This month Israel carried out a secret radiological, or dirty, weapon drill in Jerusalem run by the Defense Ministry and police. The fact that the drill has taken place now indicates that Israeli authorities believe there is an imminent threat that a dirty (radiological) bomb could be smuggled into the country.
It is highly probable that Israeli security authorities and intelligence think the source of a radiological weapon would be Iran.
In 1995, a radiological bomb was found buried in Izmailovsky Park in Moscow. The bomb combined traditional explosives and Caesium-137 scrap material. A second radiological weapon, this time made of a land mine and Caesium-137, was found in 1998 by Chechen security.
Caesium-137 is a byproduct either of a nuclear bomb or a byproduct of Uranium-235 from a nuclear reactor. Caesium-137 and Strontium-90 were the main sources of radiation generated by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and a less well-known nuclear disaster in 1957 at the Mayak reactor and plutonium processing plant in Chelyabinsk-40 (now Ozyorsk), Russia.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, large quantities of radioactive waste were smuggled out of the former USSR. Lesser amounts, mainly radiological materials used in medicine, were stolen from Western suppliers and operators.
One of the reasons for concern in Israel is that attempts to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon cover only technology for nuclear fission and fusion bombs and not radiological weapons. The JCPOA also does not cover delivery systems such as missiles.
Iran is under pressure to agree to a renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from Europe and the United States.
Whether a new agreement can be reached is far from certain, but the US has been luring the Iranians with lots of incentives such as removing US air defenses from the Middle East and taking a passive approach to Iranian threats to US navy operations in the Persian Gulf.
A radiological weapon gives the Iranians a way to destabilize Israel. Moreover, putting a radiological weapon in terrorist hands gives Iran some form of plausible deniability.
No matter what the outcome of the current negotiations, Iran must realize that even if it acquires a nuclear capability, it is threatened by Israel’s nuclear triad.
For this reason, the Iranians would need to be sure that they had in hand a significant nuclear capability and associated delivery systems before they show their “nuclear hand,” since otherwise they would have to expect a rapid Israeli strike – something Israel is preparing.
A radiological weapon, on the other hand, is theoretically ambiguous enough that Israel might not resort to an attack on Iran, or at least limit the retaliation.
The most likely candidate for handling and smuggling a nuclear weapon is Hezbollah, a terrorist organization that today mostly controls Lebanon and is supporting the Assad regime in Syria.
While smuggling from the West Bank or Gaza cannot be ruled out, Hezbollah, which is controlled by Iran, is far more experienced in smuggling, which it has done in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere.
The fact that the Israeli dirty bomb drill has taken place in Jerusalem suggests that Israeli authorities believe that the threat may be aimed at sensitive Israeli government institutions including Israel’s Knesset, or parliament.
Another possible target in downtown Jerusalem could be the Prime Minister’s office.
Little is known about the drills, but it is likely the authorities would emphasize rapid response, handling of radiation poisoning cases and a clean-up after a blast.