Operation Scorch Sword

Operation Scorch Sword (Persian: عملیات شمشیر سوزان) was a surprise airstrike carried out by the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force on 30 September 1980, that damaged an almost-complete nuclear reactor located 17 kilometres (11 miles) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. The operation was carried out eight days into the Iran–Iraq War. At dawn on 30 September 1980, four Iranian F-4E Phantom jets refuelled mid-air near the Iran–Iraq border. After crossing into Iraq, the fighters climbed to a high altitude in order to stay undetected by Iraqi airspace radar systems. Moments later, two of the Phantoms peeled off and dropped to a low altitude again to avoid internal radar detection and proceeded to fly stealthily to the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre just southeast of the capital city of Baghdad, and home to the Osirak nuclear reactor.[1]

Operation Scorch Sword
Part of the Iran–Iraq War
Attach to Qsirak.jpg
Unofficial map displaying the general course of the Iranian aerial operation
Operational scopeStrategic
33°12′22″N 44°31′08″E / 33.206°N 44.519°E / 33.206; 44.519Coordinates: 33°12′22″N 44°31′08″E / 33.206°N 44.519°E / 33.206; 44.519
Planned byMaj. Gen. Javad Fakoori
(Commander, Iranian Air Force)
ObjectiveDestruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor
Date30 September 1980
Executed by Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force
OutcomeIranian partial operational success
Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre is located in Iraq
Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre
Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre
Location of the Osirak nuclear reactor within Iraq

This was the first such attack on a nuclear reactor and only the third on any nuclear facility in history. It was also the first instance of a preventive attack on a reactor, the intent of which was to forestall the development of any nuclear weapon that Iraq could potentially threaten Iran with in the future.[2][3]

Although the operation successfully damaged the facility and reactor, it failed to thwart the Iraqis' ability to continue their development in the nuclear sector. However, the Osirak reactor was obliterated in a second aerial operation, dubbed Operation Opera, that was carried out by the Israeli Air Force eight months later on 7 June 1981.[4]

Iraq's nuclear programEdit

Iraq had established a nuclear program sometime in the 1960s, and in the mid-1970s looked to expand it through the acquisition of a nuclear reactor.[5] After failing to convince the French government to sell them a plutonium-producing reactor and reprocessing plant, and likewise failing to convince the Italian government to sell them a CIRENE-style reactor, the Iraqi government convinced the French government to sell them an Osiris-class research reactor.[6][7] The purchase also included a smaller accompanying Isis-type reactor, the sale of 72 kilograms of 93% enriched uranium and the training of personnel.[8] The total cost has been given as $300 million.[9] In November 1975 the countries signed a nuclear cooperation agreement and in 1976 the sale of the reactor was finalized.[6]

Construction for the 40-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor began in 1979 at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Facility, near Baghdad.[10] The main reactor was dubbed Osirak (Osiraq) by the French, blending the name of Iraq with that of the reactor class. Iraq named the main reactor Tammuz 1 (Arabic: تموز) and the smaller Tammuz 2.[11] Tammuz was the Babylonian month when the Ba'ath party had come to power in 1968.[12] In July 1980, Iraq received from France a shipment of approximately 12.5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to be used in the reactor. The shipment was the first of a planned six deliveries totalling 72 kilograms.[13] It was reportedly stipulated in the purchase agreement that no more than two HEU fuel loadings, 25 kilograms, could be in Iraq at any time.[14]

Iraq and France claimed that the Iraqi reactor was intended for peaceful scientific research.[15] Agreements between France and Iraq excluded military use.[16] In a 2003 speech, Richard Wilson, a professor of physics at Harvard University who visually inspected the partially damaged reactor in December 1982, said that "to collect enough plutonium [for a nuclear weapon] using Osirak would've taken decades, not years".[17] In 2005, Wilson further commented in The Atlantic:

the Osirak reactor that was bombed by Israel in June of 1981 was explicitly designed by the French engineer Yves Girard to be unsuitable for making bombs. That was obvious to me on my 1982 visit.[18]

Elsewhere Wilson has stated that:

Many claim that the bombing of the Iraqi Osirak reactor delayed Iraq's nuclear bomb program. But the Iraqi nuclear program before 1981 was peaceful, and the Osirak reactor was not only unsuited to making bombs but was under intensive safeguards.[19]

In an interview in 2012, Wilson again emphasised: "The Iraqis couldn't have been developing a nuclear weapon at Osirak. I challenge any scientist in the world to show me how they could have done so."[20]

Contrary to Wilson's opinion, the American private intelligence agency Stratfor wrote in 2007 that the uranium-fueled reactor "was believed to be on the verge of producing plutonium for a weapons program".[21]

Iraq was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, placing its reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.[5] In October 1981, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published excerpts from the testimony of Roger Richter, a former IAEA inspector who described the weaknesses of the agency's nuclear safeguards to the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Richter testified that only part of Iraq's nuclear installation was under safeguard and that the most sensitive facilities were not even subject to safeguards.[22] IAEA's Director-General Sigvard Eklund issued a rebuttal saying that Richter had never inspected Osirak and had never been assigned to inspect facilities in the Middle East.[22] Eklund claimed that the safeguards procedures were effective and that they were supplemented by precautionary measures taken by the nuclear suppliers.[22] Anthony Fainberg, a physicist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, disputed Richter's claim that a fuel processing program for the manufacturing of nuclear weapons could have been conducted secretly.[22] Fainberg wrote that there was barely enough fuel on the site to make one bomb, and that the presence of hundreds of foreign technicians would have made it impossible for the Iraqis to take the necessary steps without being discovered.[23]

Iranian planningEdit

External video
  News report on French television station TF1 showing a part of the air raid on Tamuz by the Iranian air force. (3 October 1980)

For years prior to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Iran and Israel (who were unofficial allies at this time) had monitored Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.[24] After the Islamic Revolution, Iran's new government heightened their surveillance of the reactor (to the point that their relations with France, the builder of the reactor, suffered). Despite official hostility between Khomeini and his allies with Israel and anti-Israeli rhetoric, certain elements of Iran and Israel's government sometimes continued to help each other clandestinely because they had a common enemy: Iraq. Even as late as 1987, Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin stated that "Iran is our best friend and we don't intend to change our position".[25]

When the Iran-Iraq War broke out, Iran became increasingly concerned that Iraq would develop nuclear weapons to use against them. Before the war, Iran had a contingency plan to attack the plant. After the revolution, there were many problems. Iran, which had the fifth most powerful military in the world prior to the revolution, had lost its main supplier, the United States. Spare parts were hard to come by, and many aircraft had to be cannibalized. The Israelis secretly shipped some spare parts to Iran to help their air force, however those were insufficient.[24] Many of Iran's air force pilots had also been purged (executed by firing squad) after the revolution. To make matters worse, the Iranians did not have the benefit of a surprise attack (as there was a war going on) and they did not have access to American spy satellite footage either to assess the plant layout.[24]

The IRIAF (under Javad Fakoori) began to plan out an entirely new plan to attack Osirak. The Iranians had little intelligence about the plant, and there was even a risk that it was already being fuelled, increasing the possibility of radioactive fallout. So Iran decided that they would not target the actual reactor itself, but the research laboratories, the reactor control building, and the training facilities.[24]

an Iranian F-4 being refueled over Iraq's airspace during the war, 1982

The Osirak nuclear reactor was defended by a single SA-6 missile battery, three Roland missile batteries, and 40 anti-aircraft artillery positions (23 mm and 57 mm radar guided guns). Due to US sanctions, Iranian F-4 Phantoms were only able to disrupt the SA-6 and were not able to get electronic countermeasure pods to jam the Iraqi Roland. Instead the Iranians had to fly low over the target, and move at high speed and get out quickly. The mission was to be carried out by Iran's most skilled pilots.[24] The major problem was the lack of intelligence- due to the break-down in relations with the US, the IRIAF had no new satellite photographs of the building site, nor were there any new pictures taken from the ground. Israeli and Syrian intelligence agencies both reported that the work on the reactors was advancing, but in the final days before the mission, some doubts surfaced over whether the reactor was finally fueled. The Iranians could not risk causing a nuclear fall-out over Baghdad. Because of this, the first ever mission in the history of warfare to be undertaken against a nuclear reactor- even one still being built- was planned under the operational name of "Scorch Sword". On an Israeli suggestion, they would not strike the reactor itself, but the nuclear research laboratories, the reactor control building, and the training facilities. It was known that the building site was defended by a single SA-6 battery, just over a mile (2 km) to the southeast, between 30 and 40 anti-aircraft artillery positions (AAA-mostly 23mm and 57mm radar-guided guns) and the French supplied Roland-2 SAM sites mounted in a triangle some 1600 ft (500m) around the reactor. The IRIAF, decided to deploy its faithful McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom for the mission. These Roland sites were the first to become operational in Iraq, indeed, it was said that the French pulled rounds of equipment from their own stocks to reinforce the defences of the site where there were French people working. The IRIAF possessed no ECM pods capable of countering the Rolands- its pods could only suppress SA-2s, SA-3s, and SA-6s, so the aircraft that were to be used for this strike had to be fast and able to carry a considerable ordnance. Their hand selected crews had to depend on their skills, flying the aircraft at a very high speed while at an extremely low level. Using the reactor complex as a shield against the Rolands, they would also need a fair amount of good luck.


As September 30 dawned, four F-4 Phantoms of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, took off from the Nojeh TAB 3, at Kaboodar Ahang, near Hamadan. Flying on a southwesterly course, the formation first approached the Iraqi border in order to meet a Boeing 707-3J9C tanker, escorted by a pair of F-14 Tomcats, in order to refuel mid air. Each Phantom was armed with six Mk.82 GP bombs, two AIM-7E-2 Sparrow air-to-air missiles, and a full load of 20mm ammunition for the M-61A1 Vulcan cannon. After crossing into Iraq in a very low altitude, the formation, led by a colonel, climbed to gain altitude, so the enemy early-warning radars would paint it just long enough for the Iraqis to think they had fixed the direction in which the Iranians were heading. Moments later, the group dropped back to a very low level, where the Iraqis were no longer able to track. Then, the group parted ways, the leading pair continued in the same direction as before, towards a powerplant just south of Baghdad, while the other two Phantoms diverted for Tuwaitha, further south. As the last two F-4 Phantoms approached the Tammuz building site, they remained in a very low altitude, pulling up again at the last moment, barely at 2.4 miles (4 km) from the target, and then remained there for a brief period. To the surprise of the pilots, the Iraqis did not even fire a single missile or shell at them. Approaching on a direct route and executing a perfect attack, the Iranians swiftly sighted their targets east of the reactor buildings, rolled out and released their 12 Mk.82 bombs, remaining in the air over the target for only six seconds. Simultaneously, the two other Phantoms hit their target, taking out the power supply to Baghdad for the next two days. Witnesses reported that at least two Iranian bombs clearly impacted the reactor itself, while the other bombs triggered a voluminous blaze that damaged all the other installations in the complex, such as the cooling pumps, the labs and other support facilities.[26]


There was controversy over the results of the Operation Scorch Sword. In the West, the strike was viewed as having caused only "minor damage", the same opinion expressed by the Iraqis. However, soon it turned evident that the strike was clearly successful in disrupting the Iraqi nuclear program, both physically through the strike, and also psychologically, as the Iraqis immediately denounced Iran for "its cooperation with the Zionist enemy", suspecting, together with the French, that the aircraft did not come from Iran but from Israel. Saddam Hussein personally stated that Israeli aircraft had already flown over Iraq, including delivering a strike against Baghdad on 27 July 1980. This was done in order to cover up the Iraqi humiliation in the hands of the IRIAF. Even the French intelligence services later on, falsely reported that the September 30 attack on Tuwaitha was carried out by "two unidentified Israeli Phantoms" or aircraft with Iranian markings flown by Israeli pilots. Israel emphatically denied all such allegations, pointing at the fact that such an operation would be almost impossible to carry out with their F-4s. In order to confirm the results of the raid, on 30 November 1980, one F-4 Phantom took off from Hamadan in a recon mission over Tuwaitha, in order to gather pictures of the attacked reactor. Flying at low level, the Phantom made a single pass over Osirak, taking the desired pictures. Despite being fired at by several Iraqi AAA and SAM sites, the RF-4E Phantom avoided them and returned safely into Iran. Later on, and once analysed the classified pictures, these confirmed that the attack was successful, presenting the damaged infrastructure of the nuclear complex. Despite rumors and cover-up attempts, the facts clearly present a successful airstrike, that was successful in achieving its main aim of delaying and damaging the Iraqi nuclear program. The results and the experiences achieved by the IRIAF in this operation, proved crucial for another country, Israel. Just as concerned as Iran with the Iraqi nuclear program, the IRIAF operation proved useful for the IAF in order to prepare the final blow to the Iraqi nuclear program. This final blow, would came up on June 7, 1981, in the Operation Opera, almost nine months after this Iranian operation.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ When Iran Bombed Iraq's Nuclear Reactor, Iraq's Osirak Destruction.
  2. ^ Dan Reiter (July 2005). "Preventive Attacks against Nuclear Programs and the "Success" at Osiraq" (PDF). Nonproliferation Review. Retrieved 29 November 2010.
  3. ^ "McNair Paper 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995". Au.af.mil. 30 September 1980. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  4. ^ Tucker, Spencer C. (2008). The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. p. 755. ISBN 978-1851098415.
  5. ^ a b Perlmutter, p. 40.
  6. ^ a b Perlmutter, pp. 41–42.
  7. ^ Lucien S. Vandenborucke (1984). "The Israeli Strike Against Osiraq: the dynamics of fear and proliferation in the Middle East". Air University Review.
  8. ^ Stockman-Shomron, Israel. Israel, the Middle East, and the great powers. Transaction Books, 1985. p. 334.
  9. ^ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "Iraq Profile: Nuclear Overview". Research Library. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NPT). Archived from the original on 5 November 2010. Retrieved 8 December 2010.
  10. ^ Aloni, Shlomo. Israeli F-15 Eagle Units in Combat. Osprey Publishing, 2006. p. 35.
  11. ^ Perlmutter, p. 46.
  12. ^ Jed C. Snyder (1983). "The Road To Osiraq: Baghdad's Quest for the Bomb". The Middle East Journal. Middle East Institute. 37 (4): 565–593. JSTOR 4326666.
  13. ^ Holroyd, Fred. Thinking about nuclear weapons: analyses and prescriptions. Routledge, 1985. p. 147.
  14. ^ Holroyd, p. 151.
  15. ^ The 1982 World Book Year Book. World Book Inc., 1983. p. 350.
  16. ^ United Nations Staff. Yearbook of the United Nations 1981. United Nations Pubns, 1984. p. 277.
  17. ^ Ragaini, Richard C. International Seminar on Nuclear War and Planetary Emergencies: 29th session. World Scientific Publishing, 2003. p. 33.
  18. ^ "Letters to the Editor". The Atlantic Magazine. March 2005. Retrieved 29 November 2010.
  19. ^ "Myth: Israel's Strike on Iraqi Reactor Hindered Iraqi Nukes". Institute for Public Accuracy. 16 March 2006. Archived from the original on 13 June 2010. Retrieved 29 November 2010.
  20. ^ Hasan, Mehdi (25 March 2012). "Bomb Iran and it will surely decide to pursue nuclear arms". guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
  21. ^ "Geopolitical Diary: Israeli Covert Operations in Iran". STRATFOR. 2 February 2007. Archived from the original on 7 December 2010. Retrieved 9 December 2010. (requires e-mail address)
  22. ^ a b c d "10 years ago in the Bulletin". The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc. 47 (8): 5. 1991. Retrieved 30 November 2010.
  23. ^ Anthony Fainberg (1981). "Osirak and international security". The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc. 37 (8): 33–36. Bibcode:1981BuAtS..37h..33F. doi:10.1080/00963402.1981.11458896. Retrieved 30 November 2010.
  24. ^ a b c d e Cooper, Tom. "Target: Saddam's Reactor".
  25. ^ "When Iran and Israel were friendly". 15 February 2012.
  26. ^ "How Israel and Iran Teamed up to Crush Iraq's Nuclear Bomb Program". 4 August 2019.