The Raid on the Osirak Nuclear Reactor
by Avi Hein
America and the coalition forces might have faced a nuclear-armed Iraq during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and again during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, had Israel not destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.
While the attack, codenamed “Operation Opera,” surprised the Iraqis and the rest of the world, it had long been in planning. It was only after the failure on the diplomatic front, and the consultation of military and intelligence experts with Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s cabinet, that Israel chose to go ahead with the attack on the Iraqi reactor.
Iraq established its nuclear program in the 1960s, but was unable to make significant progress on it until the late 1970s. In the 1970s, Iraq attempted to purchase a plutonium production reactor from France. Iraq also wanted to purchase a reprocessing reactor. France denied these requests but, instead, agreed to build a research reactor and research laboratories. With French support, Iraq began construction of a 40-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Center. The type of reactor was named Osiris, after the Egyptian god of the dead. The French renamed the reactor they were providing to Iraq the Osiraq, to include the name of Iraq in the title. The Iraqis called it “Tammuz” after the month in the Arabic calendar that the Baath party came to power in 1968.
During the Iran-Iraq war, on September 30, 1980, a pair of Iranian Phantom jets, part of a group of aircraft that were attacking a nearby conventional power plant, bombed the Osirak reactor but only light damage was reported.
Israeli intelligence confirmed Iraq’s intentions to develop nuclear weapons at the Osirak nuclear reactor and were aware of Iraqi threats against Israel. While, in 1981, some estimates showed Iraq was five to ten years away from building nuclear weapons, other intelligence reports estimated that Iraq could have a bomb within a year or two. It was later proven that Iraq was within a year of obtaining nuclear weapons.
Israel engaged in an intense diplomatic effort to try to halt French financing and support for the Iraqi project. The Israelis knew that time was short because, if diplomatic efforts failed, they would have to launch a military strike before the reactor was loaded with nuclear material to avoid the danger of nuclear fallout from the attack.
The decision to use military means to destroy the Iraqi reactor was not taken lightly.
When the Israelis learned of the Iraqi threat, during Yitzhak Rabin’s term, they began diplomatic negotiations. Upon Begin’s election as Prime Minister, he appointed Moshe Dayan as Foreign Minister. Dayan engaged in a feverish diplomatic battle to try to avert a nuclear-armed Iraq.
Israeli diplomacy engaged France, Italy (the main suppliers to the reactor) and the United States. A high-level Israeli negotiating team, led by then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yitzchak Shamir, negotiated with French presidents Valery Giscard-D’Estaing and his successor François Mitterand. The French proved intransigent, looking out for their own economic interests as Iraq was by far their top customer for military hardware. The payments to France came mostly in the form of oil. According to Shamir, French Minister for Foreign Affairs Claude Cheysson told him that there were only two major Arab powers: Iraq and the PLO. Despite Shamir’s personal affinity toward the French, as they had sheltered him while he was a member of the pre-state uprising against the British occupation of Israel, he was extremely disappointed when he realized that France was unwilling to cooperate and prevent Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from becoming a nuclear state, despite urgent and emotional pleas by the Israelis that Iraq was preparing a nuclear holocaust against Israel and the Jewish people.
Shamir reported that the Italians, a significant consumer of Iraqi oil, were equally uncooperative. They denied any involvement in Osirak and responded to the Israeli appeals with indifference. Any hope that the nuclear threat to Israel could be contained by diplomatic means rested solely on American cooperation.
In meetings with the Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, there was agreement about the Israeli assessment regarding the Iraqi nuclear threat. American representatives even verified Israeli assessments that Iraq was working to reach nuclear capability and would exploit the ability to influence and destroy Israel. Despite the American consensus, the Americans refused to act, perhaps because they did not truly grasp the danger, or because they did not want to upset Iraq, then fighting America’s enemy, Iran. According to Moshe Nissim, then Israeli Minister of Justice, had Iraq obtained nuclear weapons, it would have been wooed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Despite the failure of diplomacy, the Israeli government still engaged in a debate over the advisability of military action against the reactor. According to Yitzchak Shamir, some “greatly exaggerated the backlash that Israel would face.” Shimon Peres, then chairman of the Labor Alignment in the Knesset, tried to deter the government from carrying out the attack, claiming that Israel would be like a “thistle in the wilderness” after the operation.
Peres was not alone in opposing the raid at Osirak. In deliberations before the Cabinet, opponents of the attack represented about half of those who engaged in discussions. They argued that the attack would unite the Arab world, be considered an act of war, would harm the peace agreement with Egypt, would result in the destruction of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, encourage an arms buildup in the Arab world, and lead to a European and American embargo on Israel.
According to Moshe Nissim, it was the need to contend with the danger of an atom bomb in the hands of a dangerous and irresponsible Arab ruler who would not hesitate to use it against Israel that convinced Begin of the urgency and necessity to destroy the Iraqi reactor. In addition, Begin knew the Likud had a chance of losing the upcoming elections. If Labor, led by Shimon Peres, came into power, Begin feared the plans to prevent Iraq from obtaining a nuclear arsenal would be shelved. Begin, however, was not about to let Israel’s security be weakened due to election considerations.
The psychology of the Holocaust played an important role in Menachem Begin’s decision making. According to Rafael Eitan, chief of staff at the time of the attack, Begin insisted that he “will not be the man in whose time there will be a second Holocaust.”
Before the decision was made, Israel investigated a variety of options for destroying the reactor – commandos, paratroopers, helicopters and Phantom jets. The Israelis faced myriad obstacles. They did not know the capability of Iraq’s aerial defenses. The distance between Israel and Iraq was also a challenge – to fly over enemy territory undetected without refueling posed numerous difficulties. In 1979, however, the Israelis discovered that their recently acquired F-16s were capable of carrying two one-ton bombs at low altitude without refueling.
Yet when Israel discovered that it had the capability to launch the attack, it did not jump into it. Instead, in an unconventional move, Chief of Staff Rafi Eitan instead allowed the officers of the General Staff and Intelligence to express their views on the merits of such an attack. At the time, supporters and opponents were equally divided but, according to Eitan, those who opposed the operation in 1981 now realize that they were wrong.
The Cabinet received word that “a shipment of 90 kilograms of enriched uranium fuel rods is expected from France to Iraq, ready for radiation.” The moment that the rods were placed in the reactor, there would be a danger of radiation fallout if the reactor was attacked. This was tthe decisive factor for Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, who had initially opposed the plan, but changed his mind after receiving the news about the fuel rods.
The Israelis had to remove some of the F-16s' fuel tanks to make room for the heavy munitions necessary for the attack. They also needed to assign F-15s to guard the bombers in case there was need to engage the Iraqis. The mission was aborted once and the date of the attack was rescheduled for the next month. On June 7, 1981, fourteen F-15s and F-16s flew off the runway of Etzion Air Force base in the Negev, flying over Jordanian, Saudi, and Iraqi airspace, to attack the French-built Iraqi nuclear reactor.
King Hussein of Jordan was vacationing in Aqaba during the attack. Seeing the planes pass over his head, he immediately notified the Iraqis to warn them that they may be the targets of an Israeli attack. It appears that Iraq never got the message as communication errors prevented the message from reaching Iraq.
The attack was universally criticized. The United States voted for a Security Council resolution condemning Israel and, as a punishment, delayed a shipment of aircraft to Israel that had already been authorized.
The destruction of the reactor helped numerous countries besides Israel. Had Iraq obtained nuclear weapons they might have been able to achieve regional hegemony. Ten years after the attack, the American government noted this. In June 1991, during a visit to Israel after the Gulf War, then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney gave Major General David Ivry, then commander of the Israeli Air Force, a satellite photograph of the destroyed reactor. On the photograph, Cheney wrote, “For General David Ivri, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi Nuclear Program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.”
Professor Louis Rene Beres wrote that, “Israel’s citizens, together with Jews and Arabs, American, and other coalition soldiers who fought in the Gulf War may owe their lives to Israel’s courage, skill, and foresight in June 1981. Had it not been for the brilliant raid at Osiraq, Saddam’s forces might have been equipped with atomic warheads in 1991. Ironically, the Saudis, too, are in Jerusalem’s debt. Had it not been for Prime Minister Begin’s resolve to protect the Israeli people in 1981, Iraq’s SCUDs falling on Saudi Arabia might have spawned immense casualties and lethal irradiation.”
According to Yitzhak Shamir, “Deterrence was not attained by other countries – France and Italy – and even the United States. It was attained by the State of Israel and its Prime Minster who decided, acted and created a fact that no one in the world today – with the exception of our enemies – regrets.”