Analysis // Ben FrankelWhat's past is prologue: Israel's covert campaign against Iran's nuclear program

Published 11 June 2009

During the past four-and-a-half decades, Israel has used a combination of ruthless covert operations and overt military means to prevent three Arab countries — Egypt, Iraq, and Syria — from acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons; as Iran approaches the home stretch of its nuclear weapons program, it may want to reflect on this history

We wrote the other day that Israel complained to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the agency’s approach to Iran’s — and Syria’s — nuclear programs was not tough enough. We also know that there are tensions between the Israeli government and the Obama administration about what would be the most effective way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Reports suggest that Israel had agreed not to take military action against Iran until at least the end of 2009 to allow Obama some time for diplomacy. What would happen in 2010 if the Iranians do not stop their nuclear weapon development is anybody’s guess.

The historical record should make us worry. In early January 2009, the New York Times’s David Sanger broke the story that a few months earlier, in mid-2008, President George Bush deflected a secret request by Israel for specialized bunker-busting bombs Israel wanted for an attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex. Bush told the Israelis that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s effort to develop nuclear weapons. The Israelis were not happy with the White House rejection of their request for the special munitions, and partly as a result of the tense exchanges, the White House stepped up intelligence-sharing with Israel and briefed Israeli officials on new American efforts subtly to sabotage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Bush handed off this major, and growing, covert program to President Barack Obama.

It should come as no surprise to our readers that Israel has embarked on its own campaign of covert action to derail Iran’s accelerating nuclear weapons program. Indeed, Israel is experienced in such actions. Here is a sample of Israel’s actions:

  • In 1960 President Gamal Abed el-Nasser of Egypt began to recruit German (or “West German,” as they were called at the time) scientists — many of them with Nazi past and sympathies — to build a missile fleet and crude nuclear devices, called radiation bombs. The Mossad, Israel’s secret service, began a three-year campaign of intimidation and threats — and more — against these scientists after Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s chancellor, refused to ban their employment in Egypt’s weapon industry (in any event, soon other European scientists joined the initial group of Germans). The Mossad campaign ranged from “friendly” visits to the scientists and their families to pressure them to leave Egypt, to letter bombs which killed some of the scientists (and, in a few cases, the local office staff), to more direct assassinations. The campaign was exposed in mid-1963 when