Dan Reiter's article, "Preventive Attacks against Nuclear Programs and the "Success" at Osiraq," is a timely one to consider as we witness an unprecedented force presence in the Persian Gulf, off the Iranian coast. Would an attack on the Iranian nuclear program be effective? Reiter doesn't think so, and he presents a rather compelling argument to justify that opinion. Here's a summary-excerpt:
Advocates of the preventive use of force against emerging nuclear, biological, or chemical programs often look to the allegedly successful 1981 Israeli airstrike against Iraqi nuclear facilities at Osiraq. According to conventional wisdom, this attack may have prevented Iraq from going nuclear before Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The article casts doubt on the conclusion that the attack was successful, for three reasons:
1) the reactor itself was not well equipped to generate plutonium for a nuclear weapon;
2) likely illegal plutonium production would have caused a cutoff in the supply of nuclear fuel and an end to weapons activities; and
3) the attack may have actually increased Saddam's commitment to acquiring weapons.
Did the 1981 attack substantially delayed Iraqi acquisition of nuclear weapons?
Many consider the 1981 Israeli air strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor a good preventive action, on grounds that it set back Iraq's attempts to develop nuclear weapons. It is not clear, however, that by 1981 Iraq had come close to developing plutonium reprocessing or uranium enrichment facilities, which, in contrast to a simple reactor, are the critical facilities for a weapons program. It is clear, though, that within a decade Iraq did develop an enrichment capability. Thus, the Israeli attack on the reactor did not destroy the crucial ingredients in a weapons effort, nor did it interfere with subsequent Iraqi efforts in the 1980s. It is hard to determine in fact whether the strike against Osirak retarded Iraq's nuclear weapons program or spurred it.
Could international inspections have prevented Iraq from diverting plutonium from the reactor? France seemed committed to preventing Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons. There is some evidence that the French actually knew of and may have even facilitated the 1981 Israeli attack.
Inspection would likely have prevented substantial Iraqi diversion of plutonium from Osiraq to build a bomb. After the attack some argued that international inspections would likely have failed. The IAEA could have been blocked from inspecting non-reactor facilities with the potential to contribute to weaponization. Another critique was that plutonium could be produced between inspections.
Would Iraq have been closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon in 1991 had Israel not attacked? There is reason to believe that the attack may have actually increased Saddam’s commitment to acquiring nuclear weapons, perhaps because it could have raised Saddam’s estimation of the importance of acquiring nuclear weapons.
Absent the attack, would Iraq have had the resources to build the secret reactor fast enough to produce sufficient plutonium for a bomb by 1991? The answer is probably not. Project 182 probably began only in reaction to the destruction of Osiraq—meaning that thad the attack not occurred, it would likely have taken Iraq some years to commit to the secret reactor, after plutonium production at Osiraq had been thwarted by inspectors.
Conclusions: Without the Osiraq attack, Iraq would have had the physical ability to produce small amounts of fissile material (plutonium) by the early 1980s, through international inspectors would likely have detected this activity and shut down the reactor by stopping the fuel supply. With the Osiraq attack, Iraq would have had the physical ability to produce larger amounts of fissile material (enriched uranium) by the early 1990s, without any impediment from international inspectors. Even without the attack, Iraq would likely not have had a nuclear weapon by 1991 because of technical barriers separate from the production of fissile material.
The 1981 Israeli attack on the Iraqi reactor on Osiraq did not substantially slow the Iraqi acquisition of nuclear weapons. The reactor itself and the fuel it would have consumed were not well suited from plutonium production. The presence of international inspectors, foreign technicians, and constant camera surveillance would have at least substantially slowed down Iraqi plutonium production, and probably prevented it altogether.
What are the lessons of Osiraq for possible future attacks against nuclear facilities? If the 1981 raid is the most successful of such preventive, anti-nuclear attacks, even this raid had dubious success in comparison to much less successful attacks. A cautionary tale.
These conclusions have implications for the Bush Doctrine, as the lack of success in 1981 casts doubt on the possible success of future attacks against nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran.
Future airstikes may incur much higher costs for the U.S. than the 1981 attack for the Israelis. Depending on the target, airstrikes would lead to increased terrorism and more attacks—against South Korea, Israel, Lebanon, in Iraq.