What Deterred Saddam

Other countries' assessments that Israel has nuclear weapons and is willing to use them under certain circumstances does indeed deter them from using chemical and biological weapons against it.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Colonel M., former commander of both an Air Force wing and the rescue unit 669, will soon become head of the Israel Defense Forces' Special Means Division, replacing Brigadier General Jack Ya'akobi, a former combat pilot who is returning to the Air Force. M. is not an aircrew member; the same is true of the head of the Defense Ministry's Special Means Division, Brigadier General (res.) Ze'ev Shnir, who headed the Air Force Equipment Division. Shnir and M. will be the first duo to reach these positions from the Air Force, albeit without pilot or navigator wings.

The Defense Ministry's Special Means Division was established in 1991 by then-defense minister Moshe Arens as one of the lessons of the Gulf War. In the background was the uncertainty and fear sparked by a twofold question: Did Iraq have chemical or biological weapons capable of reaching Israel, via either missiles or planes? And if so, would Saddam Hussein actually decide to use them?

A dozen years later, on the eve of the 2003 Iraq War, these questions once again troubled Israel, and the intelligence agencies were unable to supply much better answers than they had then. In between, especially in 1998 (the "snakeskin" alert), Israel also periodically frightened itself with the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Richard Butler, the chief UN weapons inspector, publicly predicted at the time that Saddam was liable to disseminate deadly microbes in Tel Aviv.

The hardest riddle to solve is the degree to which deterrence is effective - i.e. how power, Israeli or other, is perceived by enemy leaders. But documents seized in Iraq following the U.S. invasion, which the Pentagon published last week, and an interview broadcast by CBS two months ago with FBI agent George Piro, who interrogated Saddam in captivity, show that Saddam was indeed deterred, during both wars. His failure was that he allowed himself to believe that he could also deter Iran without bringing an American invasion down on his head (he expected to suffer aerial strikes, but that would have been tolerable).

Piro restrained himself during five months of interrogation before finally approaching this issue through the back door. Saddam told him that he had deliberately created the false impression that he had weapons of mass destruction, because his survival depended on this impression: Without it, he feared, Iran would resume its war.

One of the five binders full of seized documents contains the transcript of a tape from 1996. In it, then deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz reports to Saddam on a conversation he had with Butler's predecessor as chief UN weapons inspector, Rolf Ekeus. Aziz's statements during this conversation reflected Saddam's policy.

According to Saddam and Aziz, Iraq's development of WMDs was meant to counter the numerical superiority and suicidal fanaticism of Iran's warriors should they invade Iraqi territory. The Iraqis said that in other wars, there had been red lines, whether due to the decisions of the parties themselves or to superpower involvement: That is why, for instance, the IDF halted at the Suez Canal in the south and the Golan Heights, near Damascus, in the north during the Six-Day War. But in the Iraqis' view, revolutionary Iran was "out of time, out of this world," free of any restraints. It had no red lines en route to Basra, or even Baghdad. It did not behave according to accepted norms, and therefore, stopping it justified the use of weapons that violate accepted norms.

This term, as used by Saddam and Aziz, does not include missiles carrying conventional explosives, such as those Iraq fired at Israel. And even within the "nonaccepted" category, one should distinguish between chemical weapons - which are permissible in certain circumstances - and biological weapons, which are mainly intended to deter states with similar or even more intimidating weapons. The U.S. and Israel, said Saddam and his aides, have nuclear weapons. If biological weapons were used against them, they would respond with nuclear weapons. The biological weapons were meant to deter them from a nuclear first strike. But at the same time, their nuclear capabilities deterred Iraq from using its biological weapons.

Saddam's testimony, as culled from both these sources, begs two conclusions. First, nuclear proliferation in this region also depends on the mutual relations between rival Muslim states; thus for Israel to abjure nuclear weapons would not prevent it. Second, other countries' assessments that Israel has nuclear weapons and is willing to use them under certain circumstances does indeed deter them from using chemical and biological weapons against it.

Does this lead to the conclusion that Iran should also be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons, since it, too, would use them for deterrence rather than offense? Saddam, just like Israel's leaders, would have said no.



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