Lessons From Israel's Osirek Raid 30 Years Ago

Thirty years ago, I was a young Reuters correspondent in Tel Aviv. It was a sleepy June day, as I recall -- the festival of Shavuoth. People were at the beach, or hiking in the hills or in synagogue.

That afternoon, I went to the office to begin what I thought would be a quiet shift on the news desk. The streets of the city were deserted.

At four, an announcer came on the radio and declared that Israeli planes had bombed and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor on the outskirts of Baghdad. I'll never forget the jolt of excitement that seized me, nor my frantic rush to the telex machine to get the news to the world. It was my first really big story -- and still one of my biggest. I still have in my files the bulletin I sent to the world that day.

International condemnation of the attack was instantaneous and pretty well universal. The UN Security Council condemned the operation as a "clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct." The United States supported the resolution and suspended delivery of four F-16 aircraft to Israel.

The General Assembly demanded that Israel pay compensation to Iraq. France and Britain said the reactor had no military applications. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher compared it to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The New York Times said it was a "sneak attack" and an act of "short-sighted aggression." The Los Angeles Times called it "state-sponsored terrorism."

Later analysis has been kinder to Israel and to its Prime Minister Menachem Begin who ordered the strike. It became abundantly clear over time that the reactor was in fact a nuclear weapons facility and the world grew to understand much more about the brutal nature of the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Saddam had already launched an unprovoked attack on its neighbor Iran the previous September, setting off eight years of war in which Iraq used chemical weapons. No sooner had that war ended than in 1990 Saddam invaded Kuwait. Had Iraq possessed a nuclear weapon during either of those conflicts, how much more dangerous would the world have been? How much more difficult would it have been to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait? How much likelier would an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia have been?

In 2007, when Israeli planes destroyed another facility in the Syrian desert, the reaction was much more muted, possibly because neither Israel nor Syria said much about it at the time. It took over two weeks for Israel even to officially acknowledge the attack.

Again, over time, Israel's actions have been vindicated. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Commission confirmed that the plant was a covert nuclear reactor designed to produce plutonium. The IAEA is expected at its next board meeting to cite Syria for noncompliance with the non-proliferation treaty and send the matter to the Security Council.

The Iraqi and Syrian operations are examples of Israel braving international condemnation to defend its vital security interests. At the same time, Israel did the entire world a huge favor in both cases.

The case of Iran is more complex and the world is trying to curb Tehran's illegal nuclear weapons program through sanctions. But the threat is real. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his speech to Congress last month:

A nuclear-armed Iran would ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It would give terrorists a nuclear umbrella. It would make the nightmare of nuclear terrorism a clear and present danger throughout the world. I want you to understand what this means. They could put the bomb anywhere. They could put it on a missile. It could be on a container ship in a port, or in a suitcase on a subway.

That's why the military option -- the option of last resort -- remains on the table.