Iran Watch: The myth behind Israel's attack on Osiraq

Iran Watch, part 5 - a response to some nonsense from Guido Fawkes.

Iran Watch, part 5 - a response to some nonsense from Guido Fawkes.

In a tweet to me this morning, libertarian blogger and Iran-war-agitator Paul Staines (aka "Guido Fawkes") claimed:

@ns_mehdihasan Israel bombed Saddam's nuclear reactor and ended his nuclear ambitions. Thank God.

I once told Staines that he should stick to blogging about bond markets and deficits and stay away from foreign affairs and, in particular, the Middle East. I wish he'd taken my advice.

"Ended his nuclear ambitions", eh? Staines is referring to the Israeli bombing of Saddam Hussein's Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981 - codenamed "Operation Babylon". He couldn't be more wrong about the fallout from that now-notorious "preventive" attack on Iraq - and the lessons that we should learn from it now, three decades on, in relation to Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

Professor Richard Betts of Columbia University is one of America's leading experts on nuclear weapons and proliferation. He is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to the CIA and the National Security Council. Here he is writing in the National Interest in 2006:

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.

...Obliterating the Osirak reactor did not put the brakes on Saddam's nuclear weapons program because the reactor that was destroyed could not have produced a bomb on its own and was not even necessary for producing a bomb. Nine years after Israel's attack on Osirak, Iraq was very close to producing a nuclear weapon.

Here's Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and an expert on weapons of mass destruction, writing in the Huffington Post in May 2010:

The Israeli attack triggered Iraq's determined pursuit of nuclear weapons. In September 1981, three months after the strike, Iraq established a well-funded clandestine nuclear weapons program. This had a separate organization, staff, ample funding and a clear mandate from Saddam Hussein. As the nuclear weapons program went underground the international community lost sight of these activities and had no influence on the Iraqi nuclear calculus.

And here's Emory University's Dan Reiter, an expert on national security and international conflict, writing in The Nonproliferation Review in July 2005:

Paradoxically, the Osiraq attack may have actually stimulated rather than inhibited the Iraqi nuclear program. The attack itself may have persuaded Saddam to accelerate Iraqi efforts to become a nuclear weapons power. . . Following Osiraq, the entire Iraqi nuclear effort moved underground, as Saddam simultaneously ordered a secret weapons program that focused on uranium separation as a path to building a bomb.

. . . In short, before the Osiraq attack, both the French and the IAEA opposed the weaponization of Iraq's nuclear research program, and had a number of instruments to constrain weaponization, including control over, including control over reactor fuel supply and multiple and continuous inspections. After the Osiraq attack, the program became secret, Saddam's personal and material commitment to the program grew, and the non-proliferation tools available to the international community became ineffective.

[Hat-tip: MediaMatters]

Then there's the Duelfer Report, released by the Iraq Survey Group in 2004 (and praised by the neoconservatives!), which admitted that

Israel's bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor spurred Saddam to build up Iraq's military to confront Israel in the early 1980s.

Oh, and there's also the well-informed Bob Woodward, who wrote in his book State of Denial:

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.

So the clear lesson from Osiraq is the exact opposite of what Staines and others on the pro-Israeli, bomb-Iran, chickenhawk right want us to believe: bombing Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to increase, not decrease, the prospect of an illicit Iranian nuclear weapons programme. So far, there is no evidence of such a programme - see the IAEA's last report - but an illegal Israeli or American air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would give the Iranian government the perfect excuse to take its nuclear programme underground, out of sight and out of reach. Don't take my word for it - here's the former CIA director Michael Hayden speaking in January:

When we talked about this in the government, the consensus was that [attacking Iran] would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent -- an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret.

On a related note, the Osiraq attack was followed, as I noted in an earlier blogpost, by a UN Security Council Resolution which condemned the Israeli government and called upon it "urgently to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards" - something Messrs Netanyahu and Barak continue to refuse to do. Why don't we ever talk about this particular aspect of the 1981 raid?

On an unrelated note, Staines and co continue to try and label opponents of military action as "friends of Ahmadinejad" - despite the fact that these include, among others, the afore-mentioned former director of the CIA as well as the ex-head of Mossad. It's a cheap, smear tactic to try and close down debate on this all-important, life-and-death issue and is a perfect reflection of how poor and weak the hawks' arguments are.

Finally, if you haven't read it yet, please read and share Harvard University professor Stephen Walt's excellent and informed blogpost on the "top ten media failures in the Iran war debate" and Israeli novelist David Grossman's Guardian column on how "an attack on Iran will bring certain disaster, to forestall one that might never come".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.