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Israel's Osirak Mission Impedes Iraq's Nuclear Ambitions

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As Iran's threat to destroy the State of Israel and to remove the Zionist Entity from the map of history are resonating louder throughout the world, let us visit, one more time, Israel's distinctive bravery and her military might to defend herself. More so, it is an amplifying reminder that Israel can only rely upon herself to defend herself.

On June 7, 1981, a bunch of brave Israeli Air-Force pilots took off from military airports in Israel, in a squadron that consisted of eight F-16As, each loaded with two unguided Mark-84 2,000-pound delay-action bombs, escorted by a flight of six F-15As, assigned to the operation to provide fighter support. These pilots were assigned to Operation Opera its final goal, after flying 1,100 kilometers over Saudi Arabia, was to bomb, and heavily damage, the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.

Operation Opera, also known as Operation Babylon-in Hebrew מבצע אופרהalso known as מבצע תמוז )‎Mivtzah-Operation Opera- Mivtzah Tammuz), was a surprise Israeli air-strike that on June 7, 1981 destroyed a nuclear reactor that was under construction, 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) southeast of Bagdad, Iraq.

In November 1975 France and Iraq signed a nuclear cooperation agreement and in 1976, Iraq purchased an "Osiris"-class nuclear reactor from France. Construction for the 40-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor began in 1979 at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Center near Bagdad. The French named the main reactor Osirak (Osiraq), blending the name of Iraq with that of the reactor's Osiris class. Iraq named the main reactor Tammuz 1, from which Israel took the name Operation-Mivtzah Tammuz and the smaller reactor Tammuz 2.

Tammuz, which is the 10th month in the Jewish calendar, was the Babylonian month when the Ba'ath Party had come to power in Iraq, in 1968. In July 1980, Iraq received from France a shipment of approximately 12.5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to be used in the reactor. The shipment was the first of a planned six deliveries totaling 72 kilograms. It was reportedly stipulated in the purchase agreement that Iraq cannot have more than two 24 kilograms HEU fuel loadings at any time.

Discussions on which strategy to adopt in response to the Iraqi reactor development were taking place in Israel as early as 1974-1977, when Yitzhak Rabi served his first term as Prime Minister and, reportedly, planning and training for the operation began during this time. After Menachem Begin became Israel's Prime Minister, in 1977, the preparations for the operation intensified; Begin authorized the building of a full-scale model of the Iraqi reactor, on which Israeli pilots could practice bombing.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan, initiated diplomatic negotiations with France, Italy-Israel maintained that some Italian firms acted as suppliers and sub-contractors-and the United States over the matter, but failed to obtain assurances that the reactor program would be halted, and was not able to convince the French governments of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and François Mitterrand to cease aiding the Iraqi nuclear program.

Like the Iranians, Saddam Hussein consistently maintained that the Osirak was intended for peaceful purposes. Begin for his part, considered the diplomatic options fruitless, and worried that prolonging the decision to attack would lead to a fatal inability to act in response to the perceived threat. According to Karl P. Mueller, the associate director of the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources program at RAND Arroyo Center and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, in the spring of 1979, Begin had reached the conclusion that an anticipatory attack was necessary.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security analyst on a number of global conflicts, wrote that Israel conducted a series of clandestine operations to halt construction or destroy the reactor. In April 1979, allegedly, Israeli agents in France planted a bomb that destroyed the reactor's first set of core structures, while they were awaiting shipment to Iraq. It has also been claimed that Israel bombed several of the French and Italian companies it suspected of working on the project, and sent threatening letters to top officials and technicians. Following the April 1979 bombing, France inserted a clause in its agreement with Iraq saying that French personnel would have to supervise the Osirak reactor on-site for a period of ten years.

At the onset of the war, Yehoshua Saguy, the director of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, publicly urged Iran to bomb the reactor. Shortly after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, on September 30, 1980, Iran attacked and damaged the reactor's site with two F-4 Phantom planes. This was the first attack on a nuclear reactor and only the third one on a nuclear facility in the history of the world. It was also the first instance of a preventive attack on a nuclear reactor, which aimed to forestall the development of a nuclear weapon.

Trita Parsi, the current president and founder of the National Iranian American Council, and author of the 2007 book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, writes in the book that a senior Israeli official met with a representative of the Khomeini regime in France one month prior to the Israeli attack. At the alleged meeting, the Iranians explained details of their 1980 attack on the site, and in the case of an emergency, they agreed to let Israeli planes land at an Iranian airfield in Tabriz.

The distance between Israel's territory and the reactor site was significant-over 1,600 km (990 miles). The Israeli planes would have to violate Jordanian and/or Saudi airspace in a covert flight over foreign, hostile territory, making a mid-air refueling unfeasible. The Israelis eventually concluded that a squadron of heavily fueled and heavily armed F-16As, with a group of F-15As to provide air cover and fighter support, could perform a surgical operation strike to eliminate the reactor site without having to refuel.

The decision to go through with the operation was hotly contested within the Begin's government. Moshe Dayan, Israel's Defense Minister at that time and until late 1980, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Yadin were among those who opposed the operation. According to Mueller, "the principal difference between the hawks and doves on this issue lay in their estimation of the likely international political costs [to Israel] of an air strike."

Those oppose, feared that the operation would derail the fragile Israeli-Egyptian peace process, fuel Arab anxieties about Israel's profile in the region, and damage Israel-French relations. Begin and his supporters, including Ariel Sharon, were far less pessimistic than their opponents about the political allout. Yehoshua Saguy argued to continue efforts in trying to find a non-military solution, as it would take the Iraqis five to ten years to produce the material necessary for a nuclear weapon. In the end, Begin chose to order the attack, based on a worst-case scenario estimate, where a weapon could be created in one to two years time.

It has been claimed that Israel felt it necessary to destroy the reactor before it was loaded with nuclear fuel, in order to prevent radioactive contamination.

In October 1980, the Mossad reported to Begin that the Osirak reactor would be fueled and operational by June 1981. This assessment was significantly aided by reconnaissance photos, supplied by the United States, specifically using the KH-KENNAN satellite. French technicians installing the reactor later said it was scheduled to become operational only by the end of 1981. Nonetheless, in October 1980, the Israeli cabinet, with Dayan absent, finally voted 10-6 in favor of launching the attack.

While Iraq and France maintained that the reactor, the French named Osirak, was intended for peaceful scientific research, the Israelis viewed the reactor with suspicion, and claimed that it was designed to make nuclear weapons.

While the agreements between France and Iraq excluded military use, in 2007, the American private intelligence agency STRATFOR wrote that the reactor "was believed to be on the verge of producing plutonium for a weapons program."

The attack squadron, which consisted of eight F-16As panes, each with two unguided Mark-84 2,000-pound delay-action bombs, eight pilots were Ze'ev Raz, who was later decorated by the Chief of Staff for his leadership, Amos Yadlin, , Dobbi Yaffe, Hagai Katz, Amir Nachumi, Yiftach Spector, Relik Shafir, and [Later on anAstronaut] Ilan Ramon.

On June 7, 1981, at 15:55 local Israel time (12:55 GMT), the operation was initiated. The Israeli planes left Etzuin Airbase, flying unchallenged in Jordanian and Saudi airspace. To avoid detection, the Israeli pilots conversed in Saudi-accented Arabic while in Jordanian airspace and told Jordanian air controllers that they were a Saudi patrol that had gone off course. While flying over Saudi Arabia, they pretended to be Jordanians, using Jordanian radio signals and formations. The Israeli planes were so heavily loaded that the external fuel tanks that had been mounted on the planes were exhausted in-flight. The tanks were jettisoned over the Saudi desert.

En route to the target, the Israeli planes crossed the Gulf of Aqaba. Unknowingly, the squadron flew directly over the yacht of King Hussein of Jordan, who was vacationing in the Gulf at the time. Taking into account the location, heading, and armament of the Israeli planes, Hussein quickly deduced the Iraqi reactor to be the most probable target. Hussein immediately contacted his government and ordered a warning to be sent to the Iraqis. However, due to a communication failure the message was never received and the Israeli planes entered Iraqi air space undetected.

Upon reaching Iraqi airspace the squadron split up, with two of the F-15s escort squadron forming a very close escort to the F-16 squadron, and the remaining F-15s dispersing into Iraqi airspace as a diversion and ready back-up. The attack squadron descended to 30 meters over the Iraqi desert, attempting to fly under the detection of the Iraqi defense radar.

At 18:35 Iraqi local time (14:35 GMT), 20 kilometer from the Osirak reactor complex, the F-16 formation climbed to 2,100 meters and went into a 35-degree dive at 1,100 km/hour, aimed at the reactor complex. At 1,100 meter, the F-16s began releasing the Mark 84 bombs in pairs, at 5-second intervals. At least eight of the sixteen released bombs struck the containment dome of the reactor. It was later revealed that half an hour before the Israeli planes arrived, a group of Iraqi soldiers manning anti-aircraft defenses had left their posts for an afternoon meal, turning off their radars. The Israeli planes were still intercepted by Iraqi defenses but managed to evade the remaining anti-aircraft fire. The squadron climbed to high altitude and started their return to Israel. The attack lasted less than two minutes. According to Ze'ev Raz, the leader of the attack force, the Israeli pilots radioed each other and recited the biblical verse Joshua 10:12 as they were returning to base: "Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon." So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies...

In a 2003 speech, Richard Wilson, a professor of physics at Harvard University, who, in December 1982, visually inspected the partially damaged reactor, said that "using Osirak to collect enough plutonium [for a nuclear weapon] would have taken decades, not years". In 2005, Wilson further commented in The Atlantic: the Osirak reactor that was bombed by Israel, in June of 1981, was explicitly designed by the French engineer Yves Girard to be unsuitable for making bombs. That was obvious to me on my 1982 visit. Elsewhere Wilson has stated that, many claim that the bombing of the Iraqi Osirak reactor delayed Iraq's nuclear bomb program. But the Iraqi nuclear program before 1981 was peaceful, and the Osirak reactor was not only unsuited to making bombs but was under intensive safeguards.
Iraq was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, placing its reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. However, in October 1981, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published excerpts from Roger Richter, a former IAEA inspector, testimony, in which he described to the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee the agency's nuclear safeguards weaknesses. Richter testified that only part of Iraq's nuclear installation was under safeguard and that the most sensitive facilities were not even subject to safeguards. The IAEA Director-General, Sigvard Eklund, issued a rebuttal saying that Richter had never inspected Osirak and he had never been assigned to inspect facilities in the Middle East. Eklund claimed that the safeguards procedures were effective and that they were supplemented by precautionary measures taken by the nuclear suppliers. Anthony Fainberg, a physicist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, disputed Richter's claim that a fuel processing program, for the manufacturing of nuclear weapons, could have been conducted secretly. Fainberg wrote in argument that there was barely enough fuel on the site to make one bomb, more so, the presence of hundreds of foreign technicians would have made it impossible for the Iraqis to take the necessary steps without being discovered.

Be it as it may, when the Israeli Air-Force squadron arrived at its target, they bombed and heavily damaged the Osirak reactor. Israel claimed it acted in self-defense, and that the reactor had less than a month to go before it might have become a critical issue to Israel's security. It is said that ten Iraqi soldiers and one French civilian were killed in the attack.
Following the U.S 2003 invasion of Iraq, American forces captured a number of documents detailing conversations that Sadaam Hussein had with his inner sanctum. The archive of documents and recorded meetings confirm that Hussein was indeed aiming to strike at Israel. In a 1982 conversation Hussein stated that, "Once Iraq walks out victorious [over Iran], there will not be any Israel." Of Israel's anti-Iraqi endeavors he noted, "Technically, they [the Israelis] are right in all of their attempts to harm Iraq."

The attack was strongly criticized around the world and Israel was rebuked by the United Nations Security Council, United Nations Security Council Resolution 487: and the UN General assembly.

In debates in the UN, the representative of France stated that the sole purpose of the reactor was scientific research and agreements between France and Iraq excluded military use. The United Kingdom said it did not believe Iraq had the capacity to manufacture fissionable materials for nuclear weapons. The IAEA Director-General confirmed that inspections of the nuclear research reactors near Baghdad revealed no non-compliance with the safeguards agreement.

On September 26, 1981, the IAEA Conference condemned the attack and voted to suspend all technical assistance to Israel. A draft resolution was introduced to expel Israel from the IAEA, but the proposition was defeated. The United States argued that the attack was not a violation of the IAEA Statute and that punitive action against Israel would do great harm to the IAEA and the non-proliferation regime.

The attack was also strongly criticized in the United States. Jonathan Steele, writing in The Guardian, described the reaction: "The world was outraged by Israel's raid on June 7, 1981. "Armed attack in such circumstances cannot be justified. It represents a grave breach of international law," Margaret Thatcher thundered. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the US ambassador to the UN described it as "shocking" and compared it to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. American newspapers were as fulsome. "Israel's sneak attack...was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression," said the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times called it "state-sponsored terrorism."
But those who first condemned Israel, in public, have gone to their homes and told each other, behind closed doors, thank God for Israel's courage.

Finding themselves with no reactor, Iraq said it would rebuild the facility and France agreed, in principle, to aid in the reconstruction. However, because of a mix of factors, including the Iran-Iraq War, international pressure and Iraqi payment problems, in 1984 negotiations broke down and France withdrew from the project. The Osirak facility remained in its damaged state until the 1991, Persian Gulf War, when it was completely destroyed by subsequent coalition air strikes, by the United States Air Force. During the war, 100 out of 120 members of the Knesset signed a letter of appreciation to Menachem Begin, thanking him for ordering the attack on Osirak.

The attack took place approximately three weeks before Israel's legislative election of 1981. Opposition leader Shimon Peres criticized the operation as a political ploy, which did not go over well with the electorate. Dan Perry writes that "the Osirak bombing - and Peres' poor political judgment in criticizing it - were crucial in turning the tide of what initially had seemed to be a hopeless election campaign for Likud.".

On June 30, Likud was reelected in favor of Peres's Alignment party, winning by just one seat in the Knesset.
In 2009, the Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki demanded that Israel compensate Iraq for the destruction of the reactor. An Iraqi official asserted that Iraq's right to redress is supported by UN Resolution 487, adopted by the United Nations Security Council in response to the attack. In early 2010, The Siasat Daily, citing an unnamed Iraqi parliament member, reported that Iraqi officials had received word from the UN Secretariat that the Iraqi government is entitled to seek compensation from Israel for damage caused by the attack.

The causes of the raid and its long-term consequences have been the subject of debate. As early as the autumn of 1981, Kenneth Neal Waltz, one of the most prominent scholars of international relations alive today, discussed the fallout from the strike: "In striking Iraq, Israel showed that a preventive strike can be made, something that was not in doubt. Israel's act and its consequences however, make clear that the likelihood of useful accomplishment is low. Israel's strike increased the determination of Arabs to produce nuclear weapons. Arab states that may attempt to do so will now be all the more secretive and circumspect. Israel's strike, far from foreclosing Iraq's nuclear future, gained her the support of some other Arab states in pursuing it. And despite Prime Minister Begin's vow to strike as often as need be, the risks in doing so would rise with each occasion."

In an interview for the 25th anniversary of the attack, professor Charles R. H. Tripp, an academic and author, specializing in the politics and history of the Near and Middle East, described the bombing of Osirak as a variation of Israeli military doctrine, beginning with the premiership of David Ben-Gurion, "advocating devastating pre-emptive strikes on Arab enemies." Tripp asserted, "the Osirak attack is an illegal way to behave - Resolution 487 established that - but it is an understandable way to behave if you are the Israeli military-security establishment.

In 2004, Tom Moriarty, a military intelligence analyst for the United States Air Force, wrote that Israel had "gambled that the strike would be within Iraq's threshold of tolerance."

Moriarty argues that Iraq, already in the midst of a war with Iran, would not start a war with Israel at the same time and that it's "threshold of tolerance was higher than normal."
In 2006, Joseph Cirincione, then director of non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote:
"Israel had pulled off a remarkable military raid, striking targets with great precision over long distances. But the bombing set back Israel more than Iraq. It further harmed Israel's international reputation, later worsened by the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon, while making Iraq appear a victim of Israeli aggression."

Israel claims that the attack impeded Iraq's nuclear ambitions by at least ten years.

In contrast, Dan Reiter has estimated that the attack may have accelerated Iraq's nuclear weapons program, a view echoed by Richard K. Betts who is the Arnold Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies in the Department of Political Science, the director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, and the director of the International Security Policy Program in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Bob Woodward, in the book 'State of Denial', writes:

"Israeli intelligence was convinced that their strike in 1981 on the Osirak nuclear reactor about 10 miles outside Baghdad had ended Saddam's program. Instead [it initiated] covert funding for a nuclear program code-named 'PC3' involving 5.000 people testing and building ingredients for a nuclear bomb (...)"

These claims are bolstered by Iraqi researchers who have stated that the Iraqi nuclear program simply went underground, diversified, and expanded. In 2003, in an interview on CNN's Crossfire, Khidir Hamza, an Iraqi nuclear scientist, made the following statement: "Israel - actually, what Israel [did] is that it got out the immediate danger out of the way. But it created a much larger danger in the longer range. What happened is that Saddam ordered us - we were 400... scientists and technologists running the program. And when they bombed that reactor out, we had also invested $400 million. And the French reactor and the associated plans were from Italy. When they bombed it out we became 7,000 with a $10 billion investment for a secret, much larger underground program to make bomb material by enriching uranium. We dropped the reactor out totally, which was the plutonium for making nuclear weapons, and went directly into enriching uranium... They [Israel] estimated we'd make 7 kg [15 lb] of plutonium a year, which is enough for one bomb. And they get scared and bombed it out. Actually it was much less than this, and it would have taken a much longer time. But the program we built later in secret would make six bombs a year."

Similarly, in 2003, the Iraqi nuclear scientist Imad Khadduri wrote that the bombing of the Osirak convinced the Iraqi leadership to initiate a full-fledged nuclear weapons program. In 1997, the United States Secretary of Defense William Perry stated that Iraq refocused its nuclear weapons effort on producing highly enriched uranium after the raid. Its interest in acquiring plutonium as fissile material for weapons continued, but at a lower priority. In 1995, Professor Louis René Beres wrote that "[h]ad it not been for the brilliant raid at Osiraq, Saddam's forces might have been equipped with atomic warheads in 1991."

In an interview in 2005, former President of the United States Bill Clinton expressed retroactive support for the attack: "Everybody talks about what the Israelis did at Osirak in 1981, which I think, in retrospect, was a really good thing." In 2010, squad leader Ze'ev Raz said of the operation: "There was no doubt in the mind of the decision makers that we couldn't take a chance. We knew that the Iraqis could do exactly what we did in Dimona."

In summation, the destruction of the Osirak nuclear reactor has been cited as an example of a preventive strike in contemporary scholarship on International law.

Reference: Wikipedia

Nurit Greenger sees Israel and the United States equally, as the last two forts of true democratic freedom and since 2006, has been writing about events in these two countries. Contact her by writing to

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