Israel’s 1981 Osirak Attack Poor Precedent for Attacking Iran

Osirak Israel attack Iran(Pictured: Osirak after the attack.)

Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor is, along with other episodes such as the Six-Day War and Operation Entebbe, is the stuff of Israel’s military legend. Some are citing it as a precedent for attacking Iran’s nuclear-enrichment facilities. As Bennett Ramberg wrote in 2006 for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (behind a pay wall) about the Osirak attack’s applicability to Iran:

“A dramatic military action to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, the June 7, 1981 strike left a legacy that echoes today in the ‘all options are on the table’ drumbeat emanating from Washington and Jerusalem. The seemingly straightforward message to Iran and other would-be proliferators: Abrogate nonproliferation pledges in this post-9/11 era and risk being ‘Osiraked.’”

But during the course of an issue brief in which he assesses the difficulties of attacking Iran, the Arms Control Association’s ace analyst Greg Thielmann writes:

Generally regarded as a spectacular success, the attack did indeed delay Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. But Iraq’s determination to succeed was strengthened, its commitment of personnel and resources skyrocketed, and its success at hiding its activities from the IAEA and Western intelligence collectors increased.

Meanwhile, at the National Interest in 2006 (also behind a pay wall) Richard Betts won’t even concede that the attack delayed Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program.

As pressure mounts to reckon with Iran’s nascent nuclear program [many] strategists. . . . are pointing to Israel’s 1981 air attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor as a model for action–a bold stroke flying in the face of all international opinion that nipped Iraq’s nuclear capability in the bud or at least postponed a day of reckoning. This reflects widespread misunderstanding of what that strike accomplished. Contrary to prevalent mythology, there is no evidence that Israel’s destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. The attack may actually have accelerated it. . . . Recall the surprising discoveries after the Iraq War. In 1991 coalition air forces destroyed the known nuclear installations in Iraq, but when UN inspectors went into the country after the war, they unearthed a huge infrastructure for nuclear weapons development that had been completely unknown to Western intelligence before the war. . . . Iraq’s nuclear program [abandoned, of course, before the second Iraq War -- RW] demonstrates how unsuccessful air strikes can be even when undertaken on a massive scale.

Finally, Theilmann nicely sums up the other reasons why attacking Iran is inadvisable:

  • Military Experts Advise Against
  • It Won’t Work
  • A Complex, Costly Operation
  • Little International Support [Israel only]
  • Creating All the Wrong Incentives for Iran
  • Energy Insecurity [for the West]
  • A Third Ground War? [Along with Iraq and Afghanistan]
  • parabellum

    Does anyone have the Cliff notes to this? I keep falling asleep trying to get through it.

  • parabellum

    I love it; this peacenik blog cites as its first argument against elimination of the threat, “Military Experts Advise Against”. Wasn’t Jane Fonda an military expert?
    Brilliant analysis.