In the summer of 1984, Newsweek published the results of a Gallup poll of hundreds of top-ranking American military officers. Among the questions was this: where did they see the greatest threat of a conflict situation which might escalate to nuclear war? The majority responded clearly: the Middle East. [1]

They might have had in mind those times that leaders of the two superpowers have threatened to use nuclear weapons in a Middle East showdown. According to former Senator Henry Jackson, Harry Truman invoked their presence in the US arsenal when he demanded that the Soviet Union withdraw from Iran after World War II. Nikita Khrushchev brandished nuclear-tipped missiles when Britain, France and Israel teamed up to invade Egypt in 1956. Lyndon Johnson and Alexei Kosygin felt compelled to use the Washington/Moscow hotline for the first time in June 1967, as Israel launched a preemptive attack that devastated Egypt, Syria and Jordan. In late October 1973, as Israel and Egypt slugged it out again in the Sinai and Richard Nixon fought off the Watergate prosecutor, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger decided that the best way to convince Moscow that American war-making capacity remained unimpaired was to call a quick DefCon 3 alert — sort of a nuclear fire drill. Then there was the scene in the middle of August 1980. In response to “clear but ambiguous” indications of a Soviet military buildup along the border north of Iran, American war planners debated the first use of tactical nuclear weapons; the Joint Chiefs told Defense Secretary Harold Brown that the US had “no other” military option to prevent the Soviets from moving south. [2]

In 1984, when Gallup posed his questions, Congress was debating a Pentagon budget that would increase spending for Third World intervention (“power projection” is the budget rubric) by 34 percent, against 13 percent for the military as a whole. [3] The officers quizzed by Gallup knew that some of the “power projection” weapons systems were “dual capable” — able to fire nuclear as well as conventional warheads. The big guns on the USS New Jersey that shelled Lebanon a few months earlier, for instance. The difference between “conventional” weapons and tactical nukes — the “nuclear firebreak” — was fast eroding. The newest conventional shells combined firepower and accuracy to a degree that made them as devastating as nuclear shells, while from the other end of the “conflict spectrum” nuclear warheads had been miniaturized for battlefield use. [4]

Responding to developments such as these, the US Army had formulated a new battle doctrine — the first since World War II. Once the president approves the use of nuclear weapons, operational questions — when and how?are delegated to field commanders. AirLand Battle Operations Manual FM100-5 foresees that: “A relatively small rapidly deployable force with nuclear weapons may be assigned a contingency mission. This force might succeed as a deterrent while a larger, conventional force might deploy too late.” [5]

Oil War?

Too late for what? We’ve all seen the Time magazine cover showing an enormous bear, hammer-and-sickle medallion on his chest, reaching down across the Caucasus to menace a dozen miniature oil derricks in the Persian Gulf. Phrases like “oil jugular” trip off the tongues of news anchormen. Buried in the op-ed rejects is the fact that the Soviet Union has for a long while been the world’s largest oil producer. Ten years ago, Washington “leaked” a report that showed the USSR becoming a net oil importer by the mid-1980s, with an insatiable lust for “our” oil. The figures, it turned out, had been cooked in the kitchen where William Casey is now head chef.

Suppose the CIA had been right. The Soviet Union needs to import lots of wheat, year after year. Yet the Russians have not taken over Argentina or Canada, never mind Kansas. There are branches of Bank Novostni throughout the Arab world. Moscow has plenty of experience buying or bartering for what it needs on the world market.

The Soviet Union knows very well, because the United States has made it very clear, that any effort to seize the oil of Arabia and the Gulf would lead to war. The Kremlin has demonstrated a very cautious attitude toward any steps that might lead to war with the US — much more cautious than their counterparts on the Potomac. The only situation in which the Soviet Union might move militarily against the Persian Gulf would be if a general war had already started or was truly imminent, to interdict supplies vital to the US war machine.

The national security advisors with their illuminated maps in the White House basement know this better than the rest of us. If we read their “guidance documents” closely, we see that what they fear most are political changes in the Middle East that might affect Western access to the region’s resources and markets. [6] Decisions about how much oil to produce, and the price at which it will be available, might be made in Tehran, in Baghdad and in Jeddah rather than in New York or London.

To some extent, the locus of such decision-making has shifted over the last two decades. True, the giant oil companies are still major players (six of these companies are still in the top 10 of Fortune’s famous 500, and their profits account for a steady one-seventh of total profits of the 500). The world market has resiliently protected industrial societies against the aberrant behavior of people of color. This is largely because those exercising power in the oil-exporting states are people who see their future linked to the interests of the capitalist West. Shaikh Zaki Yamani, until recently oil minister of Saudi Arabia, is a case in point. The exceptions — Qaddafi in Libya, Khomeini in Iran — highlight the rule.

The enemy in the Gulf, in Alexander Haig’s 1981 phrase, is “a change in the status quo.” It would be met, he informed a Senate committee and the world, “with the full range of [US] power assets.” [7] This was a bit like saying the US would use its “full range of power assets” to stop the tides. Throughout the region, most regimes are tied politically to Washington. But they are not firmly grounded in their own societies.

Here is a world that has undergone radical and wrenching social and economic changes in the last decades, resulting in new social forces, new internal class alliances and new links with the global market. These enormous changes in the structures of society have not received political expression. Arrangements from earlier eras have been petrified in place. It is as if the oil revenues which fueled these social changes at the same time embalmed the presiding regimes. We now have the political equivalent of geological pressures that build up beneath the surface and erupt as earthquakes. We have seen one in Iran, another in Lebanon. Tremors have struck in Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan and Morocco.

Nuclear Options

Washington’s cold war perspective invests any change anywhere in the world with tremendous significance for the global contest with the Soviet Union, no matter what its local origins. The Middle East would be exceedingly important to Washington by virtue of its proximity to the Soviet Union, along its southern border, even if there were not a single drop of oil there. This global aspect of US policy engages the nuclear factor in its most dangerous dimension. For nuclear war planning is geared precisely to maintaining and extending influence in a world that can only be partially controlled, a world where Washington’s weight has diminished.

Though the Soviets have not correspondingly gained, the erosion of control compels American strategists to pin responsibility for unwanted change on the USSR, and emphasize US nuclear leverage. Henry Kissinger complained after the Black September 1970 crisis in Jordan that if he could not threaten to use nuclear weapons in such cases, “We weren’t getting our money’s worth out of them." Kissinger, whose first book was Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, ordered a new study of nuclear “options” in 1972 “to be sure that America’s strategic forces really did cast a shadow on peripheral situations.” [8]

Today the enormous US military buildup in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, largely accomplished under the cover of the Iran-Iraq war, has made Southwest Asia a key strategic theater equipped with numbers and quality of aircraft, radar and nuclear blast-hardened command posts more advanced than those of NATO. And Kissinger, in more recent pronouncements, would have the rulers of the Gulf “understand that we are prepared to protect both their domestic structure and their frontiers, and they need to be given confidence in the means which we will use.” [9] In other words, Washington must wire nuclear weapons to the tottering thrones of the Gulf.

Washington’s Mutt, Israel’s Jeff

US policy in the Middle East, on first glance, presents a paradox. Western material interests are centered in the Persian Gulf/Arabian Peninsula. So why has Israel, the adversary state, counted for the greatest share of US military and economic aid in the region?

Through 1967, Washington did not display this favoritism. The key “intervention assets” in the region were neither Arab nor Israeli but the so-called “northern tier”: Turkey, Iran, Pakistan. Arab states like Jordan played specific gendarme roles vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but Israel was kept at arms length.

The June War of 1967 marks a watershed in the balance of military and political forces in the region. Israel’s smashing victory led to a new strategic calculation in Washington, expressed by the 1968 sale of state-of-the-art F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers. Set against the US predicament in Vietnam. Israel’s impressive performance gave great weight to those in the White House and the Pentagon who argued that a generous military supply relationship with Israel (and Iran) represented the most cost-effective approach to advancing US interests in the region.

Nixon and Kissinger continued to describe US policy as “even-handed,” but “protection racket” would be the more appropriate phrase. Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador in Washington, boasts in his published diary of his direct access to Kissinger. “Some sources inform me,” he wrote coyly on one occasion, “that our military operations are the most encouraging breath of fresh air the American administration has enjoyed recently…. There is a growing likelihood that the US would be interested in an escalation of our military activity with the aim of undermining Nasser’s standing…. Thus the willingness to supply us with additional arms depends more on stepping up our military activity against Egypt than on reducing it.” Nixon’s esteem for Israel was not based on sentiment or electoral considerations, but on its policy of provocation and brutal reprisal against Palestinians and other Arabs. Israel was doing in the Middle East what Nixon wished he could do more freely in Indochina. “Every time I hear of you penetrating into their territory and hitting them hard, I get a feeling of satisfaction,” Nixon told Rabin. [10]

The virtues of this approach seemed to be confirmed by Israel’s high-profile preparation to intervene in the September 1970 war between the Jordanian army and the Palestinian resistance. The PLO and Syria, in Washington’s eyes, were significant only because they received political and material support from the Soviet Union. The new US-Israeli relationship, in the words of National Security Council staffer William Quandt, was now “seen as key to combatting Soviet influence in the Arab world and attaining stability.” [11]

This new vision quickly became operational reality. Key policy decisions in 1971 significantly restructured the military ties between the US and Israel. First, the dollar value of US weapons shipped to Israel jumped nearly ten times: from $140 million in 1968-70 to $1.2 billion in 1971-73. Second, the sophistication of weapons followed the Phantom precedent. Third, weapons sales to Israel had previously been on a cash basis; now Washington extended generous credits and grants. Finally, a little-noted agreement of November 1971 provided American technical support and licenses for Israeli manufacture of sophisticated weapons systems, laying the groundwork for Israel's own military-industrial complex and making it possible for Israel to join the ranks of the world’s leading arms exporters. [12]

It is essentially the globalist perspective of the cold war which lends Israel its significance in the formulation of US policy. Regional developments and local conflicts are important only for the impact they are assumed to have on the balance of power between the US and the USSR. This coincides with a greater centralization of policy-making within the national security apparatus. Regional experts (“Arabists”) who do not ratify the prevailing geostrategic priorities and prefer to emphasize local dynamics are banished from the corridors of power.

This cold war perspective also lends a certain relativity to terms like “peace.” Even people who would not accept for a minute the proposition that peace is the highest priority of the Reagan administration in Central America or Southern Africa do not blink when Reagan talks about “the peace process” in the Arab-Israeli conflict. People assume that the failure to achieve a political settlement owes to incompetence or irresolution, or to the pernicious influence of the Zionist lobby.

But the “peace process” is no more about peace than the “peacekeeping force” sent to Beirut or the “peacekeeper” label that Reagan put on the MX missile. The pattern, rather, has been to reward and encourage the most belligerent political forces in Israel. Washington lavishly endows that country’s military establishment and avidly tolerates its most aggressive behavior. Then Washington can turn around and extract concessions and cooperation from the Arab states as the price for restraints on Israel. This “good cop/bad cop” routine has in fact been rather productive, if we recognize that Washington’s priority has been to “expel” the Soviet Union rather than bring about a political settlement. Israel is valued precisely for its antagonistic relations with key states in a region of strategic proximity to the Soviet Union.

Armageddon’s Shortest Fuse

The wars and feuds that tear the Middle East apart, with terrible consequences for tens of millions of people, chiefly grow out of local and regional struggles and dynamics. Rather than try to resolve the most outstanding political contradictions in the region, Washington has exploited them to build up its military forces in the region, directly and through arms deliveries to key allies and clients. The result is devastation for many and a pervasive insecurity for the rest, as the conflicts continue and the weapons to fight them grow in number and destructive power.

The Middle East is both a potential trigger and target for a war between the US and USSR. The US president and many of his fervent evangelical supporters have varnished the prospect of nuclear conflict in the Middle East with the biblical sanction of Armageddon. Here is where American troops and warplanes have gone into battle under Reagan, against Libya and against Lebanon. This administration tacitly supported Israel’s assaults against Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia, and tried to instigate Egypt to invade Libya. Washington’s chief client in the region, Israel, evidently has developed the world’s sixth largest nuclear arsenal. Another key US client, Pakistan, is on the verge of joining the nuclear club. Both politically and technologically, the Middle East has breached the “nuclear firebreak.”

So far, the unfolding scandal in Washington over arms sales to Iran has been limited to the contradictions this poses for official policy in the Gulf War and the ritual rants against terrorism. The extensive media attention reflects serious conflicts within the administration and the larger establishment to the scheme itself and to the White House attempt to implement it unilaterally. The important roles of Israel and Saudi Arabia in supporting Reagan’s contra war against Nicaragua over many years risk becoming footnotes to this Washington power struggle. In all of this, the real scandal has been ignored and overlooked again. This is the phony “peace process,” the set of policies that has backed Israeli military solutions towards the Palestinians and towards Lebanon and prompted the hostage situation in the first place. It is the intersection of this policy with the course of superpower relations which today darkens the nuclear shadow over the Middle East.



[1] July 9, 1984.
[2] Armed Forces Journal International, September 1986.
[3] Michael Klare, “May the Force Project Us,” The Nation, February 25,1984.
[4] Michael Klare, “Conventional Arms Sales: Stoking the Nuclear Fire,” MERIP Reports #112 (February 1983); Christopher Paine, “On the Beach: The Rapid Deployment Force and the Nuclear Arms Race,” MERIP Reports #111 (January 1983).
[5] Cited in Martha Wenger, “The Central Command,” MERIP Reports #128 (November- December 1984).
[6] See extensive citations from the classified 1984-85 Defense Guidance document in the New York Times, September 25,1982.
[7] Washington Post, March 19, 1981.
[8] Quoted in Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power (New York, 1983), p. 246.
[9] Interview in The Economist, November 13, 1982.
[10] Cited in Hersh, pp. 218, 224.
[11] William Quandt, Decade of Decisions (Berkeley, 1977), p. 106.
[12] Joe Stork, “Israel as a Strategic Asset,” MERIP Reports #105 (May 1982).

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "Nuclear Shadow Over the Middle East," Middle East Report 143 (November/December 1986).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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