Israel’s Osirak Option

As Netanyahu forms his government, the parallels between the politics that led to a strike on Iraq’s nuclear facility and those that could result in targeting Iran today are clear.

By Jay Mens, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Forum.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the Muni World conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Feb. 14, 2018.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the Muni World conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Feb. 14, 2018. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Almost exactly 40 years ago, Israel’s cabinet, then led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, decided to destroy Iraq’s nascent nuclear program. After three-and-a-half years of planning, a single Israeli squadron destroyed six years of Iraqi nuclear efforts in just 90 seconds.

Unconventional means of delaying the Iraqi program—sabotage, assassination, and diplomacy—had failed. With those options exhausted, a hawkish government coalition carried out the strike, urged on by a sense of abandonment by the international community and the very recent and real memory of the Holocaust. The strike was a success: Iraq’s nuclear program was almost completely destroyed, and Israel emerged militarily and diplomatically unscathed.

Eager hawks and concerned doves have both trotted out this example in discussions of Israel’s options for Iran today. And there are some easy parallels between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1981 and Iran in 2021: vocal anti-Semitism, ostensibly genocidal motives for having a nuclear program, the patchy transparency of their nuclear programs, and the existential threat perceived by Israel. Yet there is a deeper similarity, and one that may be more telling: the domestic political dynamic in Israel at the time of the strike, which may be playing out again today.

In 1975, Iraq, led by a vocally anti-Semitic Saddam, launched its nuclear program. The next year, Iraq struck a deal with France to build a nuclear research center, including a 40-megawatt Osiris-style reactor (later named “Osirak,” a portmanteau of Osiris and Iraq.) Saddam set off alarm bells in Israel by insisting that the reactor be powered by uranium enriched to 93 percent. Osiris-style reactors usually required uranium enriched to only around 7 percent, and anything above 90 percent could also be used in a high-yield nuclear weapon. Begin’s cabinet began planning to bomb the reactor in 1977, shortly after they came to power. But before risking a diplomatic crisis or regional war, Begin looked to all his other options.

From 1977 to 1981, Israel used assassination, sabotage, and unconventional diplomacy to slow down and degrade the Iraqi program. The Mossad launched a media blitz, leaking intelligence to create political pressure against the program. The head of Iraq’s nuclear program was killed in his Paris hotel, and other Iraqi nuclear scientists in Europe met similar fates. French and Italian companies producing components for the program were bombed.

Begin also turned to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, asking him to pressure France, but the Carter team refused in a pointed statement in July 1980. By October, the Mossad reported that Iraq had obtained 30 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium. The Israeli cabinet voted to undertake a strike, but diplomacy was given a last chance since a new U.S. president—Ronald Reagan—had just been inaugurated. For a number of reasons, still hotly debated, it seems the new U.S. administration did not appreciate the imminence of the Israeli strike, though, and could not—or did not—manage a diplomatic breakthrough.

On an April 1981 visit to Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig informed Begin that the United States had broached the topic of Osirak with the French and Italians, but “to no avail.” The collapse of diplomatic efforts was the final push that Begin needed. On June 7, 1981, Israel successfully executed Operation Opera, destroying Iraq’s $10 billion investment in nuclear technology and killing some of Iraq’s leading nuclear scientists. The strike, of which the Reagan administration was not aware until after its completion, set back Iraq’s nuclear program by almost a decade. The strike was strongly condemned by the United Nations, and the United States suspended the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Israel, but the Reagan administration blocked U.N. sanctions and ended up delivering the jets two months later. Iraq, in the midst of an intense war with Iran, did not attack Israel, and plans to rebuild the reactor fell through by 1984.

There are numerous political parallels today to Begin’s Osirak moment. Like Begin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has used the media, sabotage, and assassination to delay Iran’s nuclear program over the last decade. Like Begin, Netanyahu sees the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon in existential terms. And like Iraq in 1981, today’s Iran is unrestrained from pursuing nuclear research, which it continues unabated.

The key difference between Begin and Netanyahu is that Netanyahu’s political position at home is significantly weaker. In the 1977 election, Begin had won 43 seats, 61 being the threshold to form a government. His coalition partners were Agudat Yisrael, a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party without strong feelings about foreign policy, and the National Religious Party, which took the education and interior ministries. As a result, his Likud party handily dominated foreign and defense policy.

In stark contrast, Netanyahu’s last premiership rested on volatile unity governments in which main rivals have held the defense, foreign, and strategic affairs ministries. After Israel’s latest election last month, Netanyahu can only remain prime minister if he can form a new coalition. That coalition will have parallels to Begin’s in that it will consist of two types of parties: hawks and “neutral” special interest parties. As of this writing, the Likud has won 30 seats, far short of Begin’s 43. Netanyahu, like Begin, has the support of the Haredi parties, which will bring him up to 46. He also has the support of the Religious Zionist party, a far-right take on the National Religious Party, which will bring him up to 52. He may also gain the support of Raam, a religious Arab party with six seats; Raam could support him from outside the government, giving him 58 seats in exchange for economic concessions to the Arab Israeli community.

As widely expected, Netanyahu’s political future really depends on one man: his former chief of staff Naftali Bennett. Bennett’s Yamina party has seven seats, meaning that Bennett could either rescue Netanyahu or complete the anti-Netanyahu bloc. If he sits under Netanyahu, Bennett will likely take the defense ministry, a portfolio he briefly held—one year (or about four governments) ago. The timing could work out for both. Bennett needs security credentials, and the defense ministry has historically been a stepping stone to the top job, to which Bennett aspires. Netanyahu, meanwhile, may well be in his final term as prime minister. Both are looking for a legacy achievement, with Bennett aiming to step forward and Netanyahu to step back. The two have reason to combine forces and provide the missing piece of the Osirak moment: a stable coalition government and a hawkish security cabinet.

A changing international context could provide Bennett and Netanyahu the opportunity to act. For almost 20 years, Netanyahu has warned the world that an Iranian nuclear weapon is around the corner. For about the same length of time, news outlets, often tipped off by anonymous “senior officials,” have warned that an Israeli strike on Iran is imminent. Yet when a piece in the New Yorker warned in 2006 that an Israeli strike was “imminent,” the Middle East was a very different place. The United States was just three years into the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein was alive, and Western policymakers saw the seemingly omnipresent threat of global terrorism as a priority. More importantly, Israel and the Gulf states were very openly estranged. Saudi Arabia’s then-Crown Prince Abdullah fiercely criticized Israel in Washington, having threatened just four years prior to cut ties with the United States over the Palestinian issue. Meanwhile, pro-Israel lobbyists were still making the most of the post-9/11 moment, and Saudi Arabia was a particular bête noire.

Fast-forward 15 years, and the United States is backpedaling from its Middle East commitments; the 2015 nuclear deal, a diplomatic framework to contain Iran’s nuclear program, has since been built and collapsed; and Israel and its neighbors have never been closer. While Israel and Saudi Arabia have not yet signed a peace accord, the region has changed so much that the prospect of the two countries partnering to take out Iran’s nuclear program is now feasible. Three weeks ago, it was speculated that Netanyahu, on his trip to Dubai, would meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to discuss an Iran contingency plan.

Their alleged plan is similar to a scenario the Brookings Institution imagined 10 years ago: Israeli fighter jets would use Saudi airspace and refuel on Saudi soil before striking Iran, thus mitigating the key logistical difficulties of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and raising the likelihood that a preemptive strike would be successful. As far as we know, the plan is mere speculation. Yet theoretical feasibility of it shows how much the region has changed, and the growing number of local variables with which American strategy in the Middle East has to contend.

Conditions within Iran also point to the stirrings of a more aggressive policy. The hands of Iran’s disgraced outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the agreement, are tied: one by a hard-line legislature, and the other by an increasingly hawkish clerical establishment. The Iranian public will vote for a new president in June. According to a University of Maryland poll, while around 75 percent of Iranians supported the nuclear deal when it was signed, barely half of Iranians now approve of it.

Emboldened, Iran’s power brokers are seemingly betting on the Biden administration making expansive unilateral concessions and granting Tehran a PR victory. In the meantime, Iran continues to drift further out of compliance with the agreement, making irreversible progress with its nuclear research. According to senior hard-liners, the country is considering raising nuclear enrichment from 20 percent to 60 percent. Israel will only stand this trajectory for so long.

And for several political and regional reasons, it would make sense for Israel to strike Iran sooner rather than later. There are the changing calculations of regional governments, but also the changing fortunes of Israel’s other main foe: Hezbollah. The group still has roughly 150,000 rockets and missiles and a commando force of around 20,000 that could respond to an Israeli strike on Iran. But since Hezbollah is also a political party—an increasingly unpopular one given its role in Lebanon’s economic disintegration—it seems less likely than ever that it would be able to respond on Iran’s behalf and survive politically.

But how would Iran itself respond? In 1981, Iraq was in the middle of a crushing ground war with Iran. But today, Iran has the bandwidth to respond to Israel. Were Israel to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran would have no option but to punch back. U.S. Central Command estimates that at least a few hundred Iranian ballistic missiles have Israel within their range, which means that those would be the most likely avenue of response. It is most unlikely that Israel could intercept all of the missiles. Yet a hawk would argue, as did Begin, that a barrage of conventional missiles is better than a single nuclear one.

Iran would likely bet that the United States would stay out of the conflict if Israel’s initial strike were conducted without American involvement. But even if it does, ballistic strikes on Israel would make it politically unfeasible for the Biden administration to resurrect the nuclear deal or withdraw the Trump administration’s sanctions from Iran. Those would continue to hinder Iran’s rebuilding of its nuclear program and its economic recovery, thus withholding more funding for Iran’s regional proxy network.

Netanyahu is not Begin. And Iran today is not Saddam’s Iraq. The two nuclear programs diverge in significant ways. But the Israeli domestic drivers of the Osirak strike nevertheless offer a striking parallel to the present. If Netanyahu returns to power with Bennett as defense minister, Israel is looking at a hawkish cabinet with an additional dose of ego and political ambition. For now, it seems more likely than not that the United States will restrain Israel and eventually lure Iran back to the nuclear deal. But if diplomacy continues to fail, Israel will feel compelled to act—and within a few weeks, it may well have a government to pull the trigger.

Jay Mens is executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Forum, a think tank based at the University of Cambridge, and a research analyst for Greenmantle, a macroeconomic advisory firm.