On March 27, 1979, Saddam Hussein, the de facto ruler and soon-to-be president of Baathist Iraq, laid out his vision for a long, grinding war against Israel in a private meeting of high-level Iraqi officials. Iraq, he explained, would seek to obtain a nuclear weapon from “our Soviet friends,” use the resulting deterrent power to counteract Israeli threats of nuclear retaliation, and thereby enable a “patient war”—a war of attrition—that would reclaim Arab lands lost in the Six-Day War of 1967. As Saddam put it, nuclear weapons would allow Iraq to “guarantee the long war that is destructive to our enemy, and take at our leisure each meter of land and drown the enemy with rivers of blood.” Saddam envisioned that this war would cost Iraq some 50,000 casualties, to say nothing of Israeli losses.
Until recently, scholars seeking to divine the inner workings of the Baathist regime were forced to resort to a kind of Kremlinology, relying heavily on published sources as well as the occasional memoir or defector’s account. This is now decreasingly the case. The transcript of the March 1979 meeting is one of millions of Baathist state records captured during and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. These records, many of which are now being made available to scholars, include everything from routine correspondence to recordings and transcripts of top-level meetings between Saddam and his advisers. When combined with previously available primary and secondary sources, they illustrate the dynamics of the regime and the logic of Saddam’s statecraft to an unprecedented degree.
The Iraqi records indicate that the views Saddam expressed in March 1979 did not constitute a mere rhetorical flourish or an aberration in his strategic thought. In meetings and discussions with his top military and civilian advisers between 1978 and 1982, Saddam repeatedly returned to the subject of how an Iraqi nuclear capability could be used against Israel. This was a critical strategic and identity issue for Saddam. Although Saddam styled himself as the transcendent leader who would unite the Arabs and defeat the “Zionist entity,” in private he concluded that Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East made taking major military action to accomplish this goal an unacceptably risky proposition. In the face of an Iraqi or Arab attack, Saddam believed, Israel could simply threaten to use nuclear weapons against its enemies, thereby forcing them to halt their advance.
Saddam came to see nuclear weapons as a powerful coercive tool for dealing with Israel. Saddam’s aim was not to launch a surprise first strike against Israel; rather, he believed that an Iraqi bomb would neutralize Israeli nuclear threats, force the Jewish state to fight at the conventional level, and thereby allow Iraq and its Arab allies to prosecute a prolonged war that would displace Israel from the territories occupied in 1967. In short, Saddam expected that an unconventional arsenal would permit Iraq to achieve a conventional victory, thereby weakening Israel geopolitically and making him a hero to the Arab world. Although Saddam expressed this view most frequently in the period before his regime suffered two major geopolitical setbacks in the early 1980s—the Israeli attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and the downturn in Baghdad’s military fortunes in the Iran-Iraq War— he did return to this same basic logic at least once in the late 1980s, and he seems to have reluctantly relinquished the idea only after the 1990–91 war and its aftermath crippled Iraq’s advanced weapons programs and severely constrained Iraqi power.
While various observers have argued that the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 merely convinced Saddam of Israel’s hostility and led him to redouble his efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, the captured records do not indicate that the opposite course—permitting Iraqi nuclear development to proceed—would have been the wiser choice for Israeli offcials at that time.Indeed, in these records Saddam makes the case for preventive Israeli action far more persuasively than Israel’s own ofªcials could have done at the time.
Because Saddam believed that he was destined to lead the Arab world in confronting Israeli designs, for him it followed logically that the Jewish state placed special emphasis on targeting his regime. During the roughly thirty years in which Saddam dominated Iraqi politics, he and his advisers identifed a wide variety of nefarious Israeli intrigues. ...One of the more ludicrous accusations of Zionist perfidy came in 2001, when the Directorate of General Security (DGS) reported to Saddam that the television series Pokemon was in fact an Israeli plot to contaminate the minds of Iraqi youths. “Pokemon” was Hebrew for “I’m Jewish,” the DGS reported.
Saddam’s perceptions of Israeli perfidy were also colored by the anti-Semitism that suffused his worldview. Saddam often claimed in public that his opposition to Israel was based on anti-Zionism rather than anti-Semitism, a stance that was well suited to the international political climate of the 1970s, when the “Zionism is racism” campaign was at its height. As a review of the Iraqi records makes clear, however, there was no clean divide between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in Saddam’s thinking. Saddam often referred to Israelis as “the Jews,” and anti-Semitic ideas were ubiquitous in his private comments on Jews and Israel. Discussing Israeli politics, Saddam referred to “the Jews” as nefarious, clever characters. “This is the way the Jews are,” he said. “I mean, they are smart, or, rather, wicked.”
The sense that Jews and Israelis were devious individuals motivated by sinister designs was a virtual article of faith within the Iraqi regime. At Iraq’s Special Security Institute, students were told that “spying, sabotage, and treachery are an old Jewish craft because the Jewish character has all the attributes of a spy.” This assessment fit nicely with Saddam’s own beliefs. In one extended monologue on the subject, Saddam told his inner circle that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a notorious anti-Semitic forgery) was an accurate representation of Jewish/Israeli aims. “The Zionists are greedy—I mean the Jews are greedy,” he said. “Whenever any issue relates to the economy, their greed is very high.” Indeed, Saddam believed that the Protocols provided a blueprint of sorts for understanding Israeli designs: “We should reflect on all that we were able to learn from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. . . . We should identify the methods adopted by these hostile Zionist forces; we already know their objectives. "
Saddam believed that the conflict would be a pan-Arab war under Iraqi leadership. On some occasions, he indicated that the outright destruction of Israel was envisioned; more often, Saddam seemed to foresee military action designed simply to force Israel back to its pre-1967 borders. [Footnote: For evidence of the more extreme aim of destroying Israel, see SH-SHTP-A-000-635, “President Saddam Hussein Meeting with Ministers”; SH-PDWN-D-000-341, “Speech at al-Bakr University”; and Kevin M. Woods, Williamson Murray, and Thomas Holaday, with Mounir Elkhamri, Saddam’s War: An Iraqi Military Perspective of the Iran-Iraq War, McNair Paper, No. 70 (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2009), p. 94..]
...In 1981, an Israeli air raid destroyed the Osirak reactor, setting the Iraqi program back by several years.The article does make clear that Iraqi work on nuclear weapons was severely curtailed after the 1991 Gulf war, but Saddam's obsession to acquire WMDs was no myth.
After the destruction of the Osirak reactor, Saddam acknowledged that the Israeli airstrike was a reasonable response to Iraqi nuclear development. In one meeting, he bragged that Iraq’s technological progress “made Begin spend sleepless nights.” At another gathering with his advisers, he conceded, “Technically, they are right in all of their attempts to harm Iraq. . . . They might hit Iraq with an atomic bomb someday if we reach a certain stage. And we are prepared, and if God allows it, we will be ready to face it.”
In Saddam’s view, Israel had good reason to feel alarmed by Iraq’s growing power and technological advancements. The destruction of the Osirak reactor did not put an end to Saddam’s desire for a nuclear capability and an eventual collision with Israel. Saddam’s government reinvigorated the nuclear program during the 1980s, and by early 1990 Iraq was perhaps only a few years away from developing a rudimentary nuclear weapon. In a meeting in early 1990, Saddam predicted that Iraq would have “one or ten” nuclear weapons within a half-decade, and as before, he argued that these capabilities would make possible the liberation of Arab lands. “Now, if the Arabs were to have a nuclear bomb,” Saddam hypothesized, “wouldn’t they take the territories that were occupied after 1967?”
During the period between late 1988 and early 1990, in fact, Saddam again began to tout the idea of waging a war of liberation against Israel. Hamdani recalls that Saddam instructed the Republican Guard leadership to prepare for the eventual launching of such a conflict, and that his unit “continued training, attending lectures and workshops to raise our army’s standards in preparation for the war with the Zionists.”
During the Persian Gulf conflict in 1991, Saddam thus viewed his arsenal of chemical weapons, complemented by biological weapons and delivery systems, as a deterrent to Israeli nuclear retaliation. Saddam recognized that his chemical weapons were not as powerful as Israel’s nuclear weapons, yet told his advisers, “If we want to use chemicals, we will exterminate them, you know.” He boasted that Iraq had acquired chemical weapons whose destructive power was “200 times more” than that used against Iran, adding that at most one or two countries could match the quality or quantity of Iraq’s chemical or biological weapons arsenals.
As one of Saddam’s advisers told him prior to the Gulf War, Iraq’s acquisition of binary chemical weapons and longrange delivery systems had ended Israel’s regional dominance and replaced it with a balance of forces. This new “balance of forces” increased Saddam’s confidence in 1991 that he could attack Israel with conventional warheads without facing WMD reprisal. “Iraq is in possession of the binary chemical weapon,” Saddam told an interviewer a month before invading Kuwait. “According to our technical, scientific, and military calculations, this is a sufficient deterrent to confront the Israeli nuclear weapon.” The West was furious about Iraq’s acquisition of binary chemical weapons, he explained on another occasion, because “they thought they could strike us. Well, let them try.”
According to the state-controlled Iraqi media, the imperialists and Zionists had recognized Iraq’s new “parity with the Arab nation’s enemies.” For Saddam, chemical weapons were now playing the deterrent role that he had earlier intended for nuclear weapons.
(h/t Zach N)