That Israeli raid on the Iraqi reactor: the facts -- and deeper issues

Among the questions raised by Israel's raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, one conclusion stands out: Iraq gave every appearance of being interested in eventually obtaining nuclear weapons.

But many crucial questions remain.

The nuclear threat does not appear to have been as imminent as Israel made it appear. Nor is it likely the Iraqis could have made a bomb in secret. And whether the reactor was really about to become operative -- the reason given by the Israelis for the timing of the attack -- is still a moot point.

Nonetheless, the Iraqis had begun to collect those parts of the equipment, fuel, and technology necessary to make a bomb that were not subject to international safeguards. And this raises a warning beacon to the West. For if the Israelis are to be admonished that there are other means than air strikes to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, then the West has to show these alternatives are credible.

Following are some of the questions and answeres raised by the Israeli raid: What were Iraq's intentions?

Iraq has said its reactor complex was for peaceful research purposes only. Iraq is a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which commits it to not making nuclear weapons and to permit inspection of its atomic installations by the United Nations-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

But there are numerous signs that Iraq wanted the bomb. An aspiring leader of the Gulf and the Arab world, Iraq refused to sign an armistice agreement with Israel after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Thus Iraq remains in a technical state of war with the Jewish state, whose existence Iraq has always rejected. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein told a Newsweek interviewer in July 1978, "The Zionist entity must and shall be replaced by the state of greater Palestine." When asked if war was the only solution, he replied, "Correct."

Well aware of reports that Israel had the bomb, Iraqi leaders in numerous statements indicate their eagerness to follow suit. Naim Haddad, a senior member of Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council told a meeting of the Arab League in 1977, "The Arabs must get an atom bomb."

The type and variety of Iraq's nuclear facilities and fuel purchases also raise questions. The Israelis argue that the experimental Osirak reactor, built under a 1976 contract with France, was unusually large for research purposes -- a point disputed by some scientists.

They assert that oil-rich Iraq had no need for atomic energy development. Moreover, they say, Iraq's contract with France promised delivery of 72 kilograms of 93 percent enriched uranium 235, enough to make three to four bombs directly, though the French tried fruitlessly to convince the Iraqis to accept non-weapons-grade fuel called "caramel."

Moreover, Iraq also contracted with Italy for radiochemistry of highly radioactive material -- a "hot lab" that can be used to reprocess spent uranium fuel to separate out plutonium, which can also be used to make atomic weapons. The Israelis say Iraq has also been stockpiling low-grade uranium from Portugal, Italy, and Niger for which there is no apparent use in the Osirak reactor. (This has been reported to the IAEA.) And it has singed a contract with Brazil, which has not signed the NPT, for uranium. Was Iraq capable of manufacturing a bomb? How imminent was any danger?

There are two main routes to making a bomb through use of uranium or plutonium. France was providing enriched uranium that could have been used directly to make atomic weapons -- the quickest and easiest route. But the French were taking two precautions to prevent diversion of uranium.

First, they had reportedly decided to stagger shipments of uranium, sending 12 kilograms at a time to prevent stockpiling of enough to make a bomb (about 20 kilograms). Once processed through the reactor, each shipment -- then no longer suitable for military use -- would theoretically have been returned before the next was forwarded.

The second precaution was the pre-irradiation of the enriched uranium, making it hazardous to handle.

Israel has questioned whether France would have kept to the staggered arrangement. The first 12 kilograms was sent in June 1980 and had already been processed in a small two-megawatt French-built research reactor. The IAEA, which conducted an inspection in January 1980, says all fissionable material is accounted for.

But the deliveries were only beginning. Israel says a second 12 kilograms were sent just before the reactor was bombed. Had Iraq tried to divert uranium illegally, it would almost certainly have been discovered by one of the 150 French technical advisers working there. France would presumably have cut off future shipments. Iraq would have had only enough uranium for one bomb, which it could not then have tested, leaving open the question of how great the military threat would have been.

As for the plutonium route, the Osirak reactor was not suited for production of large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium. Experts differ on how long it would have taken to produce enough plutonium by-product (about 7 kilograms) from spent uranium fuel to make a bomb. Estimates range from two to 10 years.

However, according to Prof. Yuuval Neeman, former scientific director of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, the Osirak reactor could have been modified in about six weeks, enabling it to speed up plutonium production to the point where it could make sufficient plutonium for one to three bombs in a year. This would be done by irradiating a "blanket" of low-grade uranium of the kind Iraq has been stockpiling.The plutonium produced could then be separated from the irradiated fuel in the Italian-built laboratory.

However, Professor Neeman added, any inspection team would immediately have seen the changes in the reactor. "But what could they have done then?" He asked.

Scientists point out that in either the uranium or plutonium route, actual construction of a bomb is tricky, time-consuming, and probably well beyond the capacity of Iraqi scientists for some years to come. The Israelis believe, however, that Iraq cold hire scientific "mercenaries" or get technological and -- and replacement for fuel cut off by the French -- from sympathetic nuclear-advanced countries like Pakistan. How adequate are international safeguards?

Both the IAEA and the French government have insisted that safeguards at the Iraqi complex were adequate. The Israelis are highly skeptical. Had the Iraqis taken the most direct route to building a bomb-diverting enriched uranium, or to modifying the Osirak reactor to speed up plutonium production, they would certainly have been exposed.But if they were willing to take the risk it is unclear how the international community would have stopped them.

The IAEA has no enforcement power. Signatories can withdraw from the NPT with 90 days notice (though none ever has). The French could have done little more than suspend their contract. But once in possession of facilities or weapons-grade fuel, the Iraqis might have tried to proceed on their own.

Should the Iraqis have taken the slow, surreptitious route, they would have had to elude IAEA inspectors, who install cameras inside the reactor to take frequent pictures of spent fuel containing plutonium to ensure that it is all accounted for. However, the IAEA is overworked and underbudgeted and inspectors may come as infrequently as once a year.

A country may cancel inspections as Iraq did after the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, saying it was too dangerous. The Israelis say that at this time French technicians had abandoned the reactor complex, leaving 12 kilograms of spent fuel inside the small reactor. However, the IAEA says this fuel was later all accounted for.

The Israelis say Iraq had built a secret laboratory in which to manufacture atomic weapons underneath the Osirak reactor site, to avoid IAEA scrutiny. Prime Minister Menachem Begin said at first that the bunker was 130 feet underground, then changed this to 13 feet. France's atomic energy commission president, Michel Pecqueur, said this was "a fabrication." He said the lab was being built openly to carry out basic experiments on neutron flow. Why did Israel strike now?

Prime Minister Begin said the raid had to be conducted now because Israeli intelligence reports indicated the Osirak reactor could go into operation as early as July 1, after which it would be impossible to bomb it without threatening Baghdad's population with radiation. On June 16 Israeli chief of military intelligence Yehoshua Saguy said he had information the Iraqis planned to inaugurate the reactor on June 17, their national day.

However, French technicians who were installing the reactor have said it was scheduled to go into service only at the end of the year. Opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has questioned whether the date of the raid might have been dictated by the Israeli elections, scheduled for June 30.

Other sources here have asked whether the strike plan, which was okayed in October 1980 and called off several times due to technical or political factors, might originally have been ordered to take place before the end of Mr. Begin's term of office because until recently he was expected to lose and may have feared a Labor government would not have gone ahead with the raid. Was there any alternative to force?

Both Israel's Labor opposition and the United States have chastised Israel for not giving a chance to new French President Francois Mitterrand to tighten up his predecessor's policy on nuclear exports. And Western sources here say Israel should have made its case against Iraq more urgently to the Reagan administration, which was already aware of proliferation dangers in the Mideast.

However, it is said here that the Israeli raid dramatizes what Israelis see as the failure of international agreement and Western political will to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Israel's intensive lobbying of France and Italy to halt -- or modify -- nuclear aid to Iraq and its requests to the US to apply pressure on France failed.

Moreover, even the Carter administration which had tightened restrictions on US export of nuclear technology and facilities, proved vulnerable to political pressures. The US sold 38 tons of uranium to India in 1980, despite India's refusal to ratify the NPT. And the Reagan administration is renewing large- scale military and economic aid to Pakistan, which President Carter suspended in an attempt to head off the reported Pakistani nuclear weapons program. What is Israel's own nuclear status?

Israel's nuclear program is clouded in secrecy but is undoubtedly the most advanced in the Middle East. Much of its activity revolves around a 24-megawatt French-built research reactor in Dimona that became operational in 1964. There is no concrete evidence that Israel has converted its admitted nuclear potential into a deliverable military nuclear force. Israeli strategic expert Shay Feldman writes in Survival, the journal of the London- based International Institute for Strategic Studies, that some Western analysts calculate that Israel has already produced enough plutonium for 20 nuclear weapons.

Israel, which has never signed the Non- Proliferation Treaty, is regarded by her Arab neighbors as being a nuclear power. Israel repeatedly asserts that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East -- although many Western experts believe it has disassembled nuclear weapons ready to go within a matter of minutes.

But this doctrine now appears to have a second part: that Israel will not allow any Arab enemy to move toward obtaining nuclear weapons, thus maintaining a pre-eminent nuclear position. The main argument advanced by Israel for this stance is that radical Arab states might use a bomb for irrational or unpredictable reasons, thus making impractical the supposedly rational concept of "balance of terror" prevalent between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Each year since 1974 Israel has proposed at the United Nations the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East which would require the states in the region to negotiate directly among themselves. Egypt, the only Arab state to recognize Israel, supports this idea, but the other Arab states do not. The other Arab states see this proposal as unnecessary if all states sign the NPT.

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