Security and Defense: The day after

When Israel thinks of a nuclear Iran, it's not just concerned about change in balance of power; it's more concerned about nuclear terrorism.

MOP bomb 248.88 (photo credit: )
MOP bomb 248.88
(photo credit: )
In February 2009, a professor named Abdallah Nafisi gave a lecture in Kuwait and discussed how the tunnels that are used by smugglers under the Mexican-American border could be used in a potential terror attack against the US.
“Four pounds of anthrax carried in a suitcase this big,” he said, creating a small-looking suitcase with his hands, “carried by a fighter through tunnels from Mexico into the US, is guaranteed to kill 330,000 Americans within a single hour if it is properly spread in population centers there.”
According to Nafisi this scenario is possible and as a result there is no longer any need for attacks like 9/11 which, he said, would be “small change” in comparison to the attack he envisions.
“There is no need for airplanes, conspiracies, timings and so on. Just one person with courage to carry four pounds of anthrax will go to the White House lawn and will spread this confetti all over... it will turn into a real celebration,” he said at the conference, which was aired on Al- Jazeera television.
While it would have been easy to dismiss Nafisi as just another crazy anti- American radical, his scenario was carefully studied and deemed viable. Many security officials even took his remarks seriously. One of them was Ronald K. Knoble, secretary-general of Interpol, who that month mentioned the speech in a letter he issued in commemoration of the first World Trade Center bombing which took place 16 years earlier.
“If we add to these global security gaps the devastation that could follow a nuclear or biological terrorist attack within the next five years... then we must conclude that now is no time for complacency,” Knoble wrote.
Nafisi’s comments were also not ignored in Washington , where a team of experts, led by Bob Graham, a former senator from Florida, had just submitted a report it had been asked to write by president George W. Bush on the threat of nonconventional terrorism to the world and the US in particular.
The scenario laid out by Nafisi was analyzed and found to be realistic, even though the body count was a bit exaggerated and would, according to one of the experts on biological terrorism who worked for the committee, be far fewer, likely in the tens of thousands.
The report by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism startled the administration as well as Congress with its primary warning that a nuclear or biological terrorist attack was likely. “Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” the commission concluded.
The tunnels under the US’s border with Mexico is just one way for that to happen.
THAT IS WHY when Israel thinks of a nuclear Iran, it is not just concerned about change in the balance of power in the region and the constant threat it will have to get used to living under – particularly due to the possibility, no matter how slim, that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will use his country’s newly-acquired bomb to do what he has called for and wipe it off the map.
It is more concerned, according to senior defense officials, with the threat of nuclear terrorism – the possibility that Iran will give a crude device, or dirty bomb, to one of its proxies. This way it will be able to maintain some level of deniability.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak made this clear in 2008 when he said that he did not “belong to those who think that if Iran has a nuclear weapon, it will hurry to drop it on a neighbor.” Rather, he said, the primary danger is that “a nuclear weapon will reach a terrorist group which will not hesitate to use it immediately. It will send it in a container with a GPS to a leading port in the US, Europe or Israel.”
According to Israeli assessments, if Iran achieves a nuclear weapon, its proxies will feel emboldened and empowered. It will basically make Hizbullah, Hamas and others, feel braver to be more daring in their own acts of aggression.
THIS ISSUE has been taboo for many years within the government and defense establishment.
The reason is quite simple – if Israel starts to think about the day after Iran goes nuclear, it would appear that it is coming to terms with a nuclear Iran, which it is not. On the contrary, Israel is still pressuring the US, the UN and the European Union to step up their sanctions regimes, which if toughened, it believes, are capable of getting Teheran to rethink its current course of action.
But this does not mean that no one is thinking about the day after. On Monday, The Jerusalem Post revealed that the Foreign Ministry has established a team of experts to work on contingency plans for what will happen the day after Iran goes nuclear.
Despite its establishment, a government official stressed that while the government might be preparing various contingency plans for the day it “wakes up and there is a nuclear Iran,” this does not mean it has come to terms with this eventuality.
The Foreign Ministry is not the first to analyze such issues. In 2007, a small team of senior analysts with the National Security Council drafted a secret memorandum about “the day after” Iran obtains atomic weapons. The memo did not go into too much detail about what course of action should be taken if this happened, but its mere existence was an indication that not everyone in Israel believed in preemption.
A few years later, a prestigious think tank convened a group of former senior IDF officers and diplomats to participate in a day of war games that broke new ground by assuming the existence of an Iranian bomb. Discomfort with the scenario prompted the Defense Ministry to cancel its participation.
The scenario played out involved an Iran which had already obtained a nuclear capability. Shortly after the announcement that Iran had gone nuclear, Hizbullah launched long-range missiles at Tel Aviv, striking the Defense Ministry and causing casualties and large-scale destruction. The next stage was that Israel and the US had obtained intelligence indicating Iran had transferred technology to Hizbullah which could be used to create a crude nuclear device.
Possibly of more concern for Israel is the nuclear arms race a nuclearized Iran will set off, turning the Middle East from an already volatile region to something of a nightmare. If Iran succeeds in defying the world and developing the bomb, then the Nonproliferation Treaty could completely collapse, paving the way for additional countries to develop nuclear weapons.
Countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan have already announced plans to engage in nuclear research, of course for energy purposes at this stage.
The congressional commission led by Graham raised concern that some of these countries – possibly Saudi Arabia – might go as far as to immediately buy a nuclear weapon on the black market and skip over the development process and technological obstacles. The idea would be to immediately create a balance of power with Iran.
“Failure to stop Iran and North Korea could result in a cascade of proliferation,” Graham wrote early this year, “which would dramatically increase the likelihood of the use of weapons of mass destruction.”