Etzion Airbase, Israel, June 7, 1981. Eight F-16As, each armed with two 2,000-pound delay-action bombs, followed by six F-15As, taxi to the runway. At the stroke of 3.55 pm, the first F-16A takes off, swiftly followed by the remaining aircraft. Within seconds, they disappear from the sky above Israel.
Operation Babylon, with its zealously guarded code word ‘Opera’, had begun. This was by far the most daring, most ambitious military operation launched by the Israeli Defense Forces. Entebbe would look like a teddy bears’ party in comparison. The planes would fly more than 1,600 km, sneaking into and crossing first Jordanian and then Saudi Arabian airspace, detected but unchallenged. They would bomb their target and fly back using the same route.
The Israeli pilots told Jordanian air controllers they were members of a Saudi patrol who had strayed off course. To convince the Jordanians, they spoke in Saudi-accented Arabic. When they entered Saudi airspace, they told the air controllers that they were Jordanians, speaking in Jordanian-accented Arabic. The Israelis used Jordanian and Saudi radio signals with remarkable ease.? But this story is not about the prowess of Israel’s magnificent flying men — that country has some of the best fighter pilots in the world — but their target on that summer day: Osirak, the nuclear facility a short distance away from Baghdad which essentially comprised an Osiris class reactor sold to Iraq by France. The reactor was meant for ‘peaceful purposes’, or so Iraq and France claimed, but Israel believed it would be used for processing weapon-grade fuel. Strangely, or perhaps not, so did Iran. And neither wanted the reactor to go critical.?
When the Israeli planes loomed over Osirak and bombed the reactor to rubble, the Iraqis didn’t know what had struck them. Before they could realise the extent of the loss inflicted upon them, the Israelis were on their way out of Iraqi airspace. Operation Babylon was an unqualified success — nobody had quite seen such a surgical strike till then. A jubilant Israel bravely weathered the opprobrium that followed.
Operation Babylon, also known as Operation Opera, is known to many — at least its mention rings a bell among those who grew up in the closing decades of the last century. But what is often forgotten is that the Israelis were not the first to bomb Osirak with the purpose of destroying the reactor and, along with it, Iraq’s nascent nuclear ambitions. Before Israel, Iran had attempted a similar strike-and-destroy surgical raid.
On September 30, 1980, Iranian F4 Phantoms bombed Osirak, but the damage inflicted to the facility was minimal. French technicians worked overtime to repair the reactor and soon Osirak was back in business. In a strange way, Tehran and Tel Aviv were united in purpose. It is alleged, although there is no evidence to prove it, that Iran was aware of Operation Babylon and had even offered refuelling facilities to Israel.??
Times change, situations change. Cut to 2012 and you see Israel once again worrying about the nuclear programme of another country in the region. This time it is Iran. But unlike Iraq’s fledgling one-reactor project, Iran’s is a mammoth exercise, far more advanced and aided by more than ‘moral and political support’ from those who do not wish to see Tehran’s ambition being cut short.??
There has been much chatter about an impending Israeli airstrike a la Operation Babylon, especially after the surprise formation of a national unity Government. Some reports say Israel is planning to raid Iran’s nuclear facilities on its own; others say it will be a joint US-Israeli operation. All such reports have been based on briefings by unattributed sources. Can Israel repeat its daring feat? Israel does have the capacity to conduct a similar surgical strike. I have heard that elaborate plans exist on paper and several mock raids have been simulated somewhere in the Negev desert. That, however, must remain in the realm of speculation as nobody is going to either confirm or deny it.
Senior officials who are in charge of Israel’s strategic affairs insist a surgical strike can “only be the last option”. At the same time, little or no effort is made to scotch speculation over a possible strike. There is a tactical purpose to it – to let it be known that Israel will not sit and twiddle its thumbs if the world fails to force Iran to abandon the dangerous path it is treading. But if push comes to shove, if Tehran is soon on the verge of crossing the nuclear threshold, will Israel conduct a surgical strike to take out Iranian capability and capacity? In theory, that’s a possibility which cannot be ruled out, even if it is the last option to be exercised. A final call, however, would depend, as it did in 1981 when a call was taken on Operation Babylon, on the blowback that would follow. At the moment it does not seem Sunni Arabia would be mighty displeased if Shia Iran were to be punished.
— The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist