On June 7, 1981, eight Israeli aircraft bombed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor ten miles southeast of Baghdad. Ten Iraqis and one French civilian were killed. In his book State of Denial, journalist Bob Woodward argued that the raid intensified Iraq’s nuclear programme:
Israeli intelligence were convinced that their strike… had ended Saddam’s program. Instead [it prompted] covert funding for a nuclear program code-named “PC3” involving 5,000 people testing and building ingredients for a nuclear bomb…1
In response to the attack, UN Security Council Resolution 487 was passed 15-0, on June 19, 1981, with no-one opposing and no-one abstaining — not even the United States. It is worth quoting the Resolution at some length:
Fully aware of the fact that Iraq has been a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons since it came into force in 1970, that in accordance with that Treaty Iraq has accepted IAEA safeguards on all its nuclear activities, and that the Agency has testified that these safeguards have been satisfactorily applied to date,
Noting furthermore that Israel has not adhered to the non-proliferation Treaty…
Considering that, under the terms of Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter of the United Nations: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations”,
1. Strongly condemns the military attack by Israel in clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct;
2. Calls upon Israel to refrain in the future from any such acts or threats thereof;
3. Further considers that the said attack constitutes a serious threat to the entire IAEA safeguards regime which is the foundation of the non-proliferation Treaty;
4. Fully recognizes the inalienable sovereign right of Iraq, and all other States, especially the developing countries, to establish programmes of technological and nuclear development to develop their economy and industry for peaceful purposes in accordance with their present and future needs and consistent with the internationally accepted objectives of preventing nuclear-weapons proliferation;
5. Calls upon Israel urgently to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards;
6. Considers that Iraq is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered, responsibility for which has been acknowledged by Israel…
Readers may be wondering why they have not seen or heard more about Resolution 487 during a period of intense speculation that Israel might launch a similar attack, involving the same violation of international law, on Iran. We can all, of course, remember the endless political and media references to UN Resolutions 1441 and 687, said to be relevant to the US-UK attack on Iraq in March 2003. The likes of Tony Blair and Jack Straw never stopped reminding the public of their crucial significance. We will return to media coverage of Osirak and Resolution 487 below.
‘Getting There’: An Exchange With Jonathan Marcus
Last week, the BBC published an article by Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus under the title, ‘How Israel might strike at Iran.’
Like a tourist guide, the piece listed Israeli aircraft under the banner ‘Getting There – Aircraft, Details, Task’ and identified ‘Potential targets’, including Iranian nuclear energy facilities (as discussed in our previous alert, there is currently no evidence that Iran is even planning to attempt to build a nuclear weapon).
The nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz is a clear target. Marcus commented: ‘The facility is underground, making bunker-busting munitions essential.’
The military site at Parchin was also mentioned:
IAEA inspectors were prevented from visiting the site in February 2012 as they sought to clarify the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear programme.
In an article also published last week titled, ‘How the Media Got the Parchin Access Story Wrong,’ investigative journalist Gareth Porter wrote that ‘explicit statements on the issue by the Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA and the language of the new IAEA report indicate that Iran did not reject an IAEA visit to the base per se but was only refusing access as long as no agreement had been reached with the IAEA governing the modalities of cooperation’. (Our emphasis)
But not a single major news media report has reported the significant difference between initial media coverage on the Parchin access issue and the information now available from the initial IAEA report and Soltanieh [Iranian Permanent Representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh].
Returning to the BBC analysis, the ‘Task’ for each Israeli weapon system was described. However, when it came to Iranian defences, instead of ‘Task’, Marcus used the word ‘Threat’, thus presenting the imagined conflict from an Israeli perspective. Of course the Iranians might well perceive Israeli ‘Tasks’ as ‘Threats’. The media monitoring website News Unspun noted the biased language, complaints followed, and the BBC changed ‘Threat’ to ‘Efficacy’.
- On February 27, we wrote to Jonathan Marcus about his article:
Presumably the legal issues surrounding an Israeli attack, and the possibility of major civilian casualties, don’t merit a mention. Amazing to see such a close copy of the ‘toys for boys’ journalism that preceded the war on Iraq, which claimed 100,000s, perhaps a million, human lives. That ought to be sobering.
- Marcus responded the same day:
Well that I suppose sounds an incisive point but when I am asked by my editors to write a military assessment of Israel’s capacities to carry out such a mission, I speak to the air power experts and write the piece.
There are indeed many other aspects to this story and I am sure they are being coveted and will be covered extensively over the coming weeks and months.
This is not “toys for boys”- go to a wargaming exhibition if you want that – this is a military analysis – nothing more, nothing less.
- Further exchanges took place on the same day:
Thanks Jonathan. You wrote:
‘Only a few days ago, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, said that an Israeli attack would not be prudent. Such a strike, he said, “would be destabilising and would not achieve their long-term objectives”.’
What’s the difference between citing a US general on the imprudent nature of a strike and citing an expert on international law on the illegal nature of a strike? Dempsey was talking about political consequences – it ‘would be destabilising’ – which could also justify mention of possible civilian casualties, which would certainly be destabilising.
As an independent journalist, you could include this material, or suggest it to your editors for inclusion, or protest if they took it out.
- Marcus replied:
The piece dealt with the subject that was requested, which is why the General was quoted. Indeed there would have been a prominent USAF general (retd) cited in the piece but he was not able to respond in time, though that probably wouldn’t have made you any happier.
The other issues you mention, not least the legality of such a strike, were not the issue here. I daresay that I will probably be asked to do something on that subject in due course.
While discussing military matters the piece did not give any sense that this would be an easy nor an un-problematic undertaking. Indeed one of the people interviewed gave a pretty blunt view of the desirability of such an attack.
Your glib toys for boys reference annoyed me since I think it rather betrays your own prejudices. The freedoms you and I enjoy – me to broadcast what I believe is a fair assessment – and you to write in and criticise it – were maintained by “boys with toys” as you call them.
Your implication is that the piece is in some sense “war-mongering” which I entirely disagree with – for all I know you may be a battle-scarred recipient of the VC – but I have in the past seen some fighting reasonably close-up. It is not pleasant. But I know what wars are about and – if I may speak personally for a moment – have no enthusiasm for them.
That’s it – you’ve had my two responses (on my day off as well – there’s public service). You should be glorying in the fact that we have a BBC and especially the World Service – celebrating its 80th birthday this year), rather than always carping and complaining. But you are of course entitled to your opinion, as I am to provide my informed assessment.
- We responded:
Thanks Jonathan. Sorry if you were annoyed by the ‘toys for boys’ comment. I meant to suggest that it is wrong and dangerous to discuss military possibilities as a kind of technical issue distinct from political and humanitarian concerns. As I mentioned, you did refer to political issues, but you haven’t explained why these were included when the related issues of legality and possible civilian casualties were not.
In his analysis of obedience in modern society, the psychologist Stanley Milgram remarked on the growing ‘tendency of the individual to become so absorbed in the narrow technical aspects of the task that he loses sight of its broader consequences,’ such that he ‘entrusts the broader tasks of setting goals and assessing morality to the… authority he is serving’. (Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.25)
It seems to me that your piece was an example of what Milgram was warning against. He pointed out that, finally – regardless of what is ‘requested’ of us – we are all morally responsible for our own actions. If BBC editors ask for a purely technical analysis of a possible future conflict, they should be resisted.
- Marcus replied:
There will be a follow up piece later this week looking at at least of the issues you raise. this one happily was the most looked at page today so there is clearly interest.
I am not going to get into the sociology of the media – It gives me indigestion.
- We answered:
That’s good to hear, thanks.
We didn’t mean we were glad to hear that ‘sociology’ gives Marcus indigestion. We were grateful for his lengthy, if somewhat gruff, responses. He deserves credit for responding at all (so many BBC journalists do not). We look forward to his article ‘looking at at least [some?] of the issues’ we raised. If he mentions Osirak, and especially Resolution 487, he will have reinvented himself as a media outlier.
So how extraordinary would a Marcus mention of these issues be? Recall that June 7, 2011 marked the 30th anniversary of Israel’s historic raid on Osirak – the world’s first attack on a nuclear facility. And yet the LexisNexis media search engine records just eight mentions of Osirak in all UK national newspapers in the last 12 months. On the day of the anniversary itself, the attack was mentioned in single-sentence, ‘On this day in history’ comments in the free London newspaper Metro and in the Paisley Daily Express. The words ‘Osirak’ and ‘Resolution 487’ produced zero results for all available dates in all print media.
- Woodward, State of Denial, Simon & Schuster, 2006, p.215. [↩]