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December 16, 2005

Nuclear Deployment for an Attack on Iran

And the nuclear hitmen behind it

by Jorge Hirsch

Are U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in the Persian Gulf, on hair-trigger alert, and ready to be launched against Iran at a moment's notice?

The answer is contained in presidential directive NSPD 35, "Nuclear Weapons Deployment Authorization," issued May 2004, which is classified. Nevertheless, we can infer the answer from the fact that every other element needed for a nuclear strike on Iran is now "deployed" and ready, namely:

I have discussed many of these elements in previous columns. Here I will focus on the people, the doctrine, and the weapons.

Nuclear Hitmen

The decision to employ nuclear weapons at any level in a military conflict rests with the president. Neither Congress nor state governments nor you nor I have to be consulted. According to Robert McNamara (U.S. secretary of defense during the Cuban missile crisis), to launch a nuclear attack requires "20 minutes' deliberation by the president and his advisers."

In preparation for the nuclear strike on Iran, the Bush administration in its second term has deployed into key positions hardliners that have both expertise in nuclear weapons and a known history of advocating the aggressive use thereof. Thus the president can say, "I feel like I'm getting really good advice from very capable people" to justify nuking Iran.

National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley
Hadley is one of the coauthors of the document "Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control" [.pdf], which served as a blueprint for the " Nuclear Posture Review" of 2001. In a 1997 paper, "Policy Considerations in Using Nuclear Weapons," Hadley applauded the "many men and women" who "have devoted their professional lives" to nuclear weapons as having made "a significant contribution to our nation." Further, "It is often an unstated premise in the current debate that if nuclear weapons are needed at all, they are needed only to deter the nuclear weapons of others. I am not sure this unstated premise is true … this is not why we got into the nuclear business." He was one of the leading proponents of the claim that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program, and he was profiled in a 2004 Los Angeles Times article as "A Hawk in Bush's Inner Circle Who Flies Under the Radar."

Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone
Cambone is Rumsfeld's right-hand man, another coauthor of "Rationale and Requirements," and a longtime promoter of missile-defense systems. If there is any doubt as to whether he will promote the policies advocated in that document, let's hear his own words: "Any policymaker has certain views. Policymakers are where they are and doing what they do because they have a view." (New York Times, April 11, 2003)

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs Robert Joseph
Joseph has the position formerly held by John Bolton and is another coauthor of "Rationale and Requirements." He also helped draft the document "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction" (NSPD-17), which advocates the use of nuclear weapons in response to WMD and names Iran as one of the countries that are the focus of the new U.S. strategy. He is a member of the National Institute for Public Policy, which says on its Web page that Joseph is a leading promoter of counterproliferation policy ("formulation and implementation of national security strategies to counter proliferation threats") and "criminalizing proliferation activities." He was the National Security Council member supervising the portion of the 2003 State of the Union speech dealing with intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. According to Right Web, Joseph "advocates the offensive use of nuclear weapons" and advocates placing "preemptive attacks and weapons of mass destruction at the center of U.S. national security strategy."

In a recent interview, Joseph "dismissed Iran's contention it seeks only civilian nuclear power," said that "Iran is closing in on production of nuclear weapons and even UN sanctions may not deter the aggressive government in Tehran," and averred that "once they begin to enrich, that is the point of no return," echoing similar statements by Israeli officials.

National Nuclear Security Administration Director Linton Brooks
Brooks oversees the country's nuclear weapons infrastructure and is another coauthor of "Rationale and Requirements." He also served on the Pentagon's Deterrence Concepts Advisory Panel, which was charged with overseeing the production of the Nuclear Posture Review policy document. In explaining the Nuclear Posture Review to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2004, Brooks stated [.pdf]:

"The Nuclear Posture Review represented a radical departure from the past and the most fundamental rethinking of the roles and purposes of nuclear weapons in almost a quarter-century. … Instead of treating nuclear weapons in isolation, it considered them as an integrated component of American military power. … Instead of treating the future as static and predictable, it recognized that requirements could change and that U.S. nuclear forces must be prepared to respond to those changes, including by increasing the fraction of the force that is deployed. … The Nuclear Posture Review broadens our thinking to encompass a New Triad of flexible response capabilities consisting of non-nuclear and nuclear strike capabilities."

In that address, he also advocated research on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator initiative to "hold at risk hardened, deeply buried facilities that may be important to a future adversary," and repealing the prohibition on low-yield nuclear weapons to allow research in "advanced concepts" of more usable nuclear weapons. He stated, "We need to make sure our weapons will in fact be seen by other countries as a deterrent. One element of that is usability. If nobody believes there is any circumstance where you will use the weapon, it is not a deterrent."

Chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Science Board William Schneider Jr.
Schneider is another coauthor of "Rationale and Requirements." He was a staff member at the Hudson Institute between 1967 and 1971, where "he contributed to studies on strategic forces, Soviet affairs, theater nuclear force operations, and arms control." In his own words, "The leakage of nuclear weapons-design technology over time has become a flood in recent years," and "Both Iran and Iraq sought to develop their own military ballistic and cruise missiles as well as weapons of mass destruction. In conjunction with offshore procurements of conventional defense products, they produced formidable military establishments posing an overwhelming threat to U.S. allies."

Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch II
Crouch served as assistant secretary of defense from 2001 to 2003, and was the "principal advisor to the secretary of defense on the formulation and coordination of policy … for nuclear forces, missile defense, technology security policy, counterproliferation, and arms control." In a briefing he gave on the Nuclear Posture Review in 2002, he stated, "Now, we are trying to look at a number of initiatives. One would be to modify an existing weapon, to give it greater capability against deep and hardly – or hard targets and deeply-buried targets." He is characterized as a "nuclear weapons enthusiast."

Conclusion? None of these people, when asked for advice, is likely to advise against the use of nuclear weapons for reasons that you or I would find eminently reasonable [1], [2], [3], [4], [5].

Finally, there is the infamous John Bolton. While undersecretary of state, he warned that "efforts to attain nuclear weapons pose a direct and undeniable threat to the United States and its friends and allies around the world. Whether the nuclear capabilities of states like Iran, North Korea and others are threats today, or threats tomorrow, there can be no dispute that our attention is required now before the threats become reality, and tens of thousands of innocent civilians, or more, have been vaporized." Concerning Iran specifically, he stated that "Iran has a covert program to develop and stockpile chemical weapons," that "Tehran probably maintains an offensive BW program," and in this connection that the "risks to international peace and security from such programs are too great to wait for irrefutable proof of illicit activity." Concerning missiles, he said, "Iran continues its extensive efforts to develop the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction," and just like his successor, he stated categorically that "Iran has a clandestine program to produce nuclear weapons." Today, John Bolton is "deployed" as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where he will be most effective (simply cutting and pasting from his old speeches) explaining to the world why a nuclear strike on Iran was necessary.

Note that there is no obvious reason why the national security advisor, the deputy national security advisor, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations have to be people with experience in nuclear weapons policy. This was not the case in other administrations. That it is the case in this administration is highly unlikely to be a coincidence. Instead, it gives a strong indication that it was envisioned in advance that the use of nuclear weapons would be a central theme of the second term of the Bush administration.

Doctrine Deployment

The Bush administration has been busy in recent years "deploying" the doctrine that will underpin the upcoming nuclear strike against Iran. Some of this deployment occurred through presidential speeches, some through unclassified policy documents, and some through classified documents, parts of which were "leaked." It has been a well-orchestrated process with a clear purpose: that the more alert sectors of the public and policymakers, and in particular the arms control community, become fully aware of it, so that when nuclear weapons are used it does not come as a total surprise. At the same time, the mainstream media have provided little coverage on the radical change in the nuclear weapons doctrine (a few articles in the New York Times and Washington Post), so the issue has remained largely invisible to the general public.

The National Security Strategy of the United States of America of September 2002 codifies the doctrine of preemptive attacks, with phrases such as

"We cannot let our enemies strike first…"

"We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today's adversaries…"

"[E]ven if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack…"

"[T]he United States cannot remain idle while danger gathers…"

This doctrine was used with Iraq and will be used next with Iran.

The National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction states, "The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force – including potentially nuclear weapons – to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies."

The Nuclear Posture Review delivered to Congress in 2001 is classified, but portions have been made public. It substantially broadens the role of nuclear weapons from their traditional role as deterrents against nuclear countries to encompass non-nuclear "rogue" nations. It states that "U.S. nuclear forces will now be used to dissuade adversaries from undertaking military programs or operations that could threaten U.S. interests or those of allies and friends," and that "Nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack."

The Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations [.pdf] is the Pentagon's implementation of the new nuclear posture. According to Hans Kristensen's analysis, "Foremost among the doctrine's new features [is] the incorporation of preemption into U.S. nuclear doctrine…." It lists a variety of new conditions under which nuclear weapons will be used, including, "For rapid and favorable war termination on U.S. terms," "To demonstrate U.S. intent and capability to use nuclear weapons to deter adversary use of WMD," and against "An adversary using or intending to use WMD against U.S., multinational, or alliance forces or civilian populations."

The " Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control" [.pdf] was produced by the National Institute for Public Policy and served as a basis for the Nuclear Posture Review. Furthermore, five of its authors are in key positions in the administration today as discussed above, and as a consequence, the contents of this document are likely to reflect also the views of these policymakers and forecast the future actions of the administration. Statements in this document include:

  • "[A] counterforce strategy will entail more targets, including many that are harder to find and are better protected…"
  • "[A] larger number of weapons, weapons with varied characteristics and greater accuracy, will be needed for a counterforce strategy…"
  • "Hardened targets built underground and deeply buried facilities are the most difficult to destroy and will influence the required number and characteristics of nuclear weapons…"
  • "Examples of hardened and buried targets include missile silos, launch control centers, concrete aircraft shelters, deeply buried command posts, tunnels for missile storage and assembly, storage bunkers, and underground facilities for weapons research and production…"
  • "For example, although conventional weapons could be used to attack the entrances, exits, or 'umbilicals' – electrical power, air supply, and communications links – of a deeply buried facility, one or more nuclear weapons might be required to destroy the facility itself…"
  • "To ensure that enemy facilities or forces are knocked out and cannot be reconstituted, attacks with nuclear weapons may be necessary. Indeed, in the future the United States may need to field simple, low-yield, precision-guided nuclear weapons for possible use against select hardened targets such as underground biological weapons facilities."

In summary, the doctrines proclaimed by the administration envision preemptive nuclear attacks on enemy facilities suspected of harboring WMD and other "assets most valued" by the enemy.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons Deployment

It is generally believed that the U.S. has tactical nuclear weapons deployed only in Western Europe, remnants of the Cold War. According to Hans Kristensen of the Nuclear Information Project:

"The 480 bombs deployed in Europe represent more than 80 percent of all the active B61 tactical bombs in the U.S. stockpile. No other U.S. nuclear weapons are forward-deployed (other than warheads on ballistic missile submarines)." [.pdf]

According to Kristensen, the Nuclear Weapons Deployment Authorization Presidential Directive (NSPD 35) merely "authorizes the military to continue deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe." However, Kristensen himself states that the new Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations calls "for maintaining an aggressive nuclear posture with weapons on high alert to strike adversaries armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), preemptively if necessary."

The reasons listed above make it essentially certain that NSPD 35 authorizes deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf, and it is likely that such deployment has already occurred and that the weapons are there for the specific purpose of targeting Iran. The U.S. had tactical nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea for many years to defend against a massive conventional North Korean attack. It is easy to argue that an invasion of southern Iraq by a 9-million strong Iranian Basij militia reacting to Israel's bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities cannot be stopped without nuclear weapons.

The following statements in the Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations [.pdf] suggest that tactical nuclear weapons have been already deployed and are ready to be used, given that "all options are on the table" with respect to Iran and that many of Iran's facilities are underground:

  • "Integrating conventional and nuclear attacks will ensure the most efficient use of force and provide U.S. leaders with a broader range of strike options to address immediate contingencies. Integration of conventional and nuclear forces is therefore crucial to the success of any comprehensive strategy. This integration will ensure optimal targeting, minimal collateral damage, and reduce the probability of escalation."
  • "Combatant commanders may consider the following target selection factors to determine how to defeat individual targets. … 1. Time sensitivity. 2. Hardness (ability to withstand conventional strikes). 3. Size of target. 4. Surrounding geology and depth (for underground targets). 5. Required level of damage."
  • "Nuclear weapons and associated systems may be deployed into theaters, but combatant commanders have no authority to employ them until that authority is specifically granted by the president."
  • "Deployed nuclear-strike capabilities include … theater-based, nuclear-capable dual-role aircraft."
  • "Nuclear-capable aircraft offer a greater degree of flexibility in escalation control because they may be a highly visible sign of resolve and, once ordered to conduct a nuclear strike, are recallable, if necessary. Aircraft-delivered weapons also provide strike capability across the range of nuclear operations."

The F-16 fighter planes, of which there are many deployed in Iraq and surrounding American bases, are such dual-role aircraft, capable of delivering B61-11 earth-penetrating nuclear bombs.

The Public Has a right to know

It is likely that the administration has briefed key senators (e.g., John Warner, John McCain, Carl Levin, Dianne Feinstein, Joe Lieberman) on the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf as classified information, arguing that it is necessary to protect American troops in Iraq against an unprovoked Iranian attack, and the American people from a possible terrorist attack with WMD sponsored by Iran, and that making the information public could endanger American forces in Iraq or make a terrorist attack more likely.

However, the use of nuclear weapons by the United States is a grave decision that affects every man, woman, and child in America (not to mention the rest of the world). The American public has a right to know if its government has deployed nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf targeting Iran, because given the circumstances described above, it is highly likely that those weapons will be used. The administration has created the circumstances to make it appear that the upcoming use of nuclear weapons against Iran will be "unavoidable." The most likely (though not the only) scenario is that Israel will "pull the trigger," bombing some Iranian facilities, and that the U.S. will be dragged into the conflict to protect American, Iraqi, and Israeli lives. The use of low-yield nuclear weapons to destroy underground Iranian facilities and deter an Iranian response will appear to be the most "humane" path to achieve U.S. goals of eliminating Iran's nuclear program and destroying its military capabilities, minimizing casualties, and achieving "rapid and favorable war termination on US terms."

The American public and the rest of the world will not fall for this deception. The circumstances surrounding the nuking of Iran were created with the specific intent of making the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. "unavoidable." The real purpose of nuking Iran is to establish the credibility of U.S. nuclear weapons as a deterrent against any undesirable action by "rogue" states.

If Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and the other nuclear hitmen are really convinced that this is the best course of action for America, they should make their case public now. The president should tell the American people that the exercise of "all options" against Iran will include nukes. He should allow for a democratic debate on the pros and cons of using nuclear weapons in the Iran situation, and on pursuing alternative courses of action, before it is too late.

The president was not elected on an agenda of nuking a non-nuclear country, and the radical views of the nuclear hitmen are not likely to be the views of the majority of Americans.

If the president engages in the use of nuclear weapons against Iran in the coming weeks or months, without disclosing the preparations to the American public, he will be making a mockery of the most fundamental democratic principles that America represents. And he will have provided clear evidence of duplicitous intent, no matter how many eloquent speeches he delivers afterwards.


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Jorge Hirsch is a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego.

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