Interestingly, there was a time—after Tehran’s mad extremist clerics came to power—that Middle East foes Iran and Israel found themselves sharing a rare common goal: the elimination of a regional nuclear weapons threat.
Today, as Israel is down to its last option in preventing Iran from acquiring such a capability, it is ironic almost 30 years ago it was Iran facing the same option. Some of the factors that came into play in eliminating the threat back then are again in play today for an Iran whose day of reckoning may well be at hand.
In the late 1970s, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein embarked upon a nuclear weapons program—a major concern for neighboring Iran’s shah. Although the 1979 Islamic Revolution removed the shah from power, it remained a concern for his replacement—the fanatical religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. While conducting brutal purges of his own people reminiscent of the French revolution almost two centuries earlier, Khomeini still kept a watchful eye on Iraq’s nuclear program at Osirak. A watchful Israeli eye also monitored progress on the building of the nuclear reactor there.
By September 1980, Saddam’s nuclear reactor was not operational, as it had not yet been loaded with nuclear fuel. The timing as to when this would happen was critical to Israel as bombing an operational nuclear reactor generated concerns about exposing the local civilian population to radiation.
Israel had reason to be worried about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. Just like the threat it would receive decades later from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to “wipe Israel off the map,” a similar threat was voiced by Saddam on his march to acquire nuclear weapons. In an effort perhaps geared to placate those Arabs living in Israel and Palestine who might also fall victim to any Iraqi nuke attack against Israel, Hussein threatened only to “burn up half of Israel,” as if suggesting nuclear weapons could discern between Jews and Muslims.
As concerns mounted in both Iran and Israel over the Iraqi nuclear threat, Saddam provided Iran with the first opportunity to attack Osirak by launching a surprise invasion of the country on September 22, 1980, starting an eight-year war. Eight days later, as Saddam had “cleverly” withdrawn many of his air assets from Iraq and re-located them to Saudi Arabia, Iran saw its chance to take out the nuclear facility. An air attack was launched—but failed. As the Iran-Iraq war evolved into “trench warfare,” Iran—still unable to destroy the Osirak facility—left the task to its other regional enemy—Israel—to do so.
On June 7, 1981, believing the loading of nuclear fuel into the Osirak reactor was imminent, Israel launched its attack. Eight aircraft participated in the operation and, not unlike the Jimmy Doolittle Raid over Tokyo during World War II, many pilots expected not to return. The strike successfully destroyed the facility, derailing Saddam’s attempt to field a nuclear weapon.
Remarkably, all eight Israeli aircraft returned home safely. (One of the pilots, Ilam Ramon, went on to become Israel’s first astronaut, tragically dying 22 years later in the ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.)
For courageously going where no one else would in taking decisive military action against Iraq and denying a rogue leader a nuclear weapons arsenal, Israel was condemned by many member states of the United Nations, including the U.S. But Israel’s actions ensured regional stability for the remainder of the 20th Century.
However, the end of one millennium and beginning of another would witness the start-up of an effort by Iran to clandestinely develop its own nuclear weapons. As the U.S. attempted to curry favor with Iranian moderate Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), little did it realize the terms of these two “moderates” were being used to start up Iran’s nuclear weapons and missile delivery programs. Rafsanjani appeared on “60 Minutes” to tell America Iran had no nuclear program and he hated such weapons while he was actually instructing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (now in charge of the nuclear program) to develop them.
Four years after leaving office, Rajsanjani—knowing Iran’s nuclear program was in full swing—made a statement that only made sense years later after Tehran’s secret nuclear weapons program was discovered. The former president suggested Iran could destroy all of Israel with one bomb while Israel could respond only by causing some damage to the Islamic world.
In the high stakes nuclear poker game going on in the region in June 1981, Saudi Arabia played both sides of the fence. While giving Saddam permission to protect his air force by flying it to Saudi Arabia after launching the September surprise attack against Iran, Riyadh had given Israel permission to use its airspace to attack Osirak. So too did Jordan—with the permission of both these countries vital to the success of the Israeli strike. Saddam’s vision of a nuclear-armed Iraq apparently blinded him to the mounting opposition against his doing so.
As Iran continues to ignore calls by the international community to terminate its nuclear weapons program, Israel’s options are down to the military one. In a repeat of its successful 1981 Osirak attack, Israel appears already to have worked out overflight rights with Arab countries opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran. Of course, Israel’s formula for a successful strike this time will be much more complex: Osirak involved a single, above-ground target while a strike against Iran will involve numerous targets hidden deep underground.
In its decision to attack Osirak, Israel’s self-imposed deadline for launch was prior to nuclear fuel being loaded into its reactor. The nuclear fuel for Iran’s reactor at Bushehr is being provided by Russia. Moscow has announced the loading process will begin “before the end of August.” If Israel has identified the loading process as the same triggering event, Iran’s Day of Reckoning is within sight.
The decision has probably already been made as to whether Israel will opt to conduct a limited attack against Bushehr alone or go after as many other targets as possible. The benefit of a limited Bushehr strike is that the facility can easily be accessed and targeted either by Israeli air or sea assets. The facility there is above ground and situated very close to Iran’s West Coast. In fact, the Bushehr facility’s location is such that, even if Israel opted to strike it after it became operational, civilian casualties from fallout would be limited due to the prevailing winds.
The issue to be decided by Israel is whether a limited Bushehr strike would effectively deter the Iranians from continuing on with their nuclear program or simply cause them to expedite it. If the latter, Israel would opt for a much broader attack against all known Iranian nuclear assets. This would leave a final decision then—whether to conduct a major conventional attack or to rely on another extraordinary means—such as an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) weapon, which Israel possesses. This weapon involves generating a nuclear air burst that would create an EMP wave which would then knock out Iran’s main electrical grid systems, while limiting the loss of life. The risk is that it is an uncontrolled burst so that, depending on the altitude, the damage caused on the ground could go beyond Iran’s borders.
Clearly Iran has learned from Israel’s successful Osirak operation to spread out its nuclear facilities, placing many underground. But there is one thing Tehran has failed to fully grasp as it continues to ignore calls by the UN to stand down its nuclear weapons program. Iran will learn, too late, when the attack against its nuclear facilities comes, that Israel will conduct the attack in trademark fashion: It will totally surprise Tehran, successfully crippling the desire of the Iranian technocrats to launch a first-strike nuclear attack against Israel.