Many of us “cold warriors” hope that someone, somewhere in our government is thinking or worrying about how a nuclear exchange could or would likely happen in the Middle East and what we would or could do in such an event.
Assuming this type of planning is not going on — primarily because it’s not pleasant to think about or not at all “politically correct” — it is the purpose here to propose some ideas so the situation wouldn’t take us totally by surprise if it actually happened.
First of all, the Russians have already broached the subject: This when Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that the cruise missiles they were using in Syria were nuclear capable. Why would he say such a thing? Who would “need” to hear this? One thing for sure, the Russians are already thinking about using tactical nukes to take out defined areas of “resistance” in Syria, whether they be ISIS or other groups opposed to the regime they support, which for now is the Assad regime.
In Iraq, ISIS — the ultra radical Sunni group — is opposed to the U.S. installed post-Saddam regime, which is Shiite and aligned with Iran and the various Shiite militias that operate in Iraq with support of both governments.
This leads me to believe that the Russians could be thinking seriously about using tactical nukes in Syria and Iraq, because they could use them with the “consent” of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria and the Shiite regime (again, which we installed, post-Saddam) in Iraq.
What would we do? Other than complain about it, I can’t see the Obama administration doing anything. Likewise, the Israelis would not seem to have a direct equity in this situation, albeit against their longer-term interests, as they would much prefer to deal with Sunnis than Shiites.
The next scenario, while perhaps less likely, is much more troubling and involves, at a minimum, the Saudis, the Chinese, Pakistan, Iran and a few others, and is mostly dependent on the escalation of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is essentially a long running Sunni-Shiite conflict. And, unlike the first scenario, this one would likely become strategic and involve Israel that would most probably side with Saudi Arabia against Iran, which is the largest and most capable regional strategic threat to them.
This conflict would likely develop quickly, as the Saudis simply do not have the conventional forces to expend in a conventional conflict and the “traditional” escalation that nuclear planners may assume. The bottom line is that the Saudis would probably preempt at a fairly early stage in an open conventional conflict with Iran.
But does Saudi Arabia have nuclear weapons or access to them? The traditional thinking here is that they probably have access to them because of their close relationship with Pakistan and China — and it has been openly reported for many years that the Saudis have bought nuclear capable ICBM/IRBM missiles from the Chinese and that they are probably manned by Chinese contract crews.
Likewise, it has also been reported that the Saudis have an arrangement with Pakistan to get access to nuclear warheads if they need them. As far as interoperability between the systems is concerned, one can assume this because of the close technical and military relationship between China and Pakistan.
So, what would Iran do in a rapidly escalating conflict with the Saudis? Would they “come out of the closet” with their own covert nuclear weapons program that goes back more than 30 years? Most likely they would, unless they could count on the Russians to step in on their behalf and threaten the Saudis with a massive retaliation.
If any of this actually happened, we would become involved in the situation whether we wanted to or not — also, the threat of a Russian intervention would drastically affect the politics in the region, especially the Arab-Israeli balance and the Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran.
What should we be doing?
First and most important, our leaders should convene a very senior group with a competent staff to examine and review these issues in detail — Congress should do the same thing, centered in the Armed Services, Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees. At the Department of Defense, there should be a renewed interest in the Single Integrated Operation Plan (SIOP) to make sure it addresses the many contingencies addressed and identified by the various review groups. And, we should sit down — at a very high level — with the Russians to share our concerns and questions about these important matters.
There should be no excuse for these dynamics to catch us by surprise, when, for example there is a tactical nuclear lay-down by the Russians against Mr. Assad’s opponents in Syria.
• Daniel Gallington served through 11 rounds of bilateral negotiations in Geneva as a member of the U.S. Delegation to the Nuclear and Space Talks with the former Soviet Union.