Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear site forty years ago didn’t end Saddam’s program — it accelerated it. This pattern is repeating with Iran today.
Nuclear nationalism: An unintended consequence of Israel’s bombings
On June 7, 1981, an Israeli air strikedestroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor. A trove of newly declassified American documents released by the National Security Archive has archivists arguing that the strike did not eliminate Iraq’s programme, but rather compelled Saddam Hussein to acquire a nuclear weapon.
Indeed, Saddam’s pursuit of these weapons of mass destruction after 1981 provided the rationale, decades later, for the US invasion in 2003 to dismantle these weapons — ones that had already been dismantled by the UN and the Iraqis themselves after the nineties.
These events reveal two dynamics that link the past to the present. First, just as American weaponry proved critical in the raid on Iraq’s nuclear facility four decades ago, it also enabled Israel’s latest war in Gaza.
Second, just as the Israeli airstrike in 1981 led to more Iraqi scientists signing up to work on their national nuclear program, Israeli assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists have led to the same “nuclear nationalism” today.
The US – Israel ‘special relationship’
On June 11, the New York Times released a report titled, “The American Bomb Behind Many of the Israeli Airstrikes in Gaza.” It focused on the US-made Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), a GPS kit for a far older American weapon, the Mark 80-series bomb, deployed in Gaza during the fighting this May.
A dozen of the Mark-84, the largest of the Mark-80 series, was used to destroy Iraq’s nuclear facilities. This brings us to the first ongoing dynamic: US weaponry enables Israeli foreign policy, in this case, counter-proliferation.
Forty years ago, Israel attempted to prevent nuclear proliferation in Iraq by destroying its Osirak reactor with American-made F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft and the aforementioned bombs. Forty years later, Israel attempted to prevent the proliferation of rockets used by Hamas with the same American-supplied weapons.
In both cases, the recipients of Israel’s bombings are even more determined to pursue these weapons in the future.
Granted, Israel could have used aircraft and bombs from any country in these two cases, and has a robust indigenous weapons program. But the weapons symbolise the symbiotic relationship between the US and Israel — a fact that is not lost on those on the receiving end.
Israel’s counter-proliferation from the air proves to be a delaying tactic that confounds the problem rather than solves it, a lesson it has not learned with Iran.
The fallout: Nuclear nationalism
Political scientist Jacques Hymans writes that “[c]ounterproliferation attacks are highly likely to engender a strong nationalist upsurge among the proliferant state scientific and technical workers.” He quotes an Iraqi who said that “the Israeli bombing of Tammuz I [ie Osirak] had infuriated many, and they were practically forming a line to participate in ending the Jewish state’s monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.”
He concludes that gaining the scientists’ commitment, many of whom were reluctant to work on an Iraqi program before the attack, would have been more valuable to Saddam than the hardware — the reactor.
This lesson applies to Israel’s counterproliferation strategy for Iran. In November 2020, it is widely believedthat Israel, with other parties, was responsible for the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
While that assassination may have only killed one man, it is likely to inspire a new generation of Iranians to pursue nuclear science, part of an Iranian “nuclear nationalism” emerging as a result of the assassinations of the nation’s scientists in the past.
Violations of its sovereignty and the assassination of its nuclear scientists on Iranian soil only inflame this nationalism. It serves as a unifying rallying point within the country, a matter of pride that the nation has overcome the technological hurdles in developing such a program.
Thus, while the parties behind the assassination sought to weaken the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, its violence only temporarily sets back this initiative. Iranians have related to me that throngs of students studying other fields switched to nuclear sciences, as was seen in the aftermath of the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan. We will likely see hundreds of Fakhrizadehs in the future.
Reflections on the past
Nationalism alone is not enough for a successful nuclear weapons project. Yet proliferation and use of tangible military technology and hardware also produce intangible sentiments and resentment that travel over time and place.
Forty years ago, US weaponry enabled Israel’s policy over the skies of Iraq, and in the present over Gaza. When they hit the ground, they destroy buildings, military hardware and combatants, but also civilians, leading to enduring resentments that cannot be destroyed by weapons. Thus, the Osirak raid provides lessons, even decades later, for America’s drone campaign.
Finally, the Osirak raid serves as another reminder of why it behoves both Washington and Tehran to recommit to the nuclear deal. It is such multilateral initiatives that prevent reckless unilateral actions that may jeopardise regional stability.
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Ibrahim al-Marashi is an associate professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of The Modern History of Iraq, 4th edition.