Lessons for Israel from Captured Iraqi Nuclear Documents

September 9, 2012 3:34 am 1 comment

Former Iraq President, Saddam Hussein. Photo: wiki commons.

While Israel is naturally focused on the implications of Iran completing its drive toward nuclear weapons, there is another case of one of its bitterest enemies, who tried to accomplish the same goal once before: Saddam Hussein of Iraq. As a result of the 2003 Iraq War, the U.S. Army captured thousands of hours of recordings of highly-classified meetings of the Iraqi leadership on the subject of how they viewed the purpose of nuclear weapons in the future, as well as how they envisioned their use in the context of a war against Israel.

The U.S. Army made the Iraqi tapes and documents available for analysts, who have begun to publish books and academic articles on their content. Last year, two analysts, Hal Brands and David Palkki, published a study they prepared on the Iraqi records for the U.S. National Defense University (NDU). What they found was that Saddam Hussein had personally spoken about the importance of nuclear weapons as a key component of Iraqi strategy from 1978 until the Israeli strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

Saddam’s earlier obsession with nuclear weapons appears to have stopped for at least seven or eight years after the attack, according to the documents, until the late the 1980s when he began to speak about the subject again. For Brands and Palkki, the time Israel gained is a vindication of Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s decision to strike Iraq.

So how did Saddam Hussein view the utility of nuclear weapons in a future conflict with Israel? The two NDU authors, Brands and Palkki, point out that contrary to the theories of many experts on international relations in the U.S., who claim that states seek to acquire nuclear weapons for defensive purposes alone in order to enhance deterrence against their neighbors, the Iraqi documents indicate that Saddam Hussein’s regime clearly had offensive goals in mind.

This has contemporary relevance. In the July/August edition of the prestigious American quarterly, Foreign Affairs, that sometimes serves as a weather vane for the prevalent atmosphere in the U.S. foreign policy community, Professor Kenneth Waltz published an article entitled: “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb.” He argues that an Iranian bomb would balance Israel and hence be “the best possible result: the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.”

Brands and Palkki believe that his kind of thinking is completely wrong. To prove their point that stability will not be the likely result of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, they cite a meeting of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council on March 27, 1979 in which Saddam presented his strategic thinking, when he was the de-facto ruler of Iraq and just about to formally become its president. His thinking was surprising for he explained that Iraqi nuclear weapons would neutralize what many believed was Israel’s nuclear capacity, thereby allowing Iraq to wage conventional war against Israel.

On another occasion, Saddam envisioned an Arab war coalition attacking Israel, spearheaded by 10 Iraqi divisions (five infantry and five armored or artillery) as well as forces from Syria and possibly Jordan. According to the documents, he raised this idea with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. What Saddam Hussein’s strategy illustrates is that the military use of nuclear weapons on the part of an adversary of Israel is very different from the role nuclear weapons played during the Cold War, despite the efforts of some analysts to apply the Soviet-American experience to the current Iranian threat.

What were Saddam’s war aims according to this captured material? In some cases he spoke about recovering the territories the Arabs lost in 1967. Yet when he spoke to his most trusted advisers, he called for the elimination of Israel. Thus what emerges from the Iraqi documents is that when a leader like Saddam Hussein spoke about the destruction of Israel in public, this was not just rhetoric for political purposes, but rather reflective of the operational plans he had in mind for the Iraqi army in the future.

Much has changed since the time these Iraqi documents were written, and the threats Israel might face are evolving. But it would be a mistake to imagine that they have disappeared completely and much will depend upon the question of whether Iraq becomes a truly independent state or ends up being an Iranian satellite that serves as a springboard for its forces in the future. In this context, the latest information just revealed this week that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is permitting Iranian aircraft to fly through Iraqi airspace to re-supply the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, despite the repeated requests of the Obama administration that it discontinue this activity, is extremely disturbing.

Saddam Hussein’s thinking about the relationship of nuclear weapons and conventional war is important to note for one other reason. In the debate over Israel’s future borders in the West Bank, it is frequently argued that in the age of missiles, especially if they are armed with weapons of mass destruction, topography, terrain, and strategic depth are no longer relevant and hence Israel can give them up in future peace arrangements. This thesis, if widely accepted, could have enormous implications for areas like the Jordan Valley, undermining Israel’s goal of obtaining defensible borders in any peace settlement.

But if the purpose of nuclear weapons in the hands of Israel’s enemies is to make it safe for them to return to the era of conventional wars, then Israel must make sure that it guarantees that at the end of the day it must not be forced to concede its most vital territorial assets based on the unfounded notion that they no longer matter in the nuclear era.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

1 Comment

  • We should heed Dore Gold’s sound advice! A few observers “honestly” and “sincerely” believe that Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would lead to greater Middle East stability. In their scenario, Iran’s nuclear weapons would balance the nuclear weapons of Israel. But, many who suggest this possibility are neither “honest” nor “sincere.” Namely, they themselves do not really believe what they are saying or offer up the scenario without much thought or care. Many who either oppose Israel or are indifferent to its fate do not really think long and hard about the dangers that Israel would face if Iran obtains nuclear weapons. By contrast, there are many hostile to Israel who eagerly await Iran’s nuclear weapons as a way of defeating Israel. Moreover, there is considerable intellectual confusion as to the applicable standard of proof. Specifically, many are misguided in thinking that the Israel government should give Iran the benefit of the doubt. This is analogous to the application of the criminal-law standard, according to which Iran’s nuclear-weapons program must be proved to be malevolent beyond a reasonable doubt, with any uncertainty to be resolved in Iran’s favor. Still others are grappling with the problem of Iran’s race to nuclear weapons in terms of “the balance of the probabilities.” This is the normal standard for deciding civil-law cases. “The balance of the probabilities” is also like the normal standard for journalism, history and the social sciences. However, “the balance of the probabilities” is not the invariable standard for pressing decisions touching a nation’s survival. There is a considerable amount of empirical evidence showing that urgent matters of national “life and death” are not always decided according to either the criminal- or civil-law standard. Rather, where the harm would likely be catastrophic and irreparable, the standard applied is sometimes much like environmental law’s precautionary principle. Do we perhaps face a man-made hole in the ozone layer? If so, we ban Freon pronto, without waiting for all the scientific evidence to come in! Even the UN International Atomic Energy Agency already has plenty of evidence suggesting that Iran is racing toward nuclear weapons. There is also much ideological evidence suggesting that the Iranian government would be eager to use such weapons atop missiles aimed at Israel or –at the very least– as a nuclear umbrella to shield Iran from Israeli attack. Such an Iranian nuclear umbrella would be exactly the 1970′s scenario of conventional war adumbrated by Saddam Hussein, as here detailed by Dore Gold. An Iranian nuclear umbrella would also probably be exploited to enhance all of Iran’s current warfare against Israel, e.g., via proxies like Hizbullah, other terrorist groups or client states like Syria. Though the implications are troubling, critical matters touching the survival of a country of 7.7 million people should, if necessary, be decided according to the precautionary principle. The lesson is that there are no certainties and no easy answers. Unanticipated consequences normally flow from both hasty and deliberate action. There are always unanticipated consequences! But, waiting for certainties can also lead to defeat and destruction.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Book Reviews Commentary In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    JNS.org – “Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest,” the classic Parker Brothers board game, requires imperial ambitions. Players imagine empires and are pitted against each other, vying for world domination. Amid this fictional world war, beginners learn fast that no matter the superiority of their army, every advance is a gamble determined by a roll of the dice. After a defeat, a player must retreat. Weighted reinforcement cards provide the only opportunity to reverse a player’s fortunes and resume the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Sports Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    JNS.org – For Daphna Krupp, her daily workout (excluding Shabbat) at the Jewish Community Center (JCC or “J”) of Greater Baltimore has become somewhat of a ritual. She not only attends fitness classes but also engages with the instructors and plugs the J’s social programs on her personal Facebook page. “It’s the gym and the environment,” says Krupp. “It’s a great social network.” Krupp, who lives in Pikesville, Md., is one of an estimated 1 million American Jewish members of more [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Sports Illustrated Profiles Orthodox NCAA Basketball Player Aaron Liberman

    Sports Illustrated Profiles Orthodox NCAA Basketball Player Aaron Liberman

    Sports Illustrated magazine featured an extensive profile on Orthodox-Jewish college basketball player Aaron Liberman on Wednesday.  The article details Liberman’s efforts to balance faith, academics and basketball at Tulane University, a challenge the young athlete calls “a triple major.” Sports Illustrated pointed out that Liberman is the second Orthodox student to play Division I college basketball. The other was Tamir Goodman, the so-called “Jewish Jordan.” As reported in The Algemeiner, Liberman started his NCAA career at Northwestern University. According to [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    As the popularity of cycling continues to increase across the world, Israel is working to develop cycling trails that make the country’s spectacular desert accessible to cyclists. The southern segment of the Israel Bike Trail was inaugurated on Feb. 24 and offers for the first time a unique, uninterrupted 8-day cycling experience after six years of planning and development. The southern section of the Israel Bike Trail stretches over 300 kilometers in length and is divided into eight segments for mountain biking, [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    JNS.org – With the recent Oscars in the rearview mirror, Hollywood’s attention now shifts to the rest of this year’s big-screen lineup. Two of the major action films coming up in 2015—Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters in May, and the third film in the Fantastic Four series, slated for an August release—have Jewish roots that the average moviegoer might be unaware of. As it turns out, it took a tough Jewish kid from New York City’s Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.