Warfare History Network
History, Middle East
They did the world a really big favor.
How Israel's Air Force Crushed Saddam Hussein's Nuclear Weapons Dream
In the late 1970s, it became clear to the international community that Iraq, under the despotic leadership of Saddam Hussein, was attempting to acquire nuclear weapons through the guise of buying nuclear reactors for power generators. At the time, Iraq had well-known expansionist ambitions and unyielding animosity toward what it called dismissively “the Zionist entity,” Israel. Hussein, a congenital thug born literally on the wrong side of the tracks, had ascended to the presidency of Iraq after two decades spent as a brutish street fighter and assassin for the militant Ba’th Party, which had seized political power in 1968.
Once in charge, Hussein stepped up his efforts to make Iraq a nuclear power to counteract Israel’s supposed nuclear capacity. Trading on the diplomatic and financial contacts he had made with France earlier in the decade, Hussein completed a deal in 1975 in which the European nation agreed to sell Iraq the equipment necessary to construct a nuclear reactor at al-Tuwaitha, a research site located on banks of the Tigris River, a mere 12 miles from the center of Baghdad. The French also agreed to supply Iraq with 72 kilograms of enriched, weapons-grade uranium, which could easily be converted for use in an atomic bomb. Such a bomb, which experts calculated could be completed by the early 1980s, could easily kill at least 100,000 people if dropped on Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel.
The world reacted with alarm to news of the sale. The United States and Great Britain expressed measured diplomatic concern, and the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency increased monitoring efforts of Iraq’s nascent nuclear program. But the West was reluctant to alienate the Arab world in the immediate wake of the 1973-74 oil embargo. It fell to Israel, the nation most immediately threatened by Hussein’s obvious thirst for atomic weapons, to devise a suitable response to Iraq. The first move came in April 1979, when agents of Israel’s incomparable Mossad intelligence agency intercepted a shipment of nuclear cores from France to Iraq at La Seyne-sur-Mer. Working swiftly, a team of agents blew up the warehouse where the shipment was stored, severely damaging the cores. Iraqi officials, fearing Hussein’s reaction to the news, agreed to accept the damaged goods anyway.