Military Wiki
Operation Scorch Sword
Part of Iran-Iraq War
File:Abbas Doran-F-4 Phantom II.jpg
Iranian F-4 Phantom II
Operational scope Strategic
Location Baghdad, Iraq
33°12′30″N 44°31′30″E / 33.20833°N 44.525°E / 33.20833; 44.525
Planned by Major General Javad Fakoori ( the commander of the IRIAF)
Objective Destruction of the Osirak nuclear reactor
Date 30 September 1980
Executed by IRI.Army-Badge.svg Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force
Outcome Reactor damaged, damage repaired by French technicians

Operation Scorch Sword (Persian:عملیات شمشیر سوزان) was a surprise IRIAF (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force) airstrike carried out on 30 September 1980, that damaged an almost-complete nuclear reactor 17 km south-east of Baghdad, Iraq. Eight days into the Iran-Iraq War, Operation Scorch Sword commenced. At dawn on 30 September 1980, four Iranian F-4E Phantom jets refueled mid-air near the Iran-Iraq border. After crossing into Iraq, the fighters climbed to a higher altitude to be detectable by Iraqi radar. Moments later, two of the Phantoms peeled off, and dropped to a lower altitude again to avoid radar detection. They flew stealthily to Tuwaitha, a city ten miles (17 km) south-east of Baghdad, home to the Osirak/Osiraq nuclear reactor.[1]

This was the first attack on a nuclear reactor and only the third on a nuclear facility in history. It was also the first instance of a preventive attack on a nuclear reactor which aimed to forestall the development of a nuclear weapon.[2][3] The attack itself caused only minor damage to the reactor and wasn't successful in impeding the Iraqi nuclear program. The reactor was finally destroyed about eight months later by Israeli Air Force's Operation Opera carried out on 7 June 1981.[4]

Iraq's nuclear program


The Osirak reactor prior to the Israeli attack

Iraq had established a nuclear program sometime in the 1960s, and in the mid-1970s looked to expand it through the acquisition of a nuclear reactor.[5] After failing to convince the French government to sell them a gas-graphite plutonium-producing reactor and reprocessing plant, and likewise failing to convince the Italian government to sell them a Cirene reactor, the Iraqi government convinced the French government to sell them an Osiris-class research reactor.[6][7] The purchase also included a smaller accompanying Isis-type reactor, the sale of 72 kilograms of 93% enriched uranium and the training of personnel.[8] The total cost has been given as $300 million.[9] In November 1975 the countries signed a nuclear cooperation agreement and in 1976 the sale of the reactor was finalized.[6]

Construction for the 40-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor began in 1979 at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Center near Baghdad.[10] The main reactor was dubbed Osirak (Osiraq) by the French, blending the name of Iraq with that of the reactor class. Iraq named the main reactor Tammuz 1 (Arabic: تموز) and the smaller Tammuz 2.[11] Tammuz was the Babylonian month when the Ba'ath party had come to power in 1968.[12] In July 1980, Iraq received from France a shipment of approximately 12.5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium fuel to be used in the reactor. The shipment was the first of a planned six deliveries totalling 72 kilograms.[13] It was reportedly stipulated in the purchase agreement that no more than two HEU fuel loadings, 24 kilograms, could be in Iraq at any time.[14]

Iraq and France claimed that the Iraqi reactor was intended for peaceful scientific research.[15] Agreements between France and Iraq excluded military use.[16] The American private intelligence agency STRATFOR wrote in 2007 that the uranium-fueled reactor "was believed to be on the verge of producing plutonium for a weapons program".[17] In a 2003 speech, Richard Wilson, a professor of physics at Harvard University who visually inspected the partially damaged reactor in December 1982, said that "to collect enough plutonium [for a nuclear weapon] using Osirak would've taken decades, not years".[18] In 2005, Wilson further commented in The Atlantic:

the Osirak reactor that was bombed by Israel in June of 1981 was explicitly designed by the French engineer Yves Girard to be unsuitable for making bombs. That was obvious to me on my 1982 visit.[19]

Elsewhere Wilson has stated that

Many claim that the bombing of the Iraqi Osirak reactor delayed Iraq's nuclear bomb program. But the Iraqi nuclear program before 1981 was peaceful, and the Osirak reactor was not only unsuited to making bombs but was under intensive safeguards.[20]

In an interview in 2012, Wilson again emphasised: "The Iraqis couldn't have been developing a nuclear weapon at Osirak. I challenge any scientist in the world to show me how they could have done so." [21]

Iraq was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, placing its reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.[5] In October 1981, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published excerpts from the testimony of Roger Richter, a former IAEA inspector who described the weaknesses of the agency's nuclear safeguards to the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Richter testified that only part of Iraq's nuclear installation was under safeguard and that the most sensitive facilities were not even subject to safeguards.[22] IAEA's Director-General Sigvard Eklund issued a rebuttal saying that Richter had never inspected Osirak and had never been assigned to inspect facilities in the Middle East.[22] Eklund claimed that the safeguards procedures were effective and that they were supplemented by precautionary measures taken by the nuclear suppliers.[22] Anthony Fainberg, a physicist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, disputed Richter's claim that a fuel processing program for the manufacturing of nuclear weapons could have been conducted secretly.[22] Fainberg wrote that there was barely enough fuel on the site to make one bomb, and that the presence of hundreds of foreign technicians would have made it impossible for the Iraqis to take the necessary steps without being discovered.[23]

Iranian planning

For years prior to the Islamic Revolution [24] in Iran, Iran and Israel (who were unofficial allies at this time) had monitored Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. After the Islamic Revolution, Iran's new government heightened their surveillance of the reactor (to the point that their relations with France, the builder of the reactor, suffered). Despite official hostility between Khomeini and his allies with Israel and anti-Israeli rhetoric, certain elements of Iran and Israel's government sometimes continued to help each other clandestinely because they had a common enemy, Iraq. Even as late as 1987, Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin stated that "Iran is our best friend and we don't intend to change our position".[25] When the Iran-Iraq War broke out, Iran became increasingly concerned that Iraq would develop nuclear weapons to use against them. Before the war, Iran had a contingency plan to attack the plant. However, after the revolution, there were many problems. Iran, which had the 5th most powerful military in the world prior to the revolution, had lost its main supplier, the US. Spare parts were hard to come by, and many aircraft had to be cannibalized. The Israelis secretly shipped some spare parts to Iran to help their air force, however those would simply not be enough.[24] Many of Iran's air force pilots had also been purged after the revolution. To make matters worse, the Iranians did not have the benefit of a surprise attack (as there was a war going on) and they did not have access to American spy satellite footage either to assess the plant layout.[24]

The IRIAF (under Javad Fakoori) began to plan out an entirely new plan to attack Osirak. The Iranians had little intelligence about the plant, and there was even a risk that it was already being fuelled, increasing the possibility of radioactive fallout. So Iran decided that they would not target the actual reactor itself, but the research laboratories, the reactor control building, and the training facilities.[24] The Osirak nuclear reactor was defended by a single SAM-6 missile battery, three Roland missile batteries, and 40 anti-aircraft artillery positions (23mm and 57mm radar guided guns). Due to US sanctions, the Iranians were not able to get electronic countermeasure pods to jam the Iraqi weapons. Instead the Iranians had to fly low over the target, and move at high speed and get out quickly. The mission was to be carried out by Iran's most skilled pilots.[24][24]


  1. When Iran Bombed Iraq's Nuclear Reactor, Iraq's Osirak Destruction.
  2. Dan Reiter (July 2005). "Preventive Attacks against Nuclear Programs and the "Success" at Osiraq". Nonproliferation Review. Retrieved 29 November 2010. 
  3. "McNair Paper 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995". 30 September 1980. Retrieved 19 June 2011. 
  4. Tucker, Spencer C. (2008). The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. pp. 755. ISBN 978-1851098415. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Perlmutter, p. 40.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Perlmutter, pp. 41–42.
  7. Lucien S. Vandenborucke (1984). "The Israeli Strike Against Osiraq: the dynamics of fear and proliferation in the Middle East". 
  8. Stockman-Shomron, Israel. Israel, the Middle East, and the great powers. Transaction Books, 1985. p. 334.
  9. James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "Iraq Profile: Nuclear Overview". Research Library. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NPT). Retrieved 8 December 2010. 
  10. Aloni, Shlomo. Israeli F-15 Eagle Units in Combat. Osprey Publishing, 2006. p. 35.
  11. Perlmutter, p. 46.
  12. Jed C. Snyder (1983). "The Road To Osiraq: Baghdad's Quest for the Bomb". Middle East Institute. pp. 565–593. JSTOR 4326666. 
  13. Holroyd, Fred. Thinking about nuclear weapons: analyses and prescriptions. Routledge, 1985. p. 147.
  14. Holroyd, p. 151.
  15. The 1982 World Book Year Book. World Book Inc., 1983. p. 350.
  16. United Nations Staff. Yearbook of the United Nations 1981. United Nations Pubns, 1984. p. 277.
  17. "Geopolitical Diary: Israeli Covert Operations in Iran". STRATFOR. 2 February 2007. Retrieved 9 December 2010.  (requires e-mail address)
  18. Ragaini, Richard C. International Seminar on Nuclear War and Planetary Emergencies: 29th session. World Scientific Publishing, 2003. p. 33.
  19. "Letters to the Editor". The Atlantic Magazine. March 2005. Retrieved 29 November 2010. 
  20. "Myth: Israel's Strike on Iraqi Reactor Hindered Iraqi Nukes". Institute for Public Accuracy. 16 March 2006. Retrieved 29 November 2010. 
  21. Hasan, Mehdi (25 March 2012). "Bomb Iran and it will surely decide to pursue nuclear arms". Retrieved 16 May 2012. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 "10 years ago in the Bulletin". Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc.. 1991. p. 5. Retrieved 30 November 2010. 
  23. Anthony Fainberg (1981). "Osirak and international security". Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc.. pp. 33–36. Retrieved 30 November 2010. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 24.4 24.5 Cooper, Tom. "Target: Saddam's Reactor". 

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