Israeli bombing of Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 may have fueled Saddam’s nuclear ambitions
Four decades ago, a squadron of Israeli fighter jets on a secret mission slipped over Saudi airspace and stormed in to destroy an Iraqi nuclear reactor site that was being built by French engineers and Italians just outside Baghdad. It was a surprise attack hailed by Israel’s defenders and cited as an example of effective derring-do, showing how raw military power could be used as a tool of arms control.
But a mine of previously secret US documents released Monday by a Washington organization strongly suggests that Iraq’s nuclear ambitions had already been secretly contained by the Europeans who were building the bombed Osirak research reactor. Moreover, the attack of June 7, 1981 may in fact have encouraged then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to step up his quest for weapons of mass destruction.
The documents, obtained by the Washington-based National Security Archives through Freedom of Information Act requests, include cables from the White House, the State Department, and the CIA that summarize key diplomatic interactions and policies that preceded the attack. They also show attempts by US officials to combat the consequences.
At least 10 Iraqi soldiers and a French civilian were killed in the Israeli attack.
The documents, recovered and released as part of a project to promote transparency organized by George Washington University, are released at a time when Israel is trying to rally nations against Iran’s nuclear program.
For weeks in Vienna, the United States and other world powers have been trying to resurrect a nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran that was sabotaged by former US President Donald Trump. Israel opposes a return to the agreement.
France has long insisted that the design of the nuclear power plant it was building made modernization to produce fissile material for a bomb impossible. But a very sensitive document in the treasury indicates that Paris had gone even further.
It recounts for the first time a meeting in Paris on July 25, 1980 between American diplomats and a senior French non-proliferation official – who insisted on absolute secrecy – about uranium shipments to Iraq. .
The official said the materials had been secretly chemically altered to make them unusable for weapon use.
“He outlined the precautions they have and are taking,” the State Department cable said. “They find themselves in a dilemma, however, as they are unable to describe some of the precautions they are taking, given that the Iraqis themselves were unaware of some of the preventative measures the French are taking.”
The main measure taken by the French was to pre-irradiate any enriched uranium they sent to Iraq, rendering it “unusable as a weapon material,” the document said.
Other less controversial precautions included allowing only one shipment of uranium to the reactor at a time, maintaining a French presence in Osirak at all times, and ensuring that French technicians monitor the enriched uranium during its transport.
But a document marked secret suggests there were fears that Italian and French contractors were competing to sell arms to Iraq. Some feared that Italy, in particular, would try to soften any deal by including advanced nuclear technology as part of its offers.
Days after the start of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi armed forces invaded the Osirak site, adding even more concerns about Baghdad’s ultimate intentions.
“Are French officials still on site and do they have access to fuel there? What is the condition of the fuel? demanded a US State Department cable of October 11, 1980 from Washington to Paris.
Other documents indicate that US officials fear Iraq is scouring the world for sensitive nuclear material.
On January 20, 1981, a new administration took over in Washington under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. There is a gap in the documents which may suggest that the new administration did not understand the urgency of the matter and the issues involved.
The documents show how concerned US officials at the time were not only about the Iraqi arms lawsuits, but also the possibility that Israel could provoke a larger war by attacking Osirak. Back then, the United States was seen as a much more neutral arbiter between Israel and the Arab states than it is today. Saudi officials told Americans they were furious that Israel used its territory to reach Iraq, with Israeli pilots falsely reporting they were Jordanians.
A redacted Saudi official told an American counterpart: “This is one of the most dangerous situations Saudi Arabia has ever faced. It is an insult to both Saudi Arabia and the United States and puts the Saudis in an embarrassing position vis-à-vis other Arabs, ”according to the report of a meeting at the White House obtained by the National Security Archives.
Washington demanded responses from Israel on specific information it had that arms work was being carried out in Osirak, but Israel only responded with vague worst-case scenarios, National Security Council document says . US officials could find no evidence for Israelis’ claims of a “secret bunker” under Osirak to be used for weapons work.
Reagan initially reacted harshly to the attack, suspending some arms sales to Israel and cooperating with Iraq to formulate a UN condemnation.
But other officials backed down. A note prepared for the president by neoconservative White House official Douglas Feith, who emerged 22 years later as one of the main architects of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, blamed the predecessor of Reagan, Jimmy Carter, for the crisis and urged the administration not to criticize Menachem Begin, then Prime Minister of Israel.
“Your public statements must be framed by the diplomatic context of the raid lest they unduly oppose Israel,” he said.
Iraq, a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has been forced to open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the Israeli attack on Osirak, as well as the ongoing war then raging between Iran and Iraq, ended Iraqi cooperation with European nuclear companies, pushing the program underground.
A classified assessment by the State Department’s intelligence arm said that while the Osirak attack may have rolled back Iraq’s nuclear program, it may have done more harm than good, accurately predicting Iraq’s years-long attempt to evade inspectors and pursue mass weapons. destruction. International inspectors were shocked a decade later by Iraq’s covert advances in nuclear and chemical weapons following the US-led Gulf War in 1991.
“The bombings temporarily set back Iraq’s nuclear research program, which targeted an armament option, by limiting its access to material and technological assistance,” indicates the assessment of August 17, 1981.
“The raid may have, however, increased Iraq’s interest in eventually acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. “