Could a surprise Israeli attack like the one that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 work against Iran’s much larger nuclear infrastructure?
Israeli Brig. Gen. Relik Shafir, one of only eight pilots the air force selected to raid Osirak, offered his analysis in a recent interview during a short trip to Los Angeles.
Shafir, who was also commander of the Tel Nof Airbase and of the Hatzor Airbase’s pilot school, now serves as a foreign press spokesperson for the Israeli Air Force (IAF) during emergency situations and assists the Israel Air Force Center (IAFC), which is in Herzliya and serves as a facility for youth educational programs, including for potential IAF recruits, leadership training for IAF officers, and a think tank.
Shafir was in Los Angeles during what happened to be the 34th anniversary of the Osirak raid to raise awareness and funds for the Israel Air Force Center Foundation and the IAFC’s National Youth Leadership Training Program, which was created in 2010 and has served more than 4,000 youth and IAF cadets from some of Israel’s top technical high schools. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
Jewish Journal: Did you always want to be a pilot?
Relik Shafir: I never wanted to do it, no. I wanted to be an infantry soldier, actually. But the way the selection phase goes is that you’re forced to go through the air force selection. The success rate is so low that you don’t really take it into account. And I wanted to be in a commando unit, but I never got thrown out of the flight academy.
JJ: You were in combat in Syria and Lebanon in 1979. Can you talk about that?
RS: I had the pleasure of flying in Syria for a while, because I led the attack on a missile site that was on the Syrian side of the border. So we came in from behind, from the Syrian side, to surprise them. In that particular sortie I shot one MiG.
JJ: What can we learn from Osirak when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program?
RS: That not all problems have the same solution. Meaning that there’s only one thing more dangerous than not learning from history, which is learning from history, because history does not repeat itself. And, obviously, the Iranians had learned the weak points of the Iraqi program and they buried their program under meters and tons of concrete, and in hills, so a surprise attack like Osirak will not work. Just like in 1973, the Egyptians put their airplanes in shelters so we couldn’t bomb them. This kind of an attack is not possible on Iran.
JJ: So the IAF can’t take out Iran’s nuclear program?
JJ: Can any air force?
RS: The U.S. Air Force.
JJ: Only the U.S. Air Force?
RS: The U.S. Air Force can literally stand above Natanz — which is one of the largest sites — and dig a hole day after day for a month until it gets to where it needs to — craters with big bunker busters. And that’s the power of a superpower and of a strategic air force. Where we can come and do a sneak, commando-type attack. If I look at all the air forces of the world, the only one that can really do it is the U.S. Air Force.
JJ: Could ground operations take out the program?
RS: I suspect that the Iranians are expecting this and have built mechanisms to at least slow down such an attack, so that it would be so costly or so risky that it might not be worth the try.
JJ: Was there a point at which the Israeli Air Force could have significantly set back or destroyed the nuclear program?
RS: I don’t think so. They dug it underground to begin with, covered it in such a manner that it couldn’t be bombed directly in one shot. The centrifuges, which are the most important part of the program, are well hidden underground. I’m not really sure that we could’ve inflicted more than casual damage, so you can set it back six months or a year — no more.
JJ: Does Iran want a nuclear weapon so that they can use it on Israel? Or so that they could use it as leverage to strengthen their position in the region?
RS: These people are not stupid. They’re not going to commit suicide. But their main adversaries are the Saudis, Kuwaitis, countries around them — not really Iraq, because they think Iraq is in shambles anyway. They tested the Saudis and were surprised in Sana’a, where they helped the [Houthis] in Yemen overthrow the government. It didn’t work because the Saudis, all of a sudden, gathered courage and started to fight, which they didn’t expect. In Israel, it’s not that we’re not a target, but Iran is trying to acquire leverage.
JJ: Are you concerned Iran would transfer a nuclear weapon to Hezbollah or Hamas?
RS: No. But what would happen as a repercussion [if Iran gets a nuclear weapon] is that Saudi Arabia must acquire a nuclear weapon, and it is already working on it, trying to buy a weapon from Pakistan. The Egyptians can’t stay neutral because they’re threatened as well. This may in fact turn the Middle East into a nuclear playground with all the actors trying to get themselves some nukes.