Israel destroys Iraqi nuclear plant-and Habib mission?
Jerusalem — Israel's announcement that its planes destroyed the French-built Osiris nuclear research reactor in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on June 7 has sent shock waves through the Middle East.
But Israeli analysts contend that Israel had no choice if it was to avoid a dangerous and costly nuclear arms race with the Arabs. And they believe that Iraq's Arab neighbors, despite any initial public denunciations, may privately be relieved at the reactor's destruction.
An official government statement issued on June 8 alleged that the Iraqi experimental reactor, built under a 1975 agreement with France, was intended for the manufacture of nuclear bombs.
The Israelis said that they had learned from "very reliable sources" that the reactor was due to be completed and activated either at the beginning of July or September. They said that after this time the reactor would have been "hot" and any air strike would have threatened the civilian population of Baghdad with radiation. They also said that the raid was conducted on Sunday to avoid harming 150 foreign experts who presumably were on their day off.
It was not immediately clear what impact the raid would have on US special envoy Philip C. Habib's mission to end the Syrian missile crisis. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, whose foreign ministers are presently in Lebanon trying to find a solution to the overall Lebanese situation along with Syria and Lebanon itself, are likely to be angry at a show of Israeli force at such a delicate moment.
On the other hand, Israeli analysts say, many moderate Mideast regimes may not be sorry to see the reactor destroyed because it could have threatened them as well as Israeli.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali -- whose boss President Sadat was presumably not informed of the raid during his summit with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin last week -- called it "grave, irresponsible, and unjustified." But Egypt has historically played rival to Iraq for leadership in the middle East. Egypt would not have been happy to see Iraq become a nuclear power, these analysts assert, especially when her own, far older, nuclear research program is lagging.
Similarly, the Saudis, although participating in a loose alliance with Iraq in its conflict with Iran, are acutely aware of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein's longstanding ambition to dominate the Gulf. Therefore, it is said here, they too are unlikely to object privately to the thwarting of his nuclear potential.
And Syria, while it may view the Israeli raid as a hint of the havoc the Israeli Air Force could wreak on it should the missile crisis with Israel not be resolved, cannot be too unhappy at this humiliation of its political arch-rival Saddam Hussein.
As for the Israelis, their strategic experts have been arguing for some time that the Mideast was approaching a nuclear cross- roads. Its turning point, they said, would come when one of the Arab countries, or Muslim countries like Pakistan which cooperate militarily with them, achieved a nuclear option. "Israel must make every possible effort to delay and stop all progress in this area," wrote Ze'ev, Schiff, respected military correspondent of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz in July 1980.
Reports published in Western media have claimed that Israel has the bomb or could quickly assemble it. However, Israel has declared that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region.
Israel's director of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Yehoshua Seguy, said last year that the real nuclear danger from Iraq would begin in the mid-1980's. But Israeli defense specialists noted at the time that this calculation might be faulty. They argued that many critical questions of timing -- presumably involving the decision whether to strike preemptively -- would have to be answered before them.
A few Israeli defense specialists have advocated a nuclear deterrent for Israel. But others point out the tremendous expense -- perhaps more than keeping up with the current Mideast arms race -- since Israel would have to m aintain a second-strike capability.