The United States and France are developing strategies for using nuclear weapons in developing countries, ostensibly to counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological). The Middle East in particular has become a testing ground for nuclear war games. [1] This worrisome trend is more likely to provoke a Middle East arms race than to stop proliferation.

Nuclear targeting of the Middle East is not new. In the 1991 Gulf war, the US had hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons deployed on warships and air bases in the region. [2] US military commanders did consider openly threatening to use them but abandoned this idea, according to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, because the political costs outweighed any military gains. [3]

The Bush administration never did publicly renounce using nuclear weapons but rather it left the option open — at least in the minds of Iraqi leaders. Former Secretary of State James Baker writes in his memoirs that he “purposely” left the impression with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, at their final meeting in January 1991, that Iraqi use of chemical or biological agents “could invite tactical nuclear retaliation.” [4] In August 1995, Iraqi officials told chief UN arms inspector Rolf Ekeus that they decided not to consider using chemical or biological weapons after Baker’s strong warning. [5] When asked why Iraq did not use nuclear weapons during the Gulf war, former Iraqi Minister of Defense Husayn Kamil al-Majid told Time: “Any mistake of using these unconventional weapons will make the major powers use nuclear weapons, which means Iraq will be exterminated.” [6]

Who deterred whom? Aziz and Kamil seemingly have vindicated the role of nuclear deterrence in counterproliferation scenarios. But Iraqi commanders had orders to launch chemical and biological attacks against enemy capitals and troops if Baghdad was ever hit by a nuclear attack. [7]

“I want to strongly emphasize,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterproliferation Policy Mitchel Wallerstein told Air Force Magazine in October 1995, “that counterproliferation is fundamentally about finding non-nuclear solutions to these problems…. The United States is not looking to retarget our nuclear weapons.” [8]

But we outlined just such a retargeting in our 1995 report documenting the expansion of US nuclear doctrine to counterproliferation roles, potentially targeting Third World countries with nuclear weapons. [9] In a response to our report, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Ashton Carter insisted that the US was not expanding the role of its nuclear weapons. [10] After disclosure of the expansion, according to the Washington Post, the Pentagon decided to play down the issue. [11]

The issue is highly contentious. Since 1978 it has been US policy not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries. This policy was reaffirmed in April 1995, when the nuclear powers jointly announced that they would not attack with nuclear weapons non-nuclear countries party to the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The pledge was an important factor in gaining support from non-nuclear countries at the May 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the NPT. [12]

Yet the use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country party to the NPT was part of the Pentagon’s Global 95 war game, held at the Naval War College, Rhode Island, in July 1995. The scenario explored the US military’s response to two simultaneous crises in the Korean peninsula and in the Persian Gulf: In response to a biological weapons attack on US aircraft carriers and Saudi Arabia, the US launches a nuclear attack against Baghdad. [13] This fundamental shift in nuclear weapons doctrine has gone largely unnoticed.

US Nuclear Counterproliferation

When the Pentagon announced the results of the Nuclear Posture Review of US nuclear forces in September 1994, it said it had changed the way it thinks about nuclear weapons and was reducing their role. Yet the review itself endorsed a new role: using nuclear weapons to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). [14]

Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch told the Senate, “An examination of the remaining nuclear threat from Russia and the non-Russian republics that possess nuclear weapons as well as the emerging threat from other countries around the world indicate that the United States will continue to need nuclear weapons for deterrence in the foreseeable future.” [15]

The formal US Counterproliferation Initiative (CPI) is widely understood to provide only non-nuclear responses to proliferation threats. But this new nuclear doctrine has evolved parallel to the CPI, as part of adjustments made to nuclear strategy in the post-Cold war era.

As part of its global plan against the Soviet Union, the US did target some Third World countries as far back as in the late 1980s. [16] Now some Third World countries have become targets in their own right, as proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Military Net Assessment report from March 1990 for the first time pointed to “increasingly capable Third World threats” as a new justification for maintaining US strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons. [17] Defense Secretary Dick Cheney’s June 1990 testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee marked the first high-level reference to weapons of mass destruction as a rationale for keeping US nuclear weapons. [18]

The disclosure of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program has accelerated this development. The Gulf war had just ended when Defense Secretary Cheney issued the top-secret Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy, which formally tasked the military to plan for nuclear operations against nations capable of or developing weapons of mass destruction. [19]

Military planners began to change strategies accordingly. The Joint Chiefs’ Joint Military Net Assessment of March 1991 specifically identified non-strategic nuclear weapons, such as the 480 nuclear bombs the US continues to deploy in seven European countries, as a class of weapons that “could assume a broader role globally in response to the proliferation of nuclear capability among Third World nations.” The Joint Chiefs’ report warned, however, that nuclear proliferation necessitated an upgrade of the command, control and communication capabilities of US forces and identified the MILSTAR/SCOTT satellite communications systems as an example of such an upgrade. [20]

In a related move, the Strategic Air Command established a Deterrence Study Group to examine the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era. The group known as the Reed Panel, named after its chairman, former Air Force Secretary Thomas Reed, concluded that nuclear weapons missions should be expanded, even against non-nuclear foes. [21]

In his February 1992 annual report, Defense Secretary Cheney wrote that “the possibility that Third World nations may acquire nuclear capabilities has led the Department to make adjustments to nuclear and strategic defense forces and to the policies that guide them.” US nuclear strategy, he continued, “must now also encompass potential instabilities that could arise when states or leaders perceive they have little to lose from employing weapons of mass destruction.” [22]

A year later, in February 1993, the Joint Chiefs issued a new Roles and Missions report. “Deterring nuclear attack and containing communism have given way to a more diverse, flexible strategy which is regionally oriented,” said the report. [23] “Our focus now is not just the former Soviet Union,” commander of Strategic Command, Gen. Lee Butler, echoed to the New York Times, “but any potentially hostile country that has or is seeking weapons of mass destruction.” STRATCOM began to plan how to change targets quickly against possible threats in geographical regions like North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya. [24] A new Joint Intelligence Center was created, in General Butler’s words, “to assess from STRATCOM’s operational perspective the growing threat represented by the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” [25]

“Adaptive planning challenges the headquarters to formulate plans very quickly in response to spontaneous threats which are more likely to emerge in a new international environment unconstrained by the superpower standoff,” Gen. Butler told Jane’s Defence Weekly:

We can accomplish this task by using generic targets, rather than identifying specific scenarios and specific enemies, and then crafting a variety of response options to address these threats. To ensure their completeness, these options consider the employment of both nuclear and conventional weapons. Thus, by its very nature, adaptive planning offers unique solutions, tailored to generic regional dangers involving weapons of mass destruction. [26]

The expansion of nuclear strategy was officially enshrined as military doctrine in April 1993, when the Joint Chiefs issued its “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations” (Joint Pub 3-12). The document concluded rather unambiguously that the purpose of US nuclear weapons is to “deter the use of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons.” This, it said, “should be the first priority” in regional contingencies. The document advocated the development of low-yield precision-guided nuclear weapons for possible retaliation use in regional wars to “avoid destabilizing the conflict.” [27]

The targeting of Third World countries at this point represents a doctrinal change rather than an actual re-aiming of nuclear weapons. As a result of the May 1994 bilateral agreements, the US and Russia no longer target their strategic nuclear missiles at each other. The US says that its strategic missiles are “no longer targeted against any country…on a day-to-day basis…. Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles will continue to be targeted on broad ocean areas, but will remain manned and on alert day-to-day. [Nuclear submarines] will not be targeted at any country.” [28] Adm. Henry Chiles of the Strategic Command told Congress in 1994 that his personnel “retain the ability to rapidly retarget our forces if so directed by the president.” [29] If a conflict erupts in the Middle East involving a country the US considers to be armed with weapons of mass destruction, the change in doctrine means that US nuclear weapons could be aimed at designated targets in that country.

Changing targets means upgrading weapon systems, and the Air Force and the Navy have begun upgrading their hardware and nuclear missile systems so they can more rapidly identify and strike targets around the globe. More than half of all US nuclear weapons will be on board strategic submarines after 2003 when the START II treaty will be implemented, and the Navy is installing a new “SLBM Retargeting System” that will enable submarines “to quickly, accurately and reliably retarget missiles to targets” and “allow timely and reliable processing of an increased number of targets.”

Similar developments are underway within the Air Force, which is spending more than $2 billion on upgrading its Minuteman III ICBMs through 2001. Part of this upgrade entails equipping the missiles with the Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting system, which will provide “rapid message processing, rapid retargeting, improved launch control center hardening and the software interface necessary to proceed with the plans for single reentry warheads.” [30]

French Nuclear Doctrine

Unlike the United States, France formally ruled out the use of nuclear weapons in the Gulf war. Foreign Minister Roland Dumas declared that “nuclear weapons cannot be battlefield weapons, and cannot be used except as the ultimate recourse when national territory is threatened.” [31]

After the war, the French government largely continued to reject any nuclear doctrine expansion. Pursuing low-yield nuclear weapons for limited strikes could lead to “a sort of banalization of nuclear weapons,” Defense Minister Francois Lyotard said in November 1993. President Mitterrand added his opposition to “surgical” or “decapitating” nuclear strike capabilities in May 1994, condemning such proposals as “a major heresy” and in conflict with the traditional doctrine that nuclear weapons are for the protection of France’s vital interests and not for use as “a nuclear gun.” [32]

The new government of Jacques Chirac, however, seems considerably more receptive to expanding nuclear doctrine. In June 1991, for example, only a few months after France had ruled out the use of nuclear weapons in the Gulf war, Chirac told the Academy of Moral and Political Science that proliferation of nuclear weapons to the Middle East region meant that Europe and France would have to “radically review their nuclear means and strategies.” [33] In the summer of 1992, Chirac strongly endorsed expanding nuclear doctrine to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons. [34]

One of Chirac’s first decisions in 1995 was to resume nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Defense Minister Charles Millon insisted that there “is no question now of the political leaders devising, as some say, miniaturized [nuclear] weapons, theater weapons, or ‘decapitating’ weapons. So there is no change in doctrine.” [35] But Millon already seemed to have a new course in mind. A few weeks later, on August 5, he wrote in Le Monde that “only the possession of the nuclear weapon can deter an aggressor from using [weapons of mass destruction], whatever their type. Let us face it, merely reducing the major powers’ nuclear arsenals is not going to prevent proliferation.” The defense minister concluded that “the Gaullian notion of all-out deterrent makes as much sense as ever.” [36]

“Did Tariq say they were deterred?” a French defense official exclaimed in surprise when asked to comment on Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz’s August 1995 statement that Iraq had not used chemical weapons because of fear of nuclear retaliation from the West. “Whatever the reason,” the official added, mindful of the need for evidence to justify nuclear deterrence in the post-Cold war era, “we like that kind of testimonial.” [37]

Implications of Counterproliferation

This expansion of nuclear doctrine raises many questions about proliferation and nuclear antagonism in the Middle East. From the beginning of the non-proliferation regime, non-nuclear states have sought guarantees from the nuclear powers not to be threatened by nuclear weapons. The United States, Soviet Union and Britain responded via a Security Council resolution which declared nuclear aggression, or the threat of nuclear aggression, against non-nuclear states party to the NPT to be unacceptable. [38] In April 1995, the nuclear powers pledged in a UN Security Council resolution not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries. [39]

At the very least, prescribing nuclear weapons to counter proliferators muddles the non-proliferation message. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, codified in the 1960s, states in the preamble and Article VI that the solution to nuclear proliferation is complete nuclear disarmament. Now the US and France have stood this logic on its head, making proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction a rationale to keep and upgrade their own nuclear arsenal.

Confronting proliferators with nuclear weapons risks strengthening non-nuclear countries’ incentives to pursue nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The more proliferation becomes intertwined with nuclear deterrence, the less likely it is that it will be forestalled. The British assignment of its strategic nuclear submarines to “tactical” roles, and NATO’s justification for keeping 480 US nuclear bombs forward-deployed in Europe rests on a rationale of counterproliferation hysteria.

Nuclear counterproliferation doctrines certainly undermine the efforts to create nuclear weapons-free zones — notably in the Middle East. Insofar as developments in US and French nuclear doctrine encourage both countries to base nuclear weapons in the Mediterranean region (US nuclear bombs are stored in Italy, Greece and Turkey, and France has nuclear weapons near Toulon), the practical achievement of a Middle East nuclear weapons freeze will be difficult.

The original goal of the NPT — complete elimination of nuclear weapons — remains as timely and necessary as ever. Nuclear weapons still bedevil international relations, creating unwarranted uncertainties and tensions, diverting scarce national resources and threatening disaster with their possible use. The US and France should be looking for ways to reduce the numbers and the role of their own nuclear weapons. The way they think about nuclear weapons and their commitment to nuclear deterrence raises a fundamental barrier to dealing with the known or suspected proliferation programs of Middle Eastern countries.


[1] Barbara Starr, “STRATCOM Sees New Role in WMD Targeting,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, January 14, 1995, and William M. Arkin, “Iran in the Crosshairs,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (July-August 1995), p. 80.
[2] See William M. Arkin et al, US Nuclear Weapons in the Persian Gulf Crisis (Washington, DC: Greenpeace International, January 1991).
[3] Colin Powell, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 486.
[4] James Baker, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), p. 359.
[5] Reuters, September 21, 1995.
[6] Time, September 18, 1995. Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz reportedly said that Iraq armed 200 missiles with chemical and biological warheads. International Herald Tribune, September 12, 1995.
[7] Goodman, op cit.
[8] James Kitfield, “Counterproliferation,” Air Force Magazine (October 1995), p. 58.
[9] Hans M. Kristensen and Joshua Handler, “Changing Targets: Nuclear Doctrine from the Cold War to the Third World,” (Washington, DC: Greenpeace International, March 1995), revised version.
[10] Ashton Carter, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, letter to Greenpeace, n. d. (received April 28, 1995).
[11] Washington Post, April 12, 1995.
[12] Washington Times, April 6, 1995.
[13] Defense News, August 28-September 3, 1995, p. 1.
[14] The NPR was widely reported to provide only non-nuclear responses to hostile use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in regional conflicts. But nuclear weapons featured prominently in counterproliferation roles, such as to “deter WMD acquisition or use.” Several non-strategic nuclear weapons missions in support of the non-proliferation scenarios were deleted from the public record. Senate Committee on Armed Services, “Briefing on Results of the Nuclear Posture Review,” September 22, 1994, pp. 9 (chart), 10 (chart), 16 (chart), 17 (chart).
[15] Ibid. For the record, Deutch’s answer to the question was not received in time for printing in the hearing but is retained in committee files.
[16] Bruce Blair, “Towards Zero Alert: Operation Path to Nuclear Safety,” presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia, February 1995.
[17] Joint Chiefs of Staff, “1990 Joint Military Net Assessment” (Washington, DC, March 1990), pp. VI-I, VI-7.
[18] Senate Committee on Appropriations, Defense Subcommittee, “Hearing on Department of Defense Appropriations For Fiscal Year 1991, Part 1, National Security,” June 12, 1990, p. 304.
[19] William M. Arkin, “Agnosticism When Real Values Are Needed: Nuclear Policy in the Clinton Administration,” FAS Public Interest Report (September-October 1994), p. 7.
[20] Joint Chiefs of Staff, “1991 Joint Military Assessment” (Washington, DC, March 1991), pp. 7-1 (box), 11-12.
[21] Thomas C. Reed, “The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the New World Order,” Deterrence Study Group to Gen. Lee Butler, Commander, Strategic Air Command, October 10, 1991, as cited in William M. Arkin, “Nuclear Junkies,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (July-August 1993), p. 24. See also Thomas Reed and Michael O. Wheeler, “The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the New World Order,” Draft Report, undated.
[22] “Annual Report to the President and the Congress” (Washington, DC, February 1992), p. 59.
[23] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Report on the Roles, Missions and Functions of the Armed Forces of the United States” (Washington, DC, February 1993), p. II-2.
[24] New York Times, January 25, 1993.
[25] Gen. Lee Butler, US Air Force, Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Command, “Statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee,” April 22, 1993, p. 3.
[26] Barbara Starr, “Targeting Rethink May Lead To Non-Nuclear STRATCOM Role,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 22, 1993, p. 19.
[27] Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations,” Joint Pub 3-12, April 29, 1993, pp. 1-1, 1-3. Released under the Freedom of Information Act.
[28] Jane’s Defence Weekly, February 26, 1994, p. 6; Department of Defense, Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), “DoD Review Recommends Reduction in Nuclear Force,” News Release 541-94 (September 22, 1994), p. 2; John Deutch, Deputy Secretary of Defense, “Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on US Policy on Nuclear Weapons,” October 5, 1994, pp. 2, 3, 6. The perception that these agreements actually changed targeting status of nuclear missiles seems, at least in the case of the nuclear missiles on board US strategic submarines, to be a misunderstanding. When a submarine is on patrol, target information resides in a disk drive apart from the missiles. Normally the missiles are dormant, except for brief periods during weapon system checks, and target information would not be loaded until the crew receives launch orders. See Bruce Blair, “Global Zero Alert for Nuclear Forces” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1995), pp. 86-87.
[29] “Statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee,” April 20, 1994, p. 4.
[30] Adm. Henry Chiles, Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Command, Senate Committee on Armed Services, “Hearings on Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1995 and the Future Years Defense Program, Part 1,” April 20, 1994, pp. 977 and 979.
[31] David S. Yost, “Nuclear Debates in France,” Survival (Winter 1994-1995), pp. 119-120. See also Dominique Garraud, “Mitterrand: ‘After Me, No More Nuclear Tests,’” Liberation, May 6, 1994.
[32] Ibid.
[33] “Mr. Chirac: ‘European Defense Must Be Created,’” Le Monde, June 19, 1991.
[34] Jacques Chirac, “Proliferation, Non-Proliferation, Deterrence,” Politique Internationale 56 (Summer 1992), pp. 9-34.
[35] Paris Match, June 29, 1995, pp. 54-55.
[36] Charles Millon, “The Ideology of Peace Versus the Cause of Peace,” Le Monde, August 5, 1995.
[37] International Herald Tribune, September 12, 1995.
[38] US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements: Texts and Histories of Negotiations (Washington, DC, 1982), pp. 86, 87.
[39] Washington Times, April 6, 1995.

How to cite this article:

Joshua Handler, Hans M. Kristensen "Nuclear Counterproliferation in the Middle East," Middle East Report 197 (November/December 1995).

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