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.