Midweek Perspectives: The Osiraq illusion

Twenty-five years ago today, Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor. Some American policy-makers have long admired the bold move. Alas, it was a mistake

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On this day 25 years ago, eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets took off from a runway in the Sinai Desert. Their mission: Fly some 600 miles over hostile territory and drop 16 bombs on the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq.


William W. Keller is director of the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Securnity Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Gordon R. Mitchell (gordonm@pitt.edu) is associate professor of communication and chair of the Ridgway Working Group on Pre-emptive and Preventive Military Intervention at the University of Pittsburgh.


In tactical terms, the Osiraq operation was successful -- all the bombs hit, the dome of the Iraqi reactor was demolished and the pilots flew home safely. June 7, 1981, was an auspicious debut for the Begin Doctrine (named after then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin), which holds that Israel will not tolerate acquisition of nuclear weapons capability by its enemies, even in peacetime.

But a working group organized by the University of Pittsburgh's Ridgway Center for International Security Studies has produced research findings that cast the 1981 raid in a different light:

The Osiraq light water nuclear reactor was not capable of generating weapons-grade plutonium needed for an Iraqi atomic bomb. Destroying it was a Pyrrhic tactical victory.

Absent bombing, ongoing IAEA and French surveillance of the Osiraq facility would likely have detected and countered possible efforts by Iraq to use the reactor for plutonium production.

The Israeli preventive attack ironically served to accelerate Iraq's nuclear weapon program. Saddam Hussein responded to the destruction of Osiraq by rehabilitating an important nuclear scientist from prison, increasing research personnel more than 15-fold and moving the entire Iraqi nuclear program underground, where it proved more difficult to monitor and contain.

These findings are drawn from research conducted by Dan Reiter, professor of political science at Emory University and member of the Ridgway Center working group. For the past three years, we have directed the working group's research project, which will be published in a forthcoming edited volume ("Hitting First: Preventive Force in U.S. Security Strategy").

In today's debates over the wisdom of preventive attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, advocates of preventive war often cite the 1981 Israeli mission as an example of successful first-strike force. Mr. Reiter's findings not only provide important context for judging these claims; they also cast doubt on the general proposition that preventive attacks deserve to be "on the table" of U.S. and Israeli policy options at all.

The track record for the use of preventive force in neutralizing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs is weak. Of the 24 preventive attacks on record, limited strikes have failed to eliminate unconventional weapons, while regime change operations such as the 2003 Iraq War tend to entail massive, unanticipated costs.

Further complicating prospects for successful preventive military strikes against Iran is the fact that Iranian leaders have learned the lesson of Osiraq, dispersing and burying their nuclear assets, thus rendering them much less vulnerable to limited strikes by U.S. and Israeli standoff weapons.

Given these tactical complications, why might the Bush and Olmert administrations still be seriously considering limited preventive war against Iran?

One possibility is faith in the power of bombing to trigger regime change on the cheap. A Bush administration adviser told New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh that White House military planning was premised on a belief that "a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government." Such optimism is reminiscent of 2002 predictions that "liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk."

More likely, U.S. and Israeli first-strike attacks would enable Iran's ruling clerics to consolidate political power and crush dissent by invoking popular memory of Operation TPAJAX when U.S. and British secret agents conspired to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Support for this theory comes from unexpected quarters. Reza Pahlavi, whose father was installed as the shah of Iran following the 1953 U.S.-U.K. coup, said this March that a military strike against Iran "will rally nationalistic sentiments which will work to the regime's advantage, and consequently, give the theocracy a much longer lease on life."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent diplomatic overtures toward Iran offer encouraging signs that the Bush administration is committed to finding ways of resolving the current situation short of war.

But on this topic, the White House rarely speaks with one voice. While Secretary Rice extends the olive branch, others such as John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations, renew military threats with the mantra that "all options are on the table."

The 25th anniversary of the Osiraq attack offers an opportunity to reflect on preventive military force's track record in countering unconventional weapons programs. Before uncritically lining up behind the slogan "all options are on the table" perhaps we should be more selective in choosing the Iran policy instruments to lay out in the first place. History suggests that as a tool for neutralizing suspected nuclear weapons facilities, the preventive war option is a non-starter.

Until hard-line politicians and pundits prove otherwise, oblique threats of preventive attack on Iran have no place in public deliberation.


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