Jeffrey LewisOsirak Revisited

Twenty four years ago today, Israel attacked Iraq’s Tammuz-1 (Osirak) nuclear reactor.

Although popular myth holds the raid a success, the Duelfer Report hints at a more complicated reality:

The Israeli destruction of the Tammuz 1 (Osirak) research reactor on 7 June 1981 and Iraq’s subsequent failure to replace or rebuild it compelled the Iraqis to pursue a more clandestine uranium enrichment program for a nuclear weapon by the mid-1980s.

I’ve written about this before, but couldn’t let the anniversary pass without comment. Dan Reiter, a professor at Emory University, has written The Osiraq Myth and the Track Record of Preventive Military Attacks arguing that “closer examination of the Osiraq attack reveals that it did not susbantially delay the Iraqi nuclear [weapons] program and may have even hastened it.” [Emphasis, mine.]

I tracked down Reiter’s footnotes—just for fun—and think he is correct.

  • In memoirs and interviews, largely published after Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraqi nuclear scientists have been unanimous in stating that Osirak was not part of a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The reason is simple: the two strategies for using the reactor in this manner—diverting HEU or secretly producing Pu—would have been detectable by IAEA inspectors and produced relatively small amounts of fissile material. A technical analysis by the IAEA in 1981 supports these accounts.
  • The scientists were also unanimous in dating Saddam’s pre-Gulf War effort to acquire a nuclear weapon through a clandestine uranium enrichment program to the days immediately following the Israeli attack. The effect of the attack was probably to transform a “virtual” bomb program into a very real one that may or may not have succeeded without the intervention of the Operation Desert Storm.

Military action did not stop Saddam’s progress toward a bomb. To argue that progress was slowed, one has to make a technical judgement about the relative risk frorm a plutonium reactor under safeguards viz a clandestine uranium enrichment program.

I’d rather have the former.


  1. Canary (History)

    The strike on Osirak may have not halted Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, but I don’t know how ultimately relevant the point is when evalutating the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

    With the IAEA Safeguards Agreement focused on facilities and with countries interested in circumventing their commitments per the Agreement, largely through hidden, duplicate programs, the movement to underground or hidden facilities was inevitable and perhaps already in progress in some places at the time of Osirak. Improvements in satellite imagery and other intelligence also pushed programs underground.

    Iraq’s, and more specifically Hussein’s, great error was invading Kuwait, which ultimately led to the discovery of his nuclear weapons program and the development of the Additional Protocol thereafter. If Hussein had never invaded Kuwait and secretly developed the bomb, and then successfully tested, the ME would be a different place and the nonproliferation regime might be without the AP. Hell, it might have brought down the NPT.

    How important was Osirak in the end? I don’t think it’s an adequate argument for preemption, but I am not convinced it drove programs underground as much as some suggest.

  2. Steven Aftergood (History)

    Speaking of bombing reactors, an article in Chosun Ilbo yesterday found that “bombing of North Korea’s nuclear facilities could in the worst case make the whole of Korea uninhabitable for a decade.”

    See “Seoul Simulated Bombing of N.Korean Nuclear Plant,” Chosun Ilbo, June 6:

  3. Captain_Canuck

    I understand from the references you provided that the Osirak facility was ill-suited to Pu production, and controls in place would have made HEU diversion problematic.

    What, then, is the consensus opinion as to Osirak’s purpose? Why would Iraq, floating on an ocean of oil, build such a facility?

  4. Max Postman (History)

    From the Reiter article:
    “Paradoxically, the Osiraq attack may have actually stimulated rather than inhibited the Iraqi nuclear program.”

    I think Reiter fails to demonstrate that Osirak actually caused Hussein to switch Iraq’s nuclear program from a “safeguarded plutonium reactor” to a “clandestine uranium enrichment program.” He seems to have fallen into a post hoc logical fallacy. Because the Iraqi nuclear program changed after the strike on Osirak, Reiter assumes that Osirak caused these changes. As another poster points out above, Hussein’s switch to a clandestine program was probably inevitable, and attributable to factors unrelated to the Osirak strike.

    Reiter is almost certainly correct about the near impossibility of using the Osirak reactor for weapons purposes. However, it seems to follow that the Osirak reactor and Hussein’s clandestine enrichment program were therefore two completely different things. If Osirak had been a weapons-related facility, it would make sense that its destruction would lead to Iraq moving its nuclear weapons program underground, either literally or figuratively.

    However, Reiter seems to be saying that the strike on Osirak, a facility with no relation to the Iraqi nuclear weapons program, somehow compelled Iraq to hasten and conceal its nuclear weapon development. Absent compelling analysis demonstrating some sort of causality, I’m inclined to believe that the Iraqi nuclear program’s post-Osirak changes were coincidental.

    It’s one thing to argue, as Reiter does, that the strike on Osirak did not significantly affect the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. It’s another thing to argue that the strike is responsible for accelerating that program, and I think Ritter has a long way to go before he can make that argument with authority.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I want to address a comment and question:

    (1) “Reiter assumes that Osirak caused these changes…” (Postman) and

    (2) “Why would Iraq, floating on an ocean of oil, build such a facility?” (Canuck)

    First — and I don’t know that Dan makes the point as clearly in his brief as he does in another paper (which I seem to have misplaced) — the causal link between the bombing and the HEI program is empirical: Mahdi Obeidi, Imad Khadduri, Husayn al-Shahrastani, and Jafar Dia Jafar all say the bombing was causal. (Hell, even the discredited Khidhir Hamza agrees.)

    Saddam Hussein (sorry for the inconsistent Arabic transliterations) actually let Jafar (and, I think, al-Shahrstani) out of jail after the raid.

    So why did Iraq build Tammuz-1 (Osirak) but also jail its top nuclear scientist? I think the best explanation is that Iraq was what my friend Todd Sechser calls an “irresolute proliferator.” Prior to the raid, the Iraqi bureaucracy seemed to have a vague interest in nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Tammuz-1 was not innocent, but reflected an indecisive, amateurish interest in nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

    The preference for nuclear weapons did not, prior to the bombing raid, seem to be more important than any of a number of other interests (such as jailing Jafar or pursuing prestige projects).

    The bombing seems to have had both a catalytic effect in pushing the program to the front of Saddam’s priority list, as well as a cost in terms of HUMINT. Iraq had few competent scientists, almost all of whom were sent to France (where the French intelligence services pumped them for information at strip clubs) for training at Saclay. That stopped when Iraq suspended the Tammuz program.