Secrets, lies and Israel's nuclear weapons

July 6, 2013
Sarah Benton

The article by Richard Silverstein is followed by the one from Foreign Policy by William Burr and Aver Cohen.

This photograph of Israel’s Dimona facility was taken by the IKONOS commercial satellite, launched 1999, in 2000.

Israeli Lies Fueled Nuclear Weapons Program

By Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
July 6, 2013

Avner Cohen, the leading academic on Israel’s nuclear weapons program, has written a riveting article [below] about the lies which Israel’s leaders used to obfuscate and mislead its allies about its nuclear ambition. As part of the research for the article, Cohen has amassed 42 supporting government documents which he’s made public as well.

France had designed and helped build the Dimona nuclear reactor beginning in the late 1950s. But when Charles de Gaulle came to power in the early 1960s, he exerted much greater constraint on French involvement. He restricted the supply of uranium offered to the Israelis and put conditions on its use.

This severely restricted Israel’s ambitions to build a nuclear weapon. Publicly, Israel’s prime minister and senior cabinet ministers kept up a front asserting the nuclear program was for peaceful purposes only. But this wasn’t true and behind the scenes Israel pursued WMD at breakneck speed.

Preparation of yellowcake, purified U3O8(s), diagram courtesy of the Uranium Information Center

In 1964, Canadian intelligence received word that Argentina had agreed to sell 80 tons of uranium yellowcake to Israel, which replaced the fuel Israel had expected from France. Eventually, the British told the U.S. about the deal and the latter instructed its embassies in Israel and Argentina to confirm the sale. Secrecy around the program in Israel was air-tight and the U.S. embassy could uncover nothing. But the embassy in Argentina did manage to confirm the sale.

Intelligence experts estimated that Israel could have a nuclear weapon in 18-24 months. Turns out, it had a crude device ready by the 1967 War which served as a fail-safe in case Israel faced a cataclysmic defeat.

Cohen further reveals that a Mossad front company in Italy purchased 200 tons of Belgian yellowcake in 1968. The material was off-loaded from a European cargo ship to an Israeli freighter at sea, and then made its way to Dimona.

The Foreign Policy article also reveals a string of lies spread by Israel’s leaders to assuage the concerns of allies like John Kennedy. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol secretly reached agreement with Kennedy to allow U.S. scientists to inspect Dimona. But when they arrived the Israelis arranged to conceal sensitive areas of the plant that might expose their true aims.

Despite the fact that the U.S. knew Israel was procuring yellowcake from Argentina and surmised that Israel might be developing a nuclear weapon, it did not confront Israel publicly. Even repeated private queries made by the U.S. ambassador to Israel to Abba Eban went unanswered. The U.S. government had to know what this meant. Yet it chose to take the easy way out and not make an issue of it.

There is a section crying out for inclusion in Cohen’s article, which he omitted: the parallels with Iran. The take-away is that Israel behaved in a far more devious, unfettered way than Iran ever has. Israel always intended to create a weapon. Yet it repeatedly lied to everyone it needed to, in order to pursue the research and development freely. There was no Non-Proliferation Treaty at the time, so Israel never faced the rigorous inspection process Iran faces.

Though Iran has engaged in some of the obfuscation Israel did in concealing the new research facility in Qom till just before the west was about to expose it, Israel has what Cohen calls “the world’s most opaque nuclear program.” Iran’s program is almost transparent by comparison. Remember too, that Israel has never joined the NPT because it rejected the constraints it would place on the weapons program. It preferred to pursue its nuclear ambitions in absolute secrecy. This has never been true of Iran.

Iran has allowed relatively unfettered access to most of its facilities. IAEA scientists have inspected regularly. While they have expressed some concerns about Iran’s intentions, reports articulate those concerns in exceedingly circumspect ways that never amounted to anything near a smoking gun.

In short, there has been far more mendacity and chicanery involved in Israel’s WMD program than Iran’s. And when Israeli leaders start moaning and groaning about Iran and its duplicity, etc. we have to remember that Iran had excellent teachers in the Israelis who preceded them. The hypocrisy of Israel’s complaints about Iran’s nuclear ambitions is simply astonishing.

Israel’s Secret Uranium Buy

How Argentina fueled Ben-Gurion’s nuclear program.

By William Burr and Aver Cohen, Foreign Policy
July 01, 2013

In mid-July 1964, the State Department and the CIA sent a joint message asking the U.S. embassies in Argentina and Israel to check out an unverified intelligence report. They wanted to know whether the Argentines had agreed to sell Israel some 80-100 tons of uranium oxide, or “yellowcake,” an essential product for fueling a nuclear reactor and thereby producing plutonium that can be used in weapons.

As it turned out, Washington had gotten information about the sale from the British government, which in turn had found out about it from the Canadians. All three governments were concerned about Israel’s nuclear weapons ambitions, and the yellowcake transaction was strong evidence that something was amiss. American diplomats in Argentina confirmed the sale, which soon put the State Department in an awkward position: It would have to ask the Israelis about a transaction that flew in the face of their assurances that the country’s nuclear program was for peaceful purposes only.

Israel’s nuclear program presents a sort of paradox to historians. While it may be the world’s worst-kept secret, it is also the world’s most opaque nuclear program. One aspect of the Israeli nuclear program that has been especially mysterious is how and where Israel was able to obtain the raw material required to sustain a serious weapons effort. In the 1960s, this was a real challenge for U.S. intelligence, which was not entirely clear about the purposes of the Israeli program or whether Israel would comply with its “peaceful use only” pledge. It remains a challenge for historians today because Israel still does not acknowledge that it has nuclear weapons.

Previously obscure declassified archival documents on the yellowcake sale shed light on the global context of the Israeli nuclear program’s early history. Edited and annotated by the two of us, 42 documents are being published today for the first time by the National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (in conjunction with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies). They demonstrate how vigorously Israel sought raw materials for its nuclear program and how persistently it tried to cultivate relations with nuclear suppliers. They also tell us how other players — in particular the United States, Britain, and Canada — viewed the program.

The story of the Argentine yellowcake sale to Israel has remained largely untold because Israel has gone to great lengths to keep it secret and because the U.S. government and its close allies have kept quiet about what they knew at the time. The United States has always been ambivalent about Israel’s nuclear program, and exposing what it knew or suspected about the Israeli nuclear program could have caused the United States serious diplomatic problems with Israel’s Arab neighbors and possibly the Soviet Union. This limited what Washington could do to circumscribe Israel’s nuclear ambitions. Any kind of serious economic or political pressures, even if only contemplated by some, would have become public. And that could have been explosive domestically and internationally.

The U.S. government had been worried about an Israeli nuclear weapons program since late-1960, when the CIA learned and confirmed that, for nearly two years, Israel had been constructing a major nuclear facility (a reactor plus related infrastructure), with French assistance, near the town of Dimona in the Negev Desert. Initially, in support of Israel’s desire to establish a nuclear program with military potential, the French apparently agreed to provide Israel with reactor fuel under loose safeguards. Under Charles De Gaulle, however, French policy changed, and it appears that by 1963, when the reactor was near completion, France imposed major constraints on supplying uranium to Dimona.

The Israelis had been trying to extract uranium from phosphate but that proved too costly; they needed a source that they could use freely, without external safeguards. South Africa was a prospective source. The French themselves recognized that Israel could try to acquire uranium from other countries, such as Argentina or Belgium, and in early 1964 they asked Washington whether the Israelis had “tapped” any such sources.

The Canadian government was interested in the Israeli nuclear program from its very inception. When Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on May 25, 1961, Dimona was at the center of the discussion. As he did with President John Kennedy a few days later, Ben-Gurion pledged that the Dimona project was peaceful. In March 1964, Canadian intelligence analyst Jacob Koop prepared a long secret report on Israel’s nuclear program, asserting that Israel had all of the “prerequisites for commencing a modest nuclear weapons development project.”

Not long after this report was prepared, Canadian intelligence learned (from a still-unknown source) that the Argentine government had made arrangements to supply 80-100 tons of yellowcake to Israel. By the end of April 1964, the British had seen the Canadian report. According to a British diplomat, “This means that Israel now has virtually unlimited supplies of uranium free of safeguards.” Moreover, if the Israelis had reprocessing facilities, they could produce enough plutonium to “fuel a nuclear bomb” 18-20 months from the beginning of 1964.

The British soon shared the Canadian report with U.S. intelligence, overcoming Canadian reluctance to share it with its neighbors to the south (apparently the Canadians were irritated that the United States would not share the results of a recent American visit to Dimona). The CIA was initially skeptical, but in June 1964, the State Department and the CIA decided that the story should be checked out and sent the query — reproduced below — to its embassies in both Argentina and Israel. In September, the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires confirmed from local sources that during 1963 Israel had arranged to purchase 80 tons of yellowcake from Argentina.

Evidently, the United States took seriously the information it obtained about the Argentine yellowcake sale. Like its British and Canadian allies, Washington was concerned that an Israeli bomb would threaten stability in the Middle East and complicate American efforts to curb nuclear proliferation worldwide. Moreover, to ensure that the Israelis were abiding by their public pledge that the Dimona facility was for “peaceful” use only, Kennedy and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had secretly agreed in the summer of 1963 to allow American scientists to visit the reactor. The first U.S. team arrived in Dimona in early January 1964, but it is now known that the Israelis made “special arrangements” to prevent the visitors from seeing anything that revealed the true nature of the project.

In the fall of 1964, not long after the yellowcake sale was confirmed, U.S. diplomats brought the matter up with Argentine officials. While they did not object to the sale, they were concerned that there were no safeguards beyond a general agreement on peaceful purposes. The State Department wanted the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be allowed to supervise future sales through reports and inspections. Admiral Oscar A. Quihillalt, the director of Argentina’s atomic energy program, appeared sympathetic to U.S. concerns but said he could not do anything to address them. The sale to Israel could not be reversed or changed.

The U.S. embassy in Israel, including the CIA station, could learn nothing about the yellowcake from local sources, so the State Department asked Ambassador Walworth Barbour to go to a higher level. In June 1966, Barbour spoke directly with Foreign Minister Abba Eban. He was instructed to say that the yellowcake was “precisely [the] type of problem which augments apprehension” at “high levels” in Washington and elsewhere about nuclear proliferation. The problem also illustrated the “need for IAEA safeguards to reassure world of peaceful orientation [of] Israeli nuclear program.” Barbour met Eban several times, but the latter was evasive — apparently because he was not in the loop — saying that he would confer with the deputy defense minister, Zvi Dinstein, who “keeps the store.” If Eban ever provided Barbour with an answer, it has not surfaced in the archival record. Despite Israel’s evasions, Washington apparently took no counteraction, but only continued to keep tabs through visits to the Dimona plant.

While the U.S. government was exploring the Argentine sale, it also investigated rumors during the spring of 1965 that the French uranium company in Gabon had asked Paris for permission to sell yellowcake to Israel. The French had already stopped such an effort in 1963, but when U.S. embassy officials in Gabon asked company officials about the rumored sales, no one would give any answers. As the French government controlled the exports, it was unclear whether the Gabonese or local company officials could actually divert uranium. Whether Israel received any yellowcake from Gabon during the 1960s still remains a mystery. In any event, sometime in mid-1968, Israel acquired 200 tons of yellowcake from Belgium in a complex clandestine operation known as the “Plumbat” affair, which involved a Mossad-run Italian front company and the at-sea transfer of uranium from a European cargo ship to an Israeli freighter.

The yellowcake issue was an important Israeli nuclear secret, but its biggest nuclear secret was the existence of a reprocessing facility to transform spent reactor fuel from Dimona into weapons-grade plutonium. For example, according to an October 1964 Special National Intelligence Estimate on nuclear proliferation, a “major deficiency, in terms of a weapons program, is the lack of a plutonium separation plant.” The Israelis had told the Canadians and the Americans in 1961 that Dimona would include a pilot plant for reprocessing, but it was presumed that it would be too small to support a weapons program. In reality, however, the original French design for Dimona included a large underground reprocessing facility; this was Israel’s most important nuclear secret, which Dimona technician Mordecai Vanunu later made public. Today, it is unclear exactly how much Western intelligence knew about the reprocessing facility and when and how it learned it.

The large underground reprocessing facility,  Israel’s most important nuclear secret, exposed by Mordecai Vanunu in 1986. 

The story of the yellowcake sale and the vain effort to prevent its military diversion is historical evidence of how difficult it was for the United States to stop Israel or any similarly determined government from undertaking a nuclear weapons program. That Israel was a major U.S. ally complicated matters. Tight secrecy about the Israeli nuclear program made it nearly impossible to raise pressure on Israel without risking an international incident.

From today’s perspective, the story of the Argentine yellowcake highlights the continued lack of sufficiently tight international regulations for the trade of yellowcake. Despite U.S. support for tighter verification requirements during negotiation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the 1960s, the agreements that the IAEA has with non-nuclear weapons states still do not require safeguards on the sale of yellowcake, only documentation of transfers. Changing this would be extremely difficult. That yellowcake remains politically charged was evident in the spurious allegations about Niger during the lead-up to the Iraq War. Secret controversies may still persist over who is selling yellowcake to whom and under what conditions, but we may never know.

The Israel-Argentina Yellowcake Connection

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