On June 7, 1981, eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets, protected by six F-15 escorts, dropped 16 2,000-pound bombs on the nearly completed Osirak nuclear reactor at the Tuwaitha complex in Iraq. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and other prominent members of the government such as Ariel Sharon saw the reactor as central to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s quest to build nuclear weapons, and they believed that it posed an existential threat to Israel.
The timing of the strike was justified by intelligence reports suggesting that Osirak would soon become operational. Two days later, Begin explained the raid to the public: “We chose this moment: now, not later, because later may be too late, perhaps forever. And if we stood by idly, two, three years, at the most four years, and Saddam Hussein would have produced his three, four, five bombs . . . another Holocaust would have happened in the history of the Jewish people.”
Three decades later, eerily similar arguments can be heard regarding the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Last May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahutold a joint session of the U.S. Congress that “the hinge of history may soon turn, for the greatest danger of all could soon be upon us: a militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons.” In a Feb. 2 speech in Israel, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Barak channeled Begin in making the case for possible military action against Iran, arguing that “those who say ‘later’ may find that later is too late.” And late last month, Barak sought to discredit Israeli President Shimon Peres’s reported opposition to a possible strike on Iran by pointing to his dissent during the 1981 attack.
When Netanyahu meets with President Obama on Monday and addresses the annual meeting of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, later that day, we should expect additional dire assessments and warnings of military action.
For Israelis considering a strike on Iran, Osirak seems like a model for effective preventive war. After all, Hussein never got the bomb, and if Israel was able to brush back one enemy hell-bent on its destruction, it can do so again. But a closer look at the Osirak episode, drawing on recent academic research and memoirs of individuals involved with Iraq’s program, argues powerfully against an Israeli strike on Iran today.
To begin with, Hussein was not on the brink of a bomb in 1981. By the late 1970s, he thought Iraq should develop nuclear weapons at some point, and he hoped to use the Osirak reactor to further that goal. But new evidence suggests that Hussein had not decided to launch a full-fledged weapons program prior to the Israeli strike. According to Norwegian scholar Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, a leading authority on the Iraqi program, “on the eve of the attack on Osirak . . . Iraq’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was both directionless and disorganized.”
Moreover, as Emory University political scientist Dan Reiter details in a 2005 study, the Osirak reactor was not well designed to efficiently produce weapons-grade plutonium. If Hussein had decided to use Osirak to develop nuclear weapons and Iraqi scientists somehow evaded detection, it would still have taken several years — perhaps well into the 1990s — to produce enough plutonium for a single bomb. And even with sufficient fissile material, Iraq would have had to design and construct the weapon itself, a process that hadn’t started before Israel attacked.