Facing Iran: Lessons Learned Since Iraq’s 1991 Missile Attack on Israel

, March 8, 2010
Vol. 9, No. 21      March 8, 2010

  • The Iranians learned a great deal from the destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor by the Israel Air Force in 1981. The Osirak reactor was the key element in the Iraqi nuclear program: a single target which, when it was destroyed, set that program back very substantially. The Iranians saw this and they dispersed their nuclear program. Much of it is deep underground. There is no single target which, if destroyed, would substantially set back the Iranian nuclear program
  • When I came to Washington as Israel’s ambassador in 1982, the atmosphere was one of hostility and there was talk of imposing sanctions against Israel as a reaction to its unilateral action against the Osirak reactor. Yet after a few years the view in Washington changed completely. It is difficult to envision the Americans undertaking Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf in 1991 if the Iraqi nuclear program had continued beyond 1981 and had not been so seriously set back by the Israeli action.
  • Some say that while the missiles Israel faces are relatively cheap weapons, we are launching a very expensive missile interceptor system against it, which does not seem very wise at first sight. However, the damage that might be caused by the incoming missile may far exceed the cost of the anti-missile system.
  • Israel’s missile interceptor system poses a dilemma to anybody who decides to launch missiles against Israel, especially a missile that has a nuclear warhead. The dilemma is that the missile may very well be intercepted and thus expose the launching of a nuclear missile, even if it didn’t reach its target, which could bring about the response that could be expected for committing this deed.
  • At the start of the Gulf War, the Americans said they expected that within 48 hours the U.S. Air Force would eliminate the missile launch capability of the Iraqis. If they did not succeed, Israel would be free to take whatever action it considered appropriate. Although there was intensive aerial activity directed at hitting the Scud launchers, not a single Scud launcher was hit or immobilized during the Gulf War. Furthermore, the U.S.-made Patriot missiles in Israel did not succeed in intercepting a single Scud missile.

 

Today, in 2010, in the United States and the Western world there is a very real and acute awareness of the danger that Iranian nuclear activity – which is clearly designed to achieve a nuclear military capability – poses to the world, not just to Israel.

Some people like to think that Israel has nothing to worry about because of the sizable Muslim population in the area and that the Iranians would not dare to cause massive destruction in an area where many Muslims might get injured or killed. However, as Prof. Bernard Lewis has said on a number of occasions, this kind of immunity is imaginary because radical Muslims are convinced that God knows how to tell the difference between Jews and Muslims.

What Iran Learned from the Israeli Attack on the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor

The Iranians learned a great deal from the destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor by the Israel Air Force in 1981, which set back Saddam Hussein’s nuclear project very significantly. At the time of the Gulf War nine years later, Israel estimated that the Iraqis really did not have any nuclear capability, that the destruction of the Osirak reactor set them back so far that they did not have the capability to endanger Israel with nuclear weapons. The Osirak reactor was the key element in the Iraqi nuclear program: a single target which, when it was destroyed, set that program back very substantially.

The Iranians saw this and they dispersed their nuclear program. There is no single element or target which, if destroyed, would substantially set back the Iranian nuclear program. Much of it is deep underground. So the Iranians have done their best to obtain immunity from the possibility of an aerial attack of the kind that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, making any military move, regardless of who might consider taking it, substantially more difficult.

Changing U.S. Attitudes toward the Osirak Attack

I came to Washington as Israel’s ambassador in 1982, a little over a year after the destruction of the Osirak reactor. The atmosphere in Washington at the time was one of hostility, anger, even antagonism – and this was the Reagan administration, an administration correctly considered as very friendly towards Israel. The administration thought Israel’s action was ill-conceived, a mistake that could only cause problems rather than solve them. When I arrived in Washington there was talk of actually imposing sanctions against Israel as a reaction to this unilateral action by Israel against the Osirak reactor.

After a few years the view in Washington on that particular action had changed completely. It is difficult to envision the Americans undertaking Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf in 1991 if the Iraqi nuclear reactor had still existed, if the Iraqi nuclear program had continued beyond 1981, and if that program had not been so seriously set back by the Israeli action.

General David Ivri, who was the commander of the Israel Air Force at the time of the Osirak operation, had a photograph of the destroyed reactor in his office, given to him by Dick Cheney, the American secretary of defense during the Gulf War, with his compliments. This was an indication of the appreciation that today is felt by most, if not all, about the very important, positive aspects of that particular operation. People’s views changed with time, and what started out with feelings of antagonism and even hostility changed to strong appreciation for what was done for the benefit of everybody, certainly for the benefit of the Western world and, of course, Israel.


Israel’s Experience Under Long-Range Missile Attack

During the 1991 Gulf War, Israel experienced a major missile attack from a distant Muslim country, facing Soviet-made Scud missiles from Iraq. Since we did not believe that the Iraqis had a nuclear capability in 1991, we were not concerned about being hit by nuclear weapons. However, we knew they had conventional explosive warheads, and our estimate was that they also had chemical warheads.

The first question that arose was whether the Iraqis could be deterred from launching these missiles against Israel. I met with Egyptian President Mubarak shortly before the Gulf War, who was of the opinion that Iraq would not dare fire these missiles against Israel. It turned out that he was wrong, and so were many people who thought that Israel could deter Saddam Hussein from firing his missiles against Israel.

Saddam Hussein fired thirty-nine missiles against Israel during the Gulf War. Fortunately, only six landed in populated areas, one of them not far from my house. There was considerable property damage but only one civilian was killed. Most of Israel’s population went around with gas masks and took shelter in sealed rooms or underground shelters during those five weeks, as every day or so we found ourselves under fire from these missiles.

The Iraqis did not use chemical warheads during the Gulf War, and we can only assume – since they had chemical warheads at the time – that they were deterred from doing so by what they thought might be the Israeli response or, more probably, by what the American response might be. Iraq knew there was very close coordination and collaboration between the United States and Israel, and there might be an American response that they might not welcome.

As the countdown began for the Gulf War, for the American invasion of Kuwait and Iraq, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz said quite openly that the Iraqis were going to fire their Scud missiles against Israel. He told Secretary of State Jim Baker in Geneva shortly before the U.S. military operation: “If we are attacked, we will fire missiles against Israel.”

The precautions Israel took – the preparation of sealed rooms, the distribution of gas masks – were very unpleasant. During the war little Israeli children were walking around with little brown boxes at their sides that contained the gas mask kit they were prepared to put on their faces the minute the alarm was sounded. Whenever an alarm was sounded – which happened almost every day during the war – people ran for shelters, ran for sealed rooms, and put on their gas masks.

Those Scud missiles were a somewhat upgraded version of the German V2 rockets from World War II. The Germans fired these rockets against Britain toward the end of the war and caused very considerable damage. There was no way of intercepting them. We did not know how to shoot down a ballistic missile that comes at us at supersonic speeds.

The Drive to Develop Missile Interceptors

During the Gulf War, Israel was already in the process of developing a missile designed to intercept Scud rockets. This had become possible because of technological advances, primarily in computer and radar technology. This development had started some years before the Gulf War, partially funded by the United States as part of what Reagan called the Star Wars Initiative, when the U.S. launched a very large program to develop anti-missile missiles. Today Israel has the Arrow system that can intercept missiles that come from Iran.

Some say that while the missile we intend to intercept is a relatively cheap weapon, we are launching a very expensive weapon against it, which does not seem very wise at first sight. However, the damage that might be caused by the missile may far exceed the cost of the anti-missile system.

Israel’s missile interceptor system poses a dilemma to anybody who decides to launch missiles against Israel, especially a missile that has a nuclear warhead. The dilemma is posed by the knowledge that the missile may very well be intercepted and thus expose the launching of a nuclear missile, even if it didn’t reach its target, which could bring about the response that could be expected for committing this deed. When this is taken into account, a decision might very well be made that this chance should not be taken and such a missile should not be launched.

There are many ways of trying to fool a missile interceptor, such as the use of decoys and the use of maneuvering reentry vehicles that will try to escape the interceptor. But for every measure there is a countermeasure, and the people who are developing the Arrow system are taking all that into consideration.

Israel is also very close to fielding the Iron Dome missile interceptor system against short-range missiles with a range of tens of kilometers. The shorter the range of the missile, the more difficult it is to intercept because you simply have less time available to react.

American-Israeli Relations During the Gulf War

During the Gulf War there was a very “noisy” communications channel with the United States. The physical contact was good. I spoke with Secretary of Defense Cheney at least every day, sometimes two or three times a day.

The Americans were very concerned that Israel might take preemptive action even before they began their military operation. They were very eager that Israel not get involved in any way because they had built a coalition with Arab countries – Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia (they were operating out of Saudi Arabia) – and they were afraid that coalition might fall apart if Israel openly got involved in the operation.

The Americans asked that we not undertake any preemptive action, that we let them handle the situation. They said they expected that within 48 hours the U.S. Air Force would eliminate the missile launch capability of the Iraqis. If it turned out that they were not going to be able to do it within forty-eight hours, Israel would be free to take whatever action it considered appropriate.

It was under these assumptions that Desert Storm began, and Israel did not take any preemptive action. When the first Scuds fell, we waited for the United States to take care of the problem. As it turned out, the problem of hitting mobile launchers was far more difficult than the U.S. had envisioned. Although there was intensive aerial activity directed at hitting the Scud launchers, not a single Scud launcher was hit or immobilized during the five weeks of the Gulf War. Hitting moving targets that appear only for a very short time and then disappear is very difficult, even to this day.

Even at that point, the United States was very eager that Israel not intervene in any way. So, despite the previous U.S. assurance that Israel would be free to take action if the missile threat could not be eliminated within forty-eight hours, after seventy-two hours President Bush called Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Jim Baker called me, insisting that we not take any action, that we not in any way “spoil” the operation that was underway.

Then the Americans sent over the Patriots. The Patriot was probably the most advanced anti-aircraft missile around at the time, and was advertised as also having anti-missile capability. When the Gulf War started, the United States insisted that the Patriot, which was operating in Saudi Arabia, was effective in destroying Scud missiles. The U.S. urged us to also accept Patriot missiles and was prepared to send them to Israel with American crews because Israeli crews had not yet been trained.

As it turned out, the Patriot missiles in Israel did not succeed in intercepting a single Scud missile. Today there is a more advanced version of the Patriot that is said to have limited capability for intercepting ballistic missiles.

Israeli Plans to Attack Iraqi Missile Sites

During this five-week period I even traveled to Washington to tell President Bush that we could not reconcile ourselves with the continuing situation of these missiles falling on Israel with no reaction and that we had to take action.

But what kind of action? The initial feeling in Israel was that we should get the Israel Air Force to respond, but this didn’t make much sense when the United States and its British allies were employing an armada of aircraft that were flying out of Saudi Arabia and off aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, plastering Iraq day and night. The U.S. was not interested in Israel participating in any way in the fighting during the Gulf War. So it didn’t seem to make sense to use our air force under these circumstances.

In order to neutralize the launching of the Scuds, it became clear very quickly that the only way this could be done would be by ground troops. Ground troops would have to search for the places where the launchers were being hidden and take action on the ground. That is no simple operation. It is 1,000 kilometers from Israel to Baghdad and it would involve landing ground troops in western Iraq.

Nevertheless, we prepared that kind of an operation. Gen. Nehemia Tamari was scheduled to lead it. We told the Americans that we had no choice, that we had to take that kind of action. The Americans didn’t like it, though they finally accepted it. But before we were able to launch this operation, the Americans declared a cease-fire and the war was over.

I was for an Israeli response. I gave instructions to prepare a military operation in western Iraq, a very difficult and dangerous one, mainly because I thought it would be wrong for Israel to be hit without responding for the first time in its history. I thought this would send the wrong message to Israel’s enemies.

In the meantime, we have taken actions against terrorists in military operations in the West Bank, Lebanon, and Gaza. So I don’t think that the fact that we did not respond during the Gulf War in 1991 permanently damaged Israel’s deterrent capability.

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Prof. Moshe Arens was Israel’s defense minister during the 1991 war with Iraq. He served as Israel’s Minister of Defense in three different governments, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and was Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs on January 28, 2010.

Click here to watch video of Moshe Arens’ presentation

 

About Prof. Moshe Arens

Prof. Moshe Arens taught aeronautics at the Technion. From 1962 until 1971 he was Deputy Director General at Israel Aircraft Industries, and won the Israel Defense Prize in 1971. Prof Arens served as Israel's Ambassador to the United States, 1982-83, 1983-84 Minister of Defense 1984-88 Minister without Portfolio 1988-90 Minister of Foreign Affairs 1990-92 Minister of Defense 1999 Minister of Defense