What Would Begin Do?
Seeing the Iranian nuclear threat through the lens of Osirak
By Seth Lipsky
The latest disclosures in respect of Iran’s work on an atomic bomb—the International Atomic Energy Agency says the mullahs have the technical data needed to make a weapon—has me thinking about what happened in 1981, when Israel sent a flight of American-built warplanes to destroy a reactor that Iraq was building as part of a suspected program to manufacture a weapon. The thing that stands out from that episode is that it came out of the blue, not just literally but also politically.
Certainly there was plenty of concern about what Iraq was up to, but the long public debate, the hand-wringing, the threats, the counter-threats, the journalistic chorus about what a terrible thing a pre-emptive attack would be, how dangerous, none of this happened. One day Iraq had a nuclear reactor. The next day it didn’t. The attack was met with the usual outrage, but then a funny thing happened, and the tide began to turn in Israel’s favor, in part because Menachem Begin had no apologies.
...The [Wall Street] Journal recognized that Israel “was not acting out of some abstract concern with nonproliferation.” It presumed that Israel was “pursuing its own interest” and conceded the timing of the raid was “no doubt” in Begin’s “political interest in the impending elections.”
...Today, everyone is more tense...Surely Iran is a more difficult military mission than Iraq was, though our weapons systems are also more advanced. But surely Iran is further along the road to a bomb-making capacity than Iraq was. Menachem Begin refrained from debating any of this in public before he made his attack, and then one day there was no reactor in Iraq—a fact that eventually came to be viewed with a great deal of relief by the rest of the world.