Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Osirak "fallacy" 

Regular readers know that we like to challenge conventional wisdom, even when it is our conventional wisdom. So it is with Richard Betts' article on the "Osirak fallacy" in the spring issue of The National Interest. Betts argues that Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak action makes a poor model for acting against Iran, in part because it did not stop Iraq's nuclear program or even, Betts argues, slow it down:

In contrast to a ground war, air power has the allure of quick, clean, decisive action without messy entanglement. Smash today, gone tomorrow. Iraq's nuclear program demonstrates how unsuccessful air strikes can be even when undertaken on a massive scale. Recall the surprising discoveries after the Iraq War. In 1991 coalition air forces destroyed the known nuclear installations in Iraq, but when UN inspectors went into the country after the war, they unearthed a huge infrastructure for nuclear weapons development that had been completely unknown to Western intelligence before the war.

Obliterating the Osirak reactor did not put the brakes on Saddam's nuclear weapons program because the reactor that was destroyed could not have produced a bomb on its own and was not even necessary for producing a bomb. Nine years after Israel's attack on Osirak, Iraq was very close to producing a nuclear weapon. Had Saddam been smart enough in 1990 to wait a year longer, he might have been able to have a nuclear weapon in his holster when he invaded Kuwait.

There are two methods for developing fissionable material for a nuclear weapon. One is to reprocess spent fuel from a nuclear reactor like Osirak into fissionable plutonium. In order to reprocess the fuel from Osirak on a significant scale, the Iraqis would have needed to construct a separate plutonium reprocessing plant. Many laymen commonly assume the effectiveness of the Israeli strike because they mistakenly believe that a nuclear reactor alone can produce explosive material for a bomb. Iraq had made no move toward building the necessary reprocessing facility at the time the Israelis struck the reactor. Without such a separate plant, the destruction of the reactor was practically superfluous.

In fact, a reactor is not even essential for developing a weapon--it is simply one building block for one option. Destruction of Osirak did nothing to impede the separate development project that brought Iraq to the brink of weapons capability less than a decade later. Iraq went on to a fast-paced weapon-development effort by choosing the route toward the enrichment of natural uranium. This is the route that Iran now appears to be taking. Western intelligence did not detect Iraq's enrichment facilities when Saddam Hussein was actively developing a nuclear capability during the 1980s.

If anything, the destruction of the reactor probably increased Saddam's incentive to rush the program via the second route. It is unlikely that Saddam would have been able to develop nuclear weapons much faster through the Osirak reactor--given that he would have had to plan, construct and operate a reprocessing plant--than through enrichment. Israel's preventive strike was not an example of effective delay.

It was, however, extremely entertaining.

The Betts article is instructive, but largely a "straw man" argument. However inapplicable the Osirak precedent may be to the case of Iran, most public discussion of airstrikes against Iran imagine a far more extensive campaign against all known elements of Iran's program. See, e.g., "Iranian Nuclear Weapons? The Options If Diplomacy Fails" (pdf) from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the most dispassionate analysis of the non-military and military means for coercing Iran that I know of. A more extensive campaign would involve greater risk and cost and is probably beyond the capability of Israel acting alone, but neither does that mean that Osirak is precedent for its success or failure.


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