As the international community seeks to stave off an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, policymakers would do well to draw lessons from the first attack to destroy a nuclear facility, Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981. At the time, the attack drew near-universal condemnation, but it soon came to be seen as a milestone in nonproliferation, demonstrating that force could be a practical option to halt a suspected nuclear weapons program without harmful repercussions for the attacker.
More recently, however, the pendulum has begun to swing back, as postmortems coupled with recent reporting of Iraqi archival material captured by the United States during the occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion tell a different story. They reveal the Osirak reactor did not provide the foundation for a nuclear weapon but rather for an illusion that misled Iraq and Israel. The illusion prevailed because of the peculiar personalities of each country’s leader and because of misperceptions about Osirak’s bomb-making capacity.
Unwilling to gamble that deterrence could cope with a nuclear Iraq, Israel applied a multipronged strategy to halt the reactor’s construction—diplomacy, a media campaign, sabotage, and assassination. The failure of all these left two approaches—watchful waiting, preferred by some who did not see Osirak as an imminent threat, and military action, promoted by Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In the end, the force of Begin’s personality drove the cabinet’s decision to bomb Osirak. However, rather than putting a stake into the ambitions of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Israel’s strike stimulated Iraq to pursue a secret uranium-enrichment program dedicated to producing a nuclear weapon.
But for Hussein’s megalomania, Iraq might have had a nuclear weapon by the mid-1990s. Not satisfied with the eight-year war with Iran, which ended in 1988, Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and thus saved Israel from the challenge of destroying his weapons program. Iraq’s defeat at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition destroyed much of Hussein’s military establishment, but the bombing campaign, which was undertaken with incomplete knowledge of his hidden enrichment program, missed significant portions, leaving it to international inspectors to destroy the remainder and prevent rebuilding.
The Osirak saga and legacy have much to teach present-day decision-makers about the need for solid intelligence and the limitations of diplomacy, public relations, sabotage, and assassination. If Israel and others resort to the use of force against Iran, they will find that unless Tehran agrees to the transparent elimination of its remaining suspect activities and eschews rebuilding, international inspectors must do the job. Failing that, concerned countries must prepare themselves to repeat their military action, perhaps multiple times, once they have chosen this course.
The Iraqi Nuclear Program
In 1976, Iraq signed a contract with France for the Osirak reactor, also known as Tammuz 1, a 70-megawatt “swimming pool” light-water reactor to be fueled with a 12-kilogram loading of uranium enriched to 93 percent uranium-235, and for the 500-kilowatt Tammuz 2 training reactor. A party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) when it entered into force in 1970, Baghdad bowed to Paris’ insistence that it accept Osirak in lieu of a heavy-water plant better suited to maximizing plutonium production. By placing the reactors under safeguards, Iraq agreed to regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), management of the reactor by French personnel through 1989, automatic cameras to record activity around the reactor core, and lead seals on fuel rods. France pledged to halt reactor operations by withholding new fuel if evidence pointed to reactor misuse.
Yet in private meetings with aides in 1978-1981 and later, Hussein repeatedly declared the need to acquire nuclear weapons to confront Israel. Osirak, however, was unlikely to produce the necessary feedstock. Thus, Hussein’s hopes of getting a nuclear weapon by the mid-1980s were either misinformed or delusional.
The reasons were simple. Diversion of spent fuel from the plant would have required a reactor shutdown appropriately timed to maximize plutonium-239 harvesting, then rearrangement of the core to mask fuel rod removal, reduction of reactor performance, and falsification of the operating records, all under the noses of French monitors and international inspectors.
An alternative, lifting the reactor’s reflector to insert uranium elements into the core or placing a uranium blanket around it to secretly breed weapons-grade plutonium in between IAEA inspections, was impractical. In a 1983 postattack analysis, the CIA concluded, “We strongly believe that building a blanket…would be difficult for Iraq to do without being detected by the IAEA or the French.” Alternatively, Iraq could have pilfered its IAEA-monitored cache of highly enriched uranium fuel provided by France to make a nuclear weapon. As it turned out, Iraq tried that in the period prior to the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but failed.
Hussein’s 1979 and 1980 arrests of two senior scientists, Hussain al Shahristani for his alleged connection with the outlawed Dawa party and then Jafar Dhia Jafar for complaining about the arrest, further complicated matters. Then Iraq’s war with Iran, prompting a September 1980 Iranian air strike on the nuclear complex where Osirak sat, drained Baghdad’s resources, threatening the Baathist regime’s survival.
Both acts exacerbated the problems of an already dysfunctional program. On the eve of the Israeli Osirak strike, Iraq’s nuclear program was in a state of “drift,” according to a Norwegian scholar who interviewed Jafar and other scientists after the 2003 U.S. occupation. The undertaking required larger facilities “not subject to external oversight and safeguards,” more consistent political direction, and basic organizational resources. “As a result, Iraq’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was both directionless and disorganized.” 
Run-Up to the Strike
When Israel contemplated striking Iraq in 1980-1981, much of the information above remained opaque, was not understood, or was dismissed. Rather than a program adrift, Israel saw an emerging existential threat. Feeding that view were Iraq’s decades-long calls and actions to eliminate Israel. Just three years before Baghdad and Paris finalized the Osirak deal, Hussein had marshaled hundreds of tanks on Israel’s Syrian doorstep in the Yom Kippur War. After the war, Iraq supported and harbored Palestinian guerrillas. Next to Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Begin saw Iraq as “the most irresponsible” adversary Israel confronted.
Israel knew the tricks of nuclear dissimulation, having relied on the tactic in building the Dimona weapons reactor. Begin and his colleagues plotted a series of steps to halt Osirak. Their first move was a genuine attempt at diplomacy, but they were prepared to abandon that approach if it proved to be a dead end. That turned out to be the case, as France was not swayed by repeated Israeli arguments to terminate the Osirak export.
The next step was to embarrass France publicly. Israel leaked information to the media that characterized Osirak as a nuclear weapons Pandora’s box. In time, Israel ominously warned, failed diplomacy could bring “other actions.”
As diplomacy stalled, Israel turned to sabotage and assassination. On April 6, 1979, in the French Mediterranean town of La Seyne-sur-Mer, explosions rocked the warehouse that housed the reactor core awaiting shipment to Iraq. Threats followed by bombings directed at offices of Italian and French companies providing laboratory equipment for the nuclear program also failed to hold back exports. The assassination of three scientists working on Osirak likewise did not stop the project.
By the fall of 1980, Begin had had enough. To avoid the possibility of a radiological release, he decided to attack Osirak before operations commenced. Yet, he still had to convince senior Israeli colleagues.
On October 14, he convened his security cabinet. In the intense debate that followed, Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, military intelligence chief General Yehoshua Saguy, and others questioned Iraq’s ability to build a nuclear weapon and the feasibility of a successful strike while forecasting serious negative political consequences of an attack in and outside the Arab world. However, the decision ultimately was Begin’s. Author Rodger Claire captured the moment:
After the hours of debate and squabbling, Begin stood and looked down the table, his dark eyes flickering from the face of one cabinet member to the next. Some of these men he had known for four decades, had fought next to against the British in ’47. He put both hands on the edge of the table and leaned in toward the general and minister…and announced, “There will be no other Holocaust in this century! Never. Never again!” The ministers remained silent. No one dared oppose him—at least to his face.
On June 7, 1981, eight F-16As carrying 16 bombs destroyed Osirak.
The raid on Osirak did not work out as Begin anticipated. Rather than stopping Iraq’s nuclear program, the raid stimulated it. For Hussein, what at first blush seemed to be a disaster turned out to be a liberation of sorts. Ridding the country of French government oversight, contractors, managers, and monitors while feigning NPT fidelity, he embarked on what became a decade-long secret quest to build a uranium bomb. He settled on electromagnetic isotope separation and centrifuge technologies and, by the time the Gulf War started, was within a few years of fulfilling his ambition.
Echoes in Iran
The Osirak story, before and after the attack, has much to teach today’s leaders as they attempt to fashion policies against Iran. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge distinctions.
Iran has in place a program that is far more advanced and sophisticated than Iraq’s was, even at its 1991 peak. It is better hardened and has generated significant quantities of uranium enriched up to 20 percent. Unlike Hussein, however, who called for an Arab nuclear weapon, Iranian leaders repeatedly declare their opposition to nuclear weapons.
Yet, some of the similarities are uncanny. Like Hussein’s Iraq, Iran frequently calls for Israel’s elimination. Iran funds and arms surrogates. Iran has failed to provide the IAEA with full nuclear transparency. Many Israeli decision-makers believe that Iran, like Iraq, poses an existential nuclear threat, although, as before, there is no unanimity.
Osirak suggests the following cautionary points and strategies that bear on Iran.
• Do not allow emotion and fear to trump objective intelligence assessment. Iran’s bombast and its documented progress in generating enriched uranium naturally make Israel nervous. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose public remarks currently sound much like Begin’s, should be careful to ensure that his decisions are based on fact rather than emotion.
• Intelligence must be vetted over and over again. Israel’s intelligence clearly failed to assess the Osirak risk adequately, and the same was true of U.S. and Israeli intelligence on Iraq’s enrichment program.
• Assassination of nuclear scientists will not retard nuclear progress. Israel’s presumed use of assassination in Iraq had no material impact on the Iraqi program. It does not appear to have had a material impact on Iran.
• Public diplomacy to halt Osirak had no consequence. Its effect on Iran remains murky.
• Sabotage may slow nuclear development, but it must be critically significant as well as successful. Israel’s effort to destroy the Osirak reactor core as it awaited shipment failed. Had it succeeded, it would have delayed commencement of reactor operations by years. By contrast, cyberattacks on computer systems managing Iran’s centrifuges seem to have had only months-long impacts. Clearly, the longer the interruption of normal operations, the better the opportunity for other events to intervene that could reduce the proliferator’s intention or capability to build a nuclear weapon.
• Air power can retard nuclear development. Israel’s successful bombing of Osirak did that in part because Osirak was a solitary, soft target, but it also stimulated Iraq to mount an even more intense effort to get nuclear weapons. Likewise, when the United States bombed elements of Iraq’s nuclear program, it again retarded the enterprise, but bad intelligence allowed portions of the infrastructure to survive. Only the insertion of inspectors with authority to dismantle and destroy the enterprise eliminated the risk. Israel’s 2007 bombing of Syria’s North Korean-engineered Al Kibar reactor offers a caveat: military action can halt nuclear ambitions if the target country does not have the scientific capacity to rebuild. Clearly, Iran has that capacity.
In sum, Iraq provides many lessons for dealing with Iran today, but some distinctions remain. The international community never subjected Baghdad to the sanctions or IAEA cajoling Iran has faced. That is understandable because the community believed Iraq was complying with its NPT obligations.
Although the Osirak episode tested other modes to constrain proliferation, its legacy lies in the use of force. The lesson is that air power alone will not stop a country determined to get nuclear weapons. Repeated attacks may retard progress, but without an epiphany that leads the attacked country to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, it takes personnel on the ground to finish the job.
1. Dan Reiter, “Preventive Attacks Against Nuclear Programs and the ‘Success’ at Osiraq,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (July 2005): 355-371; Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, “Revisiting Osirak,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Summer 2011): 201-132; Hal Brands and David Palkki, “Saddam, Israel and the Bomb,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Summer 2011): 133-166.
2. For conflicting official accounts of the damage, see Eliot Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey, Vol. 2, 1993, pp. 316-317; Charles Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD,” Vol. 2, “Nuclear,” September 30, 2004, p. 4, www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/index.html.
6. Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD.” See Reiter, “Preventive Attacks Against Nuclear Programs and the ‘Success’ at Osiraq”; Richard Wilson, “Incomplete or Inaccurate Information Can Lead to Tragically Incorrect Decisions to Preempt: The Example of Osirak,” February 9, 2008, www.physics.harvard.edu/~wilson/publications/pp896.html.
8. Nakdimon, First Strike, p. 132. For the Mossad’s psychological assessment of Hussein, see “Begin on the Eve of the Osirak Raid,” Jerusalem Post, June 1, 2006, www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=23541.
11. For a review of Israel’s existential concerns, see Jim Zanotti et al., “Israel: Possible Military Strike Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities,” CRS Report for Congress, R42443 (March 27, 2012), pp. 9-11.