Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu and Nuclear Weapons

Back in September 2002, one short year after the actions of 9/11, then former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a private citizen, spoke before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a hearing on Policy Toward Iraq.  Here is what he had to say then:


He stated that:

"...there was no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking and is working and is advancing toward the development of nuclear weapons, no question whatsoever...and today, the United States must destroy the same regime because a nuclear-armed Saddam will place the security of our entire world at risk.  And make no mistake about it, if and once Saddam Hussein has nuclear weapons, the terror network will have nuclear weapons."

"Two decades ago, it was possible to thwart Saddam's nuclear ambitions by bombing a single installation, but today, nothing less than dismantling his regime will do because Saddam's nuclear program is fundamentally changed in those two decades.  He no longer needs one large reactor to produce the deadly material necessary for atomic bombs.  He can produce it in centrifuges the size of washing machines that can be hidden throughout the country and I want to remind you that  Iraq is a very big country.  It is not the size of Monte Carlo.  It is a big country.  And I believe that even free and unfettered inspections will not uncover these portable manufacturing sites of mass death."

Once Operation Iraqi Freedom finished its sweep through Iraq between March 19 and May 1, 2003, overthrowing the Hussein regime and granting power to Nouri al-Malaki, it became quite apparent that, in fact, Iraq had no such nuclear program and that, while it had interest in developing weapons of mass destruction, it possessed none.

As background, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Iraq began limited work on its civilian nuclear program in the late 1960s once the Ba'thists took power.  In the early 1970s, then Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein headed the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission and ordered the establishment of a nuclear weapons program.  The program was significantly set back in 1981 when Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak.  This action by Israel served one purpose; it drove Iraq to an even deeper commitment to develop nuclear weapons to protect its own interests.  By 1991, Iraq did have a robust nuclear program that had developed a complete but untested nuclear weapon and had stockpiled 36.3 kilograms of weapons-suitable highly enriched uranium.  At that time, it was estimated that Iraq was within a few years of producing a nuclear weapon.  Unfortunately for Iraq, the country's defeat at the hands of coalition forces in Desert Storm put a quick end to Saddam's nuclear ambitions.  The International Atomic Energy Agency undertook intrusive inspections of Iraq's nuclear facilities after the end of hostilities in 1991 and, by 1997, concluded that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs had been incapacitated, largely as a result of the coalition bombing of Iraq's nuclear facilities during Desert Storm.

The Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) on Iraq's WMD, also known as the Duelfer Report, which was first released in September 2004, came to the conclusion that Iraq's ability to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program was severely constrained after 1991 and found no signs of Netanyahu's "washing machine centrifuges".  The Duelfer Report also notes that, in large part, Saddam's motivation to achieve nuclear weapons capabilities was driven by his view of Iran and its Persian population as an existential threat to Iraq, particularly in the later days of the Iran-Iraq War.  Since Iran was developing weapons of mass destruction, Saddam felt a need to keep up with his neighbours.  The wish to balance Iraq against the power of Israel was secondary to Iraq's need to protect itself from Iran.

Let's go back to the present.  When Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein received the "Warrior for Truth Award" from Algemeiner in February 2015, he stated that:

"We better act now because the truth is that Iran is getting dangerously close to [having] nuclear weapons..."

 Here is his speech in its entirety (his quote on Iran can be found at 10:25):



It is interesting to see that Israeli leaders have a significant fixation with the potential nuclear capabilities of its Middle East neighbours, even though history has proven Israel's leadership  (and by association, its intelligence network) completely wrong about Iraq's nuclear threat.  This is particularly compelling given that, according to an excerpt from a secret U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency report from 1999, Israel had between 60 and 80 nuclear weapons in 1999.  It is important to note that Israel is extremely secretive about its nuclear weapons capability and that actual numbers of Israel's nuclear weapons range widely, with estimates by the Arms Control Association projecting that Israel has between 80 and 100 nuclear warheads and fissile material sufficient to create an additional 200 weapons.

The Obama Administration must be extremely careful that it does not let Israel drive its agenda toward Iran and the dismantling of its possible nuclear capability.