In the late 1970s, Iraq purchased an “Osiris class” nuclear reactor from France. Israeli military intelligence believed the real purpose of plutonium production was to further an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Israeli intelligence also thought that the summer of 1981 would be the last chance to destroy the reactor without exposing the Iraqi civilian population to nuclear fallout. After that point, the reactor would be loaded with nuclear fuel.
Just like Iran today, Iraq protested that its interest in nuclear energy was peaceful. After all, at the time Iraq was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), placing its reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Some experts remained unconvinced that the IAEA monitoring program was sufficient to guarantee that weapon research was not being conducted. They also claimed that an Osiris class reactor was not particularly useful to countries which have no established reactor programs, but that it was capable of producing plutonium for a nuclear weapon. Israel first pursued a diplomatic solution to the situation. Israel’s foreign minister Moshe Dayan went to the United States for help. However, Israel failed to obtain assurances that the reactor program would be halted. In meetings with the Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, there was agreement about the Israeli assessment regarding the Iraqi nuclear threat.
American representatives even verified Israeli assessments that Iraq was working to reach nuclear capability and would exploit the ability to influence and destroy Israel. Despite the American consensus, the Americans refused to act, perhaps because they did not truly grasp the danger, or because they did not want to upset Iraq which at the time was fighting America’s enemy, Iran.
Yitzchak Shamir, negotiated with French presidents Valery Giscard-D’Estaing and his successor François Mitterand. The French proved intransigent, looking out for their own economic interests as Iraq was by far their top customer for military hardware. The payments to France came mostly in the form of oil. [Then as now the French Government couldn’t give a rat’s arse about dead Jews]
According to Shamir, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs Claude Cheysson told him that there were only two major Arab powers: Iraq and the PLO. Despite Shamir’s personal affinity toward the French, as they had sheltered him while he was a member of the pre-state uprising against the British occupation of Israel, he was extremely disappointed when he realized that France was unwilling to cooperate and prevent Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from becoming a nuclear state, despite urgent and emotional pleas by the Israelis that Iraq was preparing a nuclear holocaust against Israel and the Jewish people. (source Yitzhak Shamir, “The Failure of Diplomacy,” Israel’s Strike Against the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor 7 June, 1981, Jerusalem: Menachem Begin Heritage Center: 2003, 13-14.)
There were also political forcing Israel to move:
According to Moshe Nissim, it was the need to contend with the danger of an atom bomb in the hands of a dangerous and irresponsible Arab ruler who would not hesitate to use it against Israel that convinced Begin of the urgency and necessity to destroy the Iraqi reactor. In addition, Begin knew the Likud had a chance of losing the upcoming elections. If Labor, led by Shimon Peres, came into power, Begin feared the plans to prevent Iraq from obtaining a nuclear arsenal would be shelved. Begin, however, was not about to let Israel’s security be weakened due to election consideration (Moshe Nissim, “Leadership and Daring in the Destruction of the Israeli Reactor,” Israel’s Strike Against the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor 7 June, 1981, Jerusalem: Menachem Begin Heritage Center: 2003, 21)
Therefore, Begin, and the IDF planned Operation Opera—To Remove the nuclear threat.
On the 14th of May, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, authorized the bombing of the nuclear reactor. Ezer Wiezmen, the then Defense Minister, opposed the operation and resigned from the government two weeks later.During a cabinet meeting the plan was formally authorized by Begin.“A large clock is hanging over us, ticking. Iraq’s intent to produce nuclear weapons poses a great danger to every man woman and child in the state of Israel”, the prime minister remarked.
The plan was kept in complete secrecy,
From the get-go, it was understood that the most effective way to implement a successful mission would be one conducted by the Israeli Air Force. It was decided that the operations would be done by F-16 fighters that the IAF had received the year before. An Israeli Air Force squadron of eight F-16’s heavily armed, as well as several other F-15’s providing air cover and fighter support would implement the mission. One of the primary focuses during the planning stage was which direction the planes would fly. (11,000 km each way), over hostile territory and with a limited supply of fuel dictated the flight path. The plan was set for the seventh of June, zero hour-30 minutes before sunset.
The pilots that participated in the mission were selected for their impeccable flight records. They were trained in secret and requested to implement the operations with no second thoughts. During the afternoon hours of the 6th of June, the plan was set in motion. Radio transmission was silenced. The Iraqis were caught entirely off guard. The Iraqi radar system was incapable of picking up on the impending danger.
At 4 pm, the evening before the Shavout holiday, June 7, 1981, orders were given to begin operations. At 5:35.a squadron of IAF F-16 fighter aircraft flew over Iraqi skies and dropped a number of bombs. The nuclear reactor was completely destroyed. Mission accomplished. One after another, the pilots shouted the code word “Alpha” into their radios, signaling their success. Zev Raz, Amus Yadlin, Chagi katz, Amir Nahumi, Yiftach Spector, Yisraeli Shapir, and Ilan Ramon- changed history, erasing the nuclear threat of the enemy.“We flew over the Tigris river, looking down we saw the nuclear reactor. Our target lay before us clear as day.”
Major General Amus Yaldun, one of thet combat pilots that participated in the mission and later the head of the IDF Intelligence Branch, related during an interview with IAF journalists, about the famous flight:
Each aircraft flew with three full tanks of gas, two air to air missiles and two bombs each weighing one ton. We flew in two groups of four. The first group was led by Colonel (res.) Zev Raz, the “First Jet” squadron leader, and the second group was lead by Brigadier General (res.)Amir Nehomi, commander of the “Northern Knights”. I was number two in the first quadroon. We headed south of the Jordon River, passing over the Saudi desert. We reached the Tigris River in a short amount of time.
The single file procession of ear-splitting jets reaches 5,000 feet, their tails to the sun and invisible from the ground in the blinding light for the moment. They roll heavily onto their backs, wings bloated with huge one-ton bombs. They pitch downward into a shallow dive and lazily tumble back to wings level. Then they each drop two Mark-84 delayed fused 2,000-pound general purpose bombs on Iraq’s new industrial pride, the French-designed nuclear reactor at Osirak. The large round reactor dome is completely destroyed in only two minutes. Nothing else is touched.
The blast of the first bombs echoed in the distance. One of them hit the center of the roof of the reactor. Once the bombs were released, I felt the impact of the explosions shaking my plane. This was the end of the Iraqi nuclear reactor “Tamuz” 1.” The Israeli planes made a roundabout turn west, heading home. “The direction home was facing the sun as to prevent the enemy from following us. We received a report of the second squadron’s attack on the reactor.
We felt great. A- Because of completing the mission and B- Because all of us, the whole squadron, had come home in peace.
At the time, the attack was widely criticized. Israel responded that its actions were self-defensive and thus justifiable under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Critics rejected the idea of “pre-emptive self-defense”. France, in particular (again no surprise), was outraged over the loss of a French national as a result of the attack, and since the raid, diplomatic ties between France and Israel remained strained for a bit. The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 487, calling upon Israel “to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards,” and stated that Iraq was “entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it suffered.” Israel has not complied with these requests. The United States supported the resolution condemning the Israeli action — not the country as other nations tried to do. Their course of action was to withhold a contingent of aircraft already promised to Israel.
Files released by the British National Archives in 2011 show that Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Sir Nicholas Henderson, was with US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger as the news came of the bombing came in:
“Weinberger says that he thinks Begin must have taken leave of his senses. He is much disturbed by the Israeli reaction and possible consequences,” Sir Nicholas cabled London.
Britain’s ambassador in Baghdad, Sir Stephen Egerton, disclosed that the Iraqis had been just as surprised when the Israeli F15 fighters appeared in their skies.
“The diplomatic corps had a ringside view of the belated ack-ack and missile reactions to the raid when we were gathered for the Italian national day reception on the Bund [waterside],” he wrote.
Of course, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution trashing Israel for saving herself.
Over twenty years later, when the world began to face a terrorist threat as never before the world began to realize the service performed by Israel, the IAF and Menachem Begin.
Just imagine a world with Iraq or, God forbid, a terrorist with their hands on a nuclear weapon. If it wasn’t for Menachem Begin, a Prime Minister with guts to give the orders to protect Israel, knowing (but not caring) that a world would absolutely freak, and the heroes of the IDF who flawlessly performed their mission, this scary world have happened already.
Eventually, Israel also destroyed a nuclear plant in the middle of the Syrian desert, preventing Assad from gaining nukes.
When Israel wanted to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, Barack Obama warned the Jewish State not to protect herself. Instead, the anti-Israel president negotiated a deal which essentially delays the Iranian Nuclear weapons program for up to ten years and as soon as the delay is over Iran would need three months to make the jump to nuclear weapons. But the latest intelligence suggests they have started the process much earlier.
In the end, if Israel hadn’t acted in 1981 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein would have already had nuclear weapons.