Is the Success of Israel’s Attack on Osirak a Myth?

Avner Cohen is probably the leading authority on Israel’s nuclear-weapon program. In a piece at Haaretz, which he or an editor cleverly calls “A new nuclear reaction,” he writes about the awakening resistance on the part of the Israeli public to an attack on Iran. He contrasts that with the public’s acquiescence to and celebration of the strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. But, according to Cohen, far from preemptive, that attack may actually have acted as an accelerant to Iraq’s nuclear program.

During the first Gulf War, about 100 Knesset members sent a letter of praise to [Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who ordered the attack], writing that his persistence in 1981 saved Israel from a Holocaust. [But in] retrospect. … Begin’s Holocaust fears surrounding Osirak had precious little foundation on the ground.

According to Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer — a Norweigan researcher who is an international authority on the Iraqi nuclear topic — up to the reactor bombing, the Iraqi effort. … was not suited structurally for the production of nuclear weapons.

Worse

… Begin’s determination to [attack Osirak] lacked appropriate justification: The Osirak bombing is what led Saddam to implement an entirely new nuclear project, based on enriched uranium and not on the production of plutonium. … Braut-Hegghammer concludes that the Israeli attack brought damage that outweighed its benefits.

“The irony,” Cohen writes, “does not end here.”

The fact that Osirak was left in ruins apparently contributed to the stealthy progress of Iraq’s subsequent nuclear effort. Only after close to a decade of secret nuclear activity … Israeli intelligence officials awakened from their slumbers, and discovered that Saddam was just a step away from obtaining nuclear weapons. … In the end, Saddam’s mistakes, and not the Begin doctrine, are what brought an end to the Iraqi nuclear effort.

It follows then that an attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities might drive a state not currently developing nuclear weapons to embark on that course of action.