The risks of a near-term Iraqi breakthrough were further undercut by the presence of French technicians at Osirak, as well as regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. As a result, any significant diversion of highly enriched uranium fuel or attempts to produce fissionable plutonium would probably have been detected.
By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organize the program. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault. As Reiter notes, “the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion.”
Iraq’s nuclear efforts also went underground. Hussein allowed the IAEA to verify Osirak’s destruction, but then he shifted from a plutonium strategy to a more dispersed and ambitious uranium-enrichment strategy. This approach relied on undeclared sites, away from the prying eyes of inspectors, and aimed to develop local technology and expertise to reduce the reliance on foreign suppliers of sensitive technologies. When inspectors finally gained access after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they were shocked by the extent of Iraq’s nuclear infrastructure and how close Hussein had gotten to a bomb.
Ultimately, Israel’s 1981 raid didn’t end Iraq’s drive to develop nuclear weapons. It took the destruction of the Gulf War, followed by more than a decade of sanctions, containment, inspections, no-fly zones and periodic bombing — not to mention the 2003 U.S. invasion — to eliminate the program. The international community got lucky: Had Hussein not been dumb enough to invade Kuwait in 1990, he probably would have gotten the bomb sometime by the mid-1990s.
Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than Hussein’s was in 1981. But the Islamic republic is still not on the cusp of entering the nuclear club. As the IAEA has documented, Iran is putting all the pieces in place to have the option to develop nuclear weapons at some point. Were Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to decide tomorrow to go for a bomb, Iran probably has the technical capability to produce a testable nuclear device in about a year and a missile-capable device in several years. But as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Arms Services Committee on Feb. 16, it does not appear that Khamenei has made this decision.
Moreover, Khamenei is unlikely to dash for a bomb in the near future because IAEA inspectors would probably detect Iranian efforts to divert low-enriched uranium and enrich it to weapons-grade level at declared facilities. Such brazen acts would trigger a draconian international response. Until Iran can pursue such efforts more quickly or in secret — which could be years from now — Khamenei is unlikely to act.
Also, an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would be more risky and less effective than the Osirak raid. In 1981, a relatively small number of Israeli aircraft flew 600 miles across Jordanian, Saudi and Iraqi airspace to hit a single, vulnerable, above-ground target. This was no easy feat, but it is nothing compared with the complexity of a strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.