Nuclear Threats During the Gulf War

John Pike
19 February 1998

It has been suggested that the United States now faces the emergence of "non-deterrable threats:

"Within the past year we have seen growing signs that some future nuclear threats may not be deterrable. Saddam Hussein is a case in point... It is difficult to say what Saddam would have done if he had completed a nuclear bomb, but his actions in the Gulf War, raise serious doubts about whether he would have been deterred from using it."(1)

Although Iraq used both chemical weapons and ballistic missiles extensively in the Iran-Iraq Gulf War, Iraq did not use its missile force for delivery of chemical agents. Prior to the Gulf War, many allegations -- mostly by Israelis -- were made that Iraq had mounted chemical warheads on its Scud upgrades, although at that time US official sources reportedly doubted that Iraq had such a capability.(2) However, at the first Baghdad International Exhibition for Military Production in the spring of 1989, Iraq displayed domestically-produced cluster bomb munitions, which would be quite useful for dissemination of either aircraft- or missile-delivered chemical agent.(3) And following the conclusion of the War, Iraq, reporting to the United Nations on its inventory of advanced weapons, indicated a chemical weapons stockpile that included 75 tons of Sarin, 500 tons of Tabun, and 280 tons of mustard gas. Moreover, this declaration also included 30 chemical weapon warheads for Scud and al-Hussein missiles.

Iraqi non-use of chemical weapons on the battlefield has been explained by several factors. Front line Iraqi soldiers had inadequate protective gear that was inferior to that of Coalition forces.(4) The desert environment was also seen as not being conducive to the effective use of chemical weapons.(5) And despite reports prior to the war of extensive Iraqi chemical weapons deployments, victorious Coalition forces found no evidence that chemical weapons had in fact been moved into the Kuwaiti theater.(6)

But these factors are irrelevant to the question of chemical armed missiles. These weapons would strike far away from Iraqi forces, and could pose a considerable risk in an urban environment. And there certainly were chemical warheads available for the Iraqi missiles. Rather, the non-use of chemical-armed missiles appears to stem from deterrence of such use by the threat of retaliation. The fact that Iraq did fire conventionally armed missiles at Israel stems from the unique fact that Saddam was trying to draw Israel into the war in order to split the Coalition. But even in this effort, Iraq observed a threshold that limited its efforts to conventional weapons.

Responding to an Iraqi threat to "burn half of Israel" with chemical weapons, in July 1990 Israeli Science Minister Yuval Neeman, whose responsibilities include the Israeli nuclear and missile programs, stated that Israel would retaliate in kind if struck by Iraqi chemical weapons. "In my opinion, we have an excellent response, and that is to threaten Hussein with the same merchandise."(7) Eliyahu Ben Elissar, chair of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that "Iraq, after the first use of a missile, won't be the same Iraq any more."(8)

Responding to an Iraqi threat in early December 1990 to make Tel Aviv the first target if war came, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir stated that Iraq "will be harmed in a most serious way" in response, noting that "whoever will dare to attack us will be attacked seven times more."(9)

In a 15 January 1991 interview with ABC's Chris Wallace, General Avihu Ben-Nun, Commander of the Israeli Air Force, included the following exchange:

Ben-Nun: "Would they really decide to send a non-conventional missile on the population of Israel? My own opinion is that that's very unlikely."

Wallace: "Because?"

Ben-Nun: "Even if Saddam Hussein is crazy, he's still not going to commit suicide."

Wallace: "And would it be suicide if he were to use chemical weapons against Israel?"

Ben-Nun: "He should think that he's going to commit suicide, I believe."

Wallace: "There has been talk that if he uses chemical weapons he might face nuclear counter-response."

Ben-Nun: "Maybe."

Wallace: "Maybe?"

Ben-Nun: "Maybe that's what he should think about."(10)

After the war, Ben-Nun concluded that "the fact that he didn't launch chemical weapons against us was only because he feared our retaliatory response."(11)

The threat of Israeli retaliation was not the only deterrent to Saddam's use of chemical-armed rockets. On 14 August 1991, Defense Secretary Cheney stated that "[i]t should be clear to Saddam Hussein that we have a wide range of military capabilities that will let us respond with overwhelming force and extract a very high price should he be foolish enough to use chemical weapons on United States forces."(12) The American government reportedly used third-party channels to privately warn Iraq that "in the event of a first use of a weapon of mass destruction by Iraq, the United States reserved the right to use any form of retaliation (presumably up to and including nuclear weapons)."(13)

After the initiation of hostilities in January, American officials continued to stress the risk of retaliation. Defense Secretary Cheney warned that "were Saddam Hussein foolish enough to use weapons of mass destruction, the US response would be absolutely overwhelming and devastating." Cheney also noted that "I assume (Saddam) knows that if he were to resort to chemical weapons, that would be an escalation to weapons of mass destruction and that the possibility would then exist, certainly with respect to the Israelis, for example, that they might retaliate with unconventional weapons as well." General Schwarzkopf added that "if Saddam Hussein chooses to use weapons of mass destruction, then the rules of this campaign will probably change."(14)

While one might question whether the United States would actually have used nuclear weapons in response to a chemical attack,(15) Saddam Hussein obviously could not have been confident that we would not. As Bruce Blair noted, "There's enough ambiguity in our deployments of nuclear weapons at sea and our ability to deliver nuclear weapons by air and quickly move them into the region to plant the seeds of doubt in Hussein's mind."(16) The effectiveness of the threat of chemical or nuclear retaliation was confirmed by Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller, deputy commander of Desert Storm, who stated that "we tried to give him (Saddam) every signal that if he used chemicals against us that we would retaliate in kind and may even do more, so I think he was hesitant to use it there."(17)

The British also made several threats to respond harshly to an Iraqi chemical attack. On 30 September 1990 it was reported that a senior officer with the British 7th Armored Division, being deployed to Saudi Arabia, claimed that British forces would retaliate with battlefield nuclear weapons if attacked by Iraqi chemical weapons.(18) On 1 October 1990, British Prime Margaret Thatcher noted that "[y]ou'd have to consider at the time, if chemical weapons were used against us, precisely what our reply should be."(19) Several days later, British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd stated that an Iraqi chemical attack would "provoke a response that would completely destroy that country."(20)

The GulfLink Evidence

In response to widespread veteran complaints of ill-health due to Gulf War Syndrome, and complaints of government indifference to these health complaints, the government declassified over 10,000 documents related to chemical and biological weapons and the Gulf War. Oddly, this massive resource remains largely unexploited by analysts, who have probably been discouraged by the overwhelming mass of jumbled material, most of which is of little analytical interest. But several hundred of these documents provide a unique documentary record worthy of extended contemplation.

During the war, the judgement of the US intelligence community was that these deterrent threats were effective in discouraging Iraqi chemical weapons use. According to one document declassified for GulfLink:

"The fear of retaliation is one of the reasons that nations have not used chemicals, even when they had such weapons. Other factors such as sustainability and political consequences have been contributing factors. The decision by Iraq not to use chemical weapons thus far in the war is probably driven by all these considerations.... Israel's policy to retaliate strongly for any provocation is well established and must be considered. Baghdad is convinced Israel has nuclear and chemical weapons which would be used against Iraq...... Iraq also appreciates that Coalition member states have chemical and nuclear weapons that it can deliver anywhere in Iraq or the KTO. This impression has been reinforced by public statements by Coalition leaders, and has probably led Iraq to conclude the consequences of any chemical attack would be severe.... Iraq's leaders almost certainly intend to employ CW if the borders of Iraq are breached by Coalition ground forces, and if the viability of the Baath regime is seriously threatened."(21)

This remained the view of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the conclusion of the war:

"Iraq's failure to use its chemical weapons cannot be completely understood without a full accounting of the Iraqi military and political leadership's plans in preparation for the war and the execution of those plans. Information on this subject remains limited, and analysis of the reasoning is still preliminary. The following is an estimate of the influence of several factors that may have contributed to Iraq's failure to use these weapons:

"If Iraq did not deploy its chemical weapons to the KTO, two possible explanations are likely. First, Iraq believed that both Israel and the Coalition had chemical and nuclear weapons and would use them if provoked. Iraqi leaders also realized that these weapons could be delivered anywhere in Iraq with accuracy. Saddam probably concluded that the consequences of attacking with chemical weapons would be too severe to justify their use, and this may have led to an early decision not to use them. Saddam may also have assumed that Iraqi use of CW weapons would cause Coalition forces to seek his removal as a top priority including the liberation of Kuwait...."(22)
This continues to be the view of the US intelligence community, as noted in Defense Intelligence Agency responses to Senator Donald W. Riegle in August 1994:
"Even though at the time, many analysts expected and warned against potential Iraqi use of CBW, it is our position now, and has been since the end of the war, that Iraq did not intend to use CBW because of the fear of massive retaliation, and the conclusion that Coalition troops Were too well prepared to fight in a CBW environment, if not, far better prepared than Iraqi troops, thus eliminating their advantage."(23)

This view was reinforced by statements made by a senior Iraqi official with direct knowledge of Iraqi deliberations on this subject. Husayn Kamil Hasan al-Majid, Saddam's son-in-law, was the pre-eminent military industries official and a fundamental player in Iraq's efforts to procure weapons of mass destruction before his defection to Jordan in August 1995. Kamil took charge of Iraq's efforts to develop its weapons of mass destruction around 1987. As the head of the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization until 1990, he oversaw Iraq's nuclear weapons research, continued Iraq's development of biological and chemical weapons, and supervised the successful development of the Al-Husayn missile. On 7 August 1995, General Kamil defected from Baghdad, arriving in Amman, Jordan the following day. He was subsequently interviewed by a number of western organizations, including the US intelligence community.

"Husayn Kamil Hasan al-((Majid)), former Iraqi Minister of Industry and Minerals, flatly and emphatically denied that Iraq used chemical or biological weapons during the Gulf War. Kamil stated that in several meetings a proposal to use chemical weapons against the coalition was tabled, and perhaps (his recollection was somewhat unclear on this point) the proposal was advocated by Saddam's sons 'Uday Saddam ((Husayn)) and Qusay Saddam ((Hhusayn)) and by Saddam's brother-in-law Sabbawi al-((Tikriti)). Kamil claimed he strongly opposed using chemical or biological weapons during the gulf war. He said that the Iraqi command became convinced that the United States would use tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons against the coalition. He said that Iraq was aware of the dangers of using chemicals and that therefore "nothing happened.""(24)


1. Aspin, Les, "A New Kind of Threat - A White Paper," 12 September 1991.

2. Jackson Diehl, "New Arab arsenals challenge Israel's long regional dominance," Washington Post, 4 Apr 90, p. A35; Patrick Tyler, "Iraqi warns of using poison gas," Washington Post, 3 Apr 90, p. A16; Gordon, "Iraq said to build launchers..."

3. Guy Willis, "Open Sesame! Baghdad show reveals Iraqi military-industrial capabilities," International Defense Review, 6/1989, p. 838

4. Beaumaont, Peter, "Mustard Gas Reveals Iraqi Chemical War Plan," London Observer, 18 August 1991, page 2.

5. Goodrich, Lawrence, "US Won't Use Chemical Arms in Gulf, Air Force Chief Says," Christian Science Monitor, 14 August 1990, page 1.

6. White, David, "UK General: Iraq had no chemical arms at front," London Financial Times, 9 May 1991, page 4.

7. Laub, Karen, "Israeli Official Says Nation is Set to Use Chemical Arms if Iraq Attacks," Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 July 1990, page 8.

8. ibid.

9. Shenon, Philip, "Pentagon Calls Israel Likely Iraqi Target," The New York Times, 27 December 1990.

10. Tygel, Yaacov, "Israel and the Bomb," The Nation, 18 February 1991, page 191.

11. Opall, Barbara, "Israel Debates Lasting Effects of Nonretaliation in Gulf War," Defense News, 9 September 1991, page 38.

12. Arkin, William, "US Nukes in the Gulf," The Nation, 31 December 1990, page 834.

13. Livingston, Neil, "Iraq's Intentional Omission," Sea Power, June 1991, page 29-30.

14. Toth, Robert, "American Support Grows for Use of Nuclear Arms," Los Angeles Times, 3 February 1991, page 1.

15. Davis, Bob, "Should US Utilize Chemical, Nuclear Bombs Against Iraq," The Wall Street Journal, 24 August 1990, page A3.

16. Broder, David, "US Forces Have No Nuclear Arms in Gulf States, No Plans to Use Them," Los Angeles Times, 2 October 1990, page 6.

17. Gilley, Ed, "N-Threat Deterred Saddam," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 17 May 1991, page 1.

18. Raphael, Adam, "UK Will go Nuclear if Forces Gassed, Claims Army Man," London Observer, 30 September 1990, page 1.

19. Arkin, William, "US Nukes in the Gulf," The Nation, 31 December 1990, page 834.

20. ibid.

21. Factors Deterring Iraqi Use of Chemical weapons: So Far, So Good [Source and date uncertain, but probably DIA in February 1991].

22. Subj: IRAQ'S PERFORMANCE IN THE PERSIAN GULF WAR [apparently Defense Intelligence Agency] Similar wording is found in Iraq's Chemical and Biological Warfare Capability: Surviving Assets and Non-Use During the War 15 MAR 91/1202 HOURS. These views were substantiated by postwar interrogation of Iraqi sources, such as IIR 6 072 0019 91/SOURCE DEBRIEFING 081356Z MAR 91.

23. Subject: Questions from Chairman Riegle August 1994 [apparently Defense Intelligence Agency]