The Osirak Example: Will Airstrikes Work At All?

In his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Sen. Joe Lieberman made a small concession. “[T]he use of military force is not the ‘ideal way’ to stop the Iranian nuclear program,” he said.

The truth is, while hawks portray airstrikes as a kind of magic bullet that can end the Iranian nuclear program, it is indeed a less than ‘ideal’ plan — it may not work at all.

Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, in his August story, that even the Israelis are convinced that an attack might only temporarily set back the Iranian program: “[T]hey believe they have a reasonable chance of delaying the Iranian nuclear program for at least three to five years.” Many experts estimate the length of the delay will be even less.

Goldberg cited the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq’s secret Osirak nuclear facility as an example of a successful attack: “In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting—forever, as it turned out—Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.” (Glenn Greenwald notes Goldberg made the opposite claim in the run up to the Iraq war: Hussein’s program never ended.)

The “success” of the Osirak attack is a common theme among neoconservatives. The Hudson Institute cited the strike in a January 2010 report urging the U.S. to support an Israeli attack on Iran and to prepare for the resulting wider war.

At the Progressive Realist blog, Louisville professor and blogger Rodger Payne lines up a number of academic and other studies that challenge this conclusion. Here’s an excerpt of one (PDF):

The 1981 Israeli aerial striike on Iraqi nuclear facilities at Osiraq is frequently cited as a successful use of preventive military force, and may be used to justify similar attacks in the future. However, closer examination of the Osiraq attack reveals that it did not substantially delay the Iraqi nuclear program, and may have even hastened it. Attempts to replicate the “success” at Osiraq are likely to do even worse, as proliferating states are now routinely dispersing and concealing their nuclear, biological, and chemical programs to decrease their vulnerability to air strikes. Given the poor track record of preventive attacks in controlling the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, American interests will be best served in the future by embracing other tools of counterproliferation.

Most honest appraisals of a potential military strike against Iran’s nuclear program admit that it may only be a setback for the alleged weapons program — if it works at all.

“Numerous analysts doubt that Israel is capable of carrying out a successful strike,” Matt Duss wrote this summer, lining up experts.

A study by a British think-tank this summer concluded, according to Haaretz, that “[a]n Israeli attack on Iran would be the start of a protracted conflict that would be unlikely to prevent the eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran and might even encourage it.”

Even if the U.S. — as Lieberman wants — carries out a strike with its more advanced weaponry and planes, the results will likely be the same. There’s no reason to expect that U.S. intelligence or technological abilities are so much greater than Israel’s that a U.S. attack on the Iranian nuclear program would be decisive.

This is something Duss and I have harped on as of late: not only would an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities be no “cakewalk,” but like the Osirak attack, it probably will not accomplish its ostensible longer-term objectives.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.