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Iraq's Strategic Weapons

By Michael Eisenstadt

Published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Executive Summary

August 1990


Since the conclusion of the cease-fire in August 1988 ending Iraq's eight year war with Iran, it has intensified, expanded, and diversified its effort to enhance its strategic capabilities, including efforts to develop or acquire unconventional weapons, long-range strike systems, and strategic reconnaissance systems. More specifically, Iraq's strategic capabilities consist of the following components:

  • A clandestine nuclear weapons program, focusing on efforts to acquire a capability to enrich uranium by the gas centrifuge enrichment process, as well as components required for the production of nuclear weapons. Iraq will probably acquire a nuclear weapons production capability within five to ten years.

  • The production of chemical and biological weapons, including mustard-type agents, the nerve agents sarin and tabun, and botulin toxin.

  • The production of a variety of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, including two missiles -- the Al-Hussein and Al-Abbas -- with sufficient range to reach targets throughout the region. Iraq is expected to commence production of chemical warheads for these missiles in the near future.

  • The acquisition of long-range strike aircraft capable of reaching targets throughout much of the region, including the Mirage F-1E and the Su-24 Fencer. Iraq has also developed a modest in-flight refueling capability to extend the reach of its air force.

  • The development of long-range artillery, or "superguns" capable of launching rocket boosted projectiles at targets throughout the region, or placing satellites into earth orbit.

  • The acquisition of a military reconnaissance satellite to provide near real-time target data and other information vital for the effective utilization of its long-range strike systems, and useful for planning military operations.

These programs are intended primarily to provide Iraq with a powerful deterrent capability by enabling it to threaten civilian population and economic centers of potential regional enemies, and a sustained warfighting capability in the event that deterrence fails. However, Iraq's strategic capabilities will also provide it with a means for conducting coercive diplomacy, to enable it to deal with Israel from a position of strength, and coerce and intimidate its smaller neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which cannot respond in kind.

One of the major consequences of Iraq's impressive strategic capabilities, and its acquisition of a credible strategic deterrent, is that since the conclusion of the cease-fire with Iran in August 1988 ending the eight year war between the two countries, Iraq has exhibited a new self-confidence that has impelled it to pursue an increasingly activist regional policy. Immediately following the cease-fire, Iraq initiated a brutal final offensive against its Kurdish population to once and for all end the Kurdish problem, applied pressure on Kuwait to grant long-term leases on two strategic islands flanking the entrance to its port of Umm Qasr, transfered large quantities of weapons to Lebanese army units fighting Syrian forces in Lebanon to punish Syria for its wartime support for Iran, and increased military cooperation with Jordan, thereby reversing its wartime policy of disengagement from the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In addition, the development of long-range strike systems capable of reaching Israel, and the acquisition of a credible retaliatory capability has led to the emergence of an uneasy deterrent relationship between Iraq and Israel. Israel now has to consider that a preventive strike against Iraq could prompt retaliation, producing unacceptable losses. Iraq's strategic deterrent thus provides a protective umbrella for its nuclear weapons program. As a result, diplomacy and covert action might be Israel's only viable options for disrupting or delaying Iraq's nuclear weapons program.

Finally, although Israel's capacity for massive retaliation is likely to deter Iraq from openly provoking Israel, there are a number of factors which could cause Iraq to miscalculate, or lead to an unintended clash with Israel and undermine this uneasy deterrent relationship:

  • Iraq's growing military involvement in Jordan, and the presence of Iraqi pilots there creates the potential for a clash between Iraqi and Israeli aircraft which regularly overfly Jordan.

  • Iraq has offered a deterrent umbrella to any Arab state that requests it. Thus, an Israeli military action anywhere in the region could potentially trigger an Iraqi response.

  • Deterred from direct action by Israel's retaliatory capability, Iraq could resume its support for international terrorism as a means of indirectly striking at Israel, thereby prompting Israeli retaliation.

  • Iraq's President Saddam Hussein has reportedly authorized military commanders to retaliate in the event of an Israeli strike, raising questions about the potential for uncontrolled escalation during a crisis.

Due to Iraq's increasingly activist regional policies, the heightened potential for a clash between Iraq and Israel, and the possibility of miscalculation, the U.S. needs to develop a policy for dealing with this new situation. The U.S. should pursue a dual-track policy in dealing with Iraq, consisting of the:

  • Definition of "red lines" to deter Iraq from destabilizing initiatives which could lead to a clash, without aggravating Iraqi fears or feeding its belief that it is about to be attacked.

  • Quiet cultivation of an ongoing dialogue between Iraq and Israel to reduce tensions, and minimize the likelihood of a miscalculation.

In addition, as a long-term goal the U.S. should attempt to broker a set of tacit arrangements between Iraq and Israel, similar to those which have long helped to regulate conflict between Israel, and neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan. Such an achievement would not only have immediate benefits, in terms of reducing regional tensions and the likelihood of a clash, but it would have long-term benefits as well, by creating a stable, predictable framework of relations between the two countries that could help ease the transition to a balance of mutual nuclear deterrence, in the event that Iraq eventually acquires nuclear weapons.

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