Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, Osirak 1981. A model for Iran 2012?

Path of the Israeli jets on route to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981.

Late on the Sunday afternoon of June 7, 1981, sixteen Israeli F16 and F15 fighter jets took off from Etzion Air Force base in the Negev Dessert, flew two hours over Jordanian and Saudi airspace (confusing local air controllers by speaking Arabic in various dialects), reached Iraq, then flew another hour at tree-top altitude (to avoid radar detection) to a spot just 18 miles south of Baghdad.  Here, they dropped sixteen 2,000-pound bombs.  At least eight of those bombs squarely hit the containment dome and largely destroyed the nuclear reactor called Orisak, a 70-megawatt, uranium-powered facility purchased by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from France and built largely by French and Italian technicians.  It was within a month of completion. 

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin — who in 1979 had signed the Camp David peace accord with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat — explained his decision to order the attack:  “The atomic bombs which that reactor was capable of producing whether from enriched uranium or from plutonium, would be of the Hiroshima size. Thus a mortal danger to the people of Israel progressively arose.”

Saddam Hussein, circa 1981.

Militarily, the Osirak mission was a complete success.   All Israeli pilots and planes returned safely, loss of life at Osirak was limited to ten Iraqi soldiers and one French technician (Israel claimed it launched the attack on a Sunday to minimize civilians on site), and Orisak was all but destroyed.  

Diplomatically, it was a disaster.  The raid came as a total shock and surprise, and world governments almost universally condemned it, painting Israel — not Iraq — the rogue nation.  The United Nations passed two unanimous resolutions calling it illegal and aggressive, a “clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct” according to Security Council Resolution 487, which also cited Iraq’s right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to “establish programmes of technological and nuclear development.” 

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Even the United States joined in condemning the raid, voted for the UN resolutions, and temporarily blocked US-Israeli military aid.  Israel had given the US no warning, leaving even Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger “stunned” on hearing the news, according to British records.  France, Britain, and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) all disputed Israel’s claim that Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon from Osirak. 

Since 1981, debate has raged over the legacy of Israel’s Orisak raid.  Many — both in Israel and globally– credit it for fatally de-railing Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, crippling it for at least ten years until the 1991 Gulf War.  Later intelligence confirmed that Saddam Hussein in those years was actively trying to build a bomb and Israel was among his top targets.  As a result, many analysts today see Israel’s 1981 attack as a textbook model of effective, responsible pre-emptive action to avoid war

Ironically, even Iran — today’s rival — attacked Orisak with two Phantom jets in September 1980 early in the Iran-Iraq War, an episode that reportedly included rare secret coordination between Iran’s radical Islamic Khomeini regime and Israel.

On the other side, critics still doubt Iraq’s capacity in 1981 to build a nuclear weapon and point to the steep price Israel paid in terms of diplomacy and world standing.  If anything, they argue, the raid better prepared Israel’s enemies, teaching countries like Iraq (and later Iran) the urgency of obtaining nuclear weapons sooner while hiding them better from the eyes of global inspectors.  

Iran 2012

Today, 31 years later, Israel again faces a large, hostile neighbor — Iran — evidently reaching  a critical stage in developing a nuclear bomb.  Iran today gives every sign it intends to use it against Israel.  Unlike 1981, the world community seems committed this time to stopping Iran getting the bomb, relying on sanctions, negotiations, and political pressure — but so far to little or no effect. 

Iranian president Madmoud Ahmadinejad

In recent weeks, Israel has signaled growing alarm and raised the specter of an Orisak-like raid.  Iran, in turn, has promised harsh retaliation and launched its own military exercises in the Gulf of Hormuz, threatening world oil supplies.

Will cooler heads prevail?  Is war inevitable?  This time, if anything, the stakes are higher.  Iran in 2012 is a stronger country than Iraq back then.  Saddam Hussein in 1981 was distracted by his recently-launched bloody eight-year war against Iran.  By contrast, Iran today has allies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and agents around the world, making it far more able (and willing) to retaliate violently against Israel, America, or Europe.

Also, an Israeli raid against Iran today would be far more complex that Orisak in 1981.  It would have no element of surprise, Iran’s nuclear facilities are widely dispersed, many are underground, and intelligence is uncertain.   If could easily fail to do much damage at all.  Diplomatic dangers are bigger too.  An Israeli strike (or if coordinated with the US or NATO) easily could backfire and strengthen the radical Islamist Iranian regime, making it more unified and hostile and giving leaders like president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad every excuse to crush dissenters.

Finally, the world — the US, Europe, the UN and IAEA — still hopes to avoid confrontation with diplomacy.  Should Israel jump the gun, it could once again find itself isolated at a crucial time.

On the other side is the danger that could be posed by a nuclear-armed Iraq and the chance that a well-conceived, well-executed operation could work militarily, be quietly supported in much of the world, and could set back Iran’s nuclear program for years or decades.  

There is a clear allure to trying to address a complex problem like Iran’s nuclear program with a simple, bold solution like an Osirak-style military strike.  It is easy to admire the Israeli pilots of 1981 for their skill and courage.  If only courage and boldness were all it took…. 

We who are not privy to the latest intelligence cannot second guess this decision.  But times change, and simple pragmatic facts may make what worked so well in 1981 not work at all in 2012.  Let’s hope that the leaders in Washington, Jerusalem, Europe, and, yes, Tehran, fully weigh the complexities and risks before jumping into some very deep water with both feet and starting something they cannot stop.  

2 thoughts on “Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, Osirak 1981. A model for Iran 2012?

  1. Excellent post, Ken, but I cannot agree with your conclusions. While the repurcussions of an attack cannot be predicted, it is also possible to envision it being effective militarily, quietly supported in much of the world, and able to set back Iran's nuclear program many years. You also do not discuss the possible consequences if Iran is able to get the bomb.

  2. I've been having second thoughts on why Israel shouldn't attack Iran's nuclear facilities, but now I am certain Israel should do it.

    If your neighbor is constantly threatening to "wipe" you out, what would you do about it? You wait for the all-too-slow political sanctions or you pull a Rome-offense-is-the-best-defense act.

    Iran have all the motives to strike Israel, and you couldn't expect the Israeli to relax about it.

    I fear that if the nuclear weapons come to fruition, the aftermath would look like Chernobyl:

    They must strike now – or be annihilated.

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