On June 7, 1981, 40 years ago last week, Israel destroyed the Osirak (aka Tammuz) nuclear reactor near Baghdad. The decision to use the air force to launch the surprise attack on the unfinished facility was made by the government headed by Menachem Begin, in consultation with all the country’s defense and intelligence bodies, after other options to thwart Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program had failed.
A recently published memoir sheds light on the contribution by Israel Atomic Energy Commission scientists to code-named Operation Opera, and for the first time confirms that Mossad operatives had two years earlier, in 1979, sabotaged an essential shipment of materials in France destined for the Iraqi facility. Until now the information about Israel violating French sovereignty was based on “foreign reports.” However, the author of the new book, Michael (“Micky”) Ron, claims that the Israeli operation did not actually achieve its goal – because the Mossad did not listen to the advice of the experts from the IAEC.
The roots of the Iraqi nuclear program were planted in the years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Jerusalem began to receive worrying information about efforts by Saddam Hussein – initially the deputy chairman of the Ba’ath Party’s Revolutionary Command Council in Iraq, but in reality the strongman in his country even before he became president in 1979 – to obtain nuclear weapons secretly, by building a research reactor imported from France.
Between 1974 and 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Defense Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Yigal Allon continued to warn about the impending danger in Iraq. They used both overt and covert diplomacy in an attempt to influence Italy, Brazil and other countries – and in particular France, under President Valery Giscard d’Estaing – demanding that they stop aiding Hussein in his advance toward weapons of mass destruction.
The Israeli politicians' pressure continued for a few months after the political upset occurred in 1977, when Begin became prime minister and Likud replaced the ruling Labor Party to lead the government. U.S. President Jimmy Carter joined in the effort as well.
Toward the end of 1977, when it was clear that the diplomatic efforts weren’t leading anywhere, Begin ordered embarking on the next stage: to draw on the local intelligence community in order to disrupt Hussein’s plans. The prime minister activated the Mossad, headed by Yitzhak Hofi; the Intelligence Branch of the Israel Defense Forces, commanded by Major General Shlomo Gazit; and the IAEC, which was directed by Uzi Eilam.
Hofi appointed his deputy, Nahum Admoni, as the interagency director of the project to foil the Iraqi nuclear threat. Admoni, later head of the Mossad, assembled a team from the IAEC and a new unit known by the Hebrew acronym Nabak (a Hebrew acronym for “unconventional weapons”). Working with them were members of the IDF’s elite 8200 intelligence unit and of the technical part of its research department. This inter-service team was dubbed “New Era” and it put together a two-part plan: the “soft” stage and the “loud” stage.
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At a certain point, the Mossad had obtained quite precise information from most of the French and other companies involved in planning and building the Iraqi facility. This made it possible to prepare blueprints for the Osirak compound, warehouses and laboratories. Among other things, soldiers in Unit 8200 managed to intercept phone calls as well as cable and teleprinter communications that came from French companies and other sources.
The huge quantity of information compelled IDF’s MI to recruit French-speakers for eavesdropping, transcription and deciphering assignments. The material that was collected enabled the Mossad’s intelligence officers to make contact with and to recruit agents from among the 2,000 foreign workers who were involved in the undertaking. Some were in it for the money; others volunteered or participated out of a desire to help Israel. The Mossad also managed to enlist a number of Iraqi engineers and physicists who traveled to France on occasion for further training or to purchase equipment.
Once the picture of the nuclear project lay like an open book before the eyes and ears of Israeli intelligence, and as construction of the reactor progressed, the “soft” stage of the plot began. Operatives from the so-called Caesarea and Keshet branches of the Mossad went into action under the aegis of New Era personnel. Technicians, engineers, scientists and executives in French, Italian and other companies started receiving phone calls and letters, in which anonymous callers “advised” them to avoid any connection with the Hussein regime and with the reactor’s construction. When this “advice” did not yield the desired results, the Mossad launched an intimidation campaign that was somewhat effective: Some of those on the receiving end did ultimately pull out of the project, but most just ignored the threats.
Compound by the sea
The Iraqi nuclear program kept progressing and by 1979 was almost complete. It was then, therefore, that Prime Minister Begin ordered Hofi to move to the “loud” stage of thwarting it. This consisted mainly of operations to sabotage equipment that France was due to supply to complete the reactor’s construction. One of the most daring of these operations, according to foreign press reports, took place on the night of April 6, 1979 in the town of La Seyne-sur-Mer, on the Mediterranean coast west of Toulon. The target: warehouses belonging to the CMIM company, which specialized in manufacturing parts for nuclear ships and reactors.
This operation was preceded by weeks of surveillance by special Mossad operatives from the Caesarea and Kidon (Bayonet) units, who gathered information about work routines at the warehouses, entry and exit procedures, security arrangements and more. The Kidon teams selected for the mission also trained on a model created in Israel. The operation was scheduled for a weekend, on the assumption that the area would not be filled with workers and the chances of casualties would be reduced. According to the same foreign reports, on that night, 15 male and female fighters arrived at the CMIM warehouses together with their commander, Caesarea head Mike Harari. The reports also noted that Hofi arrived in France a few days earlier, in disguise and using a false identity, to monitor the operation from up close.
Two female operatives went to distract the guards at the gate of the facility, while their comrades cut through the surrounding security fence and crawled inside. They quietly approached two giant tanks, attached time-delay bombs and slipped back out. Less than an hour later, a series of explosions occurred in the compound. The tanks were actually cores destined for the reactor in Iraq and were supposed to be loaded onto a ship to that country a few days later. They were heavily damaged, but not completely destroyed – as the Mossad had expected.
Hours after the explosions, an anonymous caller told French newspapers that an unknown organization of “green” environmental activists had assumed responsibility for the sabotage. The French intelligence services didn’t buy that account, however, and suspected that the informant was someone from the Mossad’s psychological warfare and disinformation division.
Fencer and engineer
Micky Ron, now 89, was one of the top scientists at the Dimona Nuclear Research Center, which is run under the auspices of IAEC. In his (Hebrew) memoir “The Quiet Sabra,” which was published recently, Ron reveals that, as part of his work, he served as a special adviser to the New Era team, along with his colleague Matti Halahmi. He also confirms that the entire operation in France was carried out by the Mossad.
Ron was born in Haifa in 1932. His father, Salomon Rubinstein emigrated from Ukraine and was one of the first engineers in the Palestine Electricity Corporation in British Mandatory Palestine. After his service in the Nahal infantry brigade, Ron went on to study engineering and management in Glasgow, Scotland, and afterward returned to the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. When he finished his studies there, he was hired by the Israel Electric Corporation. Ron represented Israel in fencing in the 1960 Rome summer Olympics, but a year later was recruited to work at the Dimona reactor, whose construction had begun four years earlier with aid from the French government. Hundreds of French workers and experts were involved in the project.
Ron served as director of nuclear fuel production – that is, dealing with the materials that fuel the reactor, where, as per foreign reports, plutonium was being produced as fissile material for atomic bombs.
"The Dimona nuclear reactor and the IAEC cooperated with the Mossad and the IDF in monitoring the construction of the reactor in Iraq,” he writes in his book. “I, my (Dimona) colleague Matti Halahmi from the NRC and the commander of the technical unit of MI, assisted the Mossad on this matter. In the Mossad office we went over all of the information that flowed in from abroad concerning the construction of the reactor, to figure out where in France they were manufacturing the parts, as the reactor being built was an exact copy of the central nuclear reactor at Saclay in Paris.
“We were kept informed about the manufacturing operations at the Toulon shipyard. One day, we even received information that mentioned a ‘clean room.’ This led us to the conclusion that it was desirable to blow up a key part of the reactor and cause damage so that the French would need many months to resume the construction of the structures,” Ron writes, adding, “The Mossad prepared for the mission, and the two of us, Matti and I, requested that we take part in carrying out the mission to ensure that the explosives were put in the right place, but our request was denied. Ultimately, the blast was carried out and the team returned safely to Israel, but the objective was not fully achieved. The French quickly repaired the damage.”
As a result of the partial success of the operation, the Iraqi nuclear project was delayed but not for as long as Israel had hoped.
From Dimona to L.A.
After efforts to stop construction of the reactor by covert means failed, Admoni decided that a military operation was the only option. Years later, Admoni told me that he had informed Begin of his opinion and that the prime minister accepted it. After the conversation, the IDF entered the picture, but Ron’s missions did not end there. The first military plan was to destroy Osirak with a ground offensive, and the IDF began training for it.
“I was asked to fly to France to visit the twin reactor,” he writes in “The Quiet Sabra,” “to determine the route for walking from the entrance to the bottom of the core – the place where they had to affix the explosives.”
The idea of a ground operation was ultimately shelved and the mission was shifted to the Israel Air Force, which did a superb job of it, in what became known as one of the most important strategic operations in the country’s history.
“The day after the operation, a meeting was held at the Mossad where I explained that the bombing of the reactor had been very successful and that it would be impossible to rebuild it,” Ron explains in the book.
Acknowledging his disappointment at not being appointed director of the Dimona reactor, Ron left the nuclear field after the operation, but not his secret security activities. In 1982, Rafi Eitan, head of the Lakam (a Hebrew acronym for Scientific Liaison Bureau) agency, appointed him to be scientific attaché at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles.
Lakam was a secret Defense Ministry unit that conducted scientific and technical espionage activities for the benefit of the Dimona reactor, the defense industries and the army. The organization’s emissaries, who operated under diplomatic cover, were stationed at Israeli embassies around the world and worked in intelligence-gathering as well as acquiring technical knowledge and equipment. In 1985, during Ron’s term in Los Angeles, U.S. Customs officials and the FBI discovered that MILCO, a company owned by Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan (who was also a Lakam agent), smuggled dual-use triggers to Israel that could be used for medical machinery – or nuclear weapons.
At the end of that year, and with no connection to the MILCO affair, Jonathan Pollard, the American Jewish agent being handled by Eitan and Lakam, was arrested in the United States on suspicion of spying for Israel. A short time thereafter, Micky Ron was ordered to return to Israel, perhaps due to fear that he might also be arrested by the FBI.
Regarding his subsequent professional life, Ron admits that he felt abandoned by Israel’s security establishment. “For half a year, I ran all over the place searching for a job, but I came up empty,” he writes sadly, noting that by contrast, the Israeli government looked after Rafi Eitan and arranged a position for him as chairman of Israel Chemicals.