The Israeli Air Force destroys Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor during Operation Opera.
Operation Opera, also known as Operation Babylon, was a surprise Israeli air strike carried out on 7 June 1981, which destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction 17 kilometers southeast of Baghdad. The operation came after Iran’s unsuccessful Operation Scorch Sword operation had caused minor damage to the same nuclear facility the previous year, the damage having been subsequently repaired by French technicians. Operation Opera, and related Israeli government statements following it, established the Begin Doctrine, which explicitly stated the strike was not an anomaly, but instead “a precedent for every future government in Israel.” Israel’s counter-proliferation preventive strike added another dimension to their existing policy of deliberate ambiguity, as it related to the nuclear capability of other states in the region.
In 1976, Iraq purchased an “Osiris”-class nuclear reactor from France. While Iraq and France maintained that the reactor, named Osirak by the French, was intended for peaceful scientific research, the Israelis viewed the reactor with suspicion, believing it was designed to make nuclear weapons. On 7 June 1981, a flight of Israeli Air Force F-16A fighter aircraft, with an escort of F-15As, bombed and heavily damaged the Osirak reactor. Israel called the operation an act of self-defense said that the reactor had “less than a month to go” before “it might have become critical.” Ten Iraqi soldiers and one French civilian were killed. The attack took place about three weeks before the elections for the Knesset.
At the time, the attack was met with sharp international criticism, including in the United States, and Israel was rebuked by the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly in two separate resolutions. Media reactions were also negative: “Israel’s sneak attack … was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression”, wrote the New York Times, while the Los Angeles Times called it “state-sponsored terrorism”. The destruction of Osirak has been cited as an example of a preventive strike in contemporary scholarship on international law. The efficacy of the attack is debated by historians, who acknowledge that it brought back Iraq from the brink of nuclear capability but drove its weapons program underground and cemented Saddam Hussein’s future ambitions for acquiring nuclear weapons.