Joshua PollackAvner Cohen on Israel and South Africa

In the Guardian today, Chris McGreal has a sensationalist treatment of an episode in Israeli-South African relations from 1975. “Revealed: how Israel offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons,” screams the headline! Subhead: “Exclusive: Secret apartheid-era papers give first official evidence of Israeli nuclear weapons.”

The four documents that serve as the basis of the story describe a negotiation over ballistic missiles, among other weapons. The South African side also wanted nuclear weapons to go with the missiles. The first document — which appeared previously with Peter Liberman’s article Israel and the South African Bomb in the Summer 2004 issue of the Nonproliferation Review — is an internal South African memorandum expressing interest in “nuclear warheads manufactured in [the Republic of South Africa] or acquired elsewhere.”

The third document is an excerpt from a South African memorandum of conversation between the two Defense Ministers:

Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet provide the correct payload could be provided, Minister Peres said that the correct payload was available in three sizes. Minister Botha expressed his appreciation and said that he would ask for advice.

On the strength of these two documents in particular, McGreal is moved to proclaim, “Secret South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime.”


Friend of Blog Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb and the forthcoming The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb provides this assessment:

The headline, sub-headline, and lede of Chris McGreal’s story are erroneous and misleading.

Nothing in the documents suggests there was an actual offer by Israel to sell nuclear weapons to the regime in Pretoria. To the contrary, the conversation amounted to a probe by the South Africans, which ultimately went nowhere.

As Defense Minister, Shimon Peres would not have had the authority to sell nuclear devices to another country, even if he had wanted to. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would have had to decide upon any such transaction. I believe that both Rabin and Shalheveth Freier, the head of the nuclear program, would have opposed the sale of nuclear weapons, technology, or even components — not just to South Africa, but to anyone. And note that this was 1975, when nonproliferation norms had yet to take shape fully.

Peres’s reply to the South African feeler was opaque, and Israel, in the end, did the right thing. One of the reasons that Israel should find a way to come clean about its nuclear program is because it has already proven itself a responsible nuclear custodian.

Here I’ll assert the blogger’s privilege of having the last word. Israel has a record of selling weapons to problematic regimes on three continents, but as far as can be determined, they have all been conventional weapons. The truth suffices.

Late Update | 12:50 am, May 27. The export of tritium to South Africa in 1977, which is discussed at some length in the comments, is enough, in my judgment, to put an asterisk on Avner’s conclusion. Israel may have been a more responsible custodian of its nuclear technology than many nuclear-armed countries, and perhaps more than most. But its record is not perfect, either.


  1. Rob Farley (History)

    I’ll assert commenter’s privilege and ask you to make a more detailed argument. Cohen suggestion that Peres would have lacked authority is unconvincing to me, given the closeness of his relationship to Rabin and the traditional strength of Israeli Ministers of Defence. The “three payloads are available” point is the critical point of ambiguity for me, as it’s possible that Peres could have meant something different than McGreal suggests.

    But then, I’m not sure precisely what standard of evidence we need to demand in such a case. We’ll never, for example, get a formal offer sheet describing the numbers and types of weapons available…

  2. Margie (History)

    Rob Farley – you are obviously unaware that Peres and Rabin hated each other and trusted each other not at all. Your point makes it even clearer that Peres couldn’t have acted alone.

  3. Josh (History)

    If I could ever forget that posting on Israel (or Iran, for that matter) is the surest way to get commenters to question a blogger’s motives, tonight would have been a fine reminder.

    Seriously, with this subject, you just can’t win. I’m half-tempted to let the Israel-haters and Israel-hater-haters have at each other for awhile, but you know what? It’s not gonna happen. According to prophecy, the Battle of Armageddon will be fought in the Jezreel Valley, not at

    By the way, if you submitted a comment, don’t see it here, and think the above remarks are aimed at you — they may well not be. Odds are good that whatever you had to say (whomever you may be) wasn’t the most extreme thing to pop up this evening.

    Want to get a comment through? The rules are:

    * Be civil. No foaming at the mouth. No name-calling. No libels. No nasty insinuations.

    * Stay on topic.

    * Don’t just recycle the same old things that have appeared in the comments a thousand times already. Everyone just reads past that stuff.

    * And here’s a new one: When it comes to the facts, be factual. If you are making a strong claim, support it. (Cite a source or something like that.) Made-up stuff need not apply. If you merely want to offer a new hypothesis or an opinion, don’t assert it as fact. That’s how baseless rumors get started, and I really don’t want to have to research everything to figure out if you’re smoking something of questionable legality.

    But while you are at it, please bear in mind that the presumption is, comments are not approved. So don’t be offended if yours is not.

  4. China Hand (History)

    The Israeli tritium for SA yellowcake swap did happen. I don’t believe there’s any dispute about that, is there?

  5. Josh (History)

    Good question. I’m not sufficiently up on the history of the South African program to know. Carey Sublette’s site sources the claim to Burrows and Windrem, which was a path-breaking book at the time, but hasn’t held up completely well on all points. The Peter Liberman article cited in the post might be a good place to look, but I’m having difficulty laying hands on a copy.

    If I find a copy before too long, I’ll come back around with an update.

  6. FSB

    I am not sure about the nukes for sale deal, but there is reason to believe that there was nuclear weapons co-operation between Israel and SA.

    In addition to the claimed 3H for yellowcake swap, there was also the double-peaked gamma-ray signatures picked up by the early Vela satellites, indicative of a possible co-operative SA-Israeli nuclear test in the Southern ocean

    Also, see the article from Ha’aretz

    “……….in 1997, Aziz Pahad, the deputy minister of foreign affairs in Nelson Mandela’s government, confirmed to me that the 1979 flash was “definitely a nuclear test.” He confirmed, moreover, that “the nuclear issue was secret, and that many documents were destroyed although not all of them. There are many reports of relations between the two states’ scientists and cooperation regarding very specific equipment.”

    Gen. Constand Viljoen, an Afrikaner pillar of the Apartheid regime who commanded South Africa’s ground forces from 1976 to 1980 and then was chief of general staff for five years, said: “We wanted to get nuclear know-how from anywhere we could and from Israel, too.” Viljoen said: “That is what was decided, and that is how we acted.”

    Viljoen, who visited Israel and conferred with senior officers, said he had opposed his country’s nuclear program as a waste of money and resources. “Instead of the billions we spent on nuclear weapons,” he said, “we could have bought tanks and needed military equipment. Ambitious politicians and the heads of the Armscor arms corporation [where the nuclear weapons were developed – Y.M.] pushed for the program. As a good soldier I was compelled to obey them.” Viljoen evaded a question about the 1979 test.

    Israel never acknowledged it has nuclear weapons. That is why it cannot admit it carried out a test, that it took part in another country’s test or that it helped carry it out.”

    I agree w/ Cohen that the recent Guardian article is not proof of anything, but that does not mean there was no Israel-SA nuclear weapons co-operation — there is plenty of solid evidence for that.

  7. FSB
  8. Alan (History)

    Chris McGreal’s response to the backlash so far refers, among other things, to Peres’ history of fly-by-night foreign policy. It may be that Rabin would not authorise the deal, or even the contact, but that in itself does not mean that Peres didn’t have the conversations. In that sense it is an issue focused on Peres rather than Israel.

    Still, I think there were extensive nuclear links between the two countries, it’s just the detail of what they were that has been in doubt.

    Chris McGreal has worked with distinction on the subject of Israel’s dealings with South Africa for quite some time.

  9. Julian Borger (History)

    I feel obliged to defend my newspaper and my colleague’s honour here on charges of sensationalism.
    This is Glenn Frankel in Foreign Policy today

    After Peres and Botha signed their secret security pact in April 1975, Israel sold tanks, fighter aircraft, and long-range missiles to Pretoria and offered to sell nuclear warheads as well. Israel also began to act as middleman, buying arms from countries that refused ostensibly to do business with Pretoria and passing them on to the regime. All of this continued even after the United Nations Security Council passed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa in November 1977. Menachem Begin’s rightist Likud came to power that same year, and relations became even stronger.

    And this Avner Cohen in today’s Independent

    The discussions between Israel and South Africa referred to in the documents seem to me authentic and refer, I believe, to nuclear weapons, even if euphemisms like “correct payload” were used. That even in a conversation between two defence ministers, PW Botha and Shimon Peres, such euphemisms were considered necessary is a reflection of the depths of the taboo in Israel surrounding its nuclear weapons programme.But nothing in the documents suggests there was a formal offer by Israel to sell nuclear weapons to Pretoria. The conversations amounted to a probe that seems to have gone nowhere.

    Chris McGreal’s piece also makes clear that the deal did not go through and it was uncertain whether Rabin would have agreed. So no formal offer, no contract and no delivery, but if the defence minister of a country tells you the thing you are looking for is “available in three sizes” it suggests it is for sale. Call it an initial offer, preliminary offer, or whatever, it is reasonable use of English to call it an offer.
    Avner says Israel has become a responsible nuclear custodian but concedes in The Independent that it wasn’t always. Supplying the apartheid regime, a rogue state, with 500 tons of uranium for an illicit nuclear programme in return for 30 grams of tritium is dangerous proliferation, isn’t it?

  10. Allen Thomson (History)

    I found the mention of 3,000 km and 6,000 km range versions of Burglar (identified in Liberman’s paper as a ballistic missile) intriguing. As I understand it, such ranges were well beyond anything Israel had at the time.

    Any ideas as to what basis in reality discussions of such a missile might have had? Or what the requirement for it might have been for either Israel or South Africa?

  11. Allen Thomson (History)

    There’s a short but interesting account of the Naval Research Laboratory’s analysis of the Vela event on pp. 265-266 of

  12. Josh (History)


    On the Vela matter, if there was indeed a test, it strikes me as far more likely that the Israelis would have borrowed South African waters for that purpose. A joint test suggests a joint bomb, but the two countries’ nuclear weapons programs were worlds apart, in terms of technical choices. Also, nothing about the South African bomb suggests any need for testing.

    The entire collection of documents on the subject at the National Security Archive is here. Carey Sublette provides a synopsis, but I believe it was written before a number of these documents were released.


    The picture is clouded by the extensive links between Israel and South Africa in the areas of missiles. Their missiles are basically identical, whereas their nuclear weapons could scarcely have been much more different. So when we see evidence of historical cooperation, missiles are probably the first thing we should consider.


    I appreciate your desire to defend your colleague and am not going to chide you for that choice. However, if that wasn’t a sensationalist headline and lede, then there never has been one.

    I took the trouble to ask the leading expert on the subject for his views, and have presented them here for the benefit of the readers. Apparently this offends some people, but I did this precisely because Chris McGreal failed to provide this perspective; too much complexity apparently was not conducive to the story he was trying to tell.

    Note that Glenn Frankel, whose story you link, declined to lead with the same claim. I think it was a mistake for him to try to shorthand it in the fashion that he did, deep in the middle of the story. But it’s a different sort of mistake.

    Meanwhile, I think you are spinning Avner’s words. His remarks about “adventurism” are meant to reflect precisely this episode. I think he is politely trying to say that Peres was freelancing, hinting at something he had no power to promise.

    Indeed, our substantive differences seem to concern whether a veiled remark in response to a veiled remark can be called an offer and whether Peres as DM in 1975 can be called Israel. I say no; or at the very least, it’s sensationalist and misleading to kick off a story by obscuring the differences. Obviously tempting, though.

    Lastly, let me give you some friendly encouragement to avoid loaded phrases and words like “apartheid,” “rogue,” and “illicit.” Too much reliance on epithets is the opposite of journalistic detachment; it appeals to the gut, not to the forebrain. The world has enough bloggers with attitude — I would rather see you as a professional journalist.

    To all:

    On a concluding note, one of the reasons I think it’s important to get Avner’s views are the many hours he spent in conversation with the late Shalheveth Freier, the longtime head of the Israeli nuclear program. If there is anyone who can give us something close to an inside perspective on Israeli decision-making in these areas, it would be Avner. No one’s views can be accorded 100% weight. But to accord no weight at all to the views of the single most knowledgeable person in the room — among those not bound by secrecy — is a glaring omission.

    That’s why I asked Avner for his views. Those who don’t like his views, or mine, can always go back to the Guardian story and re-read it as often as they like.

    Note: There will be a delay in moderating comments.

  13. Janet M. Simons (History)
  14. oo (History)

    “apartheid” is an “epithet” that “appeals to the gut”?
    As an African, targeted by the apartheid regime, i find that statement bizarre. Why do you have to obscure the nature of the South African regime in order to minimise the implications of their dealings with Peres?
    You will not post this comment i know, but i thought i would still try and inform you that words like apartheid are more than mere epithets to some of us.

  15. Stefan (History)

    Julian Borger is essentially saying that The Guardian’s story is a triumph of semantics over substance. Given the newspaper’s ideological stance it seems that every effort has been made, once again, to paint Israel in as negative a way as possible.

  16. Carey Sublette

    Since my write-up on the Vela Incident has been referenced on this thread a few times, let me offer a brief comment about it.

    It was written in 2001 and included (in some cases only as background) absolutely everything I could discover published on the subject at the time.

    Since then additional material has surfaced, or come into my possession that calls for an update (maybe soon).

    In particular Richard Garwin sent me the Ruina Panel report (which I believe is now up on the FAS website).

    The net effect has been to make me more doubtful of the evidence, but fundamentally the nature of the incident seems no more resolved than it has been in the past.

    If someone knows of a refutation of the Burrows and Windrem claims, please let me know.

  17. George William Herbert (History)

    Replying to Allen –

    Jerusalem to Moscow – 2,700 km

    6,000 doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, though. It’s less than 6,000 km from central Israel to the Urals; it’s over 7,000 to Vladivostok and the easternmost Russian missiles, and it’s over 6,300 km to the Chinese suspected ICBM fields, and almost 7,000 km to Beijing, though a lot of western China including Lop Nor is in range.

    3,000 km for South Africa covers all nearby threat nations. But it’s around 11,000 km from the tip of now Namibia to Havana, and further to Moscow, so not clear what they’d use or need 6,000 km for.

    Israel had a known strategic deterrence need with Russia in the time frame Jericho emerged, and was fighting an active proxy war with China in some of the time ranges.

  18. Jonathan Thornburg (History)

    The fact that Israel was willing to part with 30 grams of tritium makes it very likely that their tritium stockpile was much more than that. That offers some interesting insights into the Israeli nuclear weapons program. Certainly it suggests boosting, maybe nuetron bombs, maybe some high-yield H-bombs for aiming at the USSR (for indirect deterrance). All of these have long been known, but the further confirmation is nice.

    Another point… it takes about as many neutrons (& hence production-reactor capacity) to make a mole of tritium (which weighs 3 grams) as it does to make a mole of plutonium (which weighs 239 grams), it follows that that 30 grams of tritium had a “cost” of about 2.4 kilgrams in foregone plutonium capacity.
    So… basically Israel was only trading away about one bomb’s worth of materials
    (less than I had thought before I did the calculation).

  19. Shay Begorrah (History)


    lastly, let me give you some friendly encouragement to avoid loaded phrases and words like “apartheid,” “rogue,” and “illicit.” Too much reliance on epithets is the opposite of journalistic detachment; it appeals to the gut, not to the forebrain. The world has enough bloggers with attitude — I would rather see you as a professional journalist.

    Firstly, the description of the RSA as “the apartheid regime” is merely factual. Apartheid was the political philosophy of the the National Party and they remained in power for almost forty years.

    Secondly “rogue” is a description that entirely fits the RSA, a matter on which the UN agreed, hence the compulsory 1977 arms embargo that Mr Borger mentions, never mind the 1963 voluntary arms embargo also adopted by the UN.

    On the the use of the word “illicit” you may feel free to disagree but given that the yellow cake was destined for Israel’s nuclear weapons program and the aforementioned arms embargo was in place I think it can easily be defended in the context of serious, detached journalism on this topic.

    I confess that I did not even think Israel’s role as a former proliferator was controversial and I can only imagine that the exaggerated outrage that these allegations are causing has a lot to do with the untimely distraction they form for the current push at the UN for sanctions against Iran.

  20. Jonathan Thornburg (History)

    Another “interesting” side effect of this story will be to increase Iran’s (both government & public-opinion) perception that there’s a double standard applied to Israel’s actions vs its (Iran’s) own.

    It’s clear (to me) that there is a double standard here. This is hardly surprising — lots of international affiars are run on the principle of “A is my friend, so I’m happy to have A take action X; Z is my enemy, so I am horrified at the prospect of Z taking action X”.

    But — to return to ACW territory — the whole Atoms-for-Peace-inspired international treaty framework pretends otherwise, i.e., that any state has the right to pursue whatever civilian nuclear technology it wants, so long as it declares it as “civilian”.

    So where does this leave us when the square peg meets the round hole? I’m not sure, but I suspect that the outcome doesn’t look good for nonproliferation. That is, if I imagine putting myself in the Iranian government’s shoes, the logical reasoning is “full-speed ahead” for the enrichment program: it’s a great barganing tool when dealing with the US and their various allies.

  21. Derick Schilling (History)

    Is it possible that the “three sizes” of the “correct payload” refer to three different cofigurations of the Jericho I missile, each of which was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead? In other words, was Peres offering to sell nuclear-capable delivery systems, but not nuclear weapons?

  22. margret johannsen (History)

    no matter whether shimon peres had actually been ABLE to deliver or not (and he may very well not have been), does not this veiled “offer” amount to some evidence that Israel had nuclear weapons in store? you may say, well, that’s not news. however, it is an indirect admission of being a nuclear power and as such it does not conform to the concept of ambiguity. in so far, I do not find avner cohen’s characterization of peres’ statement as “opaque” really convincing. but I agree that in the end Israel seems to have done the right thing, i.e. not sell such a weapon to such a state.

  23. masoud (History)


    I really didn’t want to comment on this thread, because I could tell what kind of reaction a post like yours would incite. But let me try an analogy, I hope it gets through your strict screening process:

    If tomorrow, the current UN backed government of Somalia declassified a set documents from the Islamic Courts era, detailing then IRI’s Defense Minister Shamankhahi, offer to provide the ‘correct payload’ for Somali missiles, which by the way was available in ‘three sizes’, and a same day memo from his counterpart, urging the adoption of nuclear weapons, and to take up an offer recently made available. And topping off of joint declarations of the two governments affinities for each other’s world view, would we really be sitting around and debating weather Shamankhahi had the authority to make such an offer, and what his relationship with Khatami was? Would we really conclude that since there was no evidence of a contract being signed(yet), that therefore Iran had become a ‘responsible’ non-proliferater, and should be enabled in publicly carrying out it’s weapon’s program? Even if an ‘expert on the matter’, who is close enough with all of Iran’s top security officials to spend countless hours interviewing them, assured us, scouts honor no doubt, that Iran’s then Leadersip probably wouldn’t be very hot on the idea, as far as he could tell? Would we take that expert seriously when he speculates, without any apparent basis other than his ‘feel’ for his friends in Iranian leadership, that the deal didn’t go through because Iran decided to do the ‘right thing’, i.e. only sell Somalia enough conventional arms to carry out wars in eight other African countries for some two decades, and dismiss the possibility that there was say, a fall out over price, out of hand? I think that in general, the western ‘wonking’ community’s insularity form world opinion, really disadvantages it in understanding the significance of documents like these.


  24. John Schilling (History)

    A joint test might suggest a joint bomb, but it’s only a suggestion. A more plausible (IMHO the most plausible) explanation for the Vela incident would be a test of an Israeli bomb with South African logistical support and military security. Israel was not wholly incapable of staging operations far from home in that era, but would have benefitted substantially from local assistance.

    And IIRC, there is evidence that the South African Navy was particularly busy and secretive at the time of the event. What South Africa might have recieved in return is an open question – as Josh notes, test data from the Israeli bomb would have been of limited use to South African bomb-makers. Limited, not zero, and in any event the Israelis had more than just nuclear technology to offer.

  25. FSB

    I will be the first to admit there are many unknowns but am unsure what you mean by saying that the test was likely not a joint exercise, nor your confidence in the types of weapons SA had, or was designing. The mere fact that they wanted tritium lays to rest the suspicion that they only had an interest in simple gun type weapons.

    I would assign equal probability to a joint test as to Israel using SA’s waters for a test, if it can be confirmed that the double-peak gamma rays detected by Vela were indeed a test — a point supported by the Los Alamos and NRL study provided by Allen. (Thanks Allen)

    The importance of this story is that, at one time, some senior members of Israel and SA were willing to proliferate, even though that is probably not the case now.

  26. Rob Farley (History)


    “Lastly, let me give you some friendly encouragement to avoid loaded phrases and words like “apartheid,” “rogue,” and “illicit.” Too much reliance on epithets is the opposite of journalistic detachment; it appeals to the gut, not to the forebrain. “

    Mr. Borger was clearly referring to South Africa in the noted “apartheid” statement, as he was suggesting that Israel was irresponsible for having supplied the “apartheid” regime with 500 pounds of uranium. Setting Israel’s responsibility or lack thereof aside for the moment, I think it’s fair even for an objective journalist to refer to South Africa in 1975 as an “apartheid” state.

  27. Josh (History)

    So many comments. So much to respond to. I’ll try to be quick about it.

    First, to oo:

    I understand your feelings about the apartheid regime perfectly. You are more than entitled to them. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting otherwise.

    To oo, Shay Begorrah, and Rob Farley:

    The problem here is one of context. The nature of the South African regime in 1975 pretty much irrelevant to the factual question of whether Israel made South Africa an offer of nuclear weapons. (Either it did or it didn’t; or, perhaps, the story is too complex to be reduced to a simple yes or no.) To throw “apartheid” in here, along with “rogue” and so forth, is, basically, just a way of stirring the pot; it doesn’t help us to answer the question.

    I could also point out that South Africa is located on the African continent and in the southern hemisphere, for example. These observations carry no emotional freight, but they are equally as good as Julian’s adjectives at advancing our understanding of the facts, which is to say, not at all.

    (I also failed to notice that Julian reversed the direction of the uranium-tritium trade.)


    You get from an account of trading away 25 grams of tritium to the existence of “high-yield” H-bombs? That’s pretty wild speculation. Why “high-yield”?

    On second thought, never mind.

    You asked about double standards. There was an early debate over approaches to nonproliferation: one in which friendly states would get a pass, and one in which everyone would feel the heat. The Kennedy administration settled on the second view; Israel’s story is that it had moved too quickly to be captured by this policy, a fact that the Nixon administration apparently felt compelled to acknowledge privately. It was just too late. (See Avner Cohen’s Israel and the Bomb for a much more detailed version.) By contrast, the U.S. was able to quash the incipient nuclear programs of other allies in the same period; they simply weren’t as far along.

    This is a simplification, but I believe accurate in the outlines.

    The country that has become the great exception to the broad pattern of U.S. nonproliferation policy, of course, is India.

    Having said all that, most people in the West and Middle East — Arabs and Israelis alike — do find Iran’s nuclear ambitions particularly threatening. Perhaps it has to do with the overall conduct of Iranian foreign policy. Now, you can agree or disagree with that perception, but it’s something that the U.S., as the guarantor of security to most countries in these regions, cannot ignore.


    Why speculate about what the discussion would look like here if Iran were accused of being involved in a cash-for-nuclear-warheads deal? Your scenario came true recently. Back in March, to be exact, after this story appeared in the Washington Post. (Isn’t that why you mention Admiral Shamkhani?)

    Here’s what Jeff Lewis wrote about this story and the rest of the series. Here’s what I wrote about the series as a whole.

    It seems to me that neither of us lent the story much credence, but judge for yourself.

    Cash-for-bombs stories just aren’t that plausible in general. That’s not how proliferation happens; or at least, not yet.

  28. BenjaminS (History)

    What information do we have on RSA’s plan to build a 200 MW plutoium production reactor in the early 1980’s (later abandoned to concentrate on enrichment)aand where was the foreign assistance meant to be coming from?, also, the ‘three payloads’ could just as easily refer to simple fision, boosted fission and thermonuclear.

  29. Tom Carew (History)

    It is naive to regard it as likely, or even possible, that Israel would sell ANY major weapons system in 1975 – only 2 years after Yom Kippur War, where it was so seriously threatened, and 2 years BEFORE Sadat visited. Any Israeli production of major weapons systems, and not only missiles, would have been destined to replenish, or enhance, IDF capacity, especially at a time when the next round of conventional war could only have been rationally estimated to have been delayed for a few years.
    And the factionalism and bureaucracy which were rampant in the Israeli structure, not just in political circles, would also make it inconceivable that Peres, or any DM, would even attempt to proceed with any such deal on his own authority.

  30. BenjaminS (History)

    Sorry I meant the 150 MW reactor in my last post,

    ‘South Africa was planning a 150 MW pressurized water reactor at Gouriqua, near Mosselbay, in Cape Province to produce both plutonium and tritium. Plans for this plant were cancelled in 1985[Albright et al 1997; pg. 392].’

    Also, speaking of Vela,

  31. Josh (History)

    Earlier, I had promised to circle back to the question of an Israeli-South African swap of tritium and uranium, after locating a copy of Peter Liberman’s article Israel and the South African Bomb from 2004. (Thanks to Janet Simons and the other person who located it.)

    The article is valuable and interesting at a number of levels, including both the question of the swap and our assessment of the Guardian story.

    Liberman cites a primary source for the uranium-tritium swap. He writes:

    In 1994, a leaked secret court judgment revealed that South Africa had in 1977 secretly imported from Israel 30 grams of tritium, code named “tea leaves (teeblare in Afrikaans), while exporting 600 tons of uranium oxide. The trial, held in camera, concerned a retired South African Air Force pilot who had ferried the shipments and was later accused (and cleared) of blackmailing the Minister of Mines, Dr. S.P. “Fanie” Botha, for payments he believed were his due. According to the judgment, the deals were orchestrated by intelligence chief General Hendrik Van den Bergh and Fanie Botha, with the approval of Prime Minister Vorster and of Atomic Energy Board chief Dr. A.J. “Ampie” Roux.29 The judgment identifies the Israeli contact as “Benjamine, a member of the Israeli Council for Scientific Liaison.” This was probably Binyamin Blumberg, who headed LAKAM (a Hebrew acronym for the Defense Ministry’s Scientific Liaison Bureau) from the late 1950s until 1981. LAKAM was responsible for technological espionage and providing security for Israel’s nuclear weapons program.30
    29 Court of South Africa, Cape Province Division (Judge J. Friedman), The State versus Johann Philip Derk Blaauw, Case no. 270/87, Top Secret, September 9, 1988, pp. 16-25.
    30 Albright, “South Africa’s Secret Nuclear Weapons,” p. 5; William E. Burrows and Robert Windrem, Critical Mass: The Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), pp. 450-452; Hersh, The Samson Option, 205.

    This episode gives South Africa the unusual distinction of having supplied uranium oxide to both Israel and Iran — and within the space of a few years, to boot.

    (This is undoubtedly old hat to the small circle of people who are deeply versed in the details of the South African nuclear program; I don’t pretend to be one of them.)

    So why did the South Africans want tritium, and what became of the tritium they received? For that, we can consult two other sources, which happily are also online. David Albright’s detailed article in the July/August 1994 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, South Africa and the Affordable Bomb, includes this explanation (p. 45):

    The AEC had remained in charge of developing more advanced weapons. One result was that the AEC evaluated the use of tritium to boost gun-assembled devices. Apparently, the purpose would have been to boost the explosive yield from less than 18 to roughly 100 kilotons. According to the IAEA, AEC officials said that this work did not involve the use of tritium, although the AEC had obtained a small amount in the mid-1970s from overseas.12 The work was theoretical and did not involve any hardware, according to an Armscor official.

    The citation points to the IAEA’s report from September 1993 on the verification of South Africa’s denuclearization.

    From p. 6 of the report:

    17. In the period following the 1979 decision to transfer, to ARMSCOR, the responsibility for the production of the nuclear weapons, the AEC’s contribution to the programme involved work on miniaturised neutron generators for potential use as initiators for the nuclear weapons and theoretical and practical research and development work on lithium-6 separation for the possible production of tritium. The AEC also carried out theoretical and basic development work on the use of tritium for the boosting of gun-assembled devices. The team was informed that no tritium was actually used in this work. The AEC had received some tritium in 1977, but after the withdrawal of a small sample for the verification of its quality, the material remained in store until 1987, when it was used for the commercial production of radioluminescent light sources.

    An anticlimax, but there you have it.

    (The IAEA report also has a very helpful chronology of the South African nuclear program. Comparing this to the 1975 memo accompanying the Liberman article, it appears that senior South African defense officials may have been unaware of their own nuclear establishment’s progress towards a weapons capability.)

    As mentioned above, Liberman’s research also attempts to shed light on the question of whether Israel offered nuclear warheads to South Africa. He collects and examines fragments of evidence (“puzzle pieces”), and concludes that there probably was an offer, although it may have been “disingenuous.” I think he’s closer to the mark on the “disingenuous” part. Both for the reasons Avner Cohen has given — i.e., the lines of authority and attitudes of the responsible officials in Israel — and for additional reasons that will become apparent in a moment — I’d even go a little further. It appears to be a case of self-deception by the South African Defense Ministry, abetted by a slippery, poker-faced negotiation conducted by Shimon Peres.

    Regardless of these differences of interpretation, I give Liberman credit for a serious and sincere scholarly effort that, whether accurate or erroneous in its conclusions, is devoid of the sensationalism I’ve decried above.

    Liberman’s conclusion relies mainly on two bits of evidence. The credibility of both has been questioned, but if we put them together with each other and the emerging documentary record, they start to tell a coherent story.

    First, a South African source conveyed a belief that Jericho missiles received from Israel were supposed to be nuclear-armed. Navy Commodore Dieter Felix Gerhardt (who was convicted as a Soviet spy) claimed to have reviewed a secret Israeli-South African defense agreement signed in November 1974:

    An additional project, a very central one in the agreement, included the supply of Jericho [1] missiles, off the shelf, from Israel to South Africa. There was another project, code named ‘Burglar,’ which dealt with the joint development of a long-range ballistic missile. The bulk of the funding was supposed to be Israeli. The [project] that outraged me most in the agreement was called ‘Chalet.’ Within its framework, Israel agreed to arm eight Jericho [1] missiles with what were described as ‘special warheads.’ I asked the chief of staff what that meant, and he told me what was obvious: atomic bombs.12

    (The citation is to Ronen Bergman, “Treasons of Conscience,” Ha’aretz, April 7, 2000. Originally, Gerhardt said “Jericho 2.”)

    This account provides an indication that the South African defense establishment thought it had an agreement for nuclear weapons, but this wasn’t spelled out anywhere in black and white.

    What’s more, there seems to have been no corresponding awareness or belief on the Israeli side. Liberman writes:

    Seymour Hersh’s source on the warhead offer, [Ari] Ben-Menashe, was a former Israeli military intelligence employee. According to Ben-Menashe, Defence Minister Ezer Weizman traveled to South Africa to discuss the state of the Israeli-South African alliance shortly after taking office in 1977. He had not been briefed by his predecessor, Shimon Peres, because of extreme antipathy between the Labor and Likud parties at the time. When Weizman returned from South Africa, he told a surprised staff, “We’ve promised these guys nuclear warheads.”8

    (The source cited is Seymour Hersh, The Samson Option.)

    Liberman explains the Israelis’ surprise by reference to “extreme antipathy between the Labor and Likud parties” that led to Peres’s not filling in his successor on the nature of the agreement. This strikes me as unlikely, given the extraordinary nature of the subject — not to mention the poor reception that any such deal would have gotten at home in the first place. A better explanation is that Peres brought home with him to Israel a different understanding of the meaning of “special warhead” than what the South African Defense Ministry held, and not necessarily by accident, either.

    Liberman nods to a version of this idea, discussing the nature of the Jericho missile transaction as follows:

    Selling sophisticated weapon systems or technology could have compensated Israel for its development costs. By dangling a nuclear transfer option, even disingenuously, Israel could have enticed South Africa into buying the Jericho missile or other weapon systems and technology. Arms deals following the 1974 alliance amounted to billions of dollars in Israeli military exports to South Africa.

    This theory of the “disingenuous dangle to close the deal” is consistent with the key bit of new evidence, in the form of the third document posted by the Guardian, a page from the South African minutes of the Peres-Botha talks, whose key passage is this:

    Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet provide the correct payload could be provided, Minister Peres said that the correct payload was available in three sizes. Minister Botha expressed his appreciation and said that he would ask for advice.

    (Typos are original.)

    Here we see Botha making a veiled probe, and Peres responding with a remark that could mean almost anything Botha wanted it to mean.

    Now, this is not a pretty picture. It seems that Peres, with his salesman’s hat on, wasn’t going to say no and wasn’t going to say yes. (Still less was he going to stop to ask, “What do you mean by ‘correct’?”) So he instead said something perfectly slippery and ambiguous. And according to Gerhardt’s account of the final contract, the language of the agreed deliverable — eight missiles with “special warheads” — was also ambiguous, although seemingly designed to entice.

    Which brings us to the carefully worded denial just issued by President Peres’s office:

    Peres completely denied that Israel ever “negotiated the exchange of nuclear weapons with South Africa. There exists no Israeli document or Israeli signature on a document that such negotiations took place.”

    That too, seems consistent with the theory of opaque phrases designed to appear to mean whatever the South African Defense Ministry wanted them to, while committing the Israeli side to nothing in particular.

    As I say, not a pretty story. Peres probably didn’t think he could get the missile deal done without this ambiguity about payloads, and certainly would have known that Rabin, supported by Freier, never would have tolerated such a sale.

    The Liberman article also has some interesting speculations on nuclear testing, among other things. If this subject interests you, you really should read it.

    Something that comes across pretty clearly is the fragmentary nature of the evidence. Having read this, I wouldn’t rule out forms of cooperation beyond the uranium-tritium swap. But a weapons sale strikes me as very unlikely for a variety of reasons, both political and technical.

    In any case, the export of tritium, even if it wound up in glow-in-the-dark hands on wristwatches in the 1980s, is enough to put an asterisk on Avner’s conclusion that Israel was a responsible custodian of its nuclear technology. More responsible than China, France, or Pakistan, let’s say, but not perfect, either.

    For more detail, see the comments of former Israeli and South African officials in the New York Times.

  32. kme

    That last analysis is fascinating. It leaves South Africa looking like a teenager trying to conspiratorily buy pot from a dodgy bloke in the park and ending up with a bag of oregano.

  33. muddleheadedwombat

    I can remember the South Atlantic Vela Incident occurring and the speculation in the press at the time. I also remember that just before it, there were reports of South African military officers in evidence at the French Kergaluen (?sp) Islands in the far south Indian Ocean being reported. At the time, there seemed to be a connection between the Vela incident and the possibility of it being a South African nuclear detonation.

    As to the Israeli – South African connection, they were co-operating on many defence matters, including the Israelis being advised by South African military on how to handle the intifada at the time. I remember reports of South African advisors being spotted on the Israeli side during street battles.

    As for the description of the old RSA as “apartheid” it is not inflammatory. It is factual. However, that is a red-herring, I suspect being injected by the pro-Israelis in an effort to distract attention from what has been reported here.

  34. Josh (History)

    kme —

    That’s a sly way of putting it.

    Something else that emerges from this fragmentary picture, albeit dimly, is a sense that the defense and nuclear establishments in the two countries may have had separate channels to each other, and did not always talk to each other. But I’m less sure of this.


    Yes, the apartheid question is factual. So is South Africa’s geographic position on the surface of the earth, for that matter — in the south of Africa. Neither point helps us to understand the facts about secret Israeli-South African trade; raising the former is basically an attempt to inject negative emotions into the question.

    We often have to grapple with questions of morality and raison d’etat in this field. Arms control with the USSR, to pick the most obvious example, could be considered a case of shaking hands with the devil, but done for the sake of survival. The same problem arises in foreign policy more broadly; e.g., building ties with Mao’s regime in China.

    In my view, it is important not to lose sight of the moral dimensions. But it is equally important not to let feelings trump analysis.

    (For previous thoughts on this issue, see here.)

  35. Allen Thomson (History)

    Another part of the story might be South Africa’s attempts to develop a space launch vehicle, apparently linked to Jericho/Shavit development:

  36. Johnboy (History)

    That one or more (or all?) of those “payloads” is a crypic reference to nukes is INFERENCE, but in the absense of any other explanation it is compelling.

    But Avner’s claim that Peres didn’t have the “authority” to offer to sell nukes is pure SPECULATION i.e. you or I or Avner have no knowledge whatsoever of what policies Israel put in place to authorize the sale of weaponry that it neither confirms nor denies.

    Avner’s argument is therefore completely circular i.e. giving such authority to Peres would be daft, therefore Peres couldn’t possibly have been offering to sell nukes, and the reason why is because it is self-evidently true that granting him the authority to do so would be daft.

    Err, yeah, but that isn’t in any way “evidence” that he didn’t have that authority; it is merely Avner’s opinion based upon his pre-supposition that Israel is a rational and responsible nuclear power.

    Which, of course, he then uses as “evidence” that Israel is a rational and responsible nuclear power.

  37. Josh (History)

    Avner Cohen had a unique degree of access to a number of former senior officials associated with the Israeli nuclear program, including Shalheveth Freier. That and the overall depth and extent of his research, I believe, lend his views considerable weight.

    If he’s wrong, too, one would need some other explanation for why South Africa never got Israeli nukes, and instead made its own. But I don’t have any reason to think he is wrong.

  38. BenjaminS (History)

    I tend to agree with you Josh, but one could entertain the suppostion that they did recieve them, but sent them back during the rollback circa 1985.

    The RSA Arniston missile co-operation continued well into the 1980’s and from what I can see, the indigenous weapons seem to have been ill-suited and not configured for missile delivery.

    ‘‘The final weapon design was a 65 cm by 1.8 m air-deliverable bomb weighing about 1000 kg. It used 55 kg of +90% enriched U-235 and had an estimated yield of 10-18 Kt (this is 1.0-1.8% efficient). This implies a very conservative and reliable, but inefficient, design. It used tungsten as a reflector. Loaded with 80% U-235 as Melba, the one (undeliverable) device was, the estimated yield was 5-9 Kt. The nuclear device was designed to function also the warhead of the (never deployed) RSA missile. In this role it would have been lighter (perhaps 750 kg), since it would have lacked the steel ballistic case of the bomb.’

  39. Hippo1

    Mark Hibbs was among the first to extensively cover the Israeli-South African tritium for U3O8 exchange in two Nuclear Fuel articles, the first in May 1993 and the second in February 1994. In the 1993 article he reports that he was told by one participant in the exchange that the “tea leaves” were in fact “tritium triggers.” He however does not repeat this assertion in his second article (February 1994) which relies on leaked classified testimony from a 1987 lawsuit in South Africa. He also notes in the first article that IAEA investigators were convinced that South Africa may have been conducting research on an implosion device.

    Hibbs’ second article illustrates the close ties between Israel and the South African politicians. He reports that in 1978 Israel paid about $1 million to keep Fanny Botha (then the Minister of Mines and thus responsible for the transfer of U3O8 to Israel) who was have trouble making interest payments on a large bank loan ($500,000) solvent and thus potentially saving his political career.

    While the evidence in regards to the potential transfer of nuclear weapons is certainly circumstantial, it is not enough to simply argue, as Avner Cohen and others appear to do, that Israel was too “moral” to carry out such an exchange. I can speculate on numerous realpolitik reasons why such an exchange, or at least discussion in regards to such an exchange, may have been perceived to have been in Israel’s national interest. They may have wanted to ensure continued access to a supply of uranium or to potentially deniable test sites (Vela incident?). Or perhaps they saw it as being the price for maintaining a critical security relationship with South Africa. The fact that the alleged deal never came to fruition could also simply have been the result of shifting security perceptions in either Israel or South Africa. Perhaps the failure of the 1979 “test” (if that’s what it was) to remain covert threw unwelcome light on the SA-Israeli nuclear connection or perhaps the U.S. exerted pressure on Israel to halt such an exchange.

    Nor is it sufficient to argue that Peres through the use of opaque language somehow snookered South Africa into believing that Israel was willing to transfer to it nuclear weapons. The documentary evidence strongly suggests that South Africa asked for such weapons and while the minutes of the South African-Israeli meeting speak of “correct payloads,” it strains credulity to argue that the two sides were so opaque in their oral discussions. Peres may certainly have heavily qualified the offer or have been insincere in making it, but there could have been no doubt by the parties involved that the discussion was about nuclear warheads. It is also possible, despite South Africa’s belief that Jericho missiles were useless without nuclear warheads, that “correct payloads” is not a euphemism and that it is simply a stenographer’s short hand for a set of conventional payloads (or perhaps including chemical warheads.) The fact is that evidence in regards to this issue will remain circumstantial, although we should not lightly dismiss contemporary documentary evidence from one of the parties involved in the matter. Israel will not open its archives anytime soon and, as Hibb’s reports, South Africa attempted to destroy all evidence of its nuclear program beginning in 1989. This suggest that it will be very difficult to ever get a true picture of state South African-Israeli nuclear cooperation and that we may have to continue to rely on inferences gleaned from those few documents that may have survived. In a similar vein it is interesting to note that declassified October 1984 CIA report on South Africa’s nuclear is heavily redacted in section that might shed light on this matter (foreign suppliers, program development, availability of fissile material, and ballistic missile delivery systems). The section on the Vela event is also heavily blacked out.

  40. Johnboy (History)

    Josh, so sorry, but your first sentence is merely another way of saying that Avner (and you) are dismissing the claim because it doesn’t “feel right”.

    Well, yeah, maybe, but you are still placing more weight on Avner’s (and your) ability to go with your gut feeling than you do on real DOCUMENTED evidence, namely, these two sentences:

    a) “Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet subject to the correct payload being available.”

    b) “Minister Peres said the correct payload was available in three sizes.”

    So long as you accept that the phrase “correct payload” means “nukes” then it is hard to see (a)+(b) as anything OTHER than Botha asking if nukes were on offer and Peres replying that, yeah, they were.

    That the offer was not taken up (and nobody is suggesting it was) is not in any way “evidence” that the offer was not placed on the table.

    After all, I’ve gone into caryards and kicked tires, but the fact that I didn’t part with my money doesn’t “prove” that those cars weren’t for sale.

    It’s the “for sale” sign that gives the game away, and sentence (b) looks to me as if Peres was dangling a “for sale” sign under Botha’s nose.

  41. Johnboy (History)

    Josh: “If he’s wrong, too, one would need some other explanation for why South Africa never got Israeli nukes, and instead made its own.”

    I don’t know the answer to that, so any explanation is going to be pure speculation.

    Here’s one: The South Africans didn’t trust that the secret would hold, so they finally decided that it was better to develop it in-house than to out-source it.

    Here’s another: Botha baulked at the asking price.

    Pure speculation, times two, and I’m happy to admit it.

    What I’m trying to point out is that Avner’s dismissal of the documented evidence presented by McGreal is equally speculative.

    He has no evidence to dismiss it i.e. he dismisses it because it doesn’t fit into his preconceptions.

    He is an expert witness, yes, and so his opinion has weight, sure, but it is still only opinion being presented as fact, and it should be acknowledged as such.

  42. Josh (History)


    Thanks for pointing out the Hibbs articles.

    It would be almost absurd to talk about morality in the context of arms deals with South Africa. This is the realm of sheer raison d’etat. What’s under discussion is whether Israel was a “responsible custodian” of its nuclear technology — fundamentally another matter.

    Moreover, given the fairly extensive discussion of the documents here, it is strange, to say the least, to say that they are being ignored. The question is how to interpret them, as they do not speak for themselves.

    Johnboy —

    The entire point of this post is to bring to light a view that the Guardian chose to omit. It might have interfered with a sexy headline. How much weight to give that view is up to the reader; my own judgment is that Avner’s expertise represents the best insight into Israeli nuclear decision-making that we are liable to get, so we ought to take it pretty seriously. That is why I asked for his view in the first place; should I have then ignored it because he didn’t endorse the Guardian interpretation?

    Certainly, given a choice between Avner Cohen’s view and the view of the Guardian on a subject where he’s the ranking expert, I’m inclined to take his view more seriously.

  43. George William Herbert (History)

    BenjaminS quotes the FAQ entry on the South African bombs, stating that they were unsuitable as missile warheads, citing the 65 cm x 180 cm basic dimensions.

    Those dimensions are accurate, as far as all sources and the warhead casing photos concur. However, those are the outer mold line dimensions on the bomb version.

    There is both a technical argument from first principles and photographic evidence that the bomb core was significantly smaller; most likely, a tungsten sphere about 2/3 that diameter containing a disassembled Uranium spherical core, with a rear assembly mating to it containing the “gun barrel” and Uranium inner projectile.

    One can derive the same approximate tamper/reflector dimension with relative ease from mass budget considerations, reflector efficiency considerations, and the detailed layout of the bomb casings based on the photographs available of them.

    The Jericho/RSA-3 is 80 cm diameter; assuming a conical separating warhead and normal CG requirements for that shape during reentry, the SA tamper/reflector can fit far enough forwards that the RV is stable.

  44. G

    A number of commenters in this thread have quoted an apparent discussion of “chalet payloads” by Israel and South Africa, without recognising that the version of the discussion they give was clearly amended in the recorded minutes. The amendment materially changes the meaning.

    The misquotation is: “Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet provide the correct payload could be provided, Minister Peres said that the correct payload was available in three sizes.”

    In fact as can be seen from the photograph of the minutes McGreal quotes, this printed text version of the minutes was subsequently amended by hand to:
    “Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet subject to the correct payload.”

    Note that any mention of Peres’ response is explicitly crossed out: in other words, the final arbiter of the minutes wanted to ensure there coudl be no suggestion that Peres was offering a nuclear payload.

    This presents a problem for commenter JohnBoy above and others; moreover it means that there is no evidence (apart from testimony from a Soviet spy) that Israel ever offered any nuclear payload to SA; not even ‘disingenuously’.

    A fuller exploration of McGreal’s documentary evidence(not by me) is available here and here

  45. Johnboy (History)

    Josh: “Certainly, given a choice between Avner Cohen’s view and the view of the Guardian”….

    I can do no more than point out to you that in this very article you produced two quotes: the FIRST quote is NOT an expression of the “views of McGeal”, while the SECOND quote IS an expression of the “views of Avner” i.e. you are comparing apples (the minutes of a meeting) with oranges (Avner’s assumptions regarding the policies of Israel in 1975).

    Or, in short: you appear to have violated your own guidelines by equating “opinion” as “fact” by giving equal billing to both.

  46. Josh (History)


    You observe that I transcribed the document as it was originally typed, without taking into account the handwritten amendments. True enough.

    One reason for that is, I couldn’t read the handwriting. But I also believe that the original version probably reflects more faithfully what was actually said. Call it an educated guess.


    Avner Cohen’s assessment unambiguously addressed the content of the third document, i.e., the same one we’ve been arguing over for the last however many days now.

    Please read the post more carefully before you criticize it.

    At this point, I think we’re just going in circles. Unless someone has something completely fresh to add, the comments are closed.

  47. AKUS (History)

    The tritium was used, as it often is, believe it or not, in self-illuminating roadsigns. Not nuclear weapons.

    Josh adds: can you provide a source for that?

  48. Hippo1

    ISIS wrote in May 1994 that in the mid-1980s the AEC decided to use its remaining tritium in “radioluminescent safety signs.” By this time over half of the tritium had been lost to radioactive decay and their was no weapons program available to utilize it. ISIS suggests that the South African’s had been interested in boosted or thermonuclear weapons in the 1970s and that the tritium would be useful for research into such weapons. David Albright wrote in the July/August 1994 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the AEC evaluated using tritium to boost gun-assembly devices although the AEC later claimed to the IAEA that its work had been only theoretical

  49. Jonathan Thornburg (History)

    Josh @ May 26, 01:38 AM:
    On further thought I agree with you: Israel having (& being willing to part with) 30 grams of Tritium suggests a scale of Tritium production appropriate for boosting and/or neutron bombs, but doesn’t directly relate to high-yield H-bombs for threatening Moscow for deterrence (unless these used a “layer-cake” design, which seems unlikely to me).

  50. Jonathan Thornburg (History)

    Josh @ May 26, 01:38 AM: The point I was trying to make (& in hindsight didn’t express very clearly) is a bit different.

    I was asking what the likely outcomes would be of Iran’s own increased perception that it’s the victim of a double standard. (Here the actual existence or lack thereof of double standards are actually not very relevant — what matters is Iran’s perception that there’s a double standard (and that it’s on the wrong side thereof)).

    It seems to me that the likely consequences of this perception for Iranian government thinking (about nuclear weapons programs) are mostly bad for nonproliferation. That is, I think the likely Iranian-government reasoning runs something like this: If we [Iran] abort our nuclear-weapons program, we’ll still face the double standard, i.e., sanctions and military threats. If we continue our nuclear-weapons program, we’ll face sanctions (maybe more severe ones if we can’t keep it secret enough) & military threats, but we’ll be safe from serious Bush-vs-Iraq-style invasion and “regime change” threats. So, if we’re going to face sanctions anyway, “better to be hung for a sheep than for a lamb”, i.e., let’s push the bomb program as fast as we can.

    I think the world would be a safer place if the Iranian government did not follow the above line of reasoning. But from a purely Machivellian point of view (which is (alas) how most international relations, and certainly most of them which relate to nuclear weapons, are conducted), I have trouble seeing any reasons why the Iranian government wouldn’t reason as I hypothesized. 🙁