Iran is threatening to restart its suspended uranium enrichment program. If it does, negotiations with the European Union will collapse and the crisis will escalate. Does the United States -- or Israel -- have a military option?
Vice President Cheney seems to think so, or at least he did in January. "Iran is right at the top of the list," he told radio host Don Imus on Inauguration Day. Cheney came close to endorsing military action, noting that "the Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."
A bit of history: Back in June of 1991, then-Defense Secretary Cheney gave a photograph of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak to the man who had commanded the Israeli air force during the raid on the site in 1981. "With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi Nuclear Program in 1981," Cheney wrote, "which made our job much easier in Desert Storm." Cheney may have forgotten that the Reagan administration condemned the raid when it took place, as did most nations. And he may not be aware that the Israeli raid, far from crippling Iraq's nuclear program, actually accelerated it. The raid was a tactical success but a strategic failure.
After Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor on June 7, 1981, using U.S.-supplied F-16s and F-15s, the Reagan administration said, "The United States government condemns the reported Israeli air strike on the Iraqi nuclear facility, the unprecedented character of which cannot but seriously add to the already tense situation in the area." Most other nations joined in denouncing the action.
Israel defended the raid by saying that the Osirak reactor "was intended, despite statements to the contrary, for the production of atomic bombs. The goal of these bombs was Israel." The Israelis were right, at least about Saddam Hussein's plan to use the reactor to make bomb fuel. He intended to use the research reactor Iraq had purchased from France in 1979 to irradiate uranium, producing plutonium that could be extracted for the core of a bomb. The 40-megawatt reactor was near completion at the time of the raid, but it had not yet been fueled with uranium rods.
The raid was hotly debated in the government of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Many, such as Yehoshua Saguy, the head of the intelligence division of the Israeli Defense Forces, argued that Israel should continue to try to find a nonmilitary solution to the threat, as it would take Iraq five to 10 years to produce the material needed for a bomb. In the end, Begin went with the worst-case estimate of a bomb within one to two years and ordered the attack.
The raid, however, speeded up the Iraqi program. According to former Iraqi nuclear official Khadir Hamza, "Israel made a mistake." Hussein had planned to slowly divert plutonium from the reactor, which was under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. His diversion plan might have escaped detection, but with what we now know, it also probably would have taken much longer than even the 10 years Saguy and others estimated at the time. The program was proceeding slowly and had run into numerous technical problems, while Iraq's intense war with Iran was diverting resources from the project. The raid, however, energized Saddam Hussein. He launched a new effort to secretly construct gas centrifuges and other devices (particularly electromagnetic isotope separation units) to produce weapons-grade uranium. The program went underground and mushroomed. "At the beginning we had approximately 500 people working, which increased to 7,000 working after the Israeli bombing," Hamza explained to a Washington audience in November 2000, "The secret program became a much larger and ambitious program."
Israel had pulled off a remarkable military raid, striking targets with great precision over long distances. But the bombing set back Israel more than Iraq. It further harmed Israel's international reputation, later worsened by the ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon, while making Iraq appear a victim of Israeli aggression. Officials heralded the "Begin doctrine" of preemptive strikes, but the attack made Israel complacent. In the words of Israeli-born scholar Avner Cohen, author of "Israel and the Bomb," "The operational success proved to be profoundly and strategically deceptive," as Israel remained unaware of Iraq's new efforts throughout most of the 1980s. Internally, Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions went from a side project to an obsession. Ten years later, in 1991, he was closer to producing a nuclear bomb with uranium than he might ever have been pursuing a plutonium path through Osirak.
The raid had not, despite Cheney's praise, made "our job much easier" but had complicated an already difficult problem. Hussein dispersed and hardened his secret new facilities and protected them with air defenses. In the 1991 war, 43 days of coalition bombing failed to destroy the program, which ended only when U.N. disarmament teams methodically destroyed the equipment on the ground. The real lessons of the Osirak raid are worth remembering as optimistic plans for "solving" Iran now come across the vice president's desk.
The writer is director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.