I keep seeing Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 used in arguments favoring the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. For example, from the Heritage Foundation just yesterday:
In June 1981, Israel launched a successful air strike against Iraq’s Osiraq reactor and inflicted a major setback on the Iraqi nuclear weapons program…. The 1981 strike on Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor did not end Iraq’s nuclear weapons efforts, but it paid large dividends because Saddam Hussein’s regime never was able to replace the reactor.
The basic thrust of these arguments is that Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s reactor helped to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is absolutely false.
Let’s first turn to the response to the bombing from the international community, which was reflected in U.N. Security Council resolution 487, which noted that “Iraq has been a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons [NPT] since it came into force in 1970, that in accordance with that Treaty Iraq has accepted IAEA safeguards on all its nuclear activities, and that the Agency has testified that these safeguards have been satisfactorily applied to date“.
The argument employed above and others similar to it employ the assumption that Iraq was pursuing nuclear weapons prior to Israel’s bombing of the reactor and that this action prevented Saddam Hussein from obtaining the bomb. This is an utter falsehood. On the contrary, it was precisely Israel’s bombing that led to Saddam Hussein’s decision to pursue a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
The U.N. also observed “that Israel has not adhered to the non-proliferation Treaty”, a fact which threatened to instigate an arms race in the Middle East. The resolution “Strongly condemns the military attack by Israel in clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct” and considered the attack to constitute “a serious threat to the entire IAEA safeguards regime which is the foundation of the non-proliferation Treaty”.
In other words, Israel’s action, far from constituting a helpful step towards non-proliferation, threatened to undermine the entire framework of the international community’s effort to prevent states from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The U.S. intelligence community concurred. An interagency intelligence assessment dated July 1, 1981 and entitled “Implications of Israeli Attack on Iraq” stated that Israel’s attack “could be a watershed event in the Middle East”, and not in a good way. As a result of the attack, “new strains have been added to US-Arab relations”. “Rather than drawing” Arab leaders “into a negotiating process, Israel’s demonstrated prowess will only speed the arms race” and “Arab leaders will intensify their search for alternative ways to boost their security and protect their interests”.
The assessment stated further that the attack would cause an arms race and might lead Iraq to seek a nuclear deterrent to Israeli aggression:
Former Defense Minister [Moshe] Dayan has dispelled the ambiguity that surrounded Israel’s nuclear program by acknowledging Israel’s capability to produce nuclear weapons, and the raid on Iraq has laid Tel Aviv’s challenge before the Arab world in clear terms.
Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein responded by suggesting that world governments provide the Arabs with a nuclear deterrent to Israel’s formidable nuclear capabilities. His message to other Arabs is that they can have no security as long as Israel alone commands the nuclear threat.
In line with the view from the international community that Israel’s attack constituted a threat to the very framework of the NPT itself.
A related consequence of the raid is damage to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to the IAEA safeguards system. The full scope of the damage is not yet clear. The Israelis have precipitated a debate over the effectiveness of the safeguards system by justifying their raid on the grounds that the IAEA safeguards system is a sham. This debate will probably have a detrimental impact….
The Iraqis have had the support of most IAEA members because of general acceptance that international and bilateral safeguards over Iraq’s program were sufficient to guard against the diversion of fissile material for a nuclear device.
On the implications for US-Arab relations:
Israel’s raid will produce in the Arab world a deepened skepticism that the United States can, or intends to, play an unbiased peacemaking role in the Middle East. In Arab eyes, Washington has transformed Israel into a major military power that threatens Arab security and then refused to restrain Tel Aviv’s use of that power….
The assessment even suggested Israel’s attack and the view that it had U.S. support, or at least acquiescence, could lead to an increased threat of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests.
Terrorist actions are, of course, an always present danger.
Events such as these could make the pressures on Arab governments to retaliate against the United States irresistible. Domestic opinion would be an important factor. It is virtually impossible to predict when Arab leaders, either individually or collectively, will judge that their political survival depends on more forceful action to placate popular sentiments. It is likely, however, that Israel’s raid on Iraq has moved some Arab leaders closer to that theoretical point.
Currently, as both the IAEA and the U.S. intelligence community have observed, there is no credible evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Bombing Iran would not prevent the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon, as even advocates of violence acknowledge, but it would virtually guarantee that Iran would turn its efforts towards pursuing a nuclear deterrent to U.S.-Israeli aggression, and it would even further escalate the threat that individuals or groups would commit acts of terrorism, like the attacks of 9/11, in response to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.