Israeli Action Against Iranian Nuclear Facilities Also Would Draw Less Protest Than U.S. Strike

The condemnation-free silence following the Israeli air strike on a Syrian nuclear reactor shows that world opinion tacitly approves of the action, according to Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

"The international silence seems to recognize this, to a degree," Kimball said today after a panel forum on the strike presented by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), a Washington think tank.

While some analysts have said Israel should have gone to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council to get permission to use military force to halt Syrian nuclear weapons ambitions, the recent record of the non-military approach in such situations hasn’t been encouraging.

For example, Iran has resolutely ignored U.N. sanctions and condemnation as Tehran leaders forged ahead with a nuclear materials production program, saying it is a perfectly legal effort to produce nuclear materials for fueling a peaceful electrical generating plant. Western observers, however, fear the materials, once produced, at some later point will be illicitly put through further refinement into weapons-grade materials for nuclear weapons.

The specter of Iran, Syria and other Middle Eastern nations becoming nuclear powers is daunting, and therefore the Israeli move to abolish the Syrian facility was welcome.

Further, North Korean action to partially dismantle a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and release of North Korean documents on its nuclear program is seen as success.

Yet North Korea thus far has not surrendered even one of its nuclear weapons, and has not explained how highly enriched uranium came to be found on those documents it released, given that North Korea admits only to its plutonium weapons program.

Clearly, both the secrecy of the Syrian reactor, and its design (similar to one in North Korea) gave the West concern, Kimball said.

Also, there is greater understanding of an Israeli strike, because Israel regards nuclear proliferation in the Middle East as an existential threat to the state of Israel. In contrast, were the United States to have launched the strikes against the Syrian facility, there could have been global condemnation from those who have criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he indicated.

Similarly, if a strike were launched against Iranian nuclear facilities, "it might not resonate as badly internationally" if Israel executed the strike, instead of U.S. warplanes conducting the raid, he said.

These are a few of the highlights of the panel discussion:

David Albright, president and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, said while opinions may vary, "at this point, I don’t think there’s any doubt that [there was] a reactor under construction in Syria." A key point is the unknown of whether the reactor start-up was imminent, because once it was filled with nuclear fuel, bombing it would be difficult.

Avner Cohen, USIP senior fellow, also remarked on the "loud silence" from world leaders following the Israeli strike. "Most likely it was a reactor" that Israeli aircraft demolished, he said.

Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr., president of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security and a former arms control official under then-President Clinton, said the Syrian reactor was not well suited for research or generating electricity, and therefore it was suspected it would be used to produce fissile materials for weapons. And the secrecy surrounding the project only heightened those suspicions, he said. At the same time, he hopes the Israeli raid doesn’t set a precedent that any nation worried about a nuclear facility in a nearby country could elect on its own to demolish that facility. If any state could act thusly in a unilateral move, "the rule of law entirely vanishes," Graham said.