Norman Dombey in the London Review of Books:
On 7 June 1981, Israeli aircraft bombed and completely destroyed the Iraqi nuclear research reactor Osirak. The French government, which had sold the reactor to Iraq, protested. Bertrand Barre, its nuclear attaché in Washington, explained that the reactor posed no proliferation risk and that ‘it was intended to be used . . . for testing or converting materials into isotopes, which have specialised uses in medicine.’ The UN Security Council strongly condemned the attack as being ‘in clear violation of the charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct’. The United States, however, objected to the imposing of any sanctions on Israel.
Was the Israeli attack on Osirak justified? Saddam Hussein certainly wanted to make nuclear weapons and in 1991 came dangerously close. But it is unlikely that he would have had much joy with Osirak, which relied on French technicians and was subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Osirak used highly enriched uranium as fuel: 93 per cent uranium-235 (U-235), and 7 per cent U-238, so while the irradiated fuel rods could have been reprocessed to extract unused U-235, which is a fissile material suitable for weapons, there would have been little plutonium-239, which is obtained from the irradiation of U-238. Israel nevertheless claimed that Osirak was equipped to produce ‘military-grade plutonium in significant quantities’ and that they had to strike before the reactor went into operation. Iraq considered building a reactor to replace Osirak but settled instead for a clandestine uranium enrichment programme, which it didn’t declare to the IAEA.
Twenty-five years later, the focus is not on Iraq, but on Iran, which itself unsuccessfully bombed Osirak in September 1980. Israel and the US now claim that Iran is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons.