Key point: Unwilling to directly retaliate against Israel, Saddam instead hammered Iran’s own nuclear nuclear research facility in Bushehr.
At dawn on September 30, 1980 four American-made F-4E Phantom jets screamed low over central Iraq, each laden with air-to-air missiles and three thousand pounds of bombs.
Prior to entering Iraqi airspace they had rendezvoused for aerial refueling with a Boeing 707 tanker escorted by two more advanced F-14 Tomcat fighters—the type immortalized six years later in the film Top Gun. And to complete the eighties action-movie vibe, they were embarked on a mission codenamed ‘Operation Scorched Sword.’
The skimming Phantoms climbed briefly to higher altitude so as to appear on Iraqi radars, before ducking back down to hit the deck. But while two decoy Phantoms maintained their trajectory towards Baghdad, the other two veered southwards towards the real target: Iraq’s Osirak light-water nuclear reactor.
The jets were undertaking the first air-strike against a nuclear reactor, and the first preemptive air-strike attempting to prevent a country from developing nuclear weapons capability. In fact, the only preceding attack on nuclear facilities occurred during World War II when British commandoes successfully sabotaged Nazi heavy water research facilities in Norway.
Now, the famous Israeli Operation Opera that destroyed the Osirak reactor was still nine months away. The Phantoms soaring towards the reactor in 1980 belonged to the Iranian Air Force.
This obscure but portentous raid, and the context in which it occurred, was documented in-depth by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop in a fascinating article for Air Enthusiast magazine in 2004.
Iran and Israel had been allies prior to the Iranian Revolution, and Tel Aviv continued to funnel vital arms and other forms of security assistance to Tehran during the 1980s despite the Ayatollah’s increasingly anti-Israeli rhetoric. This was in large part due to their shared concern with the military buildup in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
In 1975, Iraq successfully negotiated a $300 million deal ($1.3 billion in 2019 dollars) with France to build an Osiris-type 40-megawatt light water research reactor in Iraq, accorded the portmanteau ‘Osirak.’ This involved two reactors named Tammuz 1 and 2 to be constructed at the al-Tawaitha Nuclear Center south of Baghdad.
The Osiris reactor was designed for civilian purposes, but it had the potential to serve as a springboard for nuclear-weapons capability—though experts to this day disagree on just how imminent the leap to nuclear arms really was. Hussein successfully pressured the French into delivering dozens of kilograms of weapons-grade 93% enriched nuclear fuels, while kilos of uranium were acquired from South America and other sources.
Thus the reactor alarmed both Israel—which remains today the only Middle Eastern state to possess nuclear-weapons—and Iran, which had repelled an abortive Iraqi tank invasion in 1975. Seeking to forestall the program, Israeli agents bombed a finished nuclear core near Toulon, and France stabbed one of the nuclear program’s chiefs, Egyptian scientist Yahya el Mashad, to death in a Parisian hotel in June 14, 1980. These measure delayed but did not halt construction of the Osirak in an exposed dome facility rather than a hardened subterranean complex.
On September 22, 1980 Saddam launched Iraq into full-scale invasion of southwestern Iran, hoping to capitalize on the chaos prevailing in the newly-formed Islamic Republic. The resulting war would drag on for eight exceptionally bloody years.
It was in this context that the Iranian Air Force began planning a strike on Osirak earlier that June—reportedly at the request of the Israeli Chief of Army Intelligence. Israel was one of the few countries willing to furnish Iran with weapons and intelligence to fight the Iraqis, and so the raid was seen as a mutually-beneficial favor.
Iran’s large fleet of advanced American F-4 and F-14 jet fighters proved a formidable asset against Iraqi forces during the early years of the Iran-Iraq war. The Phantoms deployed by Iran on the raid came from the 33rd Fighter Squadron based near Hamedan, Iran.
Hefting unguided Mark 82,500-pound bombs, the Iranian pilots would have to swoop down into the teeth of formidable Iraqi air defenses—at least, formidable in theory. Al-Tuwaitha was defended by several dozen rapid-firing 23- and 57-millimeter flak guns, and one Soviet-built SA-6 and three French Roland 2 short-range radar-guided surface-to-air missile systems.
However, the Iraqi defenses were apparently caught napping. The decoy Phantoms dropped their bombs on an Iraqi power station, knocking out electricity in Baghdad for two days according to Cooper. Meanwhile, the main element dove down on al-Tawaitha and released all twelve bombs in a matter of seconds before rocketing back home. There are no reports of Iraqi defensive fire.
Some witnesses reported seeing two Iranian bombs bounce off the reactor dome. The attack did trigger a voluminous blaze (as seen in this French photo), and damaged the piping, cooling pumps, and lab facilities. And hundreds of French and Italian technicians withdrew from the facility after the raid, though some subsequently returned.
Nonetheless, a CIA intelligence report noted that a redacted source had confirmed “only secondary buildings were hit.” It was also widely (but wrongly) assessed in the West that the raid had been flown by Israeli pilots in Iranian jets.
On November 30 an Iranian RF-4 reconnaissance Phantom swooped back over the facility at supersonic speeds, snapping photos to evaluate the effects of the strike. According to Cooper and Bishop, the photo-intelligence was then transferred in a metal case to Israel via a 707 airliner being used to deliver Israeli arms to Tehran.
This intelligence, bolstered by photo-recon missions performed by Israeli Phantom jets, helped the IDF devise a full-scale replica of the facility used to plan and practice for their own strike, which finally took place on June 7, 1981. Eight Israeli F-16 Fighting Falcons, escorted by six F-15 Eagles, flew through Saudi airspace, exploiting a gap in Iraqi radar coverage. In less than a minute, the Falcons destroyed the Osirak reactor with huge 2,000-pound Mark 84 bombs, killing nine Iraqis and a French engineer.
Unwilling to directly retaliate against Israel, Saddam instead hammered Iran’s own nuclear nuclear research facility in Bushehr. Between 1984 and 1987, Iraqi Super Etendard and Su-22M4K jets bombed the complex five times, substantially damaging to the facility, which was not actually seeing much use due to financial constraints imposed by the war.
While the Osirak strike is usually cited as the ur-text in arguments favoring preemptive anti-nuclear strikes, the raid’s success is somewhat unambiguous. While setting back Iraqi efforts to acquire nuclear arms by a decade, some experts claim the reactor wasn’t highly adaptable to such purposes. In the aftermath of the raid, Saddam began a larger-scale nuclear program more directly seeking to produce weapons in hardened underground facilities. Had he not entered into a military confrontation with the U.S. by invading Kuwait in 1990, the Iraqi dictator might have acquired a more robust nuclear arms capability in the long run.
Saddam’s defeat in 1991, coupled with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, brought an end to the clandestine Israel-Iran alliance. Tehran increasingly leaned on its support for anti-Israeli groups to win influence and alliances in the Arab world, while Israel now understood Iran to be the most likely hostile state in the region to acquire nuclear weapons.
Ironically, having pioneered the preemptive strike targeting another state’s nuclear research facilities with Israel, today Iran’s extensive nuclear research program is threatened with preventative air attacks from Israel and the United States. However, Iran learned from the Osirak strikes: its own nuclear research program is dispersed in numerous underground facilities, not concentrated in a single above-ground facility that would prove susceptible to attack.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.