On June 7, 1981, Israeli F-15 and F-16's flew into Iraq and destroyed the Osirak nuclear power plant just outside of Baghdad. This nuclear facility was not a source of electrical power, but a step in Iraq’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons with the help of France.
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's first visit to a western capital was to Paris in 1972, when he agreed to sell France huge quantities of oil. Jacques Chirac, then the prime minister of France, paid a trip to Baghdad two years later and France quickly became Iraq’s largest weapons supplier. Throughout most of the 1970s, Iraq tried to negotiate with France to purchase a gas-graphite power reactor, which is an inefficient source of electricity but an excellent supplier of large quantities of plutonium. (In fact, gas-graphite reactors produce so much plutonium that they are the major source of the element for the military programs of France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia). In addition to the reactor, Iraq also wanted to purchase the reprocessing plant needed to recover the plutonium produced in the reactor. These negotiations were unsuccessful, probably because the sale of these goods would have made it patently obvious what France was helping Iraq do.
Eventually, France agreed to build a research reactor in Iraq and to provide the technicians necessary to run it. The Osirak 40 megawatt light-water materials testing reactor (MTR) at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Center near Baghdad was built in 1976 and France also provided approximately 27.5 pounds of U-235 for use in the reactor. This MTR was one of the largest in the world and seemed like a poor choice for starting a peaceful nuclear energy program. The primary function of MTRs is to see how the materials used in nuclear power plant construction react when exposed to intense and prolonged radiation, since Iraq did not manufacture nuclear power plants it didn’t seem like they would need a reactor to help test these materials. However, a MTR was an excellent place to help start a nuclear weapons program. Not only was the reactor fuel well-suited for use in nuclear weapons, but the reactor could be used to irradiate targets that would be partially transformed into weapons-grade plutonium through neutron bombardment.
Either France wanted to help Iraq develop an atomic bomb, or they were too stupid to ask why the most one of the most oil-rich countries in the world wanted a nuclear reactor.
According to some estimates, Iraq in 1981 was still as much as five to ten years away from the ability to build a nuclear weapon. Others estimated at that time that Iraq might get its first such weapon within a year or two. Menachem Begin, the prime minister of Israel, feared that the first target of a nuclear-capable Iraq would be the state of Israel. He decided that Israel needed to destroy the reactor before it became loaded with nuclear fuel, or “hot.”
At 3:55 p.m. on June 7, 1981, a squadron of American-made Israeli jets left Etzion Air Force Base in the south of the country and began their 1,100 kilometer flight to the plant. They flew at low altitudes in order to avoid radar and went over Jordanian and Saudi airspace on their journey. At 5:35 p.m. they reached the reactor and destroyed it in less than three minutes. One of the pilots on this raid was Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut that died on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.
The United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the raid, even though Israel claimed they had engaged in an act of legitimate self-defense justifiable under international law and under Article 51 of the United Nations charter. The United States responded by suspending the delivery of warplanes to Israel. The raid also complicated the Reagan administration's efforts to draw moderate Arab states into a strategic consensus against the Soviet Union. In the wake of the raid, these states were more likely to perceive Israel, and by extension the United States, and not the Soviets, as the greater threat.