In the early morning in the summer of 1981 two wings of US supplied Israeli fighter jets violated Jordanian and Iraqi airspace en route to the Osirak reactor just outside Baghdad which they destroyed completely with
zero civilian casualties [French engineer Damien Chaussepied was killed, along with 10 Iraqi soldiers - ed]. This strike, though using US planes and intelligence reports, was not authorized by the US which was caught completely unprepared when news surfaced it ocurred. The UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, and President Reagan condemned the attack. Within Israel the attack was viewed then and now as a triumph and bolstered the Likud party’s faltering re-election prospects.
This history is still relevant since that strike is now viewed as a policy triumph among members of the Israeli right and their allies in the American right. Three of the four remaining Republican candidates have called for airstrikes against Iran and have declared that the time for diplomacy is over. While President Obama remains committed to diplomacy his rhetoric has become increasingly militant and he announced to great applause at last weekends AIPAC Convention in Washington D.C that he will always keep the military option on the table.
Yet this rhetoric is troubling for many reasons, it presumes that the tactical and strategic triumph of the Osirak bombing would be repeated in Iran, which is not the case. Secondly, while undeniably a tactical triumph this strike may have significantly altered the Middle Eastern political framework leading directly to Irans need to produce a nuclear weapon in the first place.
On the first point, a great WBUR article (http://www.wbur.org/npr/148320514/experts-a-strike-on-iran-poses-many-challenges) shows that the Iranians have learned several key tactical lessons from their Iraqi counterparts. Their nuclear program, rather than based at one above ground reactor is likely to be spread out across the country and contained in mostly underground facilities. Additionally rather than placing them on the outskirts of urban centers, some of the key facilities are located in high density areas surrounded by potential civilian casualties. In short one strike and possibly one series of strikes could still leave a significant portion of the program intact. Additionally such a strike will require bunker busting bombs that are only produced in the United States so US collusion, even in an Israeli led strike, will be vital and visible from the outset.
The strategic picture is also vastly different. Iraq, already crippled from a long and losing war with Iran could not afford to retaliate against Israel and remove vital equipment from the field. In 1981 the number of US troops on Middle Eastern soil was precisely zero. Now we have two carrier groups in the Hormuz, a base in Bahrain, bases in Oman and Kuwait all easily reachable by Iranian missiles and warheads. The Iranian Navy, easily dispensed with in the unrelated Operation Praying Mantis in 1987, is now significantly larger and our carriers are especially vulnerable to Revolutionary Guard suicide boats. Israel has far fewer friends than it did then, as does the US in the Middle East. Furthermore the US has already toppled one dictator trying to seek nuclear weapons, toppled another that gave them up, and is threatening to destroy the Iranian regime. A strike will signal that the US is using the Non Proliferation Treaty for its own hegemonic interests and will likely lead to the evisceration of that treaty and an arms race in the already volatile Middle East, especially as other regimes like Jordan and the Saudi’s are struggling to stay in power.
In 1981, noted political scientist Kenneth Waltz observed after Osirak
“In striking Iraq, Israel showed that a preventive strike can be made, something that was not in doubt. Israel’s act and its consequences however, make clear that the likelihood of useful accomplishment is low. Israel’s strike increased the determination of Arabs to produce nuclear weapons. Arab states that may attempt to do so will now be all the more secretive and circumspect. Israel’s strike, far from foreclosing Iraq’s nuclear future, gained her the support of some other Arab states in pursuing it.”
And another quote from a law professor and young state Senator
“I do not oppose all wars, I oppose dumb wars, and this war is a dumb war”-State Senator Barack Obama