Increasingly concerned by Iraq’s illicit program to produce nuclear weapons, Israel ordered its air force on a secret mission on June 7, 1981 to take out the Osirak nuclear reactor. The mission, code-named Operation Opera, shocked leaders across the Middle East as they saw Israel’s ability to strike unilaterally and preemptively as a threat to their own national security. One Arab leader claimed to have seen the operation unfold and tried to warn the Iraqis.
Richard Viets had just arrived in Jordan when the Israelis attacked Osirak. Dean Rust, as Deputy Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency’s Non-Proliferation Policy bureau, had firsthand experience with both Israel and Iraq’s nuclear program. While at the U.S. Mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), David Brown observed the Israeli nuclear program and knew their fears of Iraq obtaining nuclear weapons. As Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs in Cairo, Allan Wendt was with Egyptian Vice President Hosni Mubarak when word came down of the Israeli attack. Thomas Miller was serving as a Political/Military Officer in the Office of Israeli-Palestinian Affairs.
All of the interviews were conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy. Viets’ interviews began in April 1990, Rust in December 2006, Brown in January 2003, Wendt in May 1996, and Miller in April 2010.
“Oh my God, if they can do it to the Iraqis, they can do it to us”
Richard Viets, Ambassador, Embassy Amman, 1981-1984
VIETS: Every three weeks or so the Israelis would fly reconnaissance missions deep into Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. They were doing this essentially at will, partly I think for psychological purposes and partly to monitor air defenses, tracking capabilities, etc. in order to draw a profile of the type of reaction you would get if you ever had to attack that country. We would regularly go into the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel, warning against this practice.
My timing couldn’t have been worse because I arrived [in Jordan] two or three days after the Israelis had bombed the famous Iraqi nuclear reactor. The Middle East, as usual, was full of conspiracy theories, all of which sooner or later connected the United States to the Israelis’ attack.
I arrived to find the Embassy in a state of siege, psychological siege. Nobody was moving out to see anybody, talk to anybody. People were just hovering in their offices feeling sorry for themselves.
I remember realizing my first task was to get this Embassy to get on its bicycle and get on down to the bazaar and to ministries, etc., and to begin to do its job. The Arabs and the Jordanians in particular were deeply concerned because they all felt, “Oh my God, if they can do it to the Iraqis, they can do it to us.”
Dean Rust, Deputy Director, Non-Proliferation Policy Bureau, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1976-1997
RUST: The Israelis suspected that this reactor that the French had supplied to Iraq was going to be used as a basis for producing plutonium for weapons — huge event. The U.S. supported a [United Nations] Security Council resolution that condemned the Israelis for this action. But I would say for the first time it stimulated a lot of international concern about proliferation in the Middle East.
Everybody had always been worried about the Israeli nuclear weapons program, or at least about the Israelis publicly declaring their program, or about them conducting a nuclear test. But now it appeared technology was spreading such that Iran and Iraq and maybe even Libya had begun to seek technology for their own nuclear weapons program.
So countries like the U.S. and others in possession of more advanced nuclear technologies began to talk about a special export control regime that would apply towards just the Middle East. No formal arrangement was ever reached, but I think it tended to sensitize a lot of nuclear supplier states to the region. Some questioned whether ANY nuclear cooperation in the Middle East was appropriate.
“You can imagine the outrage over the Israeli attack”
David Brown, U.S. Mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 1978-1981
BROWN: France had sold the reactor to Iraq. Iraq was a party to the Non-proliferation Treaty and the [International Atomic Energy] Agency had a safeguards agreement with Iraq that covered the reactor, which at that point was soon to become operational.
So you can imagine the outrage over the Israeli attack. There were intense discussions about what position the [IAEA] Board should take concerning the attack. Should the Agency take the lead or was this a matter for the UN Security Council?
The reactor was ideally suited for producing weapons-grade plutonium and Iraq was seeking to obtain reprocessing equipment from France. That was one perspective.
The other was that the reactor was covered by IAEA safeguards, which many saw as making its eventual operation legal. Another question was whether the safeguards were effective. Were the Iraqis declaring the facilities and the material in the facility properly to the [IAEA] Agency?
Allan Wendt, Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs, Embassy Cairo, 1979-1981
WENDT: I got word of the bombing — it was on a Saturday — through intelligence channels. I promptly went out to brief Hosni Mubarak, who was then Vice President, at his official residence in Cairo and informed him what had happened. To my surprise, he didn’t really react much at first.
I kept waiting for him to explode. I should note that this Israeli action took place just three days after Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Sadat had held a summit meeting in the Sinai Desert. It was obvious that this news was going to be devastating for Egypt because the Egyptian people, even those favorably disposed towards Sadat, were going to say he was either a dupe and a fool or, if he knew about the raid, he was complicit and had betrayed Egypt. That was the attitude.
I wondered as I was briefing Mubarak if that was the way he saw it. He called for a map. An aide brought in a map and a magnifying glass. We must have spent 20 minutes trying to locate exactly where this reactor was outside of Baghdad.
Mubarak finally reacted and said, “Well, this could be serious.” I almost breathed a sigh of relief. He then picked up the phone and called Sadat. Sadat was at his summer residence in Alexandria. Sadat was tied up, I think, in some kind of a meeting, and Mubarak couldn’t get through right away.
But he did a short while later, and I could sense from my limited Arabic that Sadat exploded on the other end of the line. He immediately saw the implications of the raid.
The historians will have to determine — maybe they already have — what led the Israelis to undertake the raid at this particular time. Obviously, the mission must have been in the planning for a long time. Did they take into account the proximity of the raid to the Sadat-Begin summit meeting? Or did they carry out the raid when they decided all circumstances were favorable and they thought they had to do it right then and there? I don’t know.
I suppose the raid on the nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad had been planned for a long time and the Israelis thought, okay, this was it, this was the best time to do it. The people in charge perhaps didn’t think of the political implications of staging the raid so close to the summit meeting between Begin and Sadat. Anyway, I think that incident had a lot to do with the undermining of Sadat and hence his assassination just a few months later.
“The message never got to Amman air control and thus was never passed to the Iraqis”
Thomas Miller, Political/Military Officer, Israeli-Palestinian Affairs, 1981-1983
MILLER: Reagan was genuinely shocked that the Israelis would do this and not tell us. I’m not so sure he was shocked that they would do it, but he just expected from such close friends to be told. And when we weren’t told, what he did was he said, “Well, we have to do something.”
And it came down through the line, and what we ended up doing—I was the one who kind of operationalized it—was we held up delivering on a bunch of F-16s to Israel.
I was relatively young and pretty enthusiastic and thought, “How can the Israelis do this to us?” and all that kind of stuff, even though we all thought, “Yes, this is a bad thing, this nuclear program.”
I learned a valuable lesson, which stayed with me the rest of my life, and that is: don’t cock the gun unless you aim to fire it and you can sustain it. We couldn’t sustain it. We held up the F-16s for three weeks, and the American Jewish lobby mounted such a campaign against it that we couldn’t do it. The Israelis mobilized all their forces in this country and basically Reagan had to lift the embargo three weeks later.
VIETS: In my first conversation with the King [of Jordan] he confided that in fact he personally had spotted the Israeli aircraft on their way into Iraq. He had been up in an aircraft of his own in southern Jordan, down near the Gulf of Aqaba, and had spotted some miles away part of the squadron of Israeli F-16s on the way in [to Osirak.]
He had a copilot with him and had said to him, “My God, I think they are on a mission into Iraq.” He may have even said “after a reactor” because there had been some concern this might happen.
In any event he radioed the ground control staff to advise the air control center in Amman that he had spotted X number of Israeli fighters at very low level, which was part of the signal that this wasn’t a reconnaissance mission. And he instructed them to inform immediately the Iraqi Minister of Defense of the sighting.
Somehow there was confusion and the message never got to Amman air control and thus was never passed to the Iraqis. So that is one of those little ironic footnotes of history.