Israel's bombing in 1981 of Iraq's nuclear reactor is often cited nowadays as a successful, er, counter-proliferation program. There's a lot of doubt that something similar could work to Iran's apparent ambitions, but to the degree that the military option is being pushed, the Osirak strike is the general proof-of concept. But according to two letters (sub. req) in the latest Atlantic Monthly (one by a high-falutin' physicist who visited the reactor), the effect of Israel's strike has been overblown, and (more speculatively) may even have speeded up Iraq's nukes program.
The writers were responding to a James Fallow's article about war-gaming a potential attack on Iran (which mentioned Osirak). Here's one letter:
The Osirak reactor that was bombed by Israel in June of 1981 was explicitly designed by the French engineer Yves Girard to be unsuitable for making bombs. That was obvious to me on my 1982 visit. Many physicists and nuclear engineers have agreed. Much evidence suggests that the bombing did not delay the Iraqi nuclear-weapons program but started it. For example, the principal Iraqi scientist, Jafar Dhia Jafar, was asked by Saddam Hussein to work on the bomb only in July of 1981.
Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics
And the other:
James Fallows's article "Will Iran Be Next?" (December Atlantic) usefully discusses the dangers involved in attacking
Iran's nuclear program. Fallows also points out that an air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would be less likely to succeed than the 1981 Israeli attack against the Iraqi Osirak reactor, because of the likely concealment and dispersion of Iranian nuclear facilities. I agree with Fallows that Iran is likely to have concealed and dispersed its facilities, and that such countermeasures substantially complicate military plans. However, the success of the 1981 Israeli attack in delaying the Iraqi nuclear-weapons program has been greatly exaggerated. The French-supplied reactor at Osirak was not well designed for plutonium production, the pre-attack Iraqi route to building a nuclear weapon. Further, by 1981 the French had decided to supply the Iraqis with a special nuclear fuel that could be used to run the reactor but was not well suited for plutonium production.
More important, a rigorous inspection regime was in place to ensure that plutonium could not be produced and secretly diverted to a weapons program. The International Atomic Energy Agency was in the process of installing an extensive inspection regime that would probably have included twenty-four-hour camera surveillance and frequent on-site visits from IAEA inspectors (the reactor was not yet operative at the time of the attack). The French themselves had technicians on hand who filed frequent reports.
Iraq's acquiring nuclear weapons, and would have suspended the supply of reactor fuel if evidence of plutonium production had been uncovered. The diversion of plutonium would have been difficult to conceal, given that it would have involved a number of non-routine activities, including possibly shutting down the reactor. Imad Khadduri, a former scientist in the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission under Saddam Hussein, bluntly declares in his recent memoir that the idea that plutonium could be produced under this inspection regime without tipping off IAEA inspectors or French technicians is "delusional."
Rather than delaying the Iraqi nuclear-weapons program, the 1981 attack may actually have accelerated it. The attack appears to have heightened Saddam's interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. After the attack Saddam started an underground nuclear-weapons program, unbeknownst to the international community and hence free from the fetters of IAEA inspection.
Given that Osirak is supposed to be the prototypical success story of preventive attacks against a rogue state's nuclear program, this episode should give considerable pause to advocates of future preventive strikes.