Andrew Lichterman

Several recent articles have appeared on the web and have been widely circulated within the disarmament community suggesting that the United States is likely to launch a preventive war against Iran that will include planned nuclear strikes. These include:

Jorge Hirsch, How to Stop the Planned Nuking of Iran: Congress should enact emergency legislation (”…America is embarked in a premeditated path that will lead inexorably to the use of nuclear weapons against Iran in the very near future.”) and

Michel Chossudovsky Nuclear War against Iran (”The launching of an outright war using nuclear warheads against Iran is now in the final planning stages.”)

Many of the individual statements in these articles are true. But they make inferences about potential U.S. nuclear weapons use in wars against states that lack nuclear weapons that I do not believe are supported by the documents they refer to, if looked at as a whole. In particular, I believe they overstate the likelihood of a planned preventive nuclear strike against a state that does not have nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear weapons in the course of a war in which an adversary uses chemical or biological weapons, or in which the U.S. suffers catastrophic military reverses, is another matter.

The role of U.S. nuclear weapons in expeditionary warfare is in effect deterring deterrence — providing “freedom of action” for conventional forces to attack whatever weaker power the U.S. desires. If a country tries to raise the costs of U.S. ‘intervention’ by using nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons (or even uses conventional forces in a way that threatens disastrous consequences for U.S. forces), U.S. nuclear weapons doctrine allows use of nuclear weapons. Various doctrine documents also allow use of nuclear weapons against WMD targets before the WMD can be employed — but this does not necessarily imply a preventive war accompanied by planned pre-emptive nuclear strikes. Destroying WMD when a war already is in progress and it appears to U.S. war planners the weapons might be used against U.S. troops or allies is something quite different. There still would be very significant political obstacles, I think, to crossing the nuclear threshold prior to use of WMD by an adversary (especially given the U.S. track record for proving an adversary even has WMD), and in the absence of some other military disaster. The main danger of nuclear weapons use in this context is not that the U.S. will make a pre-emptive nuclear strike against a regional power, but that it will start a conventional war, justified on “counterproliferation” grounds, which goes very badly in unexpected ways (far exceeding what we are seeing, for example, in Iraq). Then, in a wartime climate of irrationality amplified by a bellicose media and a 24/7 news cycle, almost anything is possible. It is at this point that ongoing efforts to make nuclear weapons more “useable” –not just weapons modifications, but extensive planning for strikes against various kinds of targets, modeling of “collateral damage,” etc. — may increase the potential for nuclear weapons use, in part by giving superficially informed decision makers illusions about what nuclear weapons are, and the extent to which they can predict the effects of their use.

The likelihood of an attack on Iran by Israel and/or the United States is hard to estimate. I believe that such an attack, if it happened, would be conventional — likely some combination of airstrikes and special operations. There may be a growing possibility that either the U.S. or Israel or both will attack Iran in some fashion, despite the fact that the large number of nuclear sites and their dispersed locations probably makes it hard to achieve the purported goal of eliminating or severely impairing Iran’s nuclear program short of large-scale war. I believe decisions on military action to be driven by factional interests both in the U.S. and Israel that do not correspond to any publicly articulated notion of “national interests.” Both Israel and the United States are in ongoing internal political crises of a kind that makes it difficult to predict their actions. There are significant (and arguably dominant) elements in the United States that profit and gain in relative power from wars, and particularly Middle East/Persian Gulf wars, even if the apparent “goals” of the military action are not achieved. A regrettable dearth of sufficiently concrete analysis of the interests driving U.S foreign policy and the real balance of political forces in the U.S. makes the task of predicting U.S. actions all the harder.

Our focus regarding a possible attack on Iran should be neither the likelihood of nuclear weapons use nor the practicality, or lack of it, of attempting to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. It should be that this would be yet another illegal war of aggression, and a catastrophe for ordinary people on all sides. The important link to nuclear weapons in this context is that they are a central element of a global war system, providing both an ideological pretext for warfare by the most powerful states (regardless of the real forces driving those wars), and an ultimate terror threat that allows the most powerful states to fight their “small wars” more easily.

More extensive discussion and references on U.S. nuclear weapons policies and programs supporting the above analysis can be found in:

Sliding Towards the Brink: More Useable Nuclear Weapons and the Dangerous Illusions of High-Tech War, Western States Legal Foundation Information Bulletin, March 2003

War is Peace, Arms Racing is Disarmament: The Non-Proliferation Treaty and the U.S. Quest for Global Military Dominance, Western States Legal Foundation Special Report, May 2005