[eDebate] On Osiraq, extend my partner Dani's arguments
gordonm+ at pitt.edu
Wed Jun 7 11:54:09 CDT 2006
Midweek Perspectives: The Osiraq illusion
Twenty-five years ago today, Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor. Some
American policy-makers have long admired the bold move. Alas, it was a
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
By William W. Keller and Gordon R. Mitchell
On this day 25 years ago, eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets took off from a
runway in the Sinai Desert. Their mission: Fly some 600 miles over hostile
territory and drop 16 bombs on the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq.
In tactical terms, the Osiraq operation was successful -- all the bombs
hit, the dome of the Iraqi reactor was demolished and the pilots flew home
safely. June 7, 1981, was an auspicious debut for the Begin Doctrine
(named after then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin), which holds that
Israel will not tolerate acquisition of nuclear weapons capability by its
enemies, even in peacetime.
But a working group organized by the University of Pittsburgh's Ridgway
Center for International Security Studies has produced research findings
that cast the 1981 raid in a different light:
* The Osiraq light water nuclear reactor was not capable of generating
weapons-grade plutonium needed for an Iraqi atomic bomb. Destroying it was
a Pyrrhic tactical victory.
* Absent bombing, ongoing IAEA and French surveillance of the Osiraq
facility would likely have detected and countered possible efforts by Iraq
to use the reactor for plutonium production.
* The Israeli preventive attack ironically served to accelerate Iraq's
nuclear weapon program. Saddam Hussein responded to the destruction of
Osiraq by rehabilitating an important nuclear scientist from prison,
increasing research personnel more than 15-fold and moving the entire
Iraqi nuclear program underground, where it proved more difficult to
monitor and contain.
These findings are drawn from research conducted by Dan Reiter, professor
of political science at Emory University and member of the Ridgway Center
working group. For the past three years, we have directed the working
group's research project, which will be published in a forthcoming edited
volume ("Hitting First: Preventive Force in U.S. Security Strategy").
In today's debates over the wisdom of preventive attacks on Iranian
nuclear facilities, advocates of preventive war often cite the 1981
Israeli mission as an example of successful first-strike force. Mr.
Reiter's findings not only provide important context for judging these
claims; they also cast doubt on the general proposition that preventive
attacks deserve to be "on the table" of U.S. and Israeli policy options at
The track record for the use of preventive force in neutralizing nuclear,
biological and chemical weapons programs is weak. Of the 24 preventive
attacks on record, limited strikes have failed to eliminate unconventional
weapons, while regime change operations such as the 2003 Iraq War tend to
entail massive, unanticipated costs.
Further complicating prospects for successful preventive military strikes
against Iran is the fact that Iranian leaders have learned the lesson of
Osiraq, dispersing and burying their nuclear assets, thus rendering them
much less vulnerable to limited strikes by U.S. and Israeli standoff
Given these tactical complications, why might the Bush and Olmert
administrations still be seriously considering limited preventive war
One possibility is faith in the power of bombing to trigger regime change
on the cheap. A Bush administration adviser told New Yorker reporter
Seymour Hersh that White House military planning was premised on a belief
that "a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious
leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government."
Such optimism is reminiscent of 2002 predictions that "liberating Iraq
would be a cakewalk."
More likely, U.S. and Israeli first-strike attacks would enable Iran's
ruling clerics to consolidate political power and crush dissent by
invoking popular memory of Operation TPAJAX when U.S. and British secret
agents conspired to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in
1953. Support for this theory comes from unexpected quarters. Reza
Pahlavi, whose father was installed as the shah of Iran following the 1953
U.S.-U.K. coup, said this March that a military strike against Iran "will
rally nationalistic sentiments which will work to the regime's advantage,
and consequently, give the theocracy a much longer lease on life."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent diplomatic overtures toward
Iran offer encouraging signs that the Bush administration is committed to
finding ways of resolving the current situation short of war.
But on this topic, the White House rarely speaks with one voice. While
Secretary Rice extends the olive branch, others such as John Bolton,
ambassador to the United Nations, renew military threats with the mantra
that "all options are on the table."
The 25th anniversary of the Osiraq attack offers an opportunity to reflect
on preventive military force's track record in countering unconventional
weapons programs. Before uncritically lining up behind the slogan "all
options are on the table" perhaps we should be more selective in choosing
the Iran policy instruments to lay out in the first place. History
suggests that as a tool for neutralizing suspected nuclear weapons
facilities, the preventive war option is a non-starter.
Until hard-line politicians and pundits prove otherwise, oblique threats
of preventive attack on Iran have no place in public deliberation.
William W. Keller is director of the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for
International Securnity Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Gordon R.
Mitchell (gordonm at pitt.edu) is associate professor of communication and
chair of the Ridgway Working Group on Pre-emptive and Preventive Military
Intervention at the University of Pittsburgh.
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