Don’t believe Bibi: 1981 strike only sped up Iraqi nuclear program

With Netanyahu and Barak desperate to sell their case for an attack on Iran, they’ve been repeating the urban legend that Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor stopped Saddam’s nuclear ambitions permanently. Since we are getting down to crunch time, I am reposting below an excerpt from my March 2 post, ‘The myth of Osirak and the march to Iran.’

Like all Israelis, I believed that the Air Force had knocked out Saddam’s nuclear program for good in 1981, and that this had certainly proved a wise and brave decision. That was until 2007, when I was doing a story on Israel’s attack on the Syrian reactor, and I interviewed Yiftah Shapir, then and now the leading expert on missile warfare at the Institute of National Security Studies, Israel’s leading security think tank.

After telling me that the reactor that Israel destroyed was not exactly on the verge of threatening Israel’s existence, that for the Syrians to fire a nuclear weapon at Israel would require “decades of work by thousands of technicians that Syria doesn’t have,” Shapir gave me the consensus informed view about the 1981 attack on Osirak: that it didn’t mark the end of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program, but more like the beginning of it.

After that attack, said Shapir, Saddam cranked up Iraq’s nuclear production several times over, putting thousands of new technicians to work on the project. This was only discovered when the Americans questioned the Iraqi nuclear scientists they captured during the 1991 Gulf War. It was that war, and the  subsequent takeover of Saddam’s WMD, that prevented Iraq from getting the bomb – not the 1981 israeli attack on Osirak. In fact, the bombing of Osirak escalated the Iraqi nuclear project such that if Saddam had not become power-mad and invaded Kuwait in 1990, bringing on the American invasion, he would have achieved nuclear capability by 1994, said Shapir, who directs the INSS’s annual, highly influential “Middle East Balance of Forces” report.

But you don’t have to interview Yiftah Shapir to learn this.  Look up “Operation Opera,” the code name for the Osirak attack, in Wikipedia, and read what other knowledgeable people, including Bob Woodward and former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry have to say:

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. Bob Woodward, in the book State of Denial, writes: “Israeli intelligence were 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 (…)”

Similarly, the Iraqi nuclear scientist Imad Khadduri wrote in 2003 that the bombing of Osirak convinced the Iraqi leadership to initiate a full-fledged nuclear weapons program. United States Secretary of Defense William Perry stated in 1997 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 short, the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 actually backfired – and Israelis don’t know it. Netanyahu and Barak use “Operation Opera” as evidence that Israel can successfully bomb Iran, too, but in fact it’s evidence that Israel would fail in Iran as it did in Iraq – only this time Israelis would know it.