Mehdi Hasan writes: On 7 June 1981 a phalanx of Israeli F-16 fighter-bombers entered Iraqi airspace on the orders of the then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Their mission, codenamed Operation Babylon, was to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nascent nuclear programme. In less than two minutes the eight F-16s dropped 16 1,000-kg bombs on the unfinished Osirak nuclear reactor, situated 10 miles south of Baghdad. It was an audacious attack: the world’s first air strike on a nuclear facility.
Begin claimed to have averted “another Holocaust” by denying Saddam “three, four, five” nuclear bombs. American politicians – from Dick Cheney to Bill Clinton – would later agree with him.
Fast forward to 2012, and the Osirak attack is constantly invoked as a template for military action against Iran. Last month Amos Yadlin, director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and one of the pilots who bombed Osirak, said Iraq’s nuclear programme was “never fully resumed” after that attack. “This could be the outcome in Iran,” he declared in the New York Times. Earlier this month the current Israeli prime minister and sabre-rattler-in-chief Benjamin Netanyahu used a speech on Iran to again praise the Osirak operation, reminding his audience of how Begin ordered the attack despite being “well aware of the international criticism that would come”.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, however, Operation Babylon was a dismal failure – and did the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do. For a start, Saddam wasn’t building a bomb at Osirak. Richard Wilson, a nuclear physicist at Harvard University who inspected the wreckage of the reactor on a visit to Iraq in 1982, noted how it had been “explicitly designed” by French engineers “to be unsuitable for making bombs” and had been subject to regular inspections by both on-site French technicians and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“The Iraqis couldn’t have been developing a nuclear weapon at Osirak,” Wilson tells me, three decades on. “I challenge any scientist in the world to show me how they could have done so.”
For Wilson, the Israeli raid marked not the end of Saddam’s nuclear weapons programme but the beginning of it. Three months later, in September 1981, Saddam – smarting from the Osirak incident and reminded of Iraq’s vulnerability to foreign attack – established a fast-paced, well-funded and clandestine nuclear weapons programme outside of the IAEA’s purview. Nine years after Osirak, Iraq was on the verge of producing a nuclear bomb.