Israel's strike at the Iraqi nuclear Tamuz 17 reactor complex reflected its longstanding unwillingness to trust its military security to anyone but itself. This, more than fear of an imminent Iraqi nuclear threat, as implied by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, motivated it to risk worldwide condemnation.
International inspection procedures and French on-site observation would almost certainly have revealed any Iraqi use of the facilities for military purposes before the Iraqis could have produced a bomb, according to published information and interviews with Israel scientists.
But, say the Israelis, there are no guarantees that internationa pressure would have halted or reversed Iraq'a nuclear development for military purposes. "We have experience of the limits of international bodies. Can we risk delegating out sovereignty to them?" asked Shai Feldman, research associate at the Tel Aviv-based Center for Strategic Studies.
This position raises a series of questions:
1. Was it certain that Iraq intended the facilities for military use?
2. Given such an intention, could it produce bombs?
3. Wouldn't such misuse, once detected, have been internationally condemned?
4. Were there other options to a military strike to dissuade iraq from producing an atomic weapon?
Not all the answers mesh with explanations from the Israeli government.
Prime Minister Begin told his nation that Israel had to strike now since the Osirak reactor would become operational in one to three months. Once the reactor was working, he said, a strike would release deadly radiation over Baghdad, a danger confirmed by international scientists.
Assuming Iraq's nuclear aims were military, how imminent was the danger to Israel?
The situation differs in the case of attempted military use of enriched uranium or plutonium. Because of the controversy over the sale of weapons-grade uranium, the French agreed last year to stagger the shipments, according to French media and Israeli scientists.
This was intended to prevent the presence in Iraq at any one time of uranium sufficient to make more than one bomb (20-25 kilograms). Once each shipment is processed through the reactor, it is no longer usable for military purposes.
Thus if Iraq had wanted to make a bomb from the uranium, it would have had to steal it before it was placed in the reactor -- and the loss would have been immediately known to French surveillance teams. Or, it could have canceled French surveillance and presumably have withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thus probably embarrassing France into canceling the rest of the shipment. It is unclear whether fledgling nuclear scientists could then have manufactured the bomb by themselves.
Writing in the Israeli daily Davar before the raid, Yoram Nimrod noted that Iraq would in such circumstances be unable to test the bomb since there would not be enough material left to make another one.
"It will not able to evolve a nuclear strategy based on one bomb that may or may not be operational and meanwhile it will find itself in dire political straits," Mr. Nimrod said.
However, there is a consensus here that Iraq intended to use the reactor complex for military purposes. This, despite French claims of safeguards and Iraq's signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty subjecting them to supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Israel has never signed the treaty, though it is thought to have or be able to assemble nuclear weapons.
As evidence of Iraq's intent, Israelis cite its refusal to recognize Israel and frequent hostile public statements like that of the Iraqi newspaper Al-Thawra on Oct. 4, 1980, just after Iranian planes had reportedly bombed the Osirak reactor.
The newspaper said, "the Iranian people shoudl not fear the Iraqi nuclear reactor which is not intended to be used against Iran but against the Zionist enemy."
The type and variety of Iraq's nuclear facilities and fuel purchases also elicit Israeli suspicions. They could potentially manufacture nuclear weapons from either enriched uranium or plutonium.
In 1975 Iraq ordered from France an advanced 70-megawatt experimental Osirak- type reactor, along with a promised 75 kilograms of Uranium 235 enriched to 93 percent. This uranium is of weapons-grade, sufficiently high to directly produce three or possibly four nuclear bombs of the Hiroshima type. In 1979, the French government tried to persuade Iraq to accept a far lower-grade uranium but the Iraqis insisted on the previous deal.
The French also agreed to help train 600 Iraqi technicians and scientists and to supply a second, one-megawatt Isis-type research reactor.
The Israelis argue that Iraq, a major oil producer has no need for atomic energy development. They add that Iraq has no nuclear research program and no scientists to man one. The leading Iraqi scientists have been purged.
Iraq also initiated the Dry-30 project with Italy, which includes a radio-chemistry laboratory for reprocessing irradiated low-grade fuel. And separating out plutonium, which could also be used for atomic weapons. This deal, they say, is only partly subject to IEAE safeguards.
Iraq also signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Brazil in 1980. And the Israelis say Iraq has begun stockpiling natural uranium from Portugal, Nigeria, and p ossibly elsewhere.