A new memoir The Quiet Sabra by Micky Ron, an ex-engineer at Israel’s Dimona reactor site, tells the tale about the Israeli attempt, backed by the US, to block the French and other nations to enable Iraq to develop its own nuclear power industry. The unsuccessful Israeli attempts followed the sequence of diplomacy, spying, intimidation, and then finally sabotage attacks on the French soil. Israeli spy agency Mossad managed to sabotage the equipment for Iraq’s nuclear power station before it was exported from France.
The book details how Mossad blew up a pair of reactor cores meant for the Osirak power station near Baghdad in 1979. Two years later Israel executed Operation Opera air raid that destroyed the facility, also known as Tammuz before the construction was complete.
Mossad had failed initially in 1979 as it ignored the advice by the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), which advised both the intelligence services and armed forces before their operations.
Saddam Hussein was then the deputy chairman of the Ba’ath Party Revolutionary Command Council. He initiated the Iraqi project to build a nuclear power station with the French know-how in the early 70s years before he came to power in 1979. Israel could not stop France even with the intervention from the US president Jimmy Carter, who took office in 1977,
IAEC, the Mossad and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF)
In late 1977, the Likud Party came to power and the then prime minister Menachem Begin tasked the Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi; the Israel Defence Forces Intelligence Branch commander Major-General Shlomo Gazit and the IAEC director Uzi Eilam to explore the covert methods to stop Baghdad from obtaining nuclear power and potentially the means to build a nuclear weapon. IAEC deputed Ron and a colleague Matti Halahmi for the task.
“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,” Ron writes.
The Mossad chief tasked his deputy Nahum Admoni with the control of the operation ‘New Era.’ Nahmud recruited a team of IAEC scientists, a new Unconventional Weapons team (NABAK), and members from the IDF’s Unit 8200 which is an intelligence outfit. The team was asked to plan for stopping Iraq’s ambitions, divided into “soft” and “loud” stages.
The Mossad infiltrated the French and associated firms working on the project and obtained the blueprints of the Iraqi plant. Unit 8200 tapped phone calls, teleprinter transmissions, and other communications. Agents were also recruited from among the 2,000 foreign staff working on the Iraqi civil project.
The “soft” stage involved agents from Mossad’s ‘Caesarea’ and ‘Keshet’ branches targeting French, Italian, and other technicians, engineers, scientists and executives involved in the project with phone calls and letters “advising” them not to work on the project and was followed up with threats. But the plan failed.
Sabotage mission in France
As the power station neared completion in 1979, Begin ordered Hofi to implement the “loud” stage. On 6 April 1979, the Mossad agents broke into a warehouse of the French firm CMIM in La Seyne-sur-Mer, on the Mediterranean coast west of Toulon.
“We were kept informed about the manufacturing operations at the Toulon shipyard,” Ron said. “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”.
“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,” Ron writes.
After the failure of the Toulon operation, Mossad decided a direct military attack on the Iraqi power station was the only remaining option. The initial plan was for a commando-style raid by Israeli troops and not an air raid.
Ron writes that he was given a key role in the planning for the operation which included scouting the French Osiris reactor in Saclay, a suburb of Paris, which the Tammuz facility was a copy of.
“I was asked to fly to France to visit the twin reactor,” he wrote. His task was to “determine the route for walking from the entrance to the bottom of the core the place where they had to affix the explosives”.
On 7 June 1981, the Iraqi reactor under construction was raided by the Israeli air force, which killed 10 Iraqi servicemen and one French contractor. The commando option was not exercised.
“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 writes.
Ron quit IAEC in 1982 as he was frustrated that he was not appointed director of the Dimona facility.
Image: Osirak nuclear reactor, damaged in attacks in 1980 and 1981, destroyed on February 19, 1991. Photograph of the reactor taken prior to the attacks. Image credits Alicia Patterson Foundation.