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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Air University Review, September-October 1984

The Israeli Strike Against OSIRAQ

the dynamics of fear and proliferation in the Middle East

Lucien S. Vandenbroucke

LATE on a Sunday afternoon in June 1981, in less than two minutes, Israeli warplanes destroyed the core of the French-built Osiraq reactor then nearing completion outside of Baghdad. The Israeli bombs did more than level the nuclear plant; they also struck at the heart of the uneasy strategic balance of the Middle East, sending shock waves that will long reverberate throughout the region. Ironically, Israel's raid may prove to be a brilliant tactical success achieved at the expense of the country's long-term interests. Certainly, the attack set Iraq's nuclear program back several years. But the strike also ushered in a de facto Israeli claim to nuclear monopolv in the Middle East, a move that in the long run generally promises to encourage the larger Arab world on the nuclear path.

CONSIDERABLE controversy surrounds Iraq's nuclear program. The Iraqis insist that their intentions are peaceful, pointing out that Iraq is a party to the Nonproliferation Treaty and has agreed to operate its nuclear facilities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Furthermore, there is no doubt that an Iraqi program of peaceful nuclear development makes economic sense. Although the country has some of the largest petroleum reserves in the world, the Iraqis are justified in preparing for the day when the oil wells run dry.1 Iraq also aspires to make rapid strides in its technological development and has a legitimate interest in increasing its expertise in the nuclear field.

Certain signs, however, indicate that Iraq's interest in nuclear technology goes beyond peaceful uses of the atom. The sheer size of the Iraqi nuclear program is surprising. Iraq's hopes of becoming the nuclear center of the Arab world notwithstanding, the goal of training 500-600 scientists and technicians at its nuclear facilities is unusually ambitious in light of the severe shortage of scientific personnel that is afflicting the country's other development efforts.

Moreover, the Osiraq materials testing reactor (MTR) that Iraq purchased from France (among the largest of its kind in the world) seems a poor choice for initiating a peaceful nuclear program. The primary function of MTRs is to see how the materials used in nuclear power plant construction react when exposed to intense and prolonged radiation. Since Iraq does not manufacture nuclear power plants, the usefulness of Osiraq for its peaceful nuclear program remains questionable. If Iraq's objective is weapons-grade fissionable material for nuclear weapons, Osiraq becomes a good choice because it can conceivably supply this material in two ways. First, the reactor fuel, consisting of highly enriched uranium (HEU), well suited for nuclear weapons production, could be diverted for military use. Another path to fissionable material lies in the irradiation of targets of natural or depleted uranium inside the reactor. These targets are partially transformed through neutron bombardment into weapons-grade plutonium, which can then be extracted and used to make nuclear devices.2

The pattern of Iraq's nuclear efforts indicates that such access to fissionable material is a major objective of the country's nuclear program. Upon first approaching the French nuclear industry in 1974-75, Iraq requested a gasgraphite power reactor, which is an inefficient source of electricity but an excellent supplier of large quantities of plutonium. (In fact, gasgraphite reactors produce so much plutonium that they are the major source of the element for the military programs of France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union.)3 The French indicated to Iraq that they no longer manufactured graphite reactors but that they could offer conventional lightwater power reactors, which are far less proliferating. Rejecting this proposal, Iraq then shifted the focus of its nuclear program from power generation to research and, in 1976, acquired Osiraq--a facility which again offered far better access to fissionable material than did conventional power reactors.4 When France subsequently suggested replacing Osiraq's weapons-grade fuel with the non-weapons-grade caramel fuel that French scientists had just developed, the Iraqis again refused.5

This apparent willingness to settle for any kind of reactor, provided it was of the more proliferating type, followed by Iraq's refusal to switch to non-weapons-grade fuel, points toward a major Iraqi desire to obtain bomb-grade material. This goal is further evidenced by Iraq's efforts in the late 1970s to acquire an Italian Cirene-type reactor. Again, Iraq's interest in an uneconomical reactor that remains in the experimental stage seems surprising, unless the Iraqis were mainly attracted by Cirene's capacity to produce large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium.6

Still other signs indicate Iraq's interest in weapons-grade fissionable material. Iraq has purchased large quantities of uranium ore and depleted uranium for which there is little conceivable use in a peaceful nuclear program. As previously noted, both substances can be irradiated in Osiraq to produce plutonium. This scenario becomes all the more plausible since Iraq has acquired both a fuel fabrication laboratory and a "hot cell." The Iraqis can use the laboratory to fashion natural and depleted uranium targets for insertion into the reactor; then they can recover the plutonium from the irradiated targets in the hot cell.7

The size of the Iraqi program, the country's obstinate search for a reactor providing good access to weapons-grade material, the refusal of substitute fuel for Osiraq, and the purchase of the uranium and facilities needed for plutonium production all indicate a high degree of interest in fissionable material. While this pattern does not necessarily prove that Iraq's nuclear efforts are merely a military program in disguise, it does suggest that the civilian program contains a hidden agenda: preparing for an eventual Iraqi bomb.

The Iraqis themselves have made certain statements confirming their interest in nuclear weapons. In 1975, the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein described his country's efforts to buy a nuclear reactor as "the first Arab attempt at nuclear arming." Two years later, Naim Haddam, a prominent member of Iraq's Central Revolutionary Command, declared: "The Arabs must get an atomic bomb. The countries of the Arab world should possess whatever is necessary to defend themselves." Then, immediately after the raid on Osiraq, Hussein denied that Iraq's nuclear program had any military implications. But he also added: "Any state in the world which really wants peace . . . should help the Arabs in one way or another to acquire atomic bombs."8

The Iraqis have several real incentives to acquire, nuclear weapons. Joining the nuclear club promises domestic gains, for it would inspire national unity and pride in a country that is badly divided along ethnic and confessional lines. By enhancing the stature of Iraq in both the Middle East and the larger world, an Iraqi bomb would also help the nation's leadership reach its goal of making Iraq the dominant power in the Gulf as well as a major participant in world affairs.9 Iraqi rulers also appear to believe that nuclear weapons would enhance their country's security. Convinced that Israel is a nuclear state, the Iraqis view an Arab bomb as a necessary deterrent: "Peace in the Middle East requires an Arab bomb today. . . . This is necessary to maintain equilibrium and to prevent the Iraelis from using their bomb against Arabs."10 No doubt the Iraqis are likewise persuaded that an Iraqi deterrent would also prove effective against neighboring Iran, at least until the Islamic revolution had a large and threatening nuclear program of its own.

On balance, then, while there is no incontrovertible proof of Iraq's intention to obtain nuclear weapons, the characteristics of its nuclear program, combined with the statements and incentives of its leadership, make it highly likely that Iraq wishes to acquire at the very least the capacity to build nuclear weapons.

There remains the question, however, of how close Iraq had come to this objective at the time of the Israeli strike. Here, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that although Iraq's program would have given the nation a nuclear capability eventually, it was unlikely to pose an immediate threat.

In principle, Osiraq might have supplied weapons-grade material both by diversion of the reactor fuel and by production of plutonium. Yet in practice, neither scenario was likely, given the safeguards on the Iraqi reactor, including regular visits by IAEA officials and a permanent presence of French technicians until 1989. Of the two paths to fissionable material, diversion of reactor fuel probably looked the least attractive. Osiraq and its accompanying Isis reactor, a small training facility also supplied by France, were designed to run on a fuel load of about 12 kgs of HEU each. Isis would run indefinitely on a single charge, while Osiraq normally would require approximately three loads a year. Delivery of fuel for Osiraq was to be staggered, however, the French supplying a new charge only when the previous one had been spent and always sending the depleted fuel back to France. Thus, the most fresh HEU the Iraqis could have hoped to divert at any one time would have been a load each from Isis and Osiraq, or 24 kgs in all--enough perhaps to producq a single atomic bomb.11 Preventing the operation of the reactors, such a diversion would have been noticed immediately. France, which has pledged to abide by the Nonproliferation Treaty,12 would have had to cease its deliveries of HEU, and Iraq's nuclear program would have come to a halt. Thus, while on the face of it, the Iraqis had secured the option to divert HEU, in reality they were bound to find fuel diversion highly unappealing because of the costs and risks involved.

Nor did the second path to proliferation, clandestine production of plutonium by irradiation, hold out much more promise. For one thing, the specially shielded transportation devices needed to move the irradiated uranium targets are next to impossible to conceal.13 Similarly, irradiating the targets themselves was unlikely to escape notice. Producing enough plutonium for one bomb entails inserting about five hundred natural uranium rods, weighing a total of twenty tons, into the reactor core. As the reactor accommodates approximately twenty such assemblies at a time, the process involves repeated movements in and out of the reactor core of targets that look very different from the irradiation capsules used in any legitimate experiment. In addition, inserting and removing the uranium targets is a difficult and time-consuming process, calling for high technology and reactor shutdown.14 The production of enough plutonium for a bomb would thus generate visible and suspicious activity at the core that could hardly escape observation by the French technicians, visiting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, or the IAEA's permanent surveillance cameras at the site.

It is therefore highly unlikely that with the agreed-on safeguards, Iraq could have produced significant quantities of fissionable material without detection, which, in turn, would have automatically triggered a French cutoff of reactor fuel. Nevertheless, had the Iraqis somehow evaded supervision and secretly produced plutonium while feigning to operate the reactor in normal research fashion, Iraq might have obtained up to a kilogram of plutonium a year, or enough for one or two bombs over a ten-year period.15

Iraq, of course, could have withdrawn from the Nonproliferation Treaty and canceled its agreement with France. Such a step would have left the Iraqis free to operate the reactor without supervision. Once cut off from the French supply of HEU, however, it is improbable that Iraq could have secured additional reactor fuel. At present, there are only six other potential suppliers of highly enriched uranium, none of whom could be expected to assist in an unsupervised operation of Osiraq.16 Withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty and unsafeguarded use of the reactor could have become a plausible scenario only several years from now, when additional suppliers of enriched uranium, such as Pakistan or Brazil, will appear on the market and might be willing to supply Iraq with unsafeguarded reactor fuel.

While it seems highly reasonable to assume that Iraq's civilian nuclear program conceals a military rationale and that Osiraq provided a foundation for an eventual Iraqi weapons program in the latter half of the decade, it is highly unlikely that the reactor would have provided Iraq with nuclear devices in the immediate future. Nevertheless, as one specialist commented, "to say that successful diversion would have been unlikely, or for that matter very unlikely, is not to say that it would have been impossible. The distinction is important and should be kept in mind."17 The difference was not lost on the Israelis, who chose not to gamble on the odds, no matter how favorable.

SINCE most of the Israeli government's deliberations leading to the June 1981 raid remain secret, it is difficult to ascertain the full range of considerations that entered into the decision to bomb Osiraq. It is clear, however, what while Israeli leaders had worried about the Iraqi nuclear program for years, they had been divided over the appropriate response. The Begin government's decision to attack the reactor, reached essentially by the Ministerial Defense Committee, a subcabinet group, reflected these divisions. While Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Agricultural Minister Ariel Sharon, and Chief of Staff General Rafael Eytan pushed vigorously for a strike, several other ministers opposed the idea but lost in the final decision process. There was also strong dissent from other quarters. When news of the Begin government's plan was leaked to former Prime Minister and opposition leader Shimon Peres, he opposed the idea, as did the other senior members of his party with whom he shared the information. Peres even made a last-minute plea to Begin in an effort to reverse the decision.18

Several observers have suggested that Israel's concern over the long-term regional strategic balance played a major part in the decision to attack. According to this view, the Israelis fear that in the long run they will lose their conventional military superiority in the Middle East and that only their nuclear monopoly can ensure local preponderance. Thus, the Israelis could not allow a confrontation state to acquire atomic weapons of its own--a development that might offset Israel's nuclear advantage.19 It is difficult to know to what extent such thinking influenced the decision, however, since Israel has never made clear the role of nuclear weapons in its overall doctrine of defense.20 It should be noted, however, that the major proponents of the strike included men like Sharon, who believe neither in the inevitability of Israel's conventional decline nor in the usefulness of an Israeli nuclear deterrent.21

Whatever strategic rationale may have entered into Israel's decision to attack, the move probably sprang from more than a cold appraisal of the regional balance of power. Overlaying these calculations was a simpler emotion: the visceral fear of an atomic genocide. Inescapably, Israel embodies the memory of the holocaust: always present to the Israeli populace and their leaders is the thought that such a catastrophe could occur again. Five wars with Israel's Arab neighbors, whose incendiary rhetoric has often promised extermination, have done nothing to allay these fears. From this dread of another holocaust, which has obsessed Menachem Begin more than any other Israeli leader,22 has arisen a specific Israeli outlook encompassing the tendency to rely in matters of security on "worst possible case" analysis. Hence, when faced with a menace, at least some Israelis would rather overestimate than underestimate the threat.23

Given this disposition, which appeared widespread in Begin's hawkish Likud government, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iraq certainly seemed alarming. Israel, whose population is largely concentrated in one or two urban areas, is particularly vulnerable to nuclear attack: one or two atomic warheads could deal the country a mortal blow. Further compounding Israeli apprehensions was the fact that the first Arab country threatening to go nuclear was Iraq. By its rhetoric, if not necessarily by its deeds, Iraq had long been in the vanguard of the confrontation with Israel. Known for its support of various terrorist groups and its bitter denunciation of the Camp David peace process, Iraq had acquired a record of chilling statements. President Hussein had repeatedly refused to accept "that the monstrous Zionist entity conquering our land really constitutes a state." Commenting on a decision to boycott nations that have embassies in Jerusalem, he also added: "Some people may ask if this decision is the best that can be taken. No, a better decision would be to destroy Tel Aviv with bombs."24

On the other hand, Hussein had never tried to implement the latter policy, and his actual behavior in the Arab-Israeli conflict had been considerably more prudent than his rhetoric would suggest.25 Moreover, it was far from evident that Hussein was about to acquire nuclear weapons, and, even if he were, that he would be reckless enough to use them against Israel, thereby inviting an equally devastating Israeli counterstrike upon Iraq.26

In the decision-making process, Israeli fears and the propensity to rely on worst-case analyses seem to have prevailed. The advocates of the strike focused on the unreasonable, rather than the reasonable, aspects of Iraqi behavior, and thus even a limited prospect that Iraq might soon acquire a nuclear bomb became more of a risk than they were prepared to accept. Dismissing Hussein as a bloodthirsty lunatic and a meshuggenah (crazy person), Begin, for instance, became convinced that the Iraqis would not hesitate to attempt nuclear genocide. During the aftermath of the raid, in explaining his reasons for favoring the attack, he stated succinctly: "After the holocaust another holocaust would have happened in the history of the [Jews]. There won't be another holocaust in the [history] of the Jews." In their own explanations for the raid, other key decision makers reiterated this dread of a nuclear holocaust unleashed by an irresponsible Iraq. Sharon, for example, declared that "nuclear arms in the hands of a country like Iraq constituted a danger not only to Israel . . . but to the entire world." Similarly, Eytan explained that "nuclear weapons should not be in the hands of rulers such as those in Iraq," adding that for Israel the destruction of Osiraq "was a matter of life and death."27

Other considerations may have influenced the timing of the raid, if not the decision itself. Israel's parliamentary elections were fast approaching, and although the Begin government had recently gained a slight lead in the polls, the outcome of the contest promised to be close. Under such conditions, it would hardly be surprising if certain decision makers also weighed the domestic gains a successful operation could provide. Convinced that the Iraqi nuclear program had to be stopped forcefully and without delay, Begin also knew that the Labor opposition held different views. Thus, the Prime Minister no doubt perceived that this might be Israel's last opportunity to check an ominous threat.28

ISRAEL'S decision seems to have been largely influenced by the fear of another holocaust, the propensity to dwell on worst-case scenarios, and the particular circumstances of the moment. Paradoxically, however, it is questionable whether the country's long-term security was enhanced by, the strike. An immediate consequence of the raid was to further strain Israel's relations with the international community. Most nations rejected Israel's contention that it had acted in self-defense, and the raid elicited a unanimous resolution of condemnation by the United Nations Security Council.

Of greater concern for Israel, however, was the generally negative reaction of its closest ally, the United States. Even though certain voices were sympathetic to Israel's fears, the overall American reaction was unfavorable. Many in the news media regretted the gap between the remoteness of the threat and the severity of the response.29 Meanwhile, the raid complicated the Reagan administration's efforts to draw moderate Arab states into a strategic consensus against the Soviet Union. In the wake of the raid, these states were more likely to perceive Israel, not the Soviets, as the greater threat.

The short-term U.S. reaction was to join in the Security Council's condemnation of the raid and to suspend the delivery of American warplanes to Israel. More serious, perhaps, was the probable long-term reaction. Many Americans tended to view the attack not as an isolated incident but as another episode in a disturbing sequence of events. Coming shortly after Israel's controversial foray into southern Lebanon in 1978, the annexation of the Golan, and the acceleration of the pace of Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank (and soon followed by the full-scale invasion of Lebanon and the devastating siege of Beirut), the raid contributed to the growing perception that Israel has become an "irrational," "lawless" state. As the Israeli analyst Shai Feldman keenly observed:

The intimacy in American-Israeli relations can . . . be accounted for by the two countries common "Western" values and culture, as well as their shared commitment to democratic norms. Since the raid on Osiraq seemed to manifest a form of lawless behavior, the operation hurt the most sensitive nerves of America's support for the Jewish state. Rising doubts regarding Israel's commitment to the aforementioned norms and values would necessarily have a long-term effect on U.S.-Israeli relations.30

Thus, the raid appears to have encouraged one of the greatest threats to Israel--its increasing international isolation. Simultaneously, the benefits that the raid provided for the country's security remain uncertain, for it is questionable whether the operation truly checked proliferation in the Arab world.

Even before the Israeli strike, numerous observers were convinced that the Middle East was on the verge of nuclearization, with several Arab states moving toward the nuclear threshold.31 Iraq was one of those states, and, without a doubt, the raid set Iraq's projects back at least several years. Beyond that, however, the event may actually have increased Arab motivations to acquire nuclear weapons, adding not only disincentives for regional proliferation but incentives also.

Certainly, by its destruction of Osiraq, Israel increased disincentives for proliferation in the Arab world. It is now clear to Israel's opponents that any attempt at nuclear arming is an invitation to attack. Indeed, Israel has since stated that "nuclear weapons must not be in the possession of Arabs" and that she is prepared to strike again, not necessarily against Iraq only.32 While the Arabs had acknowledged the possibility of such action in the past, it now has ceased to be simply a theoretical notion but has become a distinct probability.

Israel's action also may have created a greater Arab awareness of the instability that might ensue if an Arab power did acquire the bomb. Since Israel did not hesitate to launch an unprecedented attack against a nuclear facility that was merely a potential threat, the Arabs have good cause to wonder how the Israelis would react to a truly operational Arab nuclear force. The Arabs may conclude now that the prospect of a conventional or even nuclear Israeli strike against such a target has become much more credible, even though such an attack would be a major escalation in the level of violence in the Middle East. As a result, Arab interest in the nuclear option might conceivably have diminished.

Finally, the raid against Osiraq has resulted in new, practical obstacles to regional proliferation. By dramatizing the nuclear danger in the Middle East, the Israeli action prompted a number of nuclear suppliers to greater circumspection, making access to sensitive material and facilities more difficult. For instance, as a precondition to rebuilding Osiraq, France has insisted that the Iraqis accept the caramel fuel as well as additional safeguards on the reactor. In addition, foreign technicians may be somewhat more reluctant to work at nuclear sites so obviously susceptible to preemptive attack.33

However, the effect of these disincentives should not be exaggerated. First, there is no guarantee that Israel can repeat its Osiraq success. As demonstrated in the October 1973 war, it is certainly not impossible for an Arab state to protect vital targets with an air defense network that is extremely difficult to penetrate. Similarly, if Arab nuclear facilities were to be built in Algeria, Libya, or Saudi Arabia, they might prove to be beyond Israel's striking range. In fact, Hussein vowed after the raid: "If the Israeli planes return, they will not have a chance to attack important plants [again]." On another occasion, he added that the Arabs might place "critical links of their nuclear efforts in locations that are out of Israel's reach."34

Likewise, to the extent that the Arabs have publicly discussed nuclear issues at all, they generally have seemed confident that the logic of superpower deterrence would apply also within the Middle East. Rightly or wrongly, they have tended to assume that a nuclearized Middle East would result in a stable "balance of terror" in which neither side would dare launch a preemptive attack.35 There is no evidence yet that the Israeli raid has changed these perceptions. On the contrary, shortly after the raid, Jordan's King Hussein declared that an Arab bomb was an inevitable precondition of regional stability:

[In nuclear] armaments a certain equilibrium is necessary. If there is no equilibrium, there is no limit, and if there is no limit, the door is open for aggression. We all know that Israel has several atomic bombs . . . . Arabs should not be held for less intelligent than they are . . . . [Soon] Israel's atomic superiority will no longer exist.

In his own comments after the Israeli attack, Saddam Hussein voiced the same belief that the spread of nuclear weapons would actually help stabilize the Middle East. By matching Israel's nuclear weapons, he maintained, the Arabs would "secure and safeguard the peace," adding explicitly that a nuclear Middle East would mirror the nuclear balance between the superpowers. Elaborating on the reasoning behind his call for an Arab bomb, the Iraqi leader explained:

The same logic is used by the United States and . . . the Soviet Union . . . . I don't think the Soviet Union intends to use nuclear weapons against the United States or vice versa . . . . Yet both sides continue to develop their military nuclear capabilities.36

Lastly, the increased obstacles to proliferation may not prove insurmountable. Not all of the traditional nuclear suppliers have necessarily experienced the same change of heart as the French, and new sources of sensitive material and technology are becoming available. Already, such states as Argentina, Brazil, India, and Pakistan have the technical abilities to provide extensive assistance to an Arab nuclear program, and at some point one or several of them may also have the incentive to do so.37 As the examples of India and Pakistan illustrate, the rapid dissemination of nuclear technology worldwide is making it increasingly feasible for a moderately developed but determined Third World nation to assemble a nuclear weapons program, drawing on its indigenous resources.38

While the raid dramatized the Israelis' determination to prevent Arab access to nuclear weapons by every means available and perhaps placed new practical obstacles on the road to regional proliferation, the operation simultaneously increased the incentives for proliferation. One such incentive--not to be taken lightly in the Middle East--is the wish to efface a humiliating affront. Of central concern in the Arab world are the notions of honor (sharaf) and face (wajh), and the readiness to avenge humiliation has often been a wellspring of Arab behavior.39 The Israeli action dealt a severe blow to the pride of the region. For the Arab nations, the raid signified that Israel was claiming a right of veto over technological developments within their very borders. In addition, the Iraqis' powerlessness in the face of Israel's military prowess revived painful memories of the Arabs' 1967 defeat. The leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council aptly summarized the mood of the area in the wake of the attack: "We are humiliated, insulted. We and the other Arabs have been treated as nonexistent human beings." Or, as the Kuwaiti press put it: "By penetrating the adjoining air space of the Arab states and raiding Iraq, the Israeli air force has in reality penetrated the dignity of all the Arabs."40

Not surprisingly, the Arab world reacted with angry defiance,41 and, if the past provides any clues to the present, no doubt yearned to avenge the insult. As a result, Arab interest in nuclear weapons may have increased. Not only is the Iraqi leadership likely to perceive an Iraqi bomb as a means of avenging the affront, but rulers throughout the Middle East now realize that the Arab leader who develops atomic weapons will become an overnight hero both at home and throughout the Arab world. Thus, for Arab leaders, the nuclear option may have gained in attractiveness. The Jordanian paper Ad Dustur emphasized this ominous implication in the wake of the raid:

If it is true that facing up to challenges resurrects nations . . . then we do not doubt that [the attack] will prompt Iraq and other Arab states to do the impossible to possess the nuclear weapons.42

This propensity for "going nuclear" appears even more likely in view of a key set of perceptions that characterizes the Arabs' view of the world: a pervasive sense of insecurity, which produces, in turn, deep feelings of mistrust. In a penetrating analysis of Arab perceptions, John W. Amos has noted that Arab "images are permeated with an element of threat . . . stemming from . . . what might be called an escalatory perception of events." As a result, Arab political behavior displays extensive distrust and the tendency to expect the worst from any adversary.43

Given these dispositions, the raid against Osiraq heightened Arab apprehensions in several ways. First, perennial Arab distrust ensured that what the Israelis perceived as defensive action was seen by the Arabs as an act of aggression.44 Thus, for the Arab world, Israel's unprecedented attack against Osiraq represented an alarming new degree of escalation in Israeli belligerence, which was reinforced by rumors of Israeli support for an Egyptian drive into Libya, Israel's increasingly hard line regarding the occupied territories, and the later, unprecedented Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In the words of Iraqi Foreign Minister Saddun Hammadi, for instance, the raid constituted "a qualitative change in the aggressor's policy" and indicated Israel's determination "to escalate [its) provocations with acts of armed aggression prior to launching a fullscale war in order to subjugate the Arab countries and impose full Zionist control over the whole Middle East."45

Because the Arabs are convinced that Israel is a nuclear power,46 the raid, in their eyes, also signified that Israel was asserting an exclusive right to nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Since the need of a nuclear monopoly for purely defensive purposes is open to doubt, the Israeli move could only cause heightened concern among Israel's ever-suspicious opponents, intensifying Arab fears that Israel's nuclear weapons might be intended for at least some aggressive purposes. Hence, the raid fostered not only fears of Israeli assertiveness in the region but growing alarm about the ultimate purpose of Israel's nuclear program. That Israel one day might exploit its monopoly to engage in nuclear coercion seemed increasingly credible to Arab leaders.

In the wake of the Baghdad strike, this fear of nuclear blackmail was voiced throughout the Arab world. Saddam Hussein spoke for many when he asked: "What would happen if the Israelis imposed conditions on the Arabs, they (the Arabs] did not accept them, and Israel used nuclear bombs . . . ? What would happen to the Arabs and mankind under such blackmail?" Similarly, the Arab League denounced Israel's "policy of threats and nuclear blackmail," and Jordan's Prime Minister Mudar Badran proclaimed: "Keeping nuclear weapons in the hand of the Israelis and depriving the Arabs of them is tantamount to an invitation to the Arabs to surrender to Israel's will."47 Given that the Arabs have relied predominantly on military power to ensure their security, their reinforced belief that Israeli nuclear blackmail is possible is likely to encourage the view that the Arab world needs its own nuclear weapons to meet the Israeli threat.48

Israel's strike may have encouraged regional proliferation in still one other way. Traditionally, the Arab world has been reluctant to confront the issue of nuclear weapons in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the earlier stages of the conflict, the Arabs were confident that their superior numbers and resources would defeat the adversary ultimately, and they had no desire to give the conflict a nuclear dimension, which, if exploited by Israel, might enable the Israelis to offset the Arabs' natural advantages.49 Later, as evidence accumulated to indicate that Israel had become a nuclear power, the Arabs were slow to acknowledge this development. Although some spokesmen did express strong concern, many in the Arab world seemed to ignore the matter of regional nuclear imbalance. It was as if they were unwilling to face up to the unfavorable reality that Israel's nuclear status portended.50 But by taking out the Iraqi reactor and in effect boldly proclaiming their intention of enforcing a nuclear monopoly, the Israelis have forced the Arab world to address the problem and implicit dimensions of nuclear inferiority. Moreover, by dramatically revealing how much it fears an Arab bomb, Israel may have suggested to some of its foes a powerful new means of leverage in their struggle.

By humiliating the Arabs, encouraging fears of nuclear blackmail, and generally dramatizing the Arab world's nuclear inferiority, Israel's raid thus created strong incentives for regional proliferation--incentives that may outbalance the disincentives also brought about by the raid. One cannot conclude, of course, that the raid will inevitably lead to regional proliferation: any nation's decision to acquire nuclear weapons is highly complex, involving not only the balance of general incentives and disincentives to proliferate but also the particular domestic and international circumstances of its own government and people.51 Whether the mix of these factors will prompt any given Arab nation to acquire the bomb remains to be seen, but, in part because of the Baghdad raid, proliferation seems more likely.

IN DESTROYING nuclear facilities that posed only a limited threat at the time of the attack, the Israelis were prompted by acute fears for survival and a traditional reluctance to take chances in matters affecting their security. Whether the attack enhanced Israel's security is doubtful. By dramatizing the nuclear imbalance in the Middle East and encouraging Arab fears of nuclear coercion, the strike gave Israel's equally apprehensive opponents ample cause for concern and multiplied Arab incentives to develop an offsetting nuclear capacity. While ultimate results are still unknown, the raid illustrates the fear and reaction that characterizes the Middle East--a region now awakened to its uncertain nuclear future.

University of Connecticut


1. Joseph A. Yager, editor, Nonproliferation and U.S. Foreign Policy (Washington: Brookings, 1980), p. 208.

2. George Amsel, Jean Pierre Pharabod, and Raymond Sene, "Rapport: Osirak et la Proliferation des Armes Atomiques" (Paris: Groupe de Physique des Solides, Universite Paris VII, May 1981), reprinted in Les Temps Modernes, September 1981, pp. 375-413.

3. Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Atomic Energy Commission, The Iraqi Nuclear Threat: Why Israel Had to Act (Jerusalem, 1981), p. 9. Hereafter referred to as The Iraqi Nuclear Threat.

4. Ibid., pp. 9-10. As opposed to gas graphite and large research reactors, both well suited for diversion of fissionable material, conventional power reactors (pressure water and boiling water reactors) are the least appealing to a would-be proliferator. Neither the uranium fuel they use nor the plutonium they normally produce are weapons-grade. To produce plutonium better suited for weapons production, conventional power reactors must be operated in a way that immediately reveals the proliferator's intentions. See Ted Greenwood, George W. Ratjens, and Jack Ruina, "Nuclear Power and Weapons Proliferation," in Energy and Security, edited by Gregory Treverton (Montclair, New Jersey: Allanhead, Osmun and Company, 1980), pp. 119-22, and Alexander de Volpi, Proliferation, Plutonium and Policy., Institutional and Technological Impediments to Nuclear Weapons Propagation (New York: Pergamon, 1979), pp. 21-25.

5. Steve Weissman and Herbert Krosney, The Islamic Bomb: The Nuclear Threat to Israel and the Middle East (New York: Times Books, 1981), pp. 91-93, 256-57. Iraq argued that changing Osiraq's fuel required modifications to the reactor that could delay the project.

6. The Iraqi Nuclear Threat, p. 10.

7. While the Italian-supplied "hot cell" is a small facility that only processes gram quantities of plutonium, the Iraqis could have expanded the capacity of the laboratory easily by using technology available on the open market. Weissman and Krosney, p. 101.

8. Weissman and Krosney, p. 89; U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings: The Israeli Air Strike, 97th Cong., lst sess., 1981 (hereafter referred to as Senate Hearings), p. 60; "President Saddam Husayn Statement to Cabinet," Foreign Broadcast Information Service (hereafter, FBIS), 24 June 1981, p. E-10.

9. On the role of nuclear arms programs in buttressing national cohesion, we Ernest W. Lefever, Nuclear Arms in the Third World (Washington: Brookings, 1979), p. 20. On Iraq's ambitions, see Serge Rondot, "L'Irak: une puissance régionale en devenir," Politique Etrangere, September 1980, pp. 637-51.

10. "Saddam to Rio de Janeiro O Globo," FBIS, 2 July 1981, p. E-10. For Iraqi fears of the Iranian program, see Shai Feldman, "The Raid on Osirak: A Preliminary Assessment," Tel Aviv University, Center for Strategic Studies, CSS Memorandum no. 5. pp. 5-6.

11. Amsel et al., pp. 378-87; Senate Hearings, p. 78.

12. Although it has not signed the Nonproliferation Treaty, France has pledged to respect its stipulations, which prohibit helping a nonnuclear nation acquire nuclear weapons. Ashok Kapur, International Nuclear Proliferation Multilateral Diplomacy and Regional Aspects (New York: Praeger, 1979), p. 67.

13. Senate Hearings, p. 107.

14. Anthony Fainberg, "Osirak and International Security," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, October 1981, p. 34; Hans Gruemm, "Safeguards and Tammuz: Setting the Record Straight," International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin, December 1981, pp. 12-13; Christopher Herzig," Correspondence: IAEA Safeguards," International Security, Spring 1983, pp. 195-97.

15. "How Long Would It Take for Iraq to Obtain a Nuclear Explosive after Its Research Reactor Began Operation?" Congressional Research Report in U.S. Congress, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Hearings: Israeli Attack on Iraqi Nuclear Facility, 97th Cong., 1st sess., 1981 (hereafter referred to as House Hearings), pp. 88-90. According to some estimates, Iraq could have secretly produced up to 10 kgs of plutonium per year. See, for instance, The Iraqi Nuclear Threat, pp. 47-53. However, these calculations assume a reactor power of 70 megawatts thermal, whereas Osiraq's capacity did not exceed 40 megawatts thermal. The only way the reactor might have achieved annual plutonium yields approaching 10 kgs would have been by abandoning the agreed-on program of research with the French and dedicating the reactor exclusively to plutonium production. Furthermore, in addition to irradiating targets within the reactor core, the Iraqis would have had to blanket the core with additional uranium targets, a highly visible operation in a pool-type reactor. Nevertheless, to produce such a yearly output of plutonium, the reactor would have required from 100 to 200 kgs of HEU fuel--far more than the French had agreed to supply over the same period. Telephone communications with Anthony Fainberg, Brookhaven National Laboratory, 4 and 18 March 1983; Gruemm, pp. 12-13; House Hearings, pp. 59-60.

16. Besides France, the other producers of plutonium are the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union (all signatories of the Nonproliferation Treaty) and the People's Republic of China and the Republic of South Africa (which are not signatories). China's attitude toward nuclear proliferation is very responsible, however, and given the Republic of South Africa's close ties to Israel, it is unreasonable to assume that South Africa would assist an unsupervised Iraqi nuclear program. William C. Potter, Nuclear Power and Nonproliferation: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Oelgeschlager, Gunn and Hain, 1982), p. 75; Lefever, pp. 8-9; Yager, p. 225.

17. Albert Carnesdale in House Hearings, p. 49.

18. Amos Perlmutter, Michael Handel, and Uri Bar-Joseph, Two Minutes over Baghdad (London: Vallentine, Mitchell and Company, 1982), pp. 80-84; Weissman and Krosney, pp. 7-8.

19. Amos Perlmutter, "The Israeli Raid on Iraq: A New Proliferation Landscape," Strategic Review, Winter 1982, pp. 39-40.

20. Israel has never acknowledged its nuclear arsenal, although most experts, including those in the CIA, agree that Israel is a nuclear power, Lefever, pp. 64-71.

21. For the contending views of Israel's strategic and nuclear posture among the country's policy-making elite, see Uri Bar-Joseph, "The Hidden Debate: The Formation of Nuclear Doctrines in the Middle East," Journal of Strategic Studies, June 1982, pp. 205-27.

22. On the "holocaust syndrome," see for instance, Shlomo Aronson, Conflict and Bargaining in the Middle East: An Israeli Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 353, and Michael Brecher, Decisions in Israel's Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), pp. 333-35, 508, 514. For its influence on Begin, see Aronson, p. 339, and Perlmutter, "The Israeli Raid," p. 40.

23. Aronson, p. 83; Brecher, pp. 333-35; Dan Horowitz, "The Israeli Concept of National Security and the Prospects of Peace in the Middle East," in Dynamics of a Conflict: A Reexamination of the Arab Israeli Conflict, edited by Gabriel Sheffer (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1975), pp. 235-76.

24. The Iraqi Nuclear Threat, pp. 4-7; House Hearings, p. 106; Senate Hearings, p. 281.

25. Even before the Israeli raid, there were signs that Iraq was becoming less virulent on the Arab-Israeli issue. Despite the attack, this trend seems to continue. Senate Hearings, p. 65; Maamoun Youssef, "Iraqi President Acknowledges Israeli Need for 'State of Security,' " Washington Post, 3 January 1983.

26. For a cogent critique of the assumption that nuclear-armed Arab states would act irresponsibly, see, for instance, Shai Feldman, "A Nuclear Middle East," Survival, May-June 1981, pp. 111- 12, and Steven J. Rosen, "A Stable System of Mutual Deterrence in the Arab-Israeli Conflict," American Political Science Review, December 1977, pp. 1373-74.

27. FBIS, 10 June 1981, pp. I-3-4; 11 June 1981,pp. 1-4-7; 15 June 1981, p. I-11; Weissman and Krosney, pp. 19-21, 291.

28. Labor Leader Shimon Peres has stated that the nuclearization of the Middle East would not threaten Israel but would increase regional stability instead. Bar-Joseph, p. 213. One reason which the Begin government gave for the timing of the raid was that the reactor was scheduled to become operational ("hot") in July, and an attack beyond that point might have caused radioactive fallout, killing thousands. It is the consensus of the scientific community, however, that while an attack on an operational power reactor could produce such effects, the danger does not apply to a research facility. See Bennett Ramberg, "Attacks on Nuclear Reactors: The Implications of the Israeli Strike on Osiraq," Political Science Quarterly, Winter 1982-83, pp. 653-99.

29. See, for example, Anthony Lewis, "Living By the Sword," New York Times, 18 June 1981, and Richard Wilson, "Using Treaties Not Airstrikes to Halt Nuclear Spread," Christian Science Monitor, 24 June 1981.

30. Shai Feldman, "The Bombing of Osiraq--Revisited," International Security, Fall 1982, p. 134.

31. Bar-Joseph, p. 205; Henry S. Rowen and Richard Brody, "The Growing Nuclear 'Overhang' in the Middle East,' in Yager, p. 177; Feldman, "A Nuclear Middle East," p. 107.

32. Israeli Prime Minister Begin and Chief of Staff Eytan, FBIS, 11 June 1981, p. 1-7. Begin indicated that the Israelis would strike only at threatening facilities in "enemy" states, apparently excluding action against Egypt.

33. Edward Cody, "France Plans to Bar Weapons-Grade Fuel for Iraq's Reactor," Washington Post, 13 June 1982; Ronald Koven and Jim Hoagland, "Mitterand Says France Will Hold Iraq to Stricter Conditions on Any New Reactor," Washington Post, 18 June 1981. One French technician lost his life during the Baghdad raid, and reportedly a third of the Italian technicians working on the hot cells requested their repatriation after the attack. Feldman, "The Bombing of Osiraq--Revisited," p. 126.

34. FBIS, 2 July 1981, p. E-10; Feldman, "The Bombing of Osiraq--Revisited," p. 139.

35. Bar-Joseph, pp. 207-09; Lawrence Freedman, "Israel's Nuclear Policy," Survival, May-June 1975, p. 119; Steven J. Rosen, "Nuclearization and Stability in the Middle East," Jerusalem Journal of International Relations, Spring 1976, p. 7. Among recent Arab leaders, for instance, only the late President Sadat appears to have expressed grave misgivings about the destabilizing potential of a Middle East nuclear arms race. Perlmutter et al., pp. 34-35. In Western circles, however, the question of whether a nuclear Middle East would prove stable is the object of increasing debate. See, for instance, Rosen, "A Stable System of Mutual Deterrence in the Arab-Israeli Conflict," pp. 1367-83, and Yair Evron, "Some Effects of the Introduction of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East," pp. 105-06, in Asher Arian, Israel: A Developing Society (Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1980).

36. FBIS, 8 July 1981, p. F-15; 24 June 1981, p. E-3.

37. Brazil, India, and Pakistan already have small-scale nuclear cooperation programs with several Arab nations. On these points, Rowen and Brody, "Nuclear Potential and Possible Contingencies," in Yager, pp. 203-37; Rodney W. Jones, Nuclear Proliferation Islam, the Bomb and South Asia, Washington Papers, No. 82 (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1981), pp. 44-53; and Judith Perera, "Was Iraq Really Developing a Bomb," New Scientist, 11 June 1981, pp. 698-90.

38. De Volpi, p. 23.

39. John W. Amos, Arab-Israeli Military/Political Relations: Arab Perceptions and the Politics of Escalation (New York: Pergamon, 1979), pp. 25-26, 208-09; Morroe Berger, The Arab World Today (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1954), p. 90; see also Perlmutter, p; 34.

40. FBIS, 10 June 1981, p. C-3; 6 August 1981, p. C-1.

41. Saddam Hussein typified the Arabs' reaction of defiance: "The Arab nation is not a group of people that can surrender to aggression and blackmail. Rather, it is a great nation with a long history and glorious past. . . . Such a nation can in no way surrender and accept servitude on its territory." FBIS, 14 August 1981, p. E-2.

42. FBIS, 9 June 1981, p. F-3.

43. Amos, pp. 13, 27. On Arab mistrust and fear vis-à-vis Israel in particular, see also John Edwin Mroz, Beyond Security: Private Perceptions among Arabs and Israelis (New York: Pergamon, 1980), and Dale Tahtinen, "Implications of the Arab-Israeli Arms Race," Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 1979, pp. 48-52.

44. Tahtinen, pp. 48-52.

45. Feldman, "The Bombing of Osiraq--Revisited," p. 140; FBIS, 15 June 1981, p. E-8. For similar perceptions of Israeli escalation throughout the Arab world, see, for instance, FBIS, 9 June 1981, pp. C-4, D-1, 2, E-3, F-1; 10 June 1981, p. D-3; and 12 June 1981, p. A-3.

46. Oz Chen, "Reflections on Israeli Deterrence," Jerusalem Quarterly, Summer 1982, pp. 26-40; Fuad Jabber, "A Nuclear Middle East: Infrastructure, Likely Military Postures, and Prospects for Stability," in Great Power Intervention in the Middle East edited by Milton Leitenberg and Gabriel Sheffer (New York: Pergamon, 1977), pp. 74-75.

47. FBIS, 24 June 1981, p. E-3; "Resolution of the Meeting of the Arab League Council," 11 June 1981, quoted in Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn l98l, p. 238; FBIS, 10 June l98l, p. F-2. For similar comments, see also FBIS, 15 June 1981, p. F-1, and 16 July 1981, p. E-3.

48. In a statement typical of many reactions throughout the Arab world, the Kuwaiti paper Ar Ray al Am wrote: "We want to manufacture an atomic bomb . . . what motivates us to call for the possession of this weapon is that Israel possesses it. By using this weapon and the most advanced American weapons, Israel wants to defeat and humiliate us . . . . This does not mean that we would use the bomb, only that we would prevent Israel from using it against us." FBIS, 23 July 1981, p. C-1. For similar statements, see Saddam Hussein, FBIS, 24 June 1981, P. E-10; FBIS, 16 June 1981, p. G-2; and Joint Publication Research Service, Near East-North Africa Report, 16 November 1981, p. 20. On the Arabs' reliance on their military capabilities to ensure their security, see Paul (Faud) Jabber, Not By War Alone: Security and Arms Control in the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 11-12.

49. Robert E. Harkavy, Spectre of a Middle East Holocaust: The Strategic and Military Implications of the Israeli Nuclear Weapons Program (Denver: University of Colorado Monograph Series in World Affairs, 1977), p. 55.

50. Ibid., p. 70; Paul Jabber, "The Nuclear Middle East: Will It Be Stable?" Unpublished paper presented at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, 21 March 1982.

51. On this point, see John J. Weltman, "Nuclear Devolution and World Order," World Politics, January 1980, pp. 169-93.


Lucien S. Vandenbroucke (B.A., University Paris-Nord; M.A., Yale University) is currently completing a fellowship at the Brookings Institution. He has been a summer intern at USIA; a Languag Instructor at Hopkins School in New Haven, Connecticut, and at Lycee Renoir, France; and an Assistant Professor at the University of Bangui, Central African Republic. His writings have appeared in numerous publications.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias