As Iran seeks to intimidate its way out of US-led economic sanctions, including by seizing tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, a top Israeli expert has warned that Israel would be immensely vulnerable if Tehran extends this tactic to a second strategic waterway.
Prof. Shaul Chorev, a rear admiral (ret.) who heads the Maritime Policy & Strategic Research Center at the University of Haifa, noted that last August, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels attacked two Saudi oil tankers in the Bab al-Mandab strait at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. That incident prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to directly warn Iran against seeking to block the strait, and promise that Israel and a “determined international coalition” would prevent this.
A full third of Israel’s global trade is with the Far East, Chorev noted, billions of dollars’ worth of Israeli imports and exports pass through Bab al-Mandab, and Israel thus “needs to worry” about what plays out there. In a recent strategic overview produced by his maritime research center, he urged that Israel formulate an overall strategy to face up to the threat “via a naval coalition with Western forces that operate in the area, or independently.”
Israel doesn’t sail to the Strait of Hormuz, Chorev, a former navy commander of submarines and missile boats, noted in our interview (although Foreign Minister Israel Katz reportedly said Tuesday that Israel is involved in a US-led naval mission to provide maritime security there, drawing a stream of Iranian threats). It does, however, sail through Bab al-Mandab, noted Chorev, “and we are vulnerable there.” Iran “can directly target us.”
Chorev, 72, who from 2007 until 2015 served as the director-general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, also warned in a candid and wide-ranging interview that the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is not capable of thwarting any country’s covert nuclear weapons program, that a nation determined to achieve nuclear weapons will get there, and that there can be no certainty that Iran does not currently have a covert nuclear weapons program.
‘The fact is that four of the five NPT breaches are from this region — Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the fifth being North Korea. The NPT apparently doesn’t work in this region’
The following is an edited transcript of the interview, conducted in Hebrew in Tel Aviv last week, which ranged across issues of nuclear safety, nuclear proliferation, the role of the IAEA, and the threats posed by Iran.
The Times of Israel: Let’s start with the matter of nuclear safety. Is Israel’s nuclear program safe from the kinds of disasters that played out at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011?
Prof. Shaul Chorev: One should never say it can’t happen to me. After Fukushima [in March 2011, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, caused by a tsunami that followed an earthquake], people asked, How could this happen in Japan? They are so careful. That just shows you…
After Fukushima, the IAEA wanted to come here and check that we were okay. The standards and regulations today are not the same as they were 20-30 years ago. The problem is not only safety. Since 9/11, one also has to guard against scenarios such as what if a plane is crashed into a reactor. So it’s security, too. At Karlsruhe [a nuclear reprocessing plant in Germany] in 2001, a worker stole plutonium and tried to poison his ex-wife.
Israel is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So we won’t let the IAEA into Dimona [known officially as the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center]. But the Nahal Soreq research reactor was given to us by the United States, by president Eisenhower, under the Atoms for Peace program. When the IAEA was established, at around the same time, the US said let them into Nahal Soreq. The decision was taken, yes, to let them come. [The Soreq reactor indeed operates under IAEA safeguards.]
In July 2013, in the wake of Fukushima, the IAEA came, as part of what’s known as an INSARR mission (Integrated Nuclear Safety Assessment of Research Reactors). Preparing for the visit was a very big deal. They came, they checked, and we passed with flying colors. And we then set the same [safety and security] standards for Dimona. So the public can know that we’re good.
Israelis have nothing to worry about?
With us, the worst-case scenario is less bad; the area that would be affected is relatively limited. When Ariel Sharon was prime minister, the dangers were reassessed; worst-case scenarios were examined. Local council heads were involved. Some of them toured Dimona. Some of them actually didn’t want to know; they wanted to be kept out of the loop.
The likelihood of any of these worst-case scenarios coming about is almost zero. But of course, you need an integrated plan, with the local authorities, with the emergency services. You need instructions for the public. Evacuation plans if necessary. The State of Israel bought supplies of Lugol’s pills for use in a radiation exposure emergency — enough for all potentially affected people in a worst-case scenario.
The bottom line: You can’t have full transparency with Dimona, but you can create the proper plan for dealing with all potential scenarios. And that has been done. We want the core to be productive; but safety above all.
Nobody is going to give us a new core
There’s a nuclear safety authority within the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, but it reports directly to the prime minister. A security demand issued by the safety authority cannot be blocked by the IAEC. That’s good, but I think it’s time for a reform, whereby the nuclear safety authority is fully independent of the IAEC. That’s the way it works in France, for instance.
Is the age of the core at Dimona, coming up on some 60 years, not a cause for concern?
It means more checks and procedures — like an old car as opposed to a new car. That’s not ideal, but nobody is going to give us a new core. Again, we’re not an NPT signatory.
And we can’t build our own?
We need to keep a low profile. Iran [which has ratified the NPT] says, Why doesn’t Israel sign. Of course, the fact is that four of the five NPT breaches are from this region — Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the fifth being North Korea. The NPT apparently doesn’t work in this region.
Do you think Russia has fully learned the lessons of Chernobyl? It is still using 10 of the very same kind of reactor that blew up, albeit with safety upgrades.
The Russians apparently have operational issues that are a problem. The [nuclear-powered] Kursk submarine [lost at sea in 2000, with the deaths of all 118 crew]. The submarine fire [on the nuclear-powered Lusharik last month, with 14 deaths]. Chernobyl. Maybe their planning philosophy is problematic.
What’s your take on the P5+1’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran [the US president Obama-championed, Prime Minister Netanyahu-opposed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which US President Trump withdrew in May 2018]?
It is reasonable. There are some holes. I understand the prime minister not wanting to be part of the process. He didn’t want to give it legitimacy. It doesn’t address the delivery system [of a potential nuclear warhead] — the ballistic missiles. It doesn’t address terrorism. But that’s not what it was aimed to do.
A state that has a covert program is not going to be thwarted by the IAEA, but rather by the intelligence agencies of countries such as Israel and the US. Then the IAEA goes and checks out the allegations. In 6-12 months, we’ll see if Trump has achieved an improved deal or an improved reality. But the deal certainly isn’t terrible
Some of the clauses start to lapse in another 10 years or so, but even after such clauses lapse, there is a continuing inspections agreement with the IAEA, an additional protocol, which is even more rigorous.
If Trump can get something better, okay. But it’s not easy to get the P5+1 to reach a deal. He’s not making progress with Iran, or with Korea. But the sanctions are biting. Maybe he’ll get what he wants.
You’re setting out a position quite dramatically at odds with that of Netanyahu.
A state that wants the bomb will get it anyway. A state that has a covert program is not going to be thwarted by the IAEA, but rather by the intelligence agencies of countries such as Israel and the US. Then the IAEA goes and checks out the allegations.
In 6-12 months, we’ll see if Trump has achieved an improved deal or an improved reality. But the deal certainly isn’t terrible.
But Netanyahu asserts that Iran is still lying about its nuclear program, and seems to believe that the IAEA is not sufficiently serious about investigating, or not equipped under the deal with all that it needs to inspect effectively.
In 2003, US invaded Iraq. Saddam was defeated. Iran thought it would be next [to be targeted]. So they stopped their covert nuclear weapons program. They stopped, but they didn’t admit to anything.
The prime minister says that we’ve exposed that they were developing nuclear weapons. All the evidence is here. They lied. And that if they lied in the past, they’ll lie in the future.
My belief is that if they want to develop nuclear weapons, they will. Unless they decide that it’s not in their interests to do so, as Libya did.
So you need the intelligence arms of Israel and the US [to watch them closely]. We haven’t found an ongoing breach. And the IAEA says they’ve been observing the deal [although last month Iran declared it breached the deal’s limits on stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, and announced that it was enriching uranium to above the 3.67 limit set by the deal].
Iran now says it is raising its uranium enrichment levels because Trump has withdrawn from the deal. I think it’s a case of tit for tat. They’re not breaking out [to the bomb]. And he’s not attacking them.
Do you consider the IAEA’s inspection rights until the deal to be adequate?
The IAEA can inspect declared sites, and if it gets information [regarding suspicious activity], it can demand to see other sites. In 2009, when [the enrichment facility that Iran had secretly built into a mountainside near] Qom was revealed, we gave the IAEA the information, and the IAEA went in.
I should stress. It’s been four years that I’m not in the job [as Israel’s atomic energy commission head]. But when I would go to [the recently deceased IAEA head Yukiya] Amano, he would say, If you have proof [of covert Iranian nuclear activity], give it to us. Preferably [if there was more than one country that had information], all of you together please. Then I can send my inspectors.
In Syria, where our intelligence apparatus thinks it knows what is going on, they were building a nuclear weapons program under our noses
I do think that the IAEA should not have been part of the JCPOA. It should be a supervisory, inspecting organization. That was what Israel rightly wanted. The IAEA was obviously encouraged by Obama to be a party.
The prime minister is also right that letting Iran off the hook about its previous covert nuclear efforts was a mistake. Iran should have been required to explain its past behavior. When South Africa stopped, it let everything out. There’s an important symbolic, ceremonial aspect to this — declaring past behavior. They were maybe eight matters that they needed to explain to the IAEA. At Parchin, for example, they carried out a major clear-up to cover their traces. The IAEA saw this. This was never clarified. That was a mistake.
Does Iran already have a bomb, courtesy of Korea?
I don’t know. In Syria, where our intelligence apparatus thinks it knows what is going on, they were building a nuclear weapons program under our noses. [Israel last year confirmed destroying President Assad’s North Korea-built reactor in a 2007 raid.] We need to check all the time.
How worried should we be about other potential nuclear programs in the region?
Iran says, Saudi Arabia is my enemy. Iraq was my enemy. I have Russia to the north. I am a regional power. I can’t afford not to be a nuclear power.
So Saudi Arabia and Egypt say, If we see Iran go nuclear, we will too.
The minute there’s a [peaceful] nuclear program in the region, we need to be wary of it
We have to ask, how stable is the Saudi regime, how transparent, how reliable? We should note that the Saudis say they have a deal with China for long-range ballistic missiles. There have been rumors of a deal with Pakistan to give them the bomb. Rumors.
The minute there’s a [peaceful] nuclear program in the region, we need to be wary of it. Pakistan and India both developed their bombs from the Atoms for Peace program [Pakistan, courtesy of the US; India, courtesy of Canada], despite promises to the contrary.
They’ll start with a civilian program, but Egypt, Saudi are not the most stable states. Anything can happen.
Russia is pressing Jordan to let it build them a peace nuclear power program. [Iran’s] Bushehr reactor, begun by Germany, was completed by Russia.
Let’s come back to Iran, where things are headed right now, and what Israel needs to be wary of.
They’ve not carried out a gross breach of the deal. They could say that Trump has [by withdrawing]. The deal limited enrichment to 3.67% [which they’ve now declared they breached], but an NPT signatory can enrich up to 20%. Both sides are plainly engaged in brinkmanship — pushing and probing all the time.
Which bring us to the maritime concerns that are your focus now.
What’s happening in the Strait of Hormuz, [with the intimidation and now the seizure of oil tankers by Iran,] all relates to the nuclear deal. The sanctions are biting. Iran is saying, If we are being sanctioned and can’t sell oil, we’ll make sure nobody else can either. Iran is saying, If you attack, we’ll close the strait. Well, 20% of the world’s oil goes through the Strait of Hormuz.
They’re calibrating. Seizing tankers to show they have strategic tools too.
And where is Israel amid this escalating tension?
We haven’t purchased oil from Iran since the days of the shah. We don’t sail to Hormuz. But last August’s attack on Saudi tankers by Iran’s Houthi proxies at Bab al-Mandab [the narrow strait at the south of the Red Sea facing Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea] underlined that Israel needs to worry. A third of our trade is with the Far East.
And there we do sail.
Yes, and we are vulnerable there. They can directly target us. When a minister says, We are the only country killing Iranians…
… That’s not helpful. Finally, is your view of the 2015 nuclear deal, to the effect that it is “reasonable,” the consensus view among Israeli experts?
Maybe I’m wrong. Trump may get a better deal. But I doubt it.