Operation Opera

Cyrus Reza
June 12, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: An Israeli F-16A. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1970s, the Iraqi government began to accelerate its nascent nuclear program, acquiring an Osiris-class research reactor from the French government known as Osirak. [1-3] On June 7, 1981, the Israeli government conducted an airstrike on the site, destroying the reactor and causing the deaths of ten Iraqi soldiers and one Frenchman; the airstrike was known as Operation Opera. The Israeli aircraft returned without suffering any damage, and Iraq, which was embroiled in the Iran-Iraq War, did not retaliate. [3] Fig. 1 shows an Israeli F-16A.


The Iraqi and French governments had long declared that the project was for peaceful purposes only. [4] The Israelis were particularly concerned, as Saddam Hussein, the leader of the Iraqi regime, had established a standing army of roughly 190,000 men in 12 divisions, with 2,200 tanks and 450 aircraft. [5] Notable reports from American physicists like Richard Wilson, who visited the site after the attack, concurred with this representation of the program, but the scholarly consensus now contradicts the pro-Iraqi assessment. [3] The prior year, the recently-established Islamic government in Iran had also attempted a strike on Osirak, which damaged but did not destroy the reactor. [5]

Consequences of Operation Opera

Israel's preemptive strike on Osirak inaugurated its new, preemptive counter nuclear proliferation strategy. Menachem Begin, then-Prime Minister of Israel, indicated such a stance in the aftermath of the attack. The strategy would come to be known as the Begin Doctrine and remains part of Israeli national security strategy. [6,7] The international reaction was swift and severe; the United Nations Security Council unanimously issued Resolution 487 for Israel's having violated the UN Charter. [8] Long-term, the assessment is hazier; reconciling Saddam's clear desire for a nuclear weapon with the Israeli violation of Iraqi sovereignty requires a clear definition of what constitutes an imminent threat.

© Cyrus Reza. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. K. Shipler, "Israeli Jets Destroy Iraqi Atomic Reactor; Attack Condemned by U.S. and Arab Nations," New York Times, 9 Jun 81.

[2] N. Basutkar, "Iraqi Nuclear History," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[3] J. Kirschenbaum, "Operation Opera: an Ambiguous Success," Journal of Strategic Security 3, No. 4, 49 (2010).

[4] B. Sutter, "Operation Opera," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[5] B. Schneider, "Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation," National Defense University, May 1995.

[6] G. Steinberg, "The Begin Doctrine at 25," The Jerusalem Post, 4 Jun 06.

[7] J. Lange, "Israeli Nuclear Ambiguity," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[8] "Resolution 487 of 19 June 1981," S/RES/487, in Resolutions and Decisions of the Security Council, United Nations, S/INF/37, July 1982, p. 10.