(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In December 2003, Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gaddafi shocked the world when he announced that his country had decided to abandon several advanced programs for the development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs.
The world was also taken aback by the advanced stage the program had already reached. (A subsequent visit to Libya by intelligence officials from the United States and the United Kingdom revealed just how severe the intelligence failure had been.) Libya's nuclear facility included centrifuges, an advanced uranium-enrichment program and a small-scale refinement of plutonium - key atomic bomb ingredients.
While relieved that Gaddafi had decided to abandon the program, western intelligence agencies were left puzzled by how Libya - which, for years, had been known to have nuclear aspirations, yet was believed to be decades away from achieving them - had reached such an advanced stage at such a fast pace.
The answer, the US and UK quickly discovered, was found in Islamabad, Pakistan - in the office of the founder of the country's nuclear program, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Notoriously known as AQ Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist and popular national hero was then accused of running a black-market ring that not only supplied nuclear technology to Libya, but to Iran and North Korea, as well. Khan, western intelligence agencies believe, has for the past two decades supplied these three countries with nuclear parts and the know-how for their use.
This week, Khan's name again made headlines - this time over suspicions that his black-market ring was behind the supply of nuclear technology and material to the facility that Israel - according to foreign news reports - bombed two weeks ago in northern Syria.
Last Friday, acting US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy Andrew Semmel said that though he could not name suppliers, there were North Korean officials in Syria, and that he could not rule out the possibility that Khan's network was involved in transferring the nuclear material that Israel allegedly destroyed. It is still unclear whether North Korea was sending its technology to Syria for safekeeping while supposedly having abandoned nuclear installations inspected by the IAEA, or whether it had actually sold the technology to Syria.
What is clear is that an alleged Syrian-North Korean nuclear collaboration - strongly denied by both countries - is a primary point of concern for the Israeli defense establishment. Though Israel remains tight-lipped on what did or did not happen in Syria two weeks ago, such a collaboration would be a nightmare come true: the proliferation of nuclear power throughout the Middle East. For years, after all, the public has been told that one of the consequences of Iran's defiant development of nuclear power would be that other Middle Eastern countries would follow suit.
THE ALLEGED nuclear collaboration between North Korea and Syria should not come as a surprise. The two countries have a long history of cooperation, particularly where ballistic missiles are concerned. According to some foreign reports, Syria possesses 60-120 Scud-C missiles capable of carrying non-conventional warheads - which have been purchased from North Korea over the past 15 years. And, like North Korea, Syria has an extensive chemical and biological weapons program that includes Sarin, mustard gas and the lethal VX.
According to some reports, the alleged airstrike was actually a test run by Israel for the coming year's real showdown against Iran. If so, the thinking goes, it doesn't really matter whether or not Israel bombed a nuclear installation; what is important is creating an image of deterrence which can be used as a strategic asset in preventing future conflicts.
For this reason, the alleged incident - even if reports about it turn out not to be true - sends a message to Iran that Israel will not hesitate to venture beyond its borders and use force to prevent its enemies from obtaining nuclear power, even at the risk of igniting a war. The precedent set by former prime minister Menachem Begin with the 1981 bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq, then, remains intact.
Despite opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu's confirmation that Israel had acted in Syria, and that he had congratulated Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for the operation, officialdom is still mum. The silence might seem peculiar. If the purpose of such an operation is to deter Iran from continuing to enrich uranium, wouldn't it serve the country's interest to expose what really happened over northern Syria earlier this month?
But in this case, it appears that there is more to be gained from keeping quiet than from talking. Though foreign sources have speculated that Israel's silence is geared toward staving off international condemnation, there's another possible explanation. By keeping quiet, perhaps Israel is actually telling Syrian President Bashar Assad that while it will prevent him from obtaining nuclear power, it is also keeping the door open for peace negotiations. Olmert hinted as much on Monday, when he told a group of Russian reporters that he "respected" Assad and was willing to engage in "unconditional" peace talks.
In other words - again, assuming the foreign reports are true - had Israel gone public about the alleged operation, Assad might have felt compelled to respond hostilely, dramatically increasing the chance of war.
Meanwhile, Assad has his own reasons for keeping quiet. Though initially Syria commented on the alleged IAF infiltration, it has since held back from revealing any details, denying foreign press reports that Israel bombed a nuclear installation.
Assad may have struck a strategic alliance with outlawed countries like Iran and North Korea, but he misses the days when he enjoyed close ties with France and other western countries. Official confirmation of the alleged bombing of a nuclear site and partnership with North Korea could ruin his chances for those days ever returning.
Ironically, this may prove to be the least of Assad's worries these days. On Wednesday evening, Lebanese Member of Parliament Antoine Ghanem - an anti-Syrian lawmaker - was killed in a car-bomb attack in Beirut, making him the eighth anti-Syrian figure assassinated in Lebanon since 2005. Assad was immediately blamed for the incident.
SO MUCH for the Middle East. IN the meantime, the alleged North Korean-Syrian partnership is raising broader concerns about the proliferation of nuclear technology throughout the world. If Semmel's suspicions are correct, and Khan's ring was involved in the Syrian incident, this means that technology and bombs are not only being sold to states but to radical Islamic terror groups as well.
Though Iran has been dubbed "Israel's greatest existential threat in history," the growing assessment in the defense establishment is that Pakistan's nuclear program is just as great a threat. The regime of General Pervez Musharraf is under constant attack by radical Muslim elements in Pakistan, and growing attempts by al Qaeda and Global Jihad to obtain a bomb have been noted by Israeli intelligence agencies.
The assumption is that al Qaeda elements will use a nuclear bomb if they get their hands on one. The terror group's current efforts focus on getting a bomb in Pakistan and Russia.
"We need to follow what is happening in Pakistan closely and carefully," a top defense official warned recently. "There is a real possibility that one day we will wake up and discover that Musharraf has been toppled, and that Islamic radicals have taken over Pakistan."
As for Iran, Israel is currently at a crossroads regarding its policy. On the one hand, the defense establishment, though skeptical, is still hoping that President George W. Bush will send his air force to eliminate the threat. On the other hand, diplomatic circles are talking about a deal that Bush and Olmert are busy crafting: In exchange for the US taking care of Iran for Israel, Israel delivers on the Palestinian issue.