The Osirak Fallacy

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Every now and again, the dinner-table conversation will turn to Iran (well, not my dinner table, but some…). And then on to Iran’s nuclear program. And then on to how we must not let Iran go nuclear. And then perhaps on to how Israel did pretty well for itself by bombing Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor—and setting back Iraq’s nuclear program for years—back in 1981. You see where this is going.

Well, before the conversation ever does reach that point, read Richard K. Betts’ piece in the National Interest, which notes that the Osirak bombing didn’t really set back the Iraqi nuclear program in the 1980s, as everyone thinks. In fact, it may have even accelerated Iraq’s nuclear program by making Saddam Hussein extra-determined to get the bomb, and in any case, Betts notes, attacking Iran isn’t really a good thing to do. That doesn’t mean the Bush administration won’t try it—common sense hasn’t stopped this crew yet—but Betts at least lays out the argument in one nice, neat place.

Now Betts says that Iran’s going to get the bomb no matter what, and so deterrence and containment are the United States’ least bad options. Maybe. I still don’t see why we can’t try to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons in the first place. But if that’s our goal, it’s actually the best argument against bombing Iran. Because: Say we bomb. That sets Iran’s nuclear program back by a number of years. Say, four. Well, in four years time, we’re right back at square one. What do we do? Bomb again? Bomb again. Then another four-year wait. And bomb. Then so on until infinity. Quadrennial air raids may sound fun to some people, but it’s no way to conduct a sane foreign policy.

Short of attacking from now until eternity, then, the only hope of ensuring that Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons is for the latter to agree to some sort of arms-control and nonproliferation treaties. And the only way to get that to happen is for the United States to start talking directly to Iran and exploring the possibility of some sort of bargain. Maybe it won’t be the best bargain the world has ever seen. Maybe the United States won’t like all aspects of any future treaty with Iran. But it’s the only way to go. So why not at least try? That’s never really been answered.

UPDATE: I should add that the upcoming, and groundbreaking, talks between Iran and the United States — not over the nuclear program, but over Iraq — are a seriously good start.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest