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Osirak and Iran

Paul Pillar reviews [1] the history of successful and failed efforts to discourage states from pursuing nuclear weapons, and he makes this observation about the bombing at Osirak:

Muravchik invokes the Israeli strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 as a supposed example of successful use of military force, but it instead was a distinct failure and clearly not an instance of getting a regime, in Muravchik’s words, to “turn away from nuclear weapons.” The Iraqis instead responded by redoubling their nuclear efforts using an alternative route to the production of fissile material; a decade later they were far closer to having a nuclear weapon than they were in 1981.

I was reminded of something else Pillar had written about this as I was wading through the WSJ’s tedious Iran editorial [2] this morning. The WSJ editors wrote this about Osirak and Iran:

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 fact, the strike on Osirak focused Hussein’s attention on a nuclear weapons program, and caused the Iraqi program to advance far more than it would have otherwise. As Pillar wrote [3] back in July:

The resulting clandestine program to build nuclear weapons using enriched uranium as the fissile material accelerated through the 1980s and brought Iraq much closer to a nuclear-weapons capability than could have been projected from anything Iraq was doing prior to the Israeli attack.

So when the U.S. “stood up” to Hussein in 1990-91, it was confronting a regime that was closer to acquiring nuclear weapons than it would have otherwise been partly because of the attack on Osirak. That’s worth bearing in mind whenever someone invokes Osirak as proof that a regime’s nuclear program can be halted or “taken out” by military strikes. Since the Osirak bombing is also often cited [4] by those defending Israel as a strategic asset for the United States, it’s worth noting that Israel’s decision to attack Osirak had the opposite effect of the one intended.

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2 Comments To "Osirak and Iran"

#1 Comment By Sheldon On November 11, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

Except that if Osirak hadn’t been bombed the nuclear program would have eventually succeeded. Ditto absent a bombing of the Syrian site. Not sure where you’re going with this, Daniel. Yes, these bombings make others who want a bomb accelerate and disperse their programs. That doesn’t necessarily make doing nothing about existing programs the preferred option. It just means there are no good options.

#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On November 11, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

Iran hawks pretend that Osirak is a success story that proves that military action can set back another state’s nuclear program, and they cite it as an argument for why bombing Iran will do more than delay the program for a few years (see the WSJ editorial I just quoted). The reality is that the attack encouraged and accelerated Iraq’s nuclear program. The point is that Iran hawks are simply wrong about the facts on this, but they keep repeating this claim anyway. “Doing nothing” may not be optimal, but it’s bound to be far better than starting an unnecessary war.