Israelis Consider Fallout of Military Strike on Iran Nukes

By Patrick Goodenough | November 14, 2011 | 5:00 AM EST

An Israeli Air Force F-16 jet fighter. (AP Photo)

( – Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told cabinet ministers on Sunday that “the international community must stop Iran’s race to arm itself with nuclear weapons, a race that endangers the peace of the entire world.”

Those were his first public comments since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the first time accused Tehran of developing technologies used to make atomic bombs.

For weeks, Israeli media have aired a robust debate on whether a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a prudent, necessary and achievable response to what many Israelis view as a real threat by the Jewish state’s most implacable enemy.

With the IAEA report now in the public realm, non-proliferation experts generally agree that its findings have shot down Iran’s long-repeated insistence that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Netanyahu went further Sunday, saying during the cabinet meeting that the actual extent of Iran’s activities went beyond what was included in the nuclear watchdog’s report.

“Only things that could be proven were written [in the IAEA report], but in reality there are many other things that we see,” an official in Netanyahu’s office quoted the prime minister as saying.

In 2007, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) bombed a site in Syria, where North Korea was believed to be helping the regime develop a clandestine nuclear weapons capability, in the form of a reactor modeled on North Korea’s own uranium-based facility.

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Thirty years ago, in a far more challenging and risky operation, Israeli jets, equipped with additional fuel tanks, crossed Jordanian and Saudi airspace in a daring raid to bomb Iraq’s French-built Osirak nuclear reactor, south of Baghdad.

With Iran’s nuclear ambitions making headlines again, the Osirak operation is back in the public eye.

“We should be working with Israel right now to do what they did in Syria, what they did in Iraq, which is take out that nuclear capability before the next explosion we hear in Iran is a nuclear one and then the world changes,” Republican presidential hopeful candidate Rick Santorum said during a CBS/National Journal candidates’ debate in South Carolina on Saturday – an event at which Iran featured prominently.

Among the many factors facing Israeli decision-makers in considering a strike against Iran’s facilities – including the greater distances involved, the more dispersed nature of the targets, and Iran’s threatened “iron fist” retaliation – is the political fallout in the region and beyond.

The June 7, 1981 Osirak bombing brought swift international condemnation, not only from the expected quarters in the Soviet bloc and Arab-Islamic world, led by Iraq itself, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran – despite the Iran-Iraq war then underway – but also from Western nations, including the United States.

At a White House press conference, President Reagan said Israel appeared to have violated a three decade-old bilateral agreement by using U.S.-made fighter jets in the raid.

Reagan also conceded, however, that Israelis “might have sincerely believed” that the operation was a defensive move, a position that prompted Arab commentators to accuse the U.S. president of having supported the raid.

In London, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told the House of Commons on June 9 that Britain “totally and utterly condemned” the bombing, calling it “a grave breach of international law” and saying her government did not believe the targeted plant had the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

On June 19, a recently-resigned IAEA inspector, Roger Richter told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that he was so concerned about Iraq that he had written to U.S. officials the previous year, saying that “the available information points to an aggressive, coordinated program by Iraq to develop a nuclear weapons capability during the next five years.”

Two other nuclear experts told the panel that Iraq’s reactor could have been used to develop nuclear weapons, but said they had no way of knowing whether Iraq intended to do so.

That same day, the U.N. Security Council passed a strong-worded resolution condemning the attack, demanding that Israel refrain from future such acts, stating that Iraq “is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered,” and upholding Saddam Hussein regime’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy.

Resolution 487 passed by 15 votes to 0, with the U.S. choosing neither to cast its customary veto in resolutions critical of Israel nor to abstain.

A Newsweek article at the time quoted a colleague of U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick as saying after she voted for the resolution, “There is no question that she agonized over the whole affair and it was not an easy thing for her to do. But she genuinely believed that what she did was in the best interests of both the United States and Israel.”

Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s decision to bomb the Iraqi reactor was also condemned in resolutions by the U.N. General Assembly and the IAEA governing board, which considered suspending Israel’s rights of membership and voted to end technical cooperation with Israel.

‘A vote of thanks’

Some U.S. newspapers joined in the condemnation, with the New York Times calling the Israeli raid “an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression,” adding that “Israel’s ever-widening definition of self-defense is illusory.”

The Los Angeles Times describing the mission as a “state-sponsored terrorism” and the Portland Oregonian said it set “a frightening precedent.”

The Baltimore Sun, in contrast, said, “Despite public denunciation of Israel for its attack on Iraq’s nuclear research facility, many nations must be privately thankful that Baghdad has been set back in its bid for regional dominance.”

“We all ought to get together and send the Israelis a vote of thanks,” the Wall Street Journal said in a June 10 editorial. “The Israeli approach to nonproliferation is limited and direct. But their outlook on the world and on what it takes to earn the world’s respect offers a few lessons we ourselves could profitably learn.”

Ten years later, shortly after the Gulf War ended, then Defense Secretary Richard Cheney said that thanks to Israel’s action a decade earlier, U.S. forces who invaded following Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait had not faced a nuclear-armed Iraq.

According to a published account submitted into the congressional record during a 2002 debate on Iraq, Cheney sent an enlarged satellite photo of Osirak, taken shortly after the Israeli raid, to the IAF commander in charge of the operation, David Ivri, who later served as ambassador to the U.S.

The photo bore the inscription from Cheney, “For Gen. David Ivri, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981 – which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.”

In March 2006, the then Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Turki al-Faisal, was asked during a question-and-answer period following a speech to the World Affairs Council of Northern California, “when Iraq invaded Kuwait, wasn’t it fortunate that Israel had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear bomb facility before?”

“Probably yes,” Turki replied, before steering the subject towards expressing gratitude to the U.S. for helping to expel Saddam from Kuwait.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow