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The nuclear–weapons gambit

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Paul Rogers
12 April 2006

The announcement of Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on 11 April (closely following a comment by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani) that the country had successfully completed a process of uranium enrichment was hardly a great surprise. After all, Iranian nuclear specialists had already succeeded in achieving laboratory–scale enrichment some months ago, and the latest developments are mainly of political rather than technological significance in that they represent Tehran's direct response to what is seen there as Washington's deliberate attempt to interfere in Iran's pursuit of civil nuclear power.

In the context of the existing controversy over Iran's nuclear–research programmes, however, Ahmadinejad's statement has stimulated a wide–ranging reaction. The indications that the United States is making serious preparations for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities – reinforced by the findings of the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker – add an element of real-world urgency to the rhetorical grandstanding (see "The Iran plans," New Yorker, 17 April 2006).

Whatever Iran's real nuclear-research plans might be, Washington remains determined to prevent Iran even to get as far as completing an indigenous nuclear fuel–cycle as part of its civil nuclear industry – even if Iran later stops short of attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Iran may still be acting within the terms of the non–proliferation treaty (1970) and is certainly subject to continuing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, but the George W Bush administration is convinced that a "breakout" into a nuclear–weapons programme is inevitable; its political calculations override Tehran's insistence on the legality of its actions thus far.

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The cold–war options

Meanwhile, Seymour Hersh's article (as with Ahmadinejad's speech) more confirmed information from other sources than introduced anything new, but one particular aspect of his story about US war plans is worthy of particular note: that elements of the US political leadership want to keep on the table the option of using tactical nuclear weapons to destroy underground bunkers. Some military planners, Hersh reported, are unhappy that the possibility is even being considered; their concerns were echoed by Britain's foreign secretary Jack Straw, who described any possibility of using nuclear weapons as "completely nuts".

Straw's greatly reassuring comments certainly fitted a public perception that any talk of using nuclear weapons must be nonsense. After all, the world survived forty–five years of the cold war when the "balance of terror" between nuclear–armed superpowers kept the peace, with the result that nuclear weapons remain in the public mind as weapons of absolute last resort.

This view may be remarkably persistent, but it bears little relationship to reality. From the very start of the nuclear age in 1945, nuclear weapons were seen as instruments for fighting wars as well as deterring them, and in the circles of power this is a view that has long outlasted the cold war.

The military planners belonging to the US army air corps in 1945 regarded Hiroshima and Nagasaki as targets that could each be destroyed with a single weapon. They were also fully aware that other cities such as Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo had already been devastated in massive conventional air raids. The major difference was that the new atom bombs were much more efficient engines of destruction, requiring just one plane instead of a thousand.

As the cold war evolved and a nuclear arms race developed, both the Soviet Union and the United States came to adopt a dual stance: having a declaratory nuclear policy that was all about deterring the other side, and in addition a deployment policy which was more about developing nuclear weapons that could be used in conflicts short of an all–out nuclear war. Nato's policy of flexible response from the late 1960s onwards involved the willingness to use nuclear weapons first in the face of a Soviet conventional attack in the belief that escalation to all–out nuclear war could be controlled and that the Soviet forces might in some unexplained way fall back.

For more discussion of the nuclear-weapons strategy and thinking of the major nuclear-armed powers – including detailed assessment of several of the quotations cited in this column – see Paul Rogers's book Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty–first Century (Pluto, 2002).

Paul Rogers & Malcolm Dando also address the issue in their book The Death of Deterrence: Consequences of the New Nuclear Arms Race (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 1984).

During this period the mask might occasionally slip to reveal the real thinking about the potential use of nuclear weapons. One example was in Senate hearings in 1979 when General David C Jones, the then chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, was questioned by Senator John Tower about deterrence through "mutual assured destruction". General Jones said that he thought this was both a dangerous strategy and not one the US military forces thought they were implementing. The senator pressed him further and the exchange continued:

"General Jones: I do not subscribe to the idea that we ever had it as our basic strategy. I have been involved with strategic forces since the early 1950s. We have always targeted military targets. There have been lots of discussions… about different strategies. We followed orders but basically, the strategy stayed the same in implementation of targeting.

Senator Tower: Unfortunately I am not sure your opinion was always shared by your civilian superiors.

General Jones: I agree there have been some, including some in government, who have felt that all we require is a mutual assured destruction capability. I am separating that from our targeting instructions in the field…"

Throughout the cold–war years, Nato retained a policy of "first use" of nuclear weapons, and this still remains true of the United States, Britain and France. Russia may claim not to have such a policy, although the chair of the Duma's defence committee, Roman Popkovich, made an interesting remark on Russia's military doctrine in 1999; that it "should include a provision stating that if the threat of the use of general–purpose (i.e. conventional) forces of any state against Russia considerably exceeds the ability of the national general–purpose forces to defend Russia, it shall have the right to deliver a pre–emptive nuclear strike, rather than only a reply or a retaliation strike."

Russia is far from being alone in this. A leading analyst of French defence policy, David Yost, described the Gaullist outlook in the journal of the International Institute of Strategic Studies as one that "(emphasises) the defence of French and allied interests through robust and flexible military capabilities – both offensive and defensive. This includes the development of nuclear forces capable of being used, if necessary, with control and discrimination, particularly in countries of 'the South' that may be armed with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons" (see (David S Yost, "Nuclear Debates in France" [subscription only], Survival, 36/4, Winter 1994–5).

It is a view recently endorsed by President Chirac and one that also resonates in comments by Britain's then defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, in the run–up to the Iraq war in 2003 (see "Could the war go nuclear?", 4 February 2003). Indeed, Britain's position on the issue is in some ways even tougher than that of other countries. This point is underlined by a detailed description of the purpose of the Trident nuclear–weapons system by the defence journalist David Miller, who emphasises the range of options for the low–yield warhead versions of Trident in a way that is worth quoting:

"At what might be called the 'upper end' of the usage spectrum, they could be used in a conflict involving large–scale forces (including British ground and air forces), such as the 1990–91 Gulf War, to reply to an enemy nuclear strike. Secondly, they could be used in a similar setting, but to reply to enemy use of weapons of mass destruction, such as bacteriological or chemical weapons, for which Britain possesses no like–for–like retaliatory capability. Thirdly, they could be used in a demonstrative role: i.e. aimed at a non–critical uninhabited area, with the message that if the country concerned continued on its present course of action, nuclear weapons would be aimed at a high–priority target. Finally, there is the punitive role, where a country has committed an act, despite specific warnings that to do so would incur a nuclear strike." (see Jane's International Defence Review, September 1994 [subscription only]).

War or survival?

Three of these four options – American, British, French and Russian – involve nuclear first use, a policy option maintained with especial vigour by the United States (see "On the nuclear slope", 27 February 2006). A noteworthy illustration is a draft of a classified study by US strategic air command conducted in 1991, and leaked to a Washington newspaper. The terms of reference for the "strategic deterrence study" stated the belief that "the growing wealth of petro-nations and newly hegemonic powers is available to bullies and crazies, if they gain control, to wreak havoc on world tranquillity", and the study itself recommended a new post-cold war targeting strategy that would include the ability to assemble "a Nuclear Expeditionary Force… primarily for use against China or Third World targets".

Within five years of the completion of this report, the United State had adapted one of its standard tactical nuclear bombs, the B61, for use in attacking underground bunkers and other hardened targets. The B61–11 has a toughened casing and new fusing enabling it to burrow down below the surface, producing an earthquake effect when it detonates. It can be carried on the B–2 stealth bomber that operates from a single base in the United States but can also be deployed from the British territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as well as RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire (see "The countdown to war", 6 April 2006).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004–05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)

None of this means that a nuclear strike on Iran is likely; Jack Straw may even be right as well as reassuring in describing it as "completely nuts". Indeed, one of the interesting things about Seymour Hersh's New Yorker article is its suggestion that elements of the US political leadership that want the nuclear option to be available whereas some military planners would be far more cautious.

In a wider perspective, the most fundamental point may be that the current controversy over the possible use of nuclear weapons should be a far higher and more serious part of the public agenda. The world did escape the cold war without a global disaster, but the nuclear age is far from over. These weapons of mass, terminal destruction are still seen as feasible weapons of war to an extent that is scarcely recognised outside the restricted world of the nuclear planners and their political masters.

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