Twenty-five years ago today Israeli F-15s and F-16s carried out a preventive air-strike on Iraq’s fledgling Osirak nuclear reactor. By all accounts the operation was itself a success, with 14 of 16 bombs striking their target and no Israeli losses. The mission has since been touted as a) an solid example of a preventive strike against a threat that has yet to materialize b) a possible template for US action against Iran’s nascent nuclear program given the lack of ground options available at this time.
While the current situation with Iran seems to have entered a diplomatic state we should not ignore the possibility that talks will fail and that calls for preventive air strikes will reemerge. And when they do the experience of Osirak will undoubtedly be marshalled as a template for military action against Iran. This would be a mistake.
Richard Betts recently published an excellent article in The National Interest on what policy makers should take away from the Osirak mission titled “The Osirak Fallacy”. Betts does an excellent job (as usual) of cutting through the ‘conventional wisdom’ and ‘accepted realities’ of Osirak while illustrating why that mission is not a good analogy by which to think about possible strikes against Iran. A small sample:
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.
I highly recommend it.