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Briefings & Documents Menu / Anti-war Briefings Menu / Briefing 15

27 March 2002

Nuclear Threats Against Iraq (2002)

British and US ministers and officials have issued veiled nuclear threats against Iraq, despite the fact that there is no solid evidence that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, raising the prospect, as in the 1991 war against Iraq, of nuclear weapons being used in a conflict with a non-nuclear nation.


‘President Bush has drawn up secret plans for nuclear conflict with seven countries, according to a classified Pentagon report leaked in Washington yesterday. The report, signed off by Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, says that America must be ready to use nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Syria.’ (Sunday Telegraph, 10 Mar. 2002, p. 1)

The Nuclear Posture Review ‘is understood to identify three circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be used: against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack; in retaliation for the use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons; and "in the event of surprising military developments".’ (Sunday Telegraph, 10 Mar. 2002, p. 1)

‘Should we assume that these stories are an orchestrated part of the Vice-President’s roadshow [as he toured the Middle East trying to drum up support for a war on Iraq]? Yes, for want of evidence to the contrary. The "Nuclear Posture Review" from which the leaks have come is a document of almost magical properties, so conveniently have segments of its classified contents emerged to coincide with crucial diplomatic moves by the Administration... It is, if you like, the second barrel of Bush’s "axis of evil speech".’ (Bronwen Maddox, Foreign Editor, Times, 11 Mar.)


‘"This represents a dramatic change in US nuclear policy," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research group. "This is not business as usual."’ (FT, 12 Mar, p. 12) WRONG.


The report ‘calls for the development of nuclear missiles that could penetrate underground bunkers thought to harbour dangerous weapons programmes.’ (FT, 11 Mar, p.1)

In Feb. 2002, Douglas Feith, under-secretary of defence for policy, explained part of the Nuclear Posture Review to ‘selected members of Congress’: the administration envisages using nuclear weapons not only for deterrence, but also "for holding at risk highly threatening targets that cannot be addressed by other means." (FT, 12 Mar. p. 12) This is not a new idea, nor one pursued only by right-wing Republicans.

President Clinton’s Defence Secretary William Perry ‘warned Libya that the Clinton Administration will not permit it to complete construction of what the CIA claims is the world’s largest underground chemical weapons plant at Tarhunah, 65 km south-east of Tripoli.’ "I wouldn’t rule anything out, or anything in," said Perry, in a veiled nuclear threat. (Jane’s Defence Weekly, 10 Apr. 1996, p. 3)

Current conventional weapons could not destroy such a buried facility (which Libya said was part of an irrigation system) - so ‘nuclear weapons remained the only available option to totally destroy Tarhunah, according to Harold Smith, Assistant to the Secretary of Defence for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological programmes.’ (Janes Defence Weekly, 1 May 1996, p. 3)

Proposals for earth-penetrating, ‘bunker-busting’, low-yield nuclear weapons go back to 1992. (‘Tiny nukes for mini minds’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Apr. 1992)


Two more important aspects of the Nuclear Posture Review: ‘the study indicates the US might use nuclear strikes pre-emptively against countries developing weapons of mass destruction [i.e. before they acquire such weapons] and could also do so in the event of large-scale conventional attacks, such as the Iraqi invasion of Israel or a North Korean invasion of South Korea.’ (FT, 12 Mar, p. 12) These kinds of ideas were actually explored by British Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind in Nov. 1993.


Rifkind said that because the threat of an all-out nuclear assault might not be ‘credible’ against certain enemies, ‘It is therefore important for the credibility of our deterrent that the United Kingdom also possesses the capability to undertake a more limited nuclear strike in order to induce a political decision to halt aggression by delivering an unmistakable message of our willingness to defend our vital interests to the utmost.’

This more limited nuclear strike was to be carried out with a single-warhead Trident missile, popularly known as ‘Tactical Trident’.


The policy of using nuclear weapons to defend ‘vital interests’ was confirmed by New Labour’s ‘Strategic Defence Review’ (SDR), which concluded in July 1998 that Britain’s nuclear arsenal should be based not on the size of other nation’s arsenals, but on the minimum needed to ‘deter any threat to our vital interests’. (Chapter 4, para. 61)

The SDR explained helpfully that ‘our vital interests are not confined to Europe. Our economy is founded on international trade... We invest more of our income abroad that any other major economy... We depend on foreign countries for supplies of raw materials, above all oil.’ (Ch. 2, para. 19) ‘Vital interests’ include economic and financial interests quite distinct from the survival of Britain itself.

As for using nuclear weapons against countries with weapons of mass destruction programmes. Rifkind said, that while it was ‘difficult’ to see nuclear deterrence operating ‘securely’ against proliferators, ‘a particular situation might arise in which deterrence had a part to play’. (Brassey’s Defence Yearbook 1994)


The respected military journal International Defense Review explained some details of MOD thinking about the Rifkind Doctrine, or ‘sub-strategic deterrence’. (David Miller, IDR, Sept. 1994) Tactical Trident had four possible roles:

‘At what might be termed 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 enemy nuclear strikes. 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 the British possess no like-for-like retaliatory capability.

‘Thirdly, they could be used in a demonstrative role, ie aimed at a non-critical, possibly [!] uninhabited area, with the message that if they country concerned pursued its present course of action, nuclear weapons will be aimed at a high-priority target. Finally, there is the punitive role, were a country has committed an act, despite specific warning that to do so would incur a nuclear strike.’

Note that only one of these scenarios involves attacking an enemy with nuclear weapons, and two of these roles are against enemies who do not necessarily possess or use weapons of mass destruction.


Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon analyst who leaked the Pentagon’s secret internal history of the Vietnam War, has pointed out the falseness of the idea that ‘no nuclear weapons have been used since Nagasaki’:

‘Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite different purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled’. (Ellsberg, ‘Call to Mutiny’, in The Deadly Connection, American Friends Service Committee, 1983, p. 17)

On 20 May 1953, ‘President Eisenhower and the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the use of nuclear weapons against China if the Korean War continued to worsen.’ On 1 Nov. 1969, ‘President Nixon had secret plans to escalate the war in Vietnam with nuclear weapons.’. In Jan. 1980, President Carter ‘resorted to nuclear threats, this time to control the deteriorating situation in Iran’. (Michio Kaku & Daniel Axelrod, To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon’s Secret War Plans, Zed Books (1987), pp. 3, 4, 224)

Every President since WWII has considered the use of nuclear weapons as a live policy option. Britain also has a record of using nuclear threats in non-nuclear conflicts, for example deploying strategic nuclear bombers to Singapore in Dec. 1963 during the ‘Confrontation’ with Indonesia. (Milan Rai, Tactical Trident, p. 23)


On 18 Sept. 2001, the Independent reported, ‘Neither America nor the NATO secretary-general Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, has ruled out the use of a battlefield nuclear weapon, while insisting this would be a last resort.’ (p. 6) ‘Mr Rumsfeld [US Defence Secretary] even refused to deliver a straight "No" when asked whether the administration was contemplating as a last resort the use of tactical nuclear weapons’ in retaliation for 11 September. (Independent, 17 Sept. 2001, p. 5)


Geoff Hoon, British Defence Secretary, has told the Commons Defence Select Committee that figures such as Saddam Hussein ‘can be absolutely certain that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons. What I cannot be absolutely confident about is whether that would be sufficient to deter them from using a weapon of mass destruction in the first place.’ (Telegraph, 21 Mar. p. 1)


When Dick Cheney, current Vice President, was US Defence Secretary in 1990, he instructed Colin Powell, then chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to evaluate the use of nuclear weapons in the looming war against Iraq. (Powell, A Soldier’s Way, 1995, p. 485) Several nuclear threats were made against Baghdad (see forthcoming briefing).


‘The new [US] doctrine overturns a US policy that dates back to 1978, in which the US first stated publicly it would not use a nuclear strike against any state that did not have its own weapons, unless that state attacked the US in alliance with a nuclear weapon-armed state.’ (FT, 12 Mar., p. 12)

Promises not to use nuclear weapons on non-nuclear countries are known as ‘Negative Security Assurances’ are crucial to non-proliferation. ‘Far from deterring proliferation, the leaked plans may make countries that have acquired nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan and India, more ready to use them, disarmament experts say. Countries believed to be pursuing them, such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran, are likely to step up their efforts.’ (Independent, 12 Mar, p. 4)


Milan Rai, Tactical Trident, £4.50 inc. p&p, from 29 Gensing Rd, St. Leonards-on-Sea, TN38 0HE. Cheques to ‘Drava Papers’.
Paul Rogers, Losing Control, Pluto Press.

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