35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Israeli Attack on Iraq's Osirak 1981: Setback or Impetus for Nuclear Weapons?

The Osirak research reactor site in Iraq after it was bombed by Israel in 1981. Creative Commons

Published: Jun 7, 2021
Briefing Book #766

Edited by Joyce Battle
and William Burr

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

CIA and U.S. diplomats warned in 1979-1980 that Israel might attack

Reagan administration missed level of Carter’s concern, so were taken by surprise

Saddam Hussein saw himself "on the side of the angels" and Israel was "increasingly ... viewed as the international pariah," CIA official noted

France took secret “preventive measures” to block Iraqi weapons capability, unbeknownst to Iraqis

Washington, D.C., June 7, 2021 – On June 7, 1981, 40 years ago today, Israel attacked and partially destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear research reactor at Tuwaitha, using U.S. supplied F-15 and F-16 aircraft to carry out the attack.  Ten Iraqi soldiers and one French engineer were killed during the airstrike.  Apparently, the Israeli raid took President Ronald Reagan and his advisers completely by surprise, yet their predecessors, including President Jimmy Carter, were aware of the strong possibility of an attack.

As early as July 1980, U.S. Ambassador Sam Lewis warned Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and President Carter in an eyes-only telegram that his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Begin had led him to conclude that the Israelis might undertake “preemptive strikes with conventional weapons… regardless of the awesome consequences of such action.”  Later, Lewis suggested that information on this and other discussions with Begin did not reach the Reagan administration, though more needs to be learned about the sources for this gap in “institutional memory.”

According to Lewis’s messages, the Israelis were particularly worried about French and Italian aid to the Iraqi nuclear program and in a briefing to Begin in December 1980 Lewis assured him that we “are taking widespread concern about the Iran-Iraq war to press Italy and France to reassess their nuclear cooperation with Iraq.” Whether the Israelis were told about secret French measures to prevent an Iraqi weapons program is unclear, but Lewis warned Begin that “precipitate action against Iraq’s nuclear installations would be a severe setback to prospects for Middle East peace.”  Indeed, the attack had a strongly negative impact on Israel’s image in the Arab world and elsewhere.

The reactor had been purchased from France under a bilateral agreement that it would be used for peaceful purposes. The research facility was also subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Israel asserted that Iraq was on the brink of developing a nuclear weapons capability and justified the attack as an act of self-defense. Iraq insisted that its reactor program was peaceful, and France said that the reactor’s design features and the precautionary procedures it had implemented insured that the Osirak reactor could never be used in the production of nuclear weapons.

The attack, codenamed “Operation Opera,” was widely condemned internationally, but Israel suffered few long-term adverse consequences. The Israelis argued that their action significantly delayed Iraq’s long-term nuclear weapons ambitions, but a wide range of well-informed observers have since insisted that to the contrary the attack motivated Baghdad’s decision to pursue a nuclear weapons option – the attack and its aftermath simply drove the effort underground.

By the time the strike occurred, Iraq had pursued a nuclear research program for several decades. In 1976 it bought an Osiris-class research reactor from France, along with a smaller Isis-type reactor, a limited supply of enriched uranium, and technical training. Construction of the reactor began in 1979 at the al-Tuwaitha Nuclear Center outside Baghdad. The French called the reactor Osirak, a combination of the class designation Osiris with Iraq. The Iraqis called the larger reactor Tammuz 1 and the smaller one Tammuz 2, commemorating the date of the Ba’ath party’s rise to power in Iraq.

Whether Iraqi officials or scientists had weapons ambitions in mind or not, State Department officials were concerned during 1979 and 1980 that French-Iraqi and Italian-Iraqi nuclear transactions could help Baghdad develop ways and means to produce fissile material.  France’s reactor deal was difficult to stop but French officials provided the U.S. with  information about secret technical measures that would complicate any efforts to use the reactor and HEU for weapons purposes.  Whether the French informed the Israelis about the steps they had taken is not clear, but some of the measures, such as pre-irradiating HEU would have been effective

The Carter administration believed that Italy had gone far in providing technology that could help Iraq produce plutonium for a weapons program. Nuclear diplomacy worked slowly and Washington had difficulty getting answers from Italian officials about the transactions with Iraq. By the end of 1980, U.S. intelligence believed that Iraq may have received some quantity of plutonium from Italy. French and Italian cooperation with Iraq continued until the destruction resulting from the airstrike rendered further work unfeasible.   

At the same time, signs of Israel’s interest in a military strike alarmed American diplomats.  As early as mid-1980, Ambassador to Israel Sam Lewis’s conversations with Prime Minister Menachem Begin indicated that Israel was likely to settle the matter with an attack on the reactor. In June 1980, Lewis reported that there was “no more dangerous issue than this one.” Unless French policy changed, “we must anticipate” that the Israelis will “feel compelled to take some kind of unilateral action … well before the Iraqis actually possess a weapon.”

The June 1981 airstrike was not the first hostile act aimed at stopping Iraq’s nuclear program: Israel had sabotaged equipment intended for the facility on the verge of delivery by France in 1979, and in 1980 it assassinated a leading scientist working on the program. The Israelis also asked the French to stop their nuclear assistance to Iraq and brought up the matter urgently with Ambassador Sam Lewis, as he reported in a dramatic 19 July 1980 telegram.  Iran bombed the site just a few days after the Iran-Iraq war began, but its strike caused only limited damage.

Israel called its attack defensive and asserted that Iraq planned to ultimately use the Osirak reactor for weapons production, despite agreements in effect to the contrary. Israel also claimed that damage to the reactor seriously undermined Iraq’s nuclear program.  However, evidence indicates the Israelis exaggerated the reactor’s capabilities; its design would not have permitted the generation of significant quantities of fissile material to the degree claimed.  And as noted, there are indications the Israeli attack may have accelerated Saddam Hussein’s quest for a nuclear weapons capability.[1]

Israel conducted its June 7 strike with F-15 and F16 aircraft of U.S. origin, passing enroute secretly and without permission through Saudi airspace. The attack was timed to occur before the reactor became operational (when that would have occurred is disputed) to avoid, the Israelis said, the danger of radiation contamination during or after the attack.

International bodies were quick to respond. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors condemned the attack in mid-June 1981, and in September the IAEA Conference both condemned the strike and suspended all technical assistance to Israel. On June 19, the United Nations Security Council condemned the attack as a violation of the United Nations charter, stating that Iraq should be compensated and calling for Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and place its own nuclear program under IAEA safeguards. In November, the United Nations General Assembly followed suit, condemning Israel for a premeditated act of aggression.

Condemning the attack, the United States suspended the shipment of F-16s to Israel because the strike raised questions whether they had been used for legitimate self-defense purposes as required by law.   Nevertheless, the Reagan administration was not about to re-evaluate policy toward Israel and the deliveries resumed in a few months.

Baghdad declared its intention to rebuild the facility, but the ongoing Iran-Iraq war precluded the return of European engineers and technicians. With the severe financial strain that Iraq experienced because of the war, limited resources were available for nuclear research, but the regime had a weapons capability in mind.  In 1991, during the Persian Gulf war, American air strikes extensively damaged the Tuwaitha facility, and further U.S. strikes destroyed it soon after the 2003 invasion of Iraq began.

The Osirak strike was significant in its own right, but its execution and reactions afterward were influenced by additional considerations. Many believed that Prime Minister Begin chose the timing of the attack in part with the intention of pressuring Syria by example to remove missiles it had deployed to Lebanon, and to impress Israeli voters eager to respond to a nationalist appeal. If so, the latter audience at least seemed to be receptive -- Begin’s Likud party prevailed in parliamentary elections three weeks after the attack.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and other top officials considered the attack to have been beneficial because it won Iraq widespread international sympathy and conversely almost universal condemnation of Israel. Saddam believed that Israel attacked to divert attention from its own covert nuclear weapons program (which had also benefited greatly from French assistance). But Iraq’s reactions were also conditioned by its overwhelming concerns about conflict with the Iranians – whom Iraq suspected of connivance with the Israelis.[2]

The United States was compelled by the seriousness of the attack to condemn Israel’s action and it did so, but the close security relationship between the two countries ensured that Washington would not impose any serious, long-term consequences on its ally. U.S. policy was also guided by the role it had assumed as Arab-Israeli peacemaker, and it undertook to ensure that a mediation effort then underway, led by Ambassador Philip Habib, would not be waylaid. As always, Washington’s deliberations were influenced by Cold War concerns, and its decisions were guided by the determination to forestall benefits to the Soviet Union that might have accrued from Arab suspicions about U.S. intentions following the attack. Meanwhile, individuals and institutions committed to preserving and expanding nonproliferation efforts hoped that the shock of the attack would focus attention on the global and regional nuclear threat, and more specifically on the need for disarmament negotiations and the expansion of the reach, authority, and funding of IAEA safeguards.

The documents in this briefing book provide contextual background for Israel’s strike, and for the reactions to it. They cover U.S. concerns during 1979 and 1980 about French-Iraqi and Italian-Iraqi nuclear transactions. They also comprise analyses of the claimed justifications for the Israeli attack and its predicted aftereffects. They further provide a contemporaneous narrative of diplomatic exchanges before and during an event that transpired without warning, complicated by an initial lack of information and considerable uncertainty about unfolding events.  A limit to the U.S. documentary record is the lack of intelligence reports and analyses from 1980 and 1981 assessing Iraq’s nuclear intentions and the possibility of an Israeli attack.

 


Editor’s note: The editors thank Professors Giordana Pulcini (University of Rome Three) and Or Rabinowitz (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) for generously sharing copies of documents acquired from their research at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. They have made a significant contribution to historical knowledge of the Osirak raid and the surrounding circumstances in their article, “An Ounce of Prevention - A Pound of Cure? The Reagan Administration’s Non-Proliferation Policy and the Osirak Raid,” which was recently published inThe Journal of Cold War Studies. Recently, Professors Pulcini and Rabinowitz gave a presentation of their research in a seminar organized by the Wilson Center’s Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, which may be viewed here

 

Read the documents

 

I. Background

 
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1979-08-24
Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State records [RG 59], Subject Files of Gerard C. Smith [Smith records], box 17, Iraq 1980

 

ACDA nuclear expert Richard Williamson sent officials a chronology of nuclear sales and exports from the French and the Italians to Iraq beginning in 1977. Transactions involved a research reactor from France and research laboratories, including a radiochemistry lab, from Italy. Also included in the chronology were U.S. expressions of concern to both governments. According to Williamson, France’s and Italy’s nuclear cooperation with Iraq “poses a potentially dangerous situation” that needed close watching.

 

 
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1979-10-00
The CIA evaluated Iraq’s nuclear program, stating that available evidence was fragmentary and generally ambiguous. It reported that it had no hard evidence showing that Iraq had decided to acquire nuclear weapons but believed it was likely that it had decided to develop a relatively self-sufficient basis for such a program. It would need fissile material and could conceivably divert highly enriched uranium that the French were scheduled to provide for the Osirak reactor, but the CIA also outlined significant problems that could constrain this pursuit. It hypothesized that should Iraq choose to develop nuclear weapons it would be unlikely to do so before the late 1980s, but it might be conducting the necessary preparations under cover of its civilian nuclear program.

The study identified Iraq’s perception of threats to its national security and regional ambitions from Israel and Iran as the primary motivation for its interest in a nuclear weapons capability: Israel had long had an ambitious nuclear program and Baghdad believed that Iran had similar intentions. It might believe that the possession of nuclear weapons would provide military and diplomatic benefits without any intention of employing them. But the concurrent disadvantages were also obvious, including a possible preemptive Israeli attack on Iraq’s nuclear facilities. The potential of Iraq obtaining a nuclear bomb accentuated, in the judgment of the CIA, the problems caused by the weakness of the international nonproliferation regime and the instability resulting from the lack of a broadly accepted Israel-Palestine peace settlement.

 

 
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1980-05-16
Source: RG 59, [Smith records], box 17, Iraq 1980

 

During a meeting in Paris with State Department official Robert Gallucci (a member of the Policy Planning Staff), French nuclear experts, including Jean Leygonnie, expressed concern about Italian nuclear discussions with Iraq, including the possible sale of a heavy water reactor. Ambassador Guy de Commines expressed the same concern. According to the embassy message, “one suspects that GOF concerns relate less to proliferation implications of natural uranium reactors than to loss of potential French power reactor sales.” Another French official suggested that the Italians were trying to develop a market for “lucrative and important military sales to Iraq.”

 

 
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1980-07-19
Source: FOIA Release to National Security Archive (FOIA Release)

 

The Department informed the Embassy in Tel Aviv that Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ephraim Evron telephoned Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders concerning recent press reports about the supply of uranium to Iraq by France, asking the U.S. to intervene to prevent the transaction. Saunders replied that the U.S. had been following the issue for some time, had been in contact with relevant parties, and would follow up with Israel.

 

 
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1980-07-19
Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum (RRPL) (copy from Giordana Pulcini/Or Rabinowitz

 

While the U.S. government was trying to work with the French and the Italians to hold back on their nuclear transactions with the Iraqis, the Government of Israel was closely monitoring Baghdad’s nuclear program. Prime Minister Begin was especially worried and had a long discussion about it with Ambassador Samuel Lewis while on his sick bed (he had recently left the hospital). Lewis reported on it in a secret, no distribution “Cherokee” [literally eyes only] message for Secretary of State Muskie and President Carter, which included the prime minister’s “personal and very emotional” message. Begin and his associates believed that the HEU that the French were providing as fuel for the Osirak reactor was enough to produce several nuclear weapons that could be dropped on Israel using Soviet-provided Blinder medium-range bombers. He asked Lewis to convey to President Carter the urgency of trying to stop the French from making further shipments of reactor fuel.

In his comments, Lewis discussed the “rising tide of anxiety” about Iraq, as officials, journalists, academics, and politicians were “working themselves into a state of near panic about the Iraqi nuclear issue.” He noted that his arguments about IAEA and French inspections “fall on deaf ears” because the Israelis have no confidence in any such arrangements. They “assume from their own experience that the French can and will turn a blind eye to diversion of the material” and that inspectors “are not that difficult to fool.”

According to Lewis, the government and the opposition were in accord, and both were exerting pressure in France to stop nuclear transactions with Iraq. Believing there was “no more dangerous issue than this one,” Lewis argued that unless French policy changed, “we must anticipate” that the Israelis will “feel compelled to take some kind of unilateral action … well before the Iraqis actually possess a weapon.” Such action could take place within the next six months and could involve clandestine methods or “even preemptive strikes with conventional weapons… regardless of the awesome consequences of such action.”

 

 
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1980-05-16
Source: RG 59, Smith records], box 17, Iraq 1980

 

A few days after Begin’s message was received, senior U.S. officials received detailed information about the status of French nuclear transactions with Iraq. A discussion with Guy de Commines and other officials covered Pakistan, South Africa, and Iraq, including sensitive French government decision-making on these issues. Concerning Iraq, de Commines acknowledged the criticisms of the shipment of highly enriched uranium to Iraq and the reactor sale to Iraq but disclosed that the French were taking special “preventive measures” of which the Iraqis were unaware. For example, the HEU was pre-irradiated before shipment to Iraq making it unusable for weapons purposes. Other precautions were to supply only one-core loading at a time for the small research reactor and the presence of 50 French technicians, who were with the HEU during its shipment, when it was placed in the reactor, and at the time of start-up. In effect, the French were running the reactor. In view of the criticisms of French policy, De Commines hoped to make more information about French concerns and precautions available to the public. “The French were somewhat surprised at the lack of public criticism of Italy in view of the Italian assistance in sensitive nuclear areas to Iraq.” The French planned to send a team to Iraq to dissuade the purchase of a natural uranium heavy water reactor and to convince them to buy instead a French pressurized water reactor.

 

 
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1980-07-25
Source: CIA FOIA Website

 

The discussion of hot issues in this CIA monthly report included the then-current work on a Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on “Iraqi Nuclear Activity and Likely Israeli Response.” The estimatewas said to be in the terms-of-reference phase, but work should be completed in two weeks. NIO Robert Ames noted it might be necessary to “issue an alert memorandum sooner if we obtain more evidence of a possible Israeli preemptive strike at an Iraqi nuclear facility.” The SNIE remains classified, although it has been requested under FOIA from the CIA.

 

 
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1980-08-14
Source: RG 59, Smith records, box 17, Iraq 1980

 

Italian nuclear cooperation with Iraq produced even more concern than French. Although Prime Minister Francesco Maurizia Cossiga had assured Jimmy Carter that Italy would confirm its commitment to the NPT and that there would be no transfers of sensitive technology to Iraq, Washington remained concerned. Italy’s CNEN (Comitato Nazionale per l'Energia Nucleare) was working on a report about the technology transfers but that had been delayed and the CNEN had been evasive in responding to U.S. questions about details of the transactions.

To get answers, the State Department instructed the Embassy to bring the matter to Foreign Minister Emilio Colombo and CNEN President Umberto Colombo. According to the proposed message to the Foreign Ministry, “early receipt of this information is crucial to abate growing concerns … about the scope of Italian assistance to Iraq, which could have a negative impact on Congressional attitudes and could hinder U.S.-Italy nuclear cooperation.”

As an example of the information that the U.S. government was seeking, CNEN President Colombo was to be asked whether “a fuel element disassembly and chopping machine” had been constructed in Italy and shipped to Iraq. This technology was directly relevant for reprocessing spent fuel for plutonium production. The machine “may be intended for installation in the chemical engineering test facility.” The Department had many related questions for which it wanted answers by 25 August.

 

 
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1980-08-22
Source: CIA FOIA Website

 

By the time of this nonproliferation warning report, the intelligence community had completed work on a SNIE on Israel and the Iraqi nuclear program and there were no developments that challenged its conclusions. The Iraqis were bound to accuse Israel of any “bombings” or other action that destroyed nuclear material being shipped to Iraq, the authors wrote. Baghdad had recently reinforced its nuclear site at Tuwaitha (the location of the Osirak reactor), about 11 miles southeast of the capital, suggesting they expect “some such” destructive actions to be taken.

 

 
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1980-10-02
Source: RG 59, Smith records, box 15, France (January-June) 1980

 

The IAEA needed more data about the Osirak reactor so its staff could properly design safeguards for the installation. The information that the IAEA had was either insufficient or contradictory, including details about the similarities and differences between Osirak and the Osiris reactor in France. Therefore, the State Department instructed the Embassy to bring questions to Phillipe Louet, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Nuclear Affairs Office. The queries covered highly technical issues on the reactor’s capabilities including power levels, reactor internals, and fuel management, all of which and more the IAEA needed for establishing and maintaining safeguards at Osirak, “despite the current fighting in the region.”

Related questions that the State Department had included whether there was “ready access” to the reactor’s pool and whether the IAEA could “easily install surveillance cameras” to ensure continuous monitoring of spent fuel kept in the pool. Another uncertainty was whether the top of the reactor could be sealed between re-loads of fuel. If that was not possible, the question would be whether it would be “difficult to modify the structure to permit the easy use of IAEA seals which would ensure that nothing extra had been loaded into the reactor between fuel changes.”

 

 
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1980-10-07
Source: FOIA Request

 

This draft State Department evaluation prepared in response to a request from Prime Minister Begin indicated that a Phantom jet attack (carried out by Iran) against Iraq’s nuclear research center at Tuwaitha on September 30, 1980, appeared to have caused only minor damage. Long-term activities at the facility would probably not be significantly affected.

 

 
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1980-10-11
Source: RG 59, Smith records, box 17, Iraq 1980

 

Recent reports that “elements” of Iraq’s military had taken over the Tuwaitha nuclear complex raised questions that the Department wanted to bring to the French, the Soviets, and the IAEA. At issue was whether French and Soviet personnel were still present at the complex. The IAEA needed to be informed of the situation and asked whether it planned to take “any steps to deal” with the new circumstances.

 

 
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1980-10-14
Source: RG 59, Smith records, box 17, Iraq 1980

 

Roger Kirk, the United States deputy representative to the IAEA, met with the Agency’s chief of external relations, David Fischer, who told him that the Agency had no “special plans” for Tuwaitha. The IAEA was considering whether to ask the French to stop shipping fuel to Osirak. There had been no inspections since June, when Agency inspectors observed seals on the French fuel supply. The Agency had been negotiating with the Iraqis over the facility attachments for the reactors and storage area at Tuwaitha but a trip to resume the talks had been postponed.

The facility attachments were important and highly sensitive documents concerning safeguards at each installation, including locations for making measurements, provisions for cameras and seals, specification of the data to be recorded and reported by the facility, specific activities of the inspectors, and an estimate of the person-days per year of inspections that the IAEA expected to make.

 

 
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1980-11-01
Source: RG 59, Records of Deputy Under Secretaries of State for Security Assistance, Science, and Technology Lucy W. Benson and Matthew Nimitz, box 8, Chron

 

CNEN provided information in response to the Department’s questions (see Document 8), but the information raised concerns about the nature of Iraqi-Italian nuclear cooperation. Washington wanted Italy to do more to live by its nonproliferation commitments to President Carter and to provide more information about Italy’s assistance to the Iraqis. Assistant Secretaries of State George Vest and Thomas Pickering requested Deputy Secretary Warren Christopher to sign off on a telegram to the Rome Embassy that had detailed language for a demarche to be lodged with the Foreign Ministry by Ambassador Richard Gardner.

Among the points to be made were that Italy’s aid to Iraq in radiochemistry was “definitely related to reprocessing” and would “provide all of the basic steps for ‘mock reprocessing’” that would “furnish the understanding needed for the separation of significant quantities of plutonium.” Therefore, the U.S. urged Rome “to limits its cooperation … to minimize any further transfers of assistance that could contribute significantly to Iraq’s capability to acquire nuclear explosives.” Toward that end, the U.S. sought further discussions “with your experts on how this might be accomplished.”

The demarche also mentioned the Cirene nuclear reactor that Italy was discussing with Iraq. It asked Italy not to “make any commitments for supply of natural uranium fueled reactors like Cirene at this time or adopt positions now that could lead you later to consider that an obligation to supply exists.”

The State Department acknowledged that the information from CNEN was more than “we had before,” but left “a significant number of questions unanswered.” By asking for further discussions with Italian experts, the U.S. hoped to “get a political commitment to continue this dialogue at the working level with a view to minimizing further Italian-Iraqi cooperation in the reprocessing area.” The ambassador could make the point to Foreign Minister Arnaldo Forlani that further cooperation in the reprocessing area “would raise both major policy and legal problems and jeopardize our own nuclear cooperation with Italy and EURATOM.”

 

 
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1980-12-06
Source: FOIA release

 

In this telegram, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Morris Draper instructed Ambassador Lewis that he, instead of Assistant Secretary Thomas Pickering, should brief Prime Minister Begin on Iraq’s nuclear program, using talking points and other information provided by Pickering. Why Pickering did not make the briefing is unclear. If Lewis wanted, Draper could explain the decision in a phone call. [See Document 31 for Lewis’ report on the briefing]

 

 
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1980-12-24
Source: CIA FOIA Website

 

The discussion in this “Warning Report” on nuclear proliferation included intelligence that the Iraqis were trying to acquire plutonium metal from an Italian facility and were also investigating a possible supply of enriched uranium. It was not known whether those attempts were successful, but they signified “Iraqi determination to vigorously pursue acquisition of the capability for a weapons option.” Israeli awareness of the attempt to acquire plutonium was likely to increase Israeli “concerns about the Iraqi nuclear threat to [their] security.” That could “change the perception of risk that they attach to some sort of preemptive action against the Iraqi nuclear program.” The Iraqis were building “enormous earthen barriers” at the Tuwaitha nuclear center to enhance defense against air strikes.

 

 

II. The Attack and Aftermath

 

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1981-06-07
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

In an Eyes-Only message for President Ronald Reagan and the Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Ambassador Lewis reported that Menachem Begin had asked him to inform them that Israel had raided Iraq’s atomic reactor and reportedly destroyed it completely. All aircraft returned safely.

 

 
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1981-06-07
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh reported that Saudi Crown Prince Fahd’s private secretary had called incoming U.S. Ambassador Robert Neumann to report that Israeli planes had flown through Saudi air space, falsely identifying themselves as Jordanian, on their way to bombing Iraq’s reactor. Fahd expected a prompt U.S. response and intervention with Israel. The Embassy requested information and guidance as soon as possible.

 

 
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1981-06-08
Source: RRPL (copy from Giordana Pulcini/Or Rabinowitz)

 

The White House Situation Room reported on initial regional responses to the attack on Iraq’s reactor. Member of parliament and former foreign minister Moshe Dayan told Ambassador Lewis that Begin would contact President Reagan with justifications for the strike. Principal Officer in Iraq William Eagleton had not yet learned of an official Iraqi response -- during a meeting with an Iraqi Foreign Ministry officer it was not mentioned. Saudi Arabia called the attack an insult to itself and to the United States. Egyptian Vice President Hosni Mubarak said he would inform Prime Minister Anwar Sadat of the strike and report his reaction. Mubarak said that it would cause problems with the Arab states for both Egypt and the U.S. and would be exploited by both the Soviet Union and Syria. He believed Begin’s decision to attack was motivated by upcoming Israeli elections.

 

 
document thumbnail
1981-06-08
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

Washington directed Ambassador Lewis to contact Begin or Deputy Minister of Defense Mordechai Tzipori as soon as possible for details about and justifications for Israel’s attack. The U.S. was “faced with [a] major public posture problem” and wanted information from the Israelis on the extent of damage, which facilities had been struck, possible hazardous consequences including radiation, what was Israel’s evidence that weapons-related activity was underway, and how Israel would deal with questions about the use of U.S.-supplied aircraft and weapons.

 

 
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1981-06-08
Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC Records, Country File, box 37, Iraq (Israel Strike on Iraqi Nuclear Facility, 6/8/81 [1 of 6] [Copy from Or Rabinowitz]

 

To justify the attack, the Government of Israel made the worst-case argument that the Osirak reactor would give Iraq the capability to produce Hiroshima-scale weapons. Before the reactor posed a “mortal danger” to the people of Israel, Israel struck it before it went “hot,” thus avoiding the spread of radioactive debris in the area. Moreover, the raid occurred on a Sunday to avoid harm to foreign experts working at the site (one French technician was killed, notwithstanding). The Israelis called upon “two European governments” (unnamed, but a reference to France and Italy), to “desist from [their] horrifying, inhuman” assistance to the “Iraqi tyrant.”

 

 
document thumbnail
1981-06-08
Source: FOIA Release

 

Washington sent this Eyes Only – For Ambassador telegram to Middle Eastern and South Asian missions stating that Israel had attempted to destroy Iraq’s nuclear facility at Tuwaitha, and that the U.S. had received no advance notice of the attack. The strike was not yet known to the public but would be soon. Press guidance was being prepared. Addressees were told that local authorities should not yet be alerted but missions should initiate all appropriate security measures. At present nothing should be discussed with staff or outside of missions.

 

 
document thumbnail
1981-06-08
Source: FOIA release

 

The U.S. defense attaché and army attaché in Israel were summoned urgently by Israeli Director of Military Intelligence Major General Yehoshua Sagi for a very short briefing. Sagi informed them of Israel’s attack on the Iraqi reactor at Tuwaitha and said that it had been a complete success, and that the reactor was destroyed. Israel had planned on announcing the strike; so far, it had not been reported on Radio Baghdad. According to this Department message to the CIA, Israel had been pushing in recent days for the accelerated production and delivery of U.S. F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft (both models were used in the strike.) The attachés briefly encountered Israeli Air Force Commander Major General David Ivry, a chief planner of the attack.

 

 
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1981-06-08
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

Principal Officer Eagleton reported that so far the U.S. Interests Section in Baghdad had heard only rumors about the Israeli attack: Iraqi media had not mentioned the raid. Eagleton said he was checking with the French and Italian embassies. Meanwhile, speculation about aspects of the strike was circulating among Iraqis, according to Interests Section employees. The mission was said to be implementing appropriate security measures.

 

 
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1981-06-08
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

Ambassador Neumann in Riyadh commented to the Department that guidance for dealing with the Israeli reactor strike provided so far by Washington had not been sufficiently strong, given the high emotional connotations of nuclear-related incidents, especially hostile acts. The passage of attacking Israeli planes through Saudi airspace, he reported, would be seen by Saudis as an act of war. They were likely to relate it to previous Israeli overflights of their territory and to conclude that Israel would disregard Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty just like Lebanon’s. Saudis would also interpret the timing of the attack as undermining their efforts to mediate conflict in Lebanon. After Prime Minister Begin’s recent statement that Israel was in a virtual alliance with the U.S., Saudi Crown Prince Fahd would suspect that timely and decisive U.S. defense of its security could not be relied upon. To maintain credibility, Neumann called for a stronger U.S. position to be provided to Saudi Arabia and to other friendly governments that could be made available for public consumption.

 

 
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1981-06-08
Source: FOIA release

 

According to this State Department Operations Center sitrep, Deputy Chief of Mission William Brown was at the time meeting with Israeli Intelligence Chief Sagi and others to get clarification on the raid. As for the press, Israel planned to wait for questions about the attack and would downplay it, Deputy Defense Minister Zippori told Brown told, but if Iraq made an announcement Begin would issue a statement. Israel did not plan to provide any details on the strike. So far, there had been no press stories, although CBS had made inquiries.

The U.S. embassies in both Jordan and Saudi Arabia in this period requested stronger responses to the strike than those conveyed in the guidance provided by Washington so far; the Amman post was reporting a cold response from the Foreign Ministry to news of the attack.

The Israelis later told Brown that they struck only French facilities and timed the attack to avoid radiation dispersal and to limit casualties. They used 16 iron bombs dropped by eight U.S. F-16 aircraft escorted by six U.S. F-15s. There was little Iraqi resistance. The Israelis claimed that their photographs showed that a hit on the reactor dome had led to its collapse.

 

 
document thumbnail
1981-06-08
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

Principal Officer Eagleton reported that Italy had accounted for all its workers at the Tuwaitha reactor site, but the French ambassador indicated that one French technician was missing. There had not yet been an official Iraqi statement. An air raid alert, followed significantly later by anti-aircraft fire, led to rumors, but there was only speculation about what triggered them. So far it appears that only a few Iraqi officials are aware of the strike, and there has been no apparent popular reaction.

 

 
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1981-06-08
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

William Eagleton reported that there had still not been any apparent Iraqi reaction to the attack on the Tuwaitha reactor, despite the audible explosions that accompanied it. The Baghdad Interests Section had implemented security measures but did not expect in the near term to be targeted. Eagleton predicted that whatever Washington said, Iraqi leaders would assign much of the blame for the attack to the U.S., since Israel used advanced U.S.-origin fighter aircraft and weapons in the strike and the U.S. consistently supported Israel. Eagleton noted that the Iraqis would suspect that the U.S. either encouraged the attack or acquiesced to it. He recommended that Washington dissociate itself from Israel’s action, for the sake of the security of his mission and that of other Americans in the region.

 

 
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1981-06-08
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

During a call to William Eagleton, Iraqi Foreign Minister Sa’adun Hammadi told him that Iraq had suspected Israel of carrying out the reactor attack, as Israel had now confirmed. He noted that Iraq had no shared border with and was not in a fighting war with Israel, that the facility was costly, and that Iraq had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Hammadi adds that Eagleton was the first foreign representative he had called since the strike, since the U.S. maintained a public posture of standing for peace and justice, was involved in an ongoing effort to improve relations with Iraq, and because of its special relationship with Israel. He contended that the U.S. could have prevented the attack if it had wanted to do so. Eagleton said in reply that he could affirm officially that the U.S. had no foreknowledge of the raid. After Hammadi made a skeptical comment that is excised in the document, Eagleton countered that even if it had been aware of the flights the U.S. could not have done anything about them.

Hammadi stated that Iraq would call for an urgent United Nations Security Council meeting and hoped for U.S. support.

 

 
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1981-06-09
Source: CIA FOIA Web page

 

The CIA reported that photographic evidence indicated that structural damage at the Iraqi reactor after the Israeli strike was less severe than previously reported. Damage to the interior of the ISIS reactor building could not be determined. Cleanup work was not apparent. There were five bomb craters at the Osirak reactor building, an undetermined number near the destroyed and damaged support buildings, and several craters were visible near the laboratories.

 

 

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1981-06-09
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

In this message to Secretary of State Haig, Ambassador Lewis suggested that a gap in “institutional memory” had left the Reagan administration unaware of the “sensitive” and “frustrating” dialogue between Carter officials and the Government of Israel that had taken place during 1980. When those discussions concluded, Lewis became convinced that Israel would strike the reactor before it became operational. Recounting his 17 July 1980 conversation with Begin, he explained that the Carter administration had made reassurances that Begin had dismissed and pointed to signs that the Israelis might use the Iraq-Iran war as cover for an attack on the reactor. The Iranians, however, “got there first” in an earlier attack on Osirak.

Lewis also discussed a briefing that he had given to Begin in December 1980 (originally to be provided by Assistant Secretary Thomas Pickering). It indicated no basic U.S. disagreement with the Israelis about Iraq’s nuclear objectives but warned that an attack on the nuclear facilities would be a “severe setback” for peace in the region. Begin, however, remained worried that diplomacy would not work. The December meeting was the last such exchange.

According to Lewis, the timing of the recent strike could “scarcely have been more damaging to our diplomatic efforts in the region.” Nevertheless, the Israelis had seen “only a very narrow window” for launching the attack, e.g., one that would avoid  the danger of a strike on a “hot” reactor and that would also send a message to the Syrians about removing missiles from Lebanon “peacefully".

 

 

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1981-06-09
Source: RRPL (copy from Giordana Pulcini/Or Rabinowitz)

 

In this version of the Lewis telegram there is less information excised from paragraph 6, concerning discussions from late September 1980, notably the reference to a conclusion that there was a “20 to 40 percent possibility of a strike taking place.”

 

 
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1981-06-10
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

Principal Officer Eagleton reported that one French technician at the Iraqi nuclear facility had been killed by fumes during the airstrike. There were only four French technicians in the vicinity during the attack, which occurred after the end of the workday. His source was aware of numerous Iraqi casualties but not yet of any deaths. The source indicated that there was not much left to work with at the site, and French workers would not return while a war was ongoing.

 

 
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1981-06-11
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

National Security Council staffer Robert M. Kimmitt briefed National Security Advisor Richard Allen on legal requirements under the Arms Export Control Act for cutting off military exports to a country that has substantially violated military sales agreements, and for presidential notification of Congress to that effect. Regarding the attack on Iraq’s reactor, the U.S. determined that Israel may have substantially violated its agreement to use U.S. arms for self-defense only, although the issue is still under review. On behalf of Reagan, Secretary Haig reported the incident to Congress. The White House would inform Congress of the results of its deliberations, but in the interim was suspending shipment to Israel of four F-16 aircraft. Kimmitt assumed that other deliveries would not be affected. The F-16s were a special case because they were used in the attack. He noted that another delivery of F-16s was scheduled for mid-July, but the review should be completed by then.

 

 
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1981-06-12
Source: FOIA Request; FOIA Release

 

This Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence report cited a source who asserted that a claim by Menachem Begin, reported in the press the preceding day, that Iraq had a secret bunker 40 meters under its nuclear reactor site at Tuwaitha to produce atomic weapons was “nonsense.” According to the source, during crises Begin sometimes overlooked or failed to grasp details of intelligence briefings and had relayed false information to Ambassador Lewis and to the press, frustrating the Israel Defense Forces intelligence corps. According to a postscript in the report, Begin had phoned Reuters to apologize for the error: “The secret bunker was not forty meters underground, said Begin, only four meters!”

 

 
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1981-06-15
Source: RRPL; FOIA Release

 

Lest public statements on the reactor raid “unduly antagonize Israel,” Richard Allen cautioned Reagan that he should keep in mind Prime Minister Begin’s repeated intimations to Ambassador Lewis during the final months of the Carter administration that Israel might take unilateral action if the U.S. did not fulfill Israel’s demand that Washington compel France and Italy to cut off technical support for Iraq’s nuclear program. In December 1980 Lewis told Begin that the U.S. had agreed with Israel that Iraq was seeking a nuclear weapons option and that the assessments by U.S. and Israeli experts "were in basic agreement." Douglas J. Feith provided the memorandum to Allen for his signature.

 

 
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1981-06-15
Source: RRPL (copy from Giordana Pulcini/Or Rabinowitz)

 

This memo to President Reagan from Acting Secretary Walter J. Stoessel underscores how the Israeli strike put the United States in a difficult legal and political position with respect to its chief regional ally. Stoessel outlined for the president the Department’s strategy for testimony before Congress on the reactor attack. He wrote that the U.S. was not required to make a legal determination that Israel violated U.S. arms export laws. In fact, he advised against doing so, to keep its options open: if it found that the strike was illegal, Washington would be required to cut off the flow of weapons to Israel. On the other hand, a finding that no violation occurred would seem to endorse Israel’s position that the attack was an act of legitimate self-defense, potentially damaging U.S. relations with friendly Arab governments.

 

 
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1981-06-18
Source: FOIA release

 

After Prime Minister Begin sent a letter regarding the strike to President Reagan, Assistant Secretary of State Nicholas Veliotes and Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs official Daniel M. Hirsch met with Ambassador Ephraim Evron to review Israel’s view of U.S. media coverage of the reactor attack, and Israeli assessments of the facility. The Americans told Evron that a December 1980 U.S. assessment addressing activities at the nuclear facility and concerns about the potential of Iraq’s program did not include a definitive finding about Iraq’s long-term intentions.

Earlier discussions, Veliotes told Evron, including Ambassador Lewis’s December 1980 statements to Prime Minister Begin, could not be used to justify Israel’s attack. Veliotes also refuted Evron’s impression that media coverage showed that the U.S. had tried to conceal or distort its proliferation concerns about Iraq’s program. He added that Israel must recognize high-level concern in Washington about the surprise attack. In response to questioning from Evron about ongoing United Nations Security Council deliberations, Veliotes said that the U.S. would veto any potential resolution imposing sanctions on Israel but was prepared to vote for a resolution condemning the attack. Regarding the crisis in Lebanon, Veliotes said that the Israeli attack had not ended efforts by presidential envoy Philip Habib to mediate the conflict but had complicated it.

 

 
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1981-06-19
Source: FOIA release

 

Participants in a June 1981 monthly warning meeting did not think that Iraq would retaliate for the strike on its reactor by attacking either Israel or the U.S. Success would be unlikely, they believed. Plus, President Saddam Hussein saw some benefit from the attack because he believed that it isolated Israel in international opinion, and Iraq was currently stressing diplomacy in its foreign policy. Were they willing to comply, the Iraqis could try to incite terrorism by Palestinian militants. It was unlikely that Baghdad would strike at Iran as a prestige-enhancing move because the Iraqi president would like to get the Iran-Iraq war over with, the participants concluded. The raid had soured U.S. relations with Arab countries, but Washington’s cooperation with Iraq on a United Nations resolution responding to the attack was likely to mitigate the problem.

 

 
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1981-07-01
Source: FOIA release

 

This CIA intelligence assessment reviewing implications of the Israeli attack on Iraq’s reactor declared that it strained U.S.-Arab relations, in turn undermining U.S. objectives, including rallying Arab governments against the Soviet Union and organizing Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. The strike increased the security concerns of governments in the region, likely accelerating the arms race, according to the document. Since Israel stated that it would stop any Arab country from attaining a nuclear weapons capability, other measures for self-defense might be pursued -- possibly offering opportunities to Moscow. The raid increased sympathy for Iraq in much of the Third World, but Saddam Hussein’s suggestion that world governments provide Arab nations with a nuclear deterrent would likely deter IAEA members from agreeing to future nuclear technology transfers to Iraq. However, the raid may have damaged the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the IAEA safeguards system, giving credence to critics who dismissed their effectiveness as barriers against proliferation – and demonstrating their limitations as security guarantors for treaty members. The assessment concluded that the raid was likely to increase skepticism in the Arab world that the United States had credibility as an unbiased peacekeeper in the Middle East. From this perspective, Washington had, instead, transformed Israel into a major military power whose actions could not be restrained by the U.S. – a sentiment that the Soviet Union could exploit. The most intense Arab reactions to the attack came from traditional friends of the United States, the report noted, like Jordan, which feared that the strike and the U.S. reaction to it made them more vulnerable to critics. So far, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (who was focused on the competing crisis of the war with Iran) had been relatively restrained in his criticism of United States support for Israel.

 

 
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1981-08-17
Source: FOIA release

 

This State Department assessment of the nonproliferation implications of Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor concludes that it: undermined the credibility of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; provided a precedent for attacks on nuclear facilities; might improve prospects for expanded Soviet influence in the Middle East; and could diminish the credibility of the Reagan administration’s nonproliferation policy. Yet, the strike also focused attention on the threat of nuclear proliferation; demonstrated the need for tighter nuclear export controls; and could provide opportunities for negotiating improvements of the NPT and the IAEA nonproliferation regime while increasing their funding and international support. The bombing set back temporarily Iraq's nuclear research program, which aimed for a weapons option, by limiting its access to material and technological assistance. The raid may, however, have heightened Iraq’s interest in eventually acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. The prospects for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone might increase as another outcome of the attack, but regional instability, the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict, and Israel’s existing nuclear weapons program made progress on this issue unlikely.

 

 
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1981-12-011
Source: FOIA Release

 

The Bureau of Intelligence and Research reported that, at Iraq’s behest, the IAEA Board of Governors in June had strongly condemned Israel’s attack on the Iraqi nuclear research center and recommended that the 1981 General Conference consider suspending Israel from the IAEA. An Iraqi draft resolution omitted a call for Israel's expulsion but considered the strike against a safeguarded Iraqi nuclear facility as "an attack on the Agency and its safeguards regime." It also contemplated suspending technical assistance to Israel and Israel’s rights of membership until it accepted the provisions of Security Council Resolution 487 of June 19, 1981, which, among other requirements, called on Israel to accept IAEA safeguards on its nuclear facilities.

With help from other Western governments, Washington lobbied strenuously against the draft and warned that Israel’s suspension would lead the U.S. to withdraw from the conference and reassess its participation in the IAEA. The efforts won enough blocking votes to convince Iraq to revise the resolution, deferring suspension of Israel’s membership until the following year Iraq continued its campaign to focus international attention on the reactor attack. In early November, as the United Nations General Assembly considered the IAEA’s annual report, Iraq submitted amendments characterizing the Israeli raid as a threat to the IAEA safeguard regime and calling on states to refrain from the use of force, "including in particular any armed attack on nuclear installations." Both amendments passed with large majorities; there were abstentions, but the U.S. and Israel cast the only negative votes.

According to INR, the points raised by delegates during debates suggested that a major impetus for these lopsided votes was Prime Minister Begin’s declaration in June that Israel would attack any future Arab nuclear facilities that it viewed as a threat. The bureau predicted that with the passage of time the atmosphere would moderate, and the U.S. and its allies could head off future attempts to suspend Israel from the IAEA.

 

 
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1983-07-00
Source: FOIA release

 

According to this CIA assessment, the June 1981 Israeli airstrike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor was a significant setback to Iraq’s nuclear program but probably did not change Baghdad’s long-range nuclear ambitions. During the strike, the reactor’s containment vessel and control room were destroyed but underground reactor components suffered little or no damage. Iraq would probably not be able to acquire fissile material in the foreseeable future, according to the document, but the CIA stated that Iraq’s long-range ambition was to build a domestic nuclear energy capability – and eventually, probably, a nuclear weapons capability. In the near term, Iraq was assessed to be trying to purchase a reactor that would produce much more plutonium than the Osirak reactor could.

The CIA still had not discovered an identifiable Iraqi nuclear weapons program, but Iraq’s explorations of purchases of computers, other technology, and fissile material suggested an interest in developing a weapons capability over the long term. Baghdad’s progress was impeded by a lack of foreign support, the difficulty of covert nuclear transfers, and the crushing costs of its war with Iran, which had sharply reduced oil exports.

 

Notes

[1]. Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, “Revisiting Osirak: Preventive Attacks and Nuclear Proliferation Risks,” International Security 36 (2011): 101-132.

[2]. See, for example, Kevin M. Woods, David D. Palkki, and Mark E. Stout, eds., The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, 1978-2001 (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 77-78.