New revelations about President Richard Nixon's reactions to Israel's development of nuclear weapons spotlight the huge importance of trust in international relations - and the double standards Washington applies to friends such as Israel and to adversaries such as cleric-ruled Iran.
US-led Western efforts to deter Iran's presumed but unproven work on atomic weapons show total lack of trust between the Bush administration and the Iranian clerics. This was illustrated by Washington's effective rejection earlier this week of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's unprecedented 18-page letter to President Bush as "rambling" and failing to address the nuclear issues.
US officials saw the letter as an effort to delay the current UN Security Council proceedings during which the US and its allies seek a Chapter 7 resolution obliging Iran to cease uranium enrichment and reprocessing, under pain of sanctions or even military action.
In stark contrast is the Israeli case in the 1960s and '70s, described in some detail by 30 recently declassified US documents. They show how trust between Mr. Nixon and Prime Minister Golda Meir's government - doubtless augmented by behind-the-scenes pressure from Israel's many supporters in the US - led to quiet American acquiescence to Israel's nuclear-weapons venture, and agreement that neither side would discuss it in public.
The National Security Archive at George Washington University published the documents. They are main sources for an article by Avner Cohen and William Burr, "Israel Crosses the Nuclear Threshold," in the May-June 2006 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (An edited version appeared on April 30 in The Washington Post.)
By 1968-69, the Middle East was in turmoil following the 1967 Arab-Israel war. The documents show that by then, US intelligence was certain that Israel had "all the components of a bomb ... awaiting only final assembly and testing."
Nixon's defense secretary Melvyn Laird and other senior US officials felt that in the interests of Middle East stability, the US ought to curb Israel's work toward nuclear arms.
In April 1969, the documents show, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger led a Senior Review Group to explore possible US options. Crucially, Nixon rejected proposals to block deliveries to Israel of advanced F-4 Phantom jets as leverage. Contacts were soon begun on the nuclear issue with Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin.
Acting Secretary of State Elliot Richardson and Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard asked Mr. Rabin to clarify three points:
1. What was the meaning of Israel's mantra, repeated many times until today: "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East"?
2. Would Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)? (Rabin delayed the negative answer until the following year.)
3. What kind of missiles and warheads was Israel working on?
There was no Israeli reply to points one and three at least until the Sept. 26, 1969 meeting between Nixon and Ms. Meir. On Oct. 7, Rabin responded that Israel "will not become a nuclear power," would not decide on the NPT issue until after the November 1969 elections, and would not develop strategic missiles until 1972.
By 1975, under a secret understanding with Jerusalem, the State Department was refusing to tell Congress of the intelligence community's certainty that Israel now had the bomb.
To this day, despite past detailed books by Avner Cohen, Seymour Hersh, and others about the Israeli weapons program, Israeli censorship bans Israeli media from discussing the subject, unless they quote "foreign sources."
The official trust between Washington and Jerusalem and the pussyfooting around the issue by most Western media keep Israel's nuclear arsenal, revealed in the 1980s by former Israeli nuclear technician Mordecai Vanunu (who suffered kidnapping to Israel and 18 years of imprisonment there for his exposé in the London Sunday Times), mostly out of the news.
Programs like Saddam Hussein's earlier nuclear weapons efforts and the suspected Iranian program challenge Israel's strategic nuclear advantage. Iran's knowledge of this advantage helps to fuel its present defensive paranoia about US efforts to halt its uranium enrichment program, legal in itself under Iran's adherence to the NPT.
The remedies? Greater transparency in reporting by all concerned, including the Bush administration, Israel, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, and most certainly by Iran. Candor about international threats, while it may not immediately increase mutual trust, would be a big step toward calming the present US-Iranian tension and toward reaching international peacemaking ruled by reason.
• John K. Cooley is a former Monitor correspondent in the Middle East who has covered the region for more than 40 years. His latest book is "An Alliance Against Babylon, the US, Israel and Iraq."