Well, everybody, it was thirty years ago this month that Israel carried out one of its most audacious attacks against the Iraqi French-build reactor Osiraq. For years this event has been a source of fascination for historians, journalists and of course, the public at large. It has influenced the course of the nuclear arms race in the Middle East and changed the way Iraq’s neighbour Iran has set about developing its own capacity to develop nuclear power. The attack even surprised Israel’s closest ally the United States, and once again showed the Israeli finesse at taking decisive unilateral action. However, the story of how the plan was conceived and executed was the result of years of painstaking diplomatic work and shrewd intelligence.
In the early 1970s,Israel’s defences were sorely tested during the Yom Kippur war, which without the help of the US, it is conceivable that the Arabs would have secured a victory. It left Israel shaken and determined to avert future attacks from its neighbours. A nuclear attack or the possession of nuclear arms by countries hostile to Israel was a headache for its leaders and one that would have to be dealt with care.
In 1976 French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, in a bid to boost trade links, agreed to sell Iraq an OSIRIS-type material testing reactor MTR, as well as a small reactor, known as Tammuz 1 and Tammuz 2. An MTR is designed to test materials and their reaction when exposed to prolonged radiation. This was not the first type of the reactor which the Iraqis had intended to purchase, as previously the French refused to sell them a graphite reactor which can produce plutonium. Construction of the Osiraq or Tammuz reactor facility began in 1979 and was located 12 miles southeast of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
Israel met the proposed Iraqi-French deal with horror. In 1979 Israeli intelligence estimated that by 1982,Iraq would have acquired the equipment necessary to build nuclear weapons. It was therefore in the country’s interest that no countries sell low-grade nuclear fuel to Iraq and attempts were made to persuade both France and Italyto refrain from doing this. A covert plan by Israeli intelligence was set in motion in order to disrupt Iraq’s nuclear programme. The plan was given the name Operation Sphinx and the external intelligence agency Mossad was tasked with gathering information and targeting sites where equipment was waiting to be shipped to Iraq. On April 6, 1979, in La Seyne-sur-Mer near Marseilles, three bombs exploded in the nuclear facility at the firm of Constructions Navales et Industrielles de la Méditerranée. The energy company was storing reactor cores for the installation. The attack is estimated to have set the Iraqis back by six months. Other companies involved with supplying Osiraq, such as: SNIA-Techint, Ansaldo Mercanico Nucleare and Techniatome were also targeted by Mossad. In June 1980, an Egyptian nuclear physicist working for Iraq’s Energy Commission was killed in a hotel room in Paris. He was in the country to check on highly enriched uranium that was to be sent as fuel to the reactor. However despite the best efforts of Israeli intelligence, the plan to thwart the project from abroad could only buy time and it was looking more likely that the only solution was a pre-emptive strike before July 1981, which was estimated to be the date that the Tammuz 2 reactor would be operational.
In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, which set off the bitter eight year Iran-Iraq war. In the same month, the Iranians, unsuccessfully with the help of two F-4 Phantoms, tried to bomb the Tammuz reactor. Realising that such incidents would only propel the Iraqis to speed up the programme, the Israeli government knew that time was running out if a strike was to be successfully carried out. However, senior Israeli officials had misgivings about launching an attack. Prime Minister Menachem Begin was very much in favour, as well as other senior figures including agricultural minister Ariel Sharon. But many were opposed such as foreign minister Moshe Dayan and Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin. They worried that such an attack could have enormous repercussions for Israel’s position in the eyes of the international community. There was also the possibility of retaliation, not to mention enflaming the rest of the Arab world. What the Americans would say was also a factor. Nevertheless Begin was determined and he believed that members of Israel’s Labour party would not have the stomach to launch an attack. Yet in October 1980, the Israeli cabinet voted 10-6 in favour of striking the reactor.
The Ticking Clock
The pilots chosen to carry out the attack had a monumental task ahead of them. They would have to fly 2000 km in hostile territory carrying bombs and fuel. Eight newly delivered F-16s and 2 F-15 interceptors would fly them to their target. The head of the mission Col. Zeev Raz never believed that all pilots would return safely. The pilots received training in Utah, but one pilot told the BBC that none of them had flown “more than 100 missions in an F-16, which is not a lot, and the whole plane was completely new, its limitations were not completely clear, we were still learning.” . F-16s, known as, vipers, are highly reliable aircraft and can fly long range sorties without refuelling. They can fly in all weather and can destroy other aircraft in the sky and targets on the ground. In order to carry out the attack, the pilots would have to put their faith in the capacity of these aircraft to bring them back safely.
The Day of the Attack
On June 7, around 4pm local Israeli time, the mission was ordered. Aside from Col. Raz, amongst the pilots was Ilan Ramon, who would later go on to become the country’s first astronaut. Before the planes took off, there were concerns that the runway at Etzion would not be suitable for the planes to gain altitude. Fortunately all ten planes took off, but once in the air, they had to maintain a maximum height of 394ft, as they wanted to avoid detection by radar, particularly over Saudi airspace where US-built AWACS or airborne radar systems were operating. Once they reached Iraqi airspace, the planes descended to a nail biting height of 30 m. At 18:35 the planes honed in on the Tammuz 1 reactor. One of the pilots told the BBC that when he spotted the reactor, he noted: “it glistened with the sun shining from the low west”. According to the news service, the pilots prepared for the attack by climbing to a height of 2,130 m, and from this altitude the F-16s hurtled towards the reactor at a speed of 1,100 km/h. Every five seconds, pairs of 1000 kg bombs were dropped, at least sixteen in total, although two failed to detonate. For those near the reactor, the attack came as a complete surprise. The BBC reported that a young British man who was at Baghdad University was caught off guard, as normally during the war, an air raid siren would be sounded, but this time he heard a loud explosion and saw smoke rising from the other side of the Tigris river. The young quantity surveyor recalled how “all hell broke out as every gun in the city fired off, but of course it was too late. The planes were already on their way back”. At least ten Iraqi soldiers and one French civilian researcher was killed.
After the Israeli pilots completed their bombing run, the F-16s accelerated to reach a high altitude to avoid fire from anti-aircraft batteries on the ground. The planes raced back to Israel, as they could not afford to waste time with their limited fuel. The BBC reported that when they returned to their base they were left with only 450 kg of fuel, which left them with just 270 km in the air. Upon their arrival, they were sent to Tel Aviv to relay the details of the mission.Israel’s chief of staff at the time, Gen. Rafael Eitan, told the pilots that Israel would not admit to carrying out the attack; however not long after the country admitted its involvement and the United Nations Security Council condemned the attack. Even the US did not support the action by its closest ally in the Middle East. It briefly suspended the sale of fighter aircraft toIsrael.Britain considered the Osiraq attack as “a grave breach of international law”. According to UNSC Resolution 487, issued on June 19, it condemned the attack and even stipulated “Iraq is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered”. There were many who speculated if the reactor truly posed a direct threat to Israel. Iraq was also a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and was subject to oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
If Saddam had been allowed to continue construction of the reactor, it is feasible that Iraq could have obtained nuclear arms, which would have had a considerable impact on the first Gulf War. At the time of the Osiraq attack, Iraq was bogged down trying to battle the Iranians, and thus did not retaliate; but throughout the 80s, Saddam Hussein would go on to diversify his nuclear ambitions. One former assistant director from the International Atomic Energy Agency, David Fischer, argues that in hindsight “it is obvious that the Iraqi government did plan to make the bomb”. Although the Israeli’s carried out an ambitious attack and succeeded, it did not snuff out Saddam Hussein’s desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction that would be used against Iranians and later the Kurds. The Iranian government has learnt from their neighbours and has made sure that its own nuclear sites are properly fortified and spread over a wider area. No Osiraq-style attack would be effective and it would take a sustained attack by both air and sea to achieve similar aims. We can only wait and see if any moves will be made. Without question, it has become the interminable “Waiting for Godot” scenario for the Middle East.