to the list of Gulf and African countries warming up to Israel. It is important for his personal and political credit. But he is not free to let MBS off the hook. The General Staff and the cabinet would not let him, on an issue more vital than F-35 for the UAE.


Regardless of who is Prime Minister after the March elections, Israel will face a growing challenge to its perceived monopoly on nuclear weapons – make that “option” – in the region. It can’t very well bomb everybody, from Saudi Arabia to the Emirates and from Turkey to Egypt, if they decide that whatever the cost they must have nukes.


Israel’s permanent position regarding the idea of a nuclear weapon free zone is “peace before non-proliferation”, at least as it applies to itself. But Netanyahu would have to fight the temptation of a Saudi-Israeli Peace For Proliferation deal. Better, then, to delay the dilemma by pleading for Washington to deny Iran nuclear weapons – which it may not aspire to, anyway, but wants the benefits of stopping short of – and hope that the Saudis freeze their program, too.


Interestingly enough, the Israeli public is not interested in this issue – yet. It is all being conducted below any public attention level. But it is so serious, that Israelis – and Saudis – are bound to be shaken out of their complacency, one way or the other.