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Last Updated: Monday, 5 June 2006, 00:00 GMT 01:00 UK
Osirak: Threats real and imagined
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

As part of a series marking 25 years since Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, BBC News examines the continuing arguments over the repercussions of the mission:

Scud missiles on parade in Baghdad (Iraqi TV still from 29 January 1991)

Many - though not all - Israelis supported the attack, regarded as the first application of a new doctrine of pre-emptive strikes to prevent hostile nations acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli expert on strategic affairs at the Jaffee centre for strategic studies in Tel Aviv, believes the attack "definitely made both Israel and the Middle East a safer place for years to come".

At the time, it was condemned by the United Nations Security Council in a resolution supported by even Israel's closest ally, the United States.

Israel argued that Saddam Hussein's government was not pursuing peaceful nuclear energy, as Resolution 487 contended, but a nuclear arsenal.

The threat of uncontrolled nuclear development in the Middle East now seems, if anything, much greater.

While the row over Iran's programme continues, Israel's own nuclear sites remain barred to outside inspectors.

Furthermore, some question whether Saddam Hussein would ever have tried to use WMD against Israel.


Dr Imad Khadduri, an Iraqi nuclear scientist who witnessed the Israeli bombing, says a full weapons programme began only after the Osirak attack.

Destroyed by Israeli warplanes on 7 June 1981 before it could be fuelled
10 Iraqi soldiers and one French researcher killed
Attack condemned by UN Security Council

Before that, he recalls, there was some "dabbling but nothing sophisticated and focused".

The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was monitoring Iraq as a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

According to an official IAEA history, The First 40 Years, its inspectors believed at the time that their safeguards against covert weapons work at the reactor were adequate.

However, the history's author, former IAEA assistant director general David Fischer, argues that "with hindsight, it is obvious that the Iraqi government did plan to make the bomb".

And Ephraim Kam, deputy head of the Jaffee centre, believes that if Osirak had not been destroyed Iraq could have acquired a nuclear weapon before the invasion of Kuwait.

"I am not sure that the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 war in Iraq, could have been launched if Saddam had got the bomb by that time," Dr Kam says.

The Great Pretender?

Israelis point to the 40 Scud missiles Iraq fired at their country during the first Gulf War as evidence of the real dangers posed by Saddam Hussein.

The bodies of Iraqi Kurds poisoned by chemical weapons at Halabja
[Saddam] never used WMD against countries that could use WMD against him
Charles Tripp
School of Oriental and African Studies,

Dr Charles Tripp, a Middle East expert at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), notes that the Iraqis did not fill the warheads with biological or chemical WMD.

However, Saddam Hussein did possess chemical weapons, and had used them against his own civilians and Iranian troops.

"The pattern of Saddam's use of WMD has been quite predictable, or understandable, in terms of conventional deterrents," Dr Tripp argues.

"Saddam Hussein's regime was not dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel, it was dedicated to the promotion of Saddam Hussein," he says.

But even if the Israeli government had not believed there was any immediate threat from Osirak, it had to be seen by the public to be taking action, Dr Tripp says.

Dr Tripp sees Osirak as a variation on an Israeli military doctrine going back to Prime Minister Ben Gurion in the 1950s, advocating devastating pre-emptive strikes on Arab armies.

"The Osirak attack is an illegal way to behave - Resolution 487 established that - but it is an understandable way to behave if you are the Israeli military-security establishment," he adds.


Dr Tripp suggests that, with regard to Osirak, the Israelis are "rather on thin ice because they are the major nuclear state of the Middle East".

Even Arab and Muslim governments understand very well that Israel will never use its nuclear capabilities unless its existence is in real danger
Ephraim Kam
Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv

A key demand of Resolution 487 was the opening of Israel's own, undeclared nuclear programme to UN inspectors. It is a demand Israel has ignored.

"Osirak itself was just a symptom of something for which Israel was partly responsible - the introduction of nuclear weapons into the Middle East," says Dr Tripp.

Dr Kam of the Jaffee Centre argues that Israel makes a clear distinction between "its assumed nuclear capabilities and the nuclear capabilities of radical regimes like Saddam's or the Iran's".

"Even Arab and Muslim governments understand very well that Israel will never use its nuclear capabilities unless its existence is in real danger," he argues.

"For that reason, Egypt and Syria did not hesitate to launch the 1973 war against Israel, though they believed that Israel had a nuclear bomb by that time."

Yossi Alpher argues that Israel is "the only country in the Middle East whose very existence is still threatened - by Iran, by Hamas and so on - and is justified in maintaining a nuclear capacity".

Israel, he points out, does not actively deny a nuclear capacity to countries that do not threaten it.

"Israel made no effort to thwart Pakistan's nuclear ambitions, even though Pakistan is an Islamic state with strong Islamist movements," he argues.

Nuclear targets

Civilian nuclear power stations, let alone suspected nuclear sites, have not been spared by recent conventional conflicts in the Middle East.

No airpower can solve the Iranian problem
Col Zeev Raz (Rtd)
Israeli commander on Osirak mission

Before the Israelis destroyed Osirak, the Iranians tried to attack with a couple of Phantom jets, and Saddam Hussein's own air force went on to pound Iran's unfinished nuclear site at Bushehr.

Osirak came under attack again from Coalition forces during the 1991 Gulf War and Iraq says it fired at least one Scud at Israel's Dimona nuclear plant.

Dimona, in crucial contrast to Osirak and Bushehr, had a fuelled, functioning reactor. Israel did not report how close the missile came to hitting it.

Now Iran has an active and extensive civilian nuclear programme which the United States believes is a cover for weapons production.

Centrifuges found stored in the 1990s near Osirak site (image: IAEA)
A full picture of Iraq's nuclear work only emerged in the 1990s

"The Israelis may have destroyed Osirak but they have not destroyed the impulse to create other Osiraks - in Iran, possibly even in Saudi Arabia, maybe in Egypt eventually," says Charles Tripp.

Dr Khadduri, who watched helplessly as Israeli planes destroyed his industry's showpiece in the space of a minute, believes Iran is on track to acquire a bomb and cannot be stopped by anything less than an invasion.

"Neither Israel nor the US can stop Iran from its determination by diplomacy and threats alone and barring a full-scale invasion and occupation, a military attack on Iran will fail in its objective of stopping Iran acquiring its bomb," he says.

Col Zeev Raz (Rtd), who led the Israeli attack that June evening, also believes the Iranian situation is totally different:

"If it is not solved by diplomatic or economic means, an army has to go there like the Americans did in Iraq and destroy or check all those points.

"No airpower can solve this problem."

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