By David Kurlander
The assassination last week of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh sent shockwaves through the Middle East. The New York Times quickly reported that the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, likely orchestrated the attack, and veteran national security reporter (and recent Cyber Space guest) David Sanger raised questions about the strike’s implications for the incoming Biden administration’s proposed re-entry into the Iran nuclear deal. 40 years ago, a similar conversation followed Israel’s acts of sabotage against the nuclear reactor of another Middle Eastern power, strongman Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Reagan administration’s tense response showcases many of the same ambiguities in the U.S.-Israel relationship that are reemerging with the Fakhrizadeh killing…
The story of Iraq’s nuclear reactor began, oddly, with France. In 1974, reeling from the OPEC crisis and the resultant global oil crunch, French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac secured some much-needed petrol from a $275 million “oil-for-atoms” deal with the government of Iraq. France agreed to oversee the installation of two nuclear reactors potentially capable of creating fuel for nuclear weapons for Iraq’s nationalistic Ba’ath Party. Although Iraq’s leaders mostly insisted that the reactors would be used for peaceful means, outspoken Vice President Saddam Hussein offered a series of belligerent interviews condemning Israel and implying more militaristic motivations for the project. “The Franco-Iraqi agreement is the first Arab step toward gaining nuclear arms, even if our declared goal in building the reactor is not the manufacture of atom bombs,” Hussein admitted to journalists in 1975.
As Hussein’s power grew over the following years, he ruthlessly guarded the reactors, which were placed outside of Baghdad and dubbed “Osiraq.” Hussein gathered up a team of international scientists who he intimidated into silence with chilling videos showing his cabinet ministers executing disloyal officials. The Israeli government, led by hardliner Menachem Begin, unsuccessfully lobbied France to stop cooperating with Iraq. By 1978, Israel believed that Hussein was only a few years away from making Iraq the region’s only other atomic power.
Israeli intelligence sprang into action in France, targeting scientists associated with Osiraq. Former Mossad agent Victor Ostrovsky’s controversial 1991 tell-all, By Way of Deception, alleged that Mossad orchestrated an assassination at Le Méridien Hotel of Egyptian nuclear physicist and top Osiraq researcher Yehia al-Mashad, who had traveled to Paris to check on a uranium shipment for the reactor. “The Mossad doesn’t execute people unless they have blood on their hands,” Ostrovsky reasoned. “This man would have had the blood of Israel’s children on his hands if he’d completed the project. So why wait?” Journalist Ronen Bergman recently postulated (in his Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations) that Mossad poisoned two other Osiraq-associated scientists in the weeks following Mashad’s death, possibly with toothpaste. Even after the assassinations, however, Hussein refused to slow down the program, instead offering huge cash bonuses to his terrified scientists.
By 1980, Begin was edging toward striking Osiraq directly with fighter jets. During that final year of the Carter administration, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis —who stayed on for Reagan—met with Begin several times about the Osiraq threat. Lewis memorialized the exchanges, but the papers never got to new Secretary of State Alexander Haig or the rest of Ronald Reagan’s incoming national security team. “There seems to have been a real bureaucratic ‘glitch,’” Lewis revealed in a 1998 oral history, “and the top people in the new administration were never made aware of this situation.”
On July 7, 1981, eight Israeli F-16s navigated through hostile Jordanian and Saudi Arabian airspace to Osiraq, bombed both reactors, and returned undetected. Begin called Lewis only after the planes had returned–a unilateral move that was arguably unprecedented in the relationship between the two nations–and asked him to inform President Reagan. Lewis called National Security Advisor Richard V. Allen, who managed to reach the President just before he got on the chopper at Camp David. In a 2010 New York Times reflection, Allen recalled that Reagan asked him to repeat the chain of events before asking him, “Why do you suppose they did that.” After a pause, “with characteristic aplomb,” Reagan added, “Boys will be boys.” Allen argued that Reagan’s reaction showed his strengths: “He could simultaneously recognize the long-range strategic consequences and appreciate the seriousness of the situation then cut to the chase with a pithy comment.”
Notwithstanding his quip to Allen, Reagan was panicked. “Got word of Israeli bombing of Iraq—nuclear reactor,” he wrote in his diary shortly after hanging up the phone. “I swear I believe Armageddon is near.” In the following days, Reagan’s team managed the complicated ripple effects, which involved resultant tensions in the recent peace deal between Begin and Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and resolutions condemning Israel at the United Nations.
Reagan’s advisors were fiercely divided about potentially punishing Israel. They agreed to announce the hold-up in a scheduled delivery of four additional F-16s to Israel, but were split on further action. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was in favor of more formalized sanctions, while Haig and Allen argued for restraint. Reagan ultimately went with the more mild rebuke. On June 9th, Reagan took to his diary again: “We are not turning on Israel—that would be an invitation for the Arabs to attack…It’s time to raise H–l worldwide for a settlement of the “middle- east” problem.” As for his assessment of Iraq’s intentions, Reagan wrote, “Saddam Hussein is a ‘no good nut’ and I think he was trying to build a nuclear weapon.”
On June 15th, Begin went on Face the Nation to make clear that he meant to establish a new approach to Israeli nuclear deterrence. “I am absolutely sure that, based on the precedent we created, any prime minister of any government of Israel will destroy that reactor before it is operational,” Begin argued. Reagan soon accepted these new stakes, welcoming Begin to the White House in September and signing a new Strategic Cooperation Agreement in November.
The strategic merits of the Osiraq raid and the resultant “Begin Doctrine” have been endlessly debated in the intervening four decades. During the leadup to the Iraq War in 2002, for example, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof praised Osiraq and argued that the raid could provide inspiration for a U.S. intervention focused on “containment, pinpoint bombing, and assassination,” rather than a full-scale invasion.
Now, as Israel seemingly escalates its moves against the Iranian nuclear program, Biden—like Reagan in 1981—faces the difficult task of articulating how the United States should react to Israel’s continuation of the “Begin Doctrine,” particularly given its potential effect on other foreign policy pursuits.
In addition to Bergman’s aforementioned (and truly fascinating) Rise and Kill First, check out Warren Bass’ RAND Corporation essay “A Surprise Out of Zion? Case Studies in Israel’s Decisions on Whether to Alert the United States to Preemptive and Preventive Strikes, from Suez to the Syrian Nuclear Reactor,” Alexandra Evans’ Wilson Center critique “A Lesson from the 1981 Raid on Osirak,” and Daniel Gordis’ impressive 2014 Begin biography, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul.
Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history, which offer context to understand our present challenges, including these recent pieces: