Iran Is Not Iraq; This Is Not 1981

Article Summary
Israelis still bask in the glow of their nation’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, which thwarted Saddam’s nuclear ambitions. But Ofer Shelah writes that any comparison with a move against the Iranian nuclear program of today is baseless at best and dangerous at worst.

Ever since 1974, every new head of Military Intelligence makes sure to announce that he’s read the Agranat Committee Report on the intelligence failings of the Israel Defense Forces in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That’s the way it is with the myth of failure: woe to the person who dares say he has not investigated the most mythological failure of them all, as if the lessons from that particular failure are always applicable under today’s conditions. But only one lesson is universally relevant: that arrogance, and being convinced that one is in possession of the entire truth, are two qualities to be avoided at all costs.

I wonder if, during the long process of preparing for a possible pre-emptive strike on Iran, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu studied the annals of 1981’s Operation Opera, in which Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak reactor. This week, during the 20th anniversary of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin's death, Netanyahu said that the Iranian affair today is totally different from the Osirak attack, and he is correct. But it would still be interesting to know if the prime minister asked to see the minutes of discussions held by Begin, and if he put himself into Begin’s shoes and asked himself: Would I have attacked then?

No one in Israel investigates successes, and the attack on the Iraqi reactor is considered a tremendous success. The logic and repercussions of the military operation that ended in a perfect tactical success on Osirak (hitting the target with no losses on our side) have never been investigated. Begin described the operation as a success comparable to preventing a Holocaust, a view that was adopted by the public at face value and never really examined thoroughly. Anyone who disputes this view is viewed suspiciously as a “revisionist historian,” or worse than that --someone who is not really happy that we defeated our enemy.

Recent years have seen quite a few historians like that -- outside of Israel, of course. Nuclear researcher Avner Cohen, in an article he wrote last year, quoted Norwegian researcher Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, who dedicated many years to studying the history of Saddam’s nuclear project. Her conclusion was unequivocal: not only was Osirak lacking many of the characteristics of a reactor capable of creating a nuclear bomb, but the Israeli strike channelled Saddam in another direction in the nuclear field, very similar to the one followed by Iran today, and brought him much closer to a bomb than could have been accomplished with a reactor.

This is, of course, one way to view an issue that is so covered with fog. It should be remembered that the Israeli government was convinced, even after the First Gulf War, that Saddam was advancing in the nuclear track. After the American invasion of 2003, Israel was surprised that no means of mass destruction were found in Iraq -- despite Israel’s assertions to the contrary.

In a rereading of Shlomo Nakdimon’s book Tammuz in Flames, written in full cooperation with the Israeli side, we see how the situation was similar and how it was different. It is well-known that several higher-ups were opposed to the Osirak operation: Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin; Mossad Chief Yitzhak Hofi; Director of Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Yehoshua Saguy; and commander of the IDF’s Planning Division, Maj.-Gen. Nati Sharoni. Some had reservations over the attack itself while others thought the timing was wrong. But what is less well known is that the members of the “Chief of Staff forum” -- former army commanders who used to meet with Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan from time to time -- expressed severe opposition to the very thought of attacking the reactor, when Raful mentioned the possibility in a side-comment at one of the meetings. The most scathing antagonist of all was Yitzhak Rabin.

Even the supporters had their worries. Begin himself raised his concern about the future of the peace treaty with Egypt, a treaty that was new at the time. On the other hand, Chief of Staff Eitan told Nakdimon that his worry was that if the Iraqis were to acquire nuclear weapons, then “we’ll lose Jerusalem.” But opposite all these weighty arguments for and against, now or later, was the prime minister’s Holocaust rhetoric. “Saddam won’t hesitate to use weapons of mass destruction against us,” Begin said in a cabinet meeting. “We must operate out of this assumption. Operating this kind of weapon against civilian concentration centers in Israel will bring about bloodshed that we have not seen since those days in the 1940s [during Israel’s War of Independence]. If Iraq will acquire nuclear weapons, one out of two things will happen: Either we will be forced to surrender to their terms, or we will risk mass destruction. A real atrocity.” At a later discussion, Begin added, “If we succeed in delaying nuclear production in Iraq by three years, we still will have succeeded in saving this generation.”

Begin’s historical consciousness represents a fascinating case study. He led the discussions [in 1980-1981] as if convinced that the year was 1939, the enemy Nazi Germany, and that enemy was in possession of nuclear weapons. (Benjamin Netanyahu uttered a famously similar statement about Iran.) But we have to ask the question: Was that a correct view of reality? Or was he misapplying a most horrific historical precedent to a completely different situation? True, today’s Iran answers the definition of an ideological and fanatic enemy of Israel, even more than Saddam. But a year after Operation Opera, Begin used the same terminology to justify the First Lebanon War, over which there is greater disagreement than over the bombing of the Iraqi reactor. Was he correct in one case and incorrect in the other? Most important: How can we know when this kind of view of the world is appropriate, and when it is disastrous?

The Osirak mission cannot be compared to an effective mission in Iran today. It is well known that the Iranian nuclear project is dispersed, underground, and heavily guarded. Air distance to Iran is much further than to Iraq. There are those who cast doubt on Israel’s abilities to cause real damage in Iran but we must assume that the air force’s operations research experts will have to provide an honest, professional answer to this. Otherwise, any discussion of ours is groundless.

Eight Israeli pilots [in eight F-16s] attacked Osirak, with several F-15s for diversion and back-up. Since they did not have to refuel in midair, it was possible to keep the entire operation almost totally secret. These conditions cannot possibly be recreated in the scope of the operation needed in Iran. Another issue lacking from this discussion is the response of nearby enemies, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In the event of an attack on Iran, an immediate attack would be expected on Israel’s home front. This also necessitates major advance preparations.

The peace with Egypt survived the assault on Saddam, despite Begin’s concerns. It also survived the First Lebanon War, when Israel invaded the territory of an Arab state and confronted another one. But Anwar Sadat was in Cairo then, and a year later he was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak. Today’s Egypt, politically controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, is a different story altogether.

One more thing: When the attack was delayed for various reasons, American Secretary of State Alexander Haig visited Israel. Nakdimon does not detail exactly what Haig told Begin, but the  impression received by Jerusalem was clear: The Reagan government might slap our wrists, but not really be sorry if we attack Iraq. This is not exactly the kind of rhetoric we hear today in Washington.

But the most interesting remarks are reserved for Ariel Sharon. Prime Minister Sharon, who served as Ezer Weizman’s Defense Minister, was one of the big supporters of the operation. (Sharon inherited Ezer Weizman as Defense Minister, and Weizman was  intensely opposed to the attack, even though he found out about it after he had retired from politics.) But in a cabinet meeting in October 1980, Sharon said something fascinating. “I agree with those who say that we will not be able to forestall the development of nuclear weapons in Arab countries forever.”

The attack in Iraq was considered the most far-reaching actualization of what was later called the “Begin Doctrine”: that Israel will stop at nothing to prevent a country it considers hostile from attaining nuclear weapons. But it was precisely Sharon, the unmistakable hawk, who expressed out loud the thought that few Israelis dare to contemplate: The very fact that the world thinks that Israel possesses nuclear weapons ensures that the day will come when our bitter enemy will have a bomb.

Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that Sharon as prime minister promoted the view that efforts to thwart an Iranian nuclear weapons program must be made in the political arena. Evidently he understood that until we take a clear, honest look at our place here in the Middle East, we are destined to pay ever-increasing costs for what -- under the best possible scenarios -- are only temporary delays. Three years -- the most optimistic assessment according to all professional analyses of an attack in Iran -- does not save a generation. But in effect, that is what we have been doing, from “Tammuz” to our own day: delaying the inevitable.

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