WSJ Distorts Osirak Strike Outcome To Justify Pre-Emptive Strike Against Iran's Nuclear Facilities

In a November 11 editorial, The Wall Street Journal claimed that a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would indefinitely hamper its ability to build nuclear weapons, based on Israel's strike against Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. However, experts contend there is no evidence to suggest the aerial bombardment of the Osirak reactor delayed or deterred the Saddam Hussein regime's subsequent push to develop nuclear weapons.

WSJ: Pre-emptive Strike On Iran Would Set Its Nuclear Programs Back “Several Years”

WSJ: Pre-Emptive Strike Would Delay Iran's Nuclear Program “By Several Years.” In a November 11 editorial, The Wall Street Journal claimed:

Opponents of a pre-emptive strike say it would do no more than delay Iran's programs by a few years. But something similar was said after Israel's strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981, without which the U.S. could never have stood up to Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait. In life as in politics, nothing is forever. But a strike that sets Iran's nuclear programs back by several years at least offers the opportunity for Iran's democratic forces to topple the regime without risking a wider conflagration. [The Wall Street Journal, 11/11/11]

Experts Contend Osirak Reactor Strike Did Not Delay -- And May Have Accelerated -- Saddam's Pursuit Of Nuclear Weapons

Betts: “There Is No Evidence That Israel's Destruction Of Osirak Delayed Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Program.” In a spring 2006 National Interest article, Richard Betts, a professor of International Security Policy at Columbia University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, asserted that “there is no evidence that Israel's destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq's nuclear weapons program.” From the article:

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.

Osirak is not applicable to Iran anyway, since an air strike on a single reactor is not a model for the comprehensive campaign that would be required to deal, even unsatisfactorily, with the extensive, concealed and protected program that Iran is probably developing. As the United States crafts non-proliferation policy, it should soberly consider the actual effect of the Osirak attack and the limitations of even stronger air action.

In contrast to a ground war, air power has the allure of quick, clean, decisive action without messy entanglement. Smash today, gone tomorrow. Iraq's nuclear program demonstrates how unsuccessful air strikes can be even when undertaken on a massive scale. 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.

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. Had Saddam been smart enough in 1990 to wait a year longer, he might have been able to have a nuclear weapon in his holster when he invaded Kuwait.


If anything, the destruction of the reactor probably increased Saddam's incentive to rush the program via the second route. It is unlikely that Saddam would have been able to develop nuclear weapons much faster through the Osirak reactor--given that he would have had to plan, construct and operate a reprocessing plant--than through enrichment. Israel's preventive strike was not an example of effective delay. [The National Interest, Spring 2006, accessed 11/14/11, via]

Braut-Hegghammer: Claim That Osirak Strike “Delayed Iraq's Efforts To Acquire Nuclear Weapons” Is Based On “False” Assumptions. In a May 2010 Huffington Post column, Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard University Kennedy School, and an expert on weapons of mass destruction, argued that the strike on the Osirak Reactor resulted in a concerted and clandestine effort by Iraq to create nuclear weapons. From the article:

Advocates of a military strike believe that the Israeli destruction of the Osiraq reactor complex in June 1981 delayed Iraq's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. This belief rests on two assumptions: that Iraq was pursuing a weapons option in a determined manner before the attack and that the destroyed reactor was intended to serve as a key component of these efforts. Both assumptions are false.

In the mid-1970s Iraq began to develop a nuclear weapons option as part of a wider expansion of their nuclear power program. Iraqi sources demonstrate that there was no dedicated organization, staff or funding for the purposes of acquiring nuclear weapons prior to June 1981. In other words, Iraq had not begun to act on Saddam's nuclear weapons ambition in a serious or determined manner.

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. [The Huffington Post, 5/11/10]

Braut-Hegghammer's Huffington Post article previewed her article in the Summer 2011 issue of International Security, the abstract of which reads:

The attack had mixed effects: it triggered a covert nuclear weapons program that did not previously exist, while necessitating a more difficult and time consuming technical route to developing nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding gross inefficiencies in the ensuing program, a decade later Iraq stood on the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability. This case suggests that preventive attacks can increase the long-term proliferation risk posed by the targeted state. [International Security, Summer 2011]

Theilman: “Iraq's Determination” To Develop Nuclear Weapons “Was Strengthened” By The Osirak Strike. In a June 2011 Arms Control Association publication, ACA analyst Greg Theilman noted:

[I]t is instructive to look anew at the conventional wisdom about Israel's 1981 raid on Iraq's Osirak reactor. 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.

Of course, 2011 is a far cry from 1981 and Iran is not Iraq. But in most respects, Iran is considerably less vulnerable to a single strike than Iraq was and much further along in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. So it is realistic to assume that an attack on Iran can offer only delay, not prevent acquisition of nuclear weapons. [Arms Control Association, 6/10/11]

Reiter: “The Osiraq Attack May Have Actually Stimulated Rather Than Inhibited The Iraqi Nuclear Program.” In a July 2005 article in The Nonproliferation Review, Dan Reiter, now the chair of the Emory University Department of Political Science and a specialist in international conflict and national security policy wrote:

It may be that even a marginal delay in the Iraqi nuclear program might have been politically significant, given some reports that at the time the Gulf War broke out, Iraq was as little as one year away from acquiring a nuclear weapon, though the October 2004 Duelfer report notes several remaining obstacles to Iraqi weaponization in 1991. 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. While we can only speculate on this point, we do know that Saddam publically portrayed the attack as having successfully destroyed the Iraqi nuclear program. 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. Saddam may have increased his support his support for the nuclear program after the Osiraq attack, rehabilitating an important Iraqi nuclear physicist from prison and by one account increasing the man power and resources devoted to the nuclear program by more than 15-fold.

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. [The Nonproliferation Review, July 2005, emphasis added]

Reiter adds that “the record shows that attempts to degrade nuclear, biological and chemical programs with preventive attacks generally do fail.” [The Nonproliferation Review, July 2005]