Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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January 28, 2003

Iran Reported Considering Declaration on Nuclear Status as “Poison Pill” Against Possible US Intervention

Exclusive. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS, with input from GIS Station Tehran. Sources within the clerical leadership in Iran indicate that the Iranian Government could decide soon to make statements which would indicate that Iran had a current nuclear weapons program. It is known that discussion on the matter has taken place, and Iran has, in the past, skirted the issue by alluding only to its strategic capabilities, not to possession of nuclear weapons. 

Discussions, however, have reportedly been on how to maximize the desired impact of such a revelation — to deter the United States or Israel from considering any military intervention in Iran and to bolster the Iranian clerical Administration’s sense of invincibility to the local population which is increasingly fractious — without incurring major negative results, such as a decision to by the European Union, and perhaps others, to politically and economically isolate Iran. At its strongest, however, the statements would almost certainly only acknowledge the presence of a military nuclear program, not the possession of operational weapons; that aspect would be left unstated, but understood.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Reza Moayeri, speaking in Islamabad, Pakistan, on January 24, 2003, hinted at just such a development when discussing the possible US-led military confrontation of Iraq. He said that neither Iran nor Pakistan would be susceptible to such an invasion in the same way that Iraq was vulnerable. Given that Pakistan had nuclear weapons as a deterrent, the sense was given that Iran, too, had nuclear weapons. He also said that the US could not attack Iran. Again, the implication was that a deterrent was in place.

The Iranian leadership has been carefully watching the reactions of the US, Japan and the world community to the announcement by the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea (DPRK) to that country’s announcement on November 17, 2002, that it had a military nuclear program. In that case, despite the reality that the DPRK has operationally-deployed nuclear weapons, it only acknowledged the weapons program, not the weapons themselves. 

See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, November 19, 2002: DPRK Acknowledges Possession of Nuclear Weapons, Confirming Consistent GIS/DFA Reporting. Possibility of Link to Saddam’s “Surprise Weapon”.

Iranian, Iraqi and DPRK leaders were understood to have been pleased — and to a degree surprised — by the fact that the US was ultimately cautious and conciliatory toward the DPRK following the revelation of the nuclear weapons program. This confirmed the belief, discussed since about 1992 between the three leaderships in different discussions, that the US strategic attention could be divided, and could not handle two simultaneous threats of nuclear conflict. Strong, initial US reactions to the DPRK announcement gave way to statements by the US Bush Administration that it would offer substantial economic inducements, including oil, to the DPRK to again suspend its nuclear weapons program.

The Iranian leadership now feels certain that the US Administration is aware that Iran has actual nuclear weapons, quite apart from its acknowledgement of Iran’s long-standing nuclear weapons research program. The fiction — to which the US and Iranian governments have publicly subscribed, along with many others — that Iran did not have nuclear weapons has continued since the first acquisition of former Soviet weapons in 1992. That fiction, however, is now, like the Emperor’s fictitious clothes, in tatters. US sources have confirmed to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs their acceptance of the fact that Iran “probably” does have operational nuclear weapons. The Iranian leadership has long suspected that the US knew about the weapons, but it suited all parties not to acknowledge the fact.

The US Clinton Administration (1993-2001) refused to acknowledge the fact because it had made statements to the effect that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, then the US would deal with the matter. 

See: Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, December 12, 2002: Iran’s Military Nuclear Capability, Highlighted by Exclusive 1992 Report, Now Critical Part of Persian Gulf Strategic Planning.

Having insisted for so long that Iran and the DPRK did not have nuclear weapons now makes it difficult for the US to acknowledge the long-standing nature of the weapons realities of both countries. Even now, the US only goes as far as the DPRK official statement of November 12, 2002, in recognizing the existence of a program to create the weapons.

The February 1992 edition of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy carried the following remarks: 

“By the end of 1991, Iran had all (or virtually all) the components needed to make three operational nuclear weapons: aerial bombs and/or surface-to-surface missile (SSM) warheads. Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy has learned from highly-reliable sources that the weapons were assembled from parts bought in the ex-Soviet Muslim republics. These weapons can become operational as early as February to April 1992. Tehran is committed to providing Syria with a nuclear umbrella before June 1992.”

“This weapon acquisition is but one component of a major acceleration of implementation of Iran's well-defined strategy. For the first time since the Khomeini revolution began in Iran in 1979, Tehran is now confident that the time is ripe for the realization of the vision of a pan-Islamic revival and the establishment of an Islamic bloc dominated by Iran and not by Arabs. Moreover, Tehran's sense of urgency is based on the anticipation of a major crisis resulting from an attempt by the United States to prevent the realization of the revival of Islam.”

In his 2002 book, The High Cost of Peace: How Washington’s Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism, author and GIS Senior Editor Yossef Bodansky noted:

... “In December [1991], the Kazakh deal came to fruition, and Iran made its first purchase of nuclear weapons. The deal included two 40-kiloton warheads for a Scud-type surface-to-surface ballistic missile; one aerial bomb of the type carried by a MiG-27; and one 152mm nuclear artillery shell. These weapons reached initial operational status in late January 1992 and full operational status a few months later.”

The Iranian nuclear program has moved ahead considerably since that time, and additional nuclear warheads were acquired from Kazakhstan. Defense & Foreign Affairs at that time had independent and direct absolute confirmation of the acquisition of the initial three weapons from unimpeachable, first-hand sources. The US State Department at the time condemned the report, but later withdrew its criticism — under pressure from the US Congress — of Defense & Foreign Affairs for running the reports.

The purpose of a delicately-balanced comment by a credible, senior Iranian official alluding obliquely to Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, but acknowledging the nuclear weapons program, would have to be taken into consideration by US and Israeli strategic planners in the conduct of a conflict against Iraq. The reality is that the US could not, in any event, consider mounting a military confrontation with Iran, even if such a plan suited US policies, which it clearly does not. However, there are many in the ruling Iranian circles who believe that the US could be tempted to mount a military operation against Iran, sufficient to destabilize the leadership.

Iranian opposition leaders — and particularly the most credible of them, Dr Assad Homayoun, leader of the exiled nationalist Azadegan Foundation — strongly oppose US military action against the mullahs, noting that the Iranian population themselves could resolve the issue of the radical clerical leadership, and would do so if it was clear that the US and the world community would support their actions politically, but not militarily. Iran was, in fact, poised for a popular insurrection against the clerics in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the clerics — aware of this — instigated a war against Iraq, causing the Iranian population to rally in the defense of their homeland. Dr Homayoun has cautioned the US and Israeli leaderships from causing a situation to occur which would allow, once again, for such a reaction to save the clerics.

But the knowledge that Iran has nuclear weapons, and the possibility that Iraq might also have one or two acquired warheads — as opposed to indigenously-developed ones — would greatly affect planning by the US and its allies (and separately by Israel) as to how war with Iraq should be conducted. Decisive US-led action against Iraq would have to be conducted with one eye on the Iranians, to ensure that the clerical leadership did not perceive that it was, itself, threatened directly by the US to the point where it would risk a nuclear launch against Israel, for example. Most Iranian sources in contact with GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs acknowledge that “if Iraq falls, Iran will be next”. However, if the Iranian clerics were sufficiently fortunate in blunting US actions against Iraq — to the point they desire: severely wounding and constraining Saddam Hussein, but not defeating him, while Iran did nothing directly against the US or Israel — then they would have, to a large extent, weathered the storm and would emerge much stronger than before.

At that point, regardless of the near economic collapse within Iran, the clerics could forcibly suppress the population without fear of external interference, and would dominate the region, particularly assuming that such an outcome would leave Syria’s leadership intact and with control over Lebanon. Such an outcome would deliver a more seemingly-invulnerable nuclear Iran while demonstrating the seeming impotence of the Israeli nuclear deterrence.

In light of this, US, Allied and Coalition partners must now feel that while the impending war against Iraq must be conducted carefully so as not to cause a precipitate Iranian nuclear reaction, and at the same time ensuring that Iran cannot indirectly use Syria and HizbAllah as proxies to escalate their war against Israel to catastrophic proportions, it must be seen to succeed absolutely. Iranian anti-clerical sources told GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs: “The US has already placed the West’s credibility on the line in confronting Saddam. It cannot now back out. But it is also critical that it now must win the war decisively, and be seen to win it absolutely, otherwise the clerics will emerge strongest from all of this, and the region will continue to be destabilized and the Iranian people will never be free.”

Significantly, although there is no good news in sight for the Saudi Arabian leadership from any of this, the security of the House of Sa’ud now probably also depends on the US staying the course, and achieving a clean and absolute success against Saddam. What is of major concern to the Saudi leadership, then, is what transpires thereafter. A break-up of Iraq — as a counterweight to Iran — is as unacceptable to it now as it was in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War. A reinvigorated and resurgent Kurdish plan for independence is unacceptable for Turkey, Iraq, Iran and others, although pan-Turkists in Ankara have toyed with the idea of “reclaiming” the control over Iraqi Kurdistan once enjoyed by the Ottoman Caliphate, so as to win control over the oilfields around Kirkuk (but in so doing bringing their own “Kurdish problem” right into the heart of Turkish politics).

For Israel, the literal “nuclear stalemate” which exists de facto between Iran and Israel is a key factor in how Israel plays its anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defenses. Iran has supplied sufficient smaller ballistic weapons to Syria, HizbAllah and others to the point where, in a possible escalation, Israel would be forced to either accept massive punishment — possibly capable of reaching to its own Dimona nuclear facilities — or expend its limited force of IAI Arrow 2 ABMs against saturation attacks of Scud-family ballistic missiles, or Zalzal-2 short-range ballistic rockets. By removing the payloads from the Zalzal-2s, Iranian proxy forces could extend the range significantly beyond the 200 mile (320km) range, forcing the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to expend its Arrow 2s and Patriots. This would then leave Israel vulnerable to longer-range Iranian ballistic missiles and their nuclear warheads, and reduce the Israel-Iran standoff to one of mutually assured destruction (MAD), something which would be less than stable compared with, for example, the former US/UK/France-USSR MAD situation. Certainly, Israel has enough ballistic missiles (at least 50 Jericho-2 IRBMs and almost certainly some remaining Jericho-1s) and more warheads than Iran, but fewer weapons would be required to remove Israel from the game than would be required for Iran.

Any Iranian hint of a nuclear weapons program could also lead to a situation in which Saudi Arabia would itself assert its own nuclear weapons program or other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs as a defensive reaction. Saudi Arabia has, in any event, been actively attempting to acquire nuclear weapons, principally from Pakistan, in recent months, as noted by Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily. Saudi officials reportedly scaled back their attempts at acquisition because of concerns over US reactions. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been active in 2002-03 in attempting to upgrade the Saudi ballistic missile force to include the newer DF-21 solid-fuel two-stage intermediate-range system (IRBM). The DF-21A has a range of around 1,800 km carrying a 600 kg warhead of HE or a special payload (chemical/biological) or with a nuclear capability in the region of 200-300 kt. This mobile system is launched from a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle.