On June 7, 1981, eight Israeli fighter jets launched a strike targeting Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Dubbed Operation Opera, this daring mission marked the first successful raid ever conducted against a nuclear reactor. The mission would set the stage for the Begin Doctrine, Israel’s counter-proliferation policy that allows for preventive strikes against adversaries seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Despite immediate international condemnation of Israel following the operation, the destruction of the Osirak reactor prevented Iraq from reaching a nuclear-capable threshold.
The Iraqi government acquired its nuclear reactor in 1975, after finalizing a nuclear cooperation agreement with France. In addition to the Osiris-class research reactor, the French government supplied Iraq with training personnel and approximately 72 kilograms of enriched uranium. Iraq also received a smaller ISIS-type reactor, the Tammuz II, from the French. The research facility, built near Baghdad, was reportedly subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, and France insisted this ensured the reactor would never produce nuclear weapons. However, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said the procurement of the French-built reactor “represented the first Arab attempt at nuclear arming.”
Despite French assurances that Iraq’s nuclear reactor was peaceful, both Israel and the U.S. feared Iraq could learn to produce fissile material for destructive means. Iran also targeted Iraq’s reactor site, at the onset of the Iran-Iraq war, but the attack only caused limited damage.
Seizing the Moment
Israel gained the ability to carry out Operation Opera because of the Iranian Revolution. After the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the U.S. canceled its shipment of 75 cutting-edge F-16 fighter jets to Iran. Israel’s air force swooped in at this crucial moment and purchased the fleet of top-of-the-line airframes.
The planes’ capabilities were essential to the operation. The Israel Defense Forces needed the F-16 fleet to conduct the long-range, low-altitude maneuvers necessary to take out Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Israel’s arsenal of F-4 Phantoms and Skyhawks was not equipped with the capacity to perform the mission.
During Operation Opera, the Israeli fighters flew undetected through hundreds of kilometers of Saudi airspace and into Iraq. They took out the reactor and returned home safely. At the time, mid-air refueling was not an option, and it was possible that some pilots would not make it back home. One pilot who flew on the mission, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, said that the fighters “flew at speeds best suited to conserving fuel and not the best speed for flying in enemy territory.” The IDF timed the attack to take place before the reactor reached operational status, in order to avoid radiation contamination during the operation.
The destruction of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor remains controversial. While Israel said that it acted pre-emptively in order to bring Iraq back from the brink of the nuclear threshold, the international community, including the United States, characterized it as an offensive mission and largely rebuked it. It may be contentious, but there is no doubt that Operation Opera altered the trajectory of the Middle East.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.