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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".