Collision Course?

Interview with Avner Cohen


Collision Course?
by Fariba Amini

Avner Cohen is a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute/ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, DC. He has done extensive research on and written about nuclear weapons including deterrence, morality and proliferation. The following is an exclusive interview with Dr. Cohen.

What prompted you to write your first book, Israel and the bomb, and now the second one, The Worst -Kept Secret?

In the early to mid 1990s, there was still no detailed historical account or a political history of Israel’s nuclear program and I felt, as more and more documents became available particularly in the United States, France and Norway, that one should write a chronicle of its history. Three elements were outlined: first, the American Israeli nuclear relationship, second the regional nuclear dynamics and, third, Israel‘s own domestic nuclear history. The second book attempts to understand how Israel created a unique nuclear posture, what I also call a nuclear “bargain” which is unlike any other country in the nuclear age. I provide some detail about the origins of the bargain that was made between PM Golda Meir and President Nixon and I try to assess it, both in terms of its implications and in today’s context.

What is Amimut?

Amimut is the Hebrew word for (nuclear) ambiguity or (nuclear) opacity. By using this word Israelis refer to the unique nuclear posture of their country. Of course, everybody knows that Israel has nuclear weapons; but Israel has never officially acknowledged it. In the broader sense, it refers to the nuclear bargain as a whole that Israel has made, beyond governmental policy, a way in which Israel has learned to live with the bomb, placing it away in an invisible place. Amimut has features of a national taboo.

You mention in your new book that in 1969, Golda Meir made a deal with Nixon behind closed doors to keep Israel’s nuclear weapons out of the limelight. Henry Kissinger was aware of it. CIA Chief Richard Helms and Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, both expressed their objections. In a letter to Secretary of State, William Rogers, Laird wrote, these “developments were not in the United States’ interests and should, if at all possible, be stopped.” President Kennedy had also been wary of Israel acquiring these weapons. Why didn’t various administrations stop Israel from acquiring them?

There was only one American President who was truly committed in his effort to stop Israel from going nuclear and this was President John F. Kennedy, but his determination was short-lived as he was assassinated in 1963. All others after him, in particular Johnson and Nixon, quietly came to agree with the notion that Israel could have the bomb. Essentially, the Johnson and Nixon administrations, even though they publicly claim to be against Israel acquiring the bomb, in reality they were not. Some would say they were ambivalent, others would say they were sympathetic. Obviously for Israel the nuclear issue was a question of life and death.

Do you think the creation of the bomb goes back to the tragedy of the Holocaust?

Yes, I do. It is the memory of the Holocaust; the vow “never again” (in relation to the Holocaust) had a very significant role in Israel’s pursuing the bomb and why Israel would not easily give it up. Having that kind of national trauma is a reason why Israel was seeking for the ultimate weapon. One can say that in order to prevent another Auschwitz, Israel felt that it has to be in a position to inflict a Hiroshima to its neighbors who vowed to destroy it.

In 2008, President Jimmy Carter estimated that Israel has 150 nuclear weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research institute, Israel ranks fourth in the world in terms of its stockpile, ahead of India and Pakistan. Wouldn’t you say that, on balance, Israel is potentially more dangerous than Iran, India or Pakistan?

I myself would be reluctant to speculate how many nuclear weapons Israel actually has. The estimated numbers fluctuate between 80 to perhaps 150 or 200. I do not know the exact number and neither does anyone else outside the Israeli government. I also don’t think SIPRI knows exactly whether Israel is fourth in terms of its stockpile. I would also say the number is irrelevant when it comes to the question whether Israel is more dangerous or more cautious than the other nuclear weapons states. From my perspective, Israel has always been cautious in handling its nuclear weapons. Israel had the capability as early as 1967 and 1973 but, of course, never used it. It has never even demonstrated its capability in a public way.

Let’s talk about Iran and Israel; a few days ago it was reported that according to a cable in WikiLeaks, Ahmadinejad was in favor of a swap and that Iranians trusted the US more than the Russians. "Ahmadinejad had said ‘yes,’ that the Iranians agree to the proposal but need to manage public perception," the message said, adding that Turkish officials consider Ahmadinejad "more flexible than others inside the Iranian government." Why do you think the US and Iran cannot come to a compromise? Who or what is preventing it?

It is hard to say. I think the compromise negotiated in late 2009 allowed Iran much more than the resolutions of the Security Council. I must say I was very surprised that a year ago that Iran turned down the American offer. It was a generous offer which essentially would have given Iran the right to enrich even though the Security Council told Iran it should not enrich uranium. It appears that Iran turned it down for all sorts of domestic political reasons, having much to do with Ahmadinejad, the elections and so forth. But I thought it was an offer that, in my view, would have left Iran close to being able to produce the material for a bomb.

It is the role of the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations known as “Mossad” “to collect information, analyze intelligence and perform special covert operations beyond its border.” Would you say that includes assassinating nuclear scientists in Iran?

We know from history that whenever Israel saw that WMD were acquired by its enemies it took it as a threat to its existence and hunted down those involved very vigorously. For example, Israel took direct action against German scientists who worked to develop radiological weapons in Egypt in the early 60’s. It also took action against scientists who were involved in Iraq’s WMD pursuit in the 80’s, including allegedly the assassination of Gerald Bull who was a Canadian scientist working for Iraq. Thus, I would not be surprised at all if Israel was also involved in an effort to scare and deter the scientists involved in the Iranian nuclear program. It does seem to fit the Israeli historical record and pattern in this area.

Before being elected as PM, Netanyahu said, “Against Lunatics, deterrence must be absolute, perfect, including a second strike. The crazies have to understand that if they raise their hands against us, we’ll put them back in the Stone Age.” At the same time, the Israel defense chief said in 2009 that Iran is not a nuclear threat while an ex-Mossad chief also mentioned that it is wrong to say that Iran poses a threat to Israel. Then why make Iran into this evil threat? What is Israel afraid of?

I think one has to be nuanced about it. You are right to point out that there are different views in Israel about characterizing the Iranian nuclear threat. Some refer to it as “existential threat,” while others do not like to use this phrase. Some say “Israel is strong, and nobody in the world can pose an existential threat to Israel.” For example, both Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and opposition leader Tzipi Livni avoid using the phrase “existential threat” in reference to Iran. I personally also believe that it is somewhat a misleading phrase because Israel, at the present time, is much stronger than Iran. Therefore if anybody can pose an existential threat, it is Israel to Iran and not vice versa. At the same time, virtually all Israelis agree that Iran’s nuclear program is a major security challenge to Israel. Simply put, it could end Israel’s monopoly in the region. I think it is fair to say that virtually all Israelis are concerned about such an eventuality. Furthermore, I think almost all Israelis agree that they would not rule out the possibility of military action against Iran’s nuclear program. But the degree of willingness and readiness to actually do it is quite different among various Israeli leaders. I do believe that PM Netanyahu would be more willing to take that path.

But which one is more dangerous, a nuclear Iran even under Ahmadinejad or a Pakistan which is sliding into chaos? Wouldn’t you say that Pakistan would be potentially more dangerous than Iran?

Under some circumstances it could be. It really depends on the circumstances. If Pakistan would be run by a Taliban kind of government, it is not impossible that the U.S. would take action against its nuclear program.

Both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Barak put a number of requests to Bush during his visit to Jerusalem, which were construed as preparations for an aerial attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. When Obama became President, he sent a clear message to Netanyahu saying “don’t surprise me with Iran strike.” Do you think Israel will attack Iran while Obama is in office? What if the Republicans win in the next elections?

Evidently, President Obama is not excited about taking military action against Iran. He is clearly in favor of more negotiations. However, if Iran will truly acquire nuclear weapons and is perceived to be moving toward a much more dangerous nuclear path, I think both Democrats and Republicans will not hesitate to act. They would all seriously consider the military option. Both President Obama and Secretary Gates hinted that way. Frankly, I don’t see anybody within the U.S. government willing to accept a nuclear Iran.

Can you say with precision when Iran will become a nuclear power?

No, I cannot. I tend to think that, at the present time, Iran has not taken the decision to do so. Furthermore, Iran is not even able to enrich uranium at the weapons level. It could get them, probably, at least one to two years, but it appears that Iran has not yet decided to take that route. And then, based on the information from IAEA, it will take them many more years to build a stockpile.

Why doesn’t Israel “come out of the closet” as an American official put it and be honest about its nuclear capability?

The Israelis (and most Americans) believe that they still have many good reasons not to go public. They believe that maintaining the status-quo is better than dealing with the risks of change. In my view, however, much of this is a matter of old habit. Israel feels comfortable to live with this secret. Realistically, short of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, I do not see Israel changing its commitment to amimut.


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Anonymous Observer

Roozbeh Jaan - The funny and sad "coincidence"

by Anonymous Observer on

Give us a break, and in the mean time since january first a total of 57 Iranains have been executed by the islamist regime in Iran, most of them for political reasons..... 

The funny and sad "coincidence" is that within the same period of time, I have seen probably as many usernames pop up on IC, all saying the same thing, "Zionist" this and "Israel" that.  What a coincidence... :-))  




by Delavar1 on

Did you know that over the last 1400 years, 270 million innocent human beings were murdered by jihadists? Jihadists like minded to todays Al Qaeda, Hezbollah or what have you similar to your beloved leaders in Republic of Islam in Iran. They destroyed the Christian Middle East and Christian North Africa. It is estimated that upwards of 60 million Christians were slaughtered during this bloody conquest. Also, half the Hindu civilization was annihilated and 80 million Hindus murdered. They also destroyed over 10 million Buddhists. As for the Invasion of Iran by the Jihadists you know the story your self. The story still continues by them not only killing our nation but also raping them in Evin Prison.


 Here is a famous quote from you beloved leader Ayatollah Emam Khomeini: War is a divine blessing, a gift bestowed upon us by God. The cannon's thunder rejuvenates the soul. Emam Khomeini, September 1980.


 The only nation that tried and kept it's culture despite the scope of Jihadist invasion is the Iranian nation and I am proud of that. Even if your Hezbollah rapist regime stays in power for another100 years, Iranians will never submit. We have Cyrus the great and you have Khalkhalies and Shikh Nasrallah as you heroes. Congrats to you.


Zionist = Nazi

by Mehdi on

Keep it simple. They have the same exact characteristics and plans. Nobody van tell then apart.




by Roozbeh_Gilani on

Why not? Why not write and debate an article titled like above? Is it because we have been brainwashed by the islamist regime to look at israel as an enemy, just because it suits ahmadi/khamenei strategy of survival by deception, or is it because there are people on this site whose job is to incite hatred against jews and divert attention from what is happening to Iranians under the islamist regime?

Give us a break, and in the mean time since january first a total of 57 Iranains have been executed by the islamist regime in Iran, most of them for political reasons..... 


Dear Fariba Amini

by norooz on

It would be nice, if you could interview Farah Diba some day.  That is if it is not too dangerous.  



Re War on terror

by Delavar1 on

The unfortunate fact is that you cannot fight a war without causing collateral damage, at least not with today's technology. And fighting a war to win is not an evil act. Churchill did it, George Washington did it. These men are considered national heros. Yet they all caused collateral damage. One might say that there is no difference between those who wage a war on terror and the the Islamist terrorists themselves since the end results is the same(i,e civilian death). No matter how precise you want to be in war against terror, there is always civilian casulaty. However I think there is a huge difference between the 2 cases discussed. Fighting on terror is with the intention of killing only the terrorits but the sad thing is the civilian casuallty and collaterral damage no matter how how sugical your strikes maybe. It is always the bast thing to avoid wars by trying to compromisewith your enemy but , how can anyone compromise with let's say Hezbollah and the rest of the Islamists including the mullahs running our country?

I actually support the war on terror since sometimes there is no alternative but war. Imagine the Nazi Germany during WW2. So many civilians died in the war against Hitler by the allied Forces. Churchill ordered the bombing of Dresden which it turned out had almost no military valueThe end result was Liberation. . Could we have avoided WW2? I believe not.  Washington ordered artillary strikes near his own civilian's homes knowing that a few of them would almost certainly be hit.

Todays America, Russia and Israel Phillipins  or any other country's war on terror resulting in civilian casualty is not because they were evil people who took some sadistic pleasure in killing civilians but it is because they try to defend themselves, their fellow soldiers, their country and  civilians from the threat of terrorism.

On the other hand terrorism and murder is killing somebody with intent to cause grevious bodily harm. A terrorist regime such as republic of Islam in Iran is an example where the Iranian civilians and potitical prisoners have been subjected to rape, torture, executions, stonings and hangings for the past 30 dark years of post Islamist terrorist revolution. so terrorists such as Islamists are a level well beyond normal criminals.


dear all god-fearing, free-thinking, self-valuing Iranians,

by merlin on

here's something markedly different than the anti-Iranian, anti-patriarchal, corrupting, perverting, valueless and so on messages that usually appear in this domain that is run by enemies of its audience, in opposition of its audience wittingly or otherwise. have you ever wondered why, with supposedly almost a million members in this powerful nation, the Iranian community lacks even an iota of political power or influence? further, why are Iran's enemies so powerful in contrast that they seemingly direct the minds, values and behavior of Iranians here and abroad in opposing and destroying almost everything that is inherently and naturally desirable: self-determination, rule of Iran by Iranians, pride, dignity, freedom, our traditional cultures and values that are unrivaled in beauty and power? some of your neighbors literally cheer in your face and pat themselves on the back for the boasted murders of your tribes' scientists and educators. are your people too primitive or base to pursue knowledge and application of nuclear technology? no, clearly, what this tyranny fears is the start of an even playing field. their leashed media boasts daily about bombing and killing entire families waking up for school, work and general service of their communities. this is absolute terrorism. they dont want peace on even terms they want absolute control and power over every aspect of your existence. while they have countless ICBM packed with nuclear warheads, a fine gift from american taxpayers, they propogate propaganda and more destructive attacks against iran for setting up a centrifuge. they fear justice. these are complex issues but realizing that the national community has absolutely no authentic counsel is a good start. The PAAIA is financed by enemies and opponents of Iranians' natural interests. the rosenberg foundation is a good example.


apparently this site is an

by merlin on

apparently this site is an extension of aipac


IRI is torturing 70 mil

by Manam_Babak on

Why doesn't any body pay attention to why IRI is really acquiring the Bomb. They are not after nuclear weapon to attack out side Iran's border, they are making sure no one can stop them from torturing the people of Iran. Iran has already been invaded, and the enemy(IRI) is acquiring Nuclear Bomb to secure it's position for good.


They had the bomb since the 1950's.

by Escape on

It wasn't a problem before 1979.It doesn't take a genius to figure out why it became a problem.Just a historian..

Fariba Amini

facts vs. fiction

by Fariba Amini on

We can ask him!  This article is not in defense of anybody. It merely states a fact. 


Here is a statement about him: 


His seminal work, Israel and the Bomb, which chronicled the Israeli nuclear program,
was published in 1998. This book led him to encounter problems with the
Israeli censor, and provoked substantial legal difficulties upon his
return to Israel to give a keynote speech at an academic conference.


A Counterpoint

by Demo on

"Dr. Cohen is agaisnt nuclear weapons." His interview is the reflective of otherwise! That is a norm with the Israelis majority!

J.S. The long time "allied" neighbors could be hiding each others' cakes in their basements to mislead the other hostile neighbors to both!

Fariba Amini


by Fariba Amini on

Dear Mehrdad I agree with you. I always say that Iran has not attacked its neigbors in the last 100 years but Iran has been attacked several times.  Israel wants and needs protection, so does Iran.  Even if we are against the policies of the IRI. 

By the way,  the U.S. was against Iran obtaining nuclear capablitiy even under the Shah who was the closest American ally in the region. 


Which ironically brings us to 2012

by J.S. on

Most wont recall but Israel, because of arabs, will face (some, well prob more like 1%) accountability in 2012. This was part of the crack down on Iran in 2010.

You can not have equality if you are the kid on the block that has the cake and wants no one else to have the cake.

Mark my words technology is a double edged sword (ok well Old Albert E said that) progess will be made and it is only a matter of time.


great interview and discussion

by Bavafa on

While international community need to stay on track to prevent Iran from going the militarization route of the nuclear energy, they need to honor NTP terms and rules regarding nuclear energy for all. Also, Iran's security concerns are real and international community need to address those and provide guarantees. Otherwise, it will be treason for Iranians not to pursue their own guarantees.


Fariba Amini

A point

by Fariba Amini on

Dr. Cohen is agaisnt nuclear weapons.  We should not generalize too quickly. By the way, he had some serious issues with the Israeli government after he wrote his first book. 


Zionists' World Dominance

by Tavana on

150 to 200 nuclear weapons stockpile for such a small country in the region? The claim of self protection? Iran's threat against Israel? These are all nothing but repeat of same old tales told by "The Neo-Facists Zionists" toward their efforts to dominate the world.


Amimut vs Mamut

by Demo on

Is that by a sheer accident that the common denominator of Mamut (slang for “Mahmood”) and Amimut is the key word of “Mut (read as “moot”)” which means “Death” in three Arabic, Farsi & Hebrew languages? Where else the whole region is headed with "Iran vs Israel"  nuclear bombs proliferation games? 

Key Points: "Obviously for Israel the nuclear issue was a question of life and death." Is it fair to say then both CIA & Mossad were involved in JFK's assisination? " It does seem to fit the Israeli historical record and pattern in this area."

"One can say that in order to prevent another Auschwitz, Israel felt that it has to be in a position to inflict a Hiroshima to its neighbors who vowed to destroy it." A solid "Zionist" point of view as "Holocaust" happened in Europe & Israel did not exist then.