Calls for military strikes against Iran are based on the assumption that Israel’s bombing of a nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981 ‘worked’ to end Iraq’s nuclear program. Here is the actual story.
Soon after Israel bombed the Osirak reactor the Baghdad government accelerated its nuclear production program. Saddam Hussein intensified Iraq’s efforts to manufacture weapons-grade uranium and to build the means for assembling and delivering nuclear weapons. His government invested billions of dollars to develop a secret, self-sufficient nuclear program out of the sight of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.
After Iraq’s forces were driven out of Kuwait in early 1991 IAEA inspectors arrived in the country and were shocked to discover a highly developed program that by some estimates was only a year or so from successfully achieving nuclear weapons capability. Over the following years UN inspectors systematically identified and dismantled all elements of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. No nuclear weapons capability was found when the US invaded in 2003.
In 2006 the eminent security scholar Richard K. Betts wrote “The Osirak Fallacy” in The National Interest. It’s an important article that should be required reading in Washington. Among its conclusions:
- The attack on Osirak increased Saddam Hussein’s determination to build nuclear weapons. There is no evidence that the destruction of the reactor even delayed Iraq’s nuclear program.
- The destruction of the Osirak facility was unnecessary because there were no reprocessing facilities at the site.
- The Israeli attack on Osirak did not preempt a near-term nuclear threat. According to most estimates, at the time Iraq was a decade away from producing a nuclear weapon.
The lesson: Attacking Iran’s nuclear program could worsen the danger we seek to avoid.