The Real Nuclear Proliferation in the Gulf

SEEKING a rationale for invasion that will resonate with a still skeptical public, the Bush administration has sounded the alarm about an ``imminent'' Iraqi nuclear threat. Attention is thus riveted on a potential nuclear threat that most independent analysts agree is five to 10 years away from being militarily significant. Meanwhile, we continue to ignore the presence of hundreds of very real nuclear weapons already deployed in the Gulf - on United States, British, French, and Soviet ships.

There are reportedly more than 500 nuclear warheads aboard US surface ships alone, as well as an undisclosed number on allied ships. More than 100 nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles are carried aboard 19 surface ships. At least two ships, the cruisers Antietam and Philippine Sea, are reportedly carrying twice their usual complement of Tomahawks. Hundreds of jet fighters aboard aircraft carriers are loaded with nuclear gravity bombs.

These warheads are technically classified as ``tactical nuclear weapons,'' a designation that may lead one to view them as mere vest-pocket nukes, a sort of supercharged dynamite. But many pack yields 10 to 15 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That bomb killed more than 80,000 people.

But they're not going to be dropped on Baghdad. These are ``good bombs,'' in the sense that they belong to sensible people who will not fire them in anger. Or so we trust. Military analysts on all sides of the debate agree that there is little chance the US or allied nuclear arsenals will be employed in any Persian Gulf conflict. Strategists and policymakers are said to be well aware of the political costs of using them. Such an action would likely shatter forever the fragile but vital firebreak against nuclear warfare.

Why, then, are these weapons in the Gulf? Military analysts explain that carrying nuclear weapons on US and allied ships is ``standard operating procedure.'' ``They're like an American Express card,'' says Richard Fieldhouse, a nonproliferation specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. ``The Navy won't leave home without them.'' Recent advances in strategic and conventional weapons have rendered these weapons militarily redundant, yet they still remain aboard. Moreover, they are not mere stowaways. They are centerpieces of naval strategy, ultimate weapons of last resort.

As Saddam gazes toward the Gulf, he must be acutely conscious of the presence of these weapons, as George Bush no doubt wants him to be. He knows that they're aimed at him, even if he judges that they won't likely be used against him unless he unwisely chooses to attack US ships with his own missiles. Like other third-world leaders seeking prestige and influence in the world community and leverage in regional quarrels, Saddam long ago realized that nuclear weapons possess a potent symbolism as ultimate instruments of power and thus hungered for his own.

But if the US and its nuclear-armed allies genuinely seek to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to ``irresponsible'' second-class military powers, perhaps they ought first to examine the example they themselves are setting. They can hardly expect nonnuclear nations to exercise restraint in their pursuit of these deadly icons when the nuclear powers themselves continue to produce them with such profligacy and wield them with such menacing authority.

Only when the great powers begin devaluing nuclear weapons in their own strategies and removing some of them from their arsenals can they speak with credible conviction about why others should not also have them.

One important signal of their resolve to enforce nuclear nonproliferation would be to remove the warheads from their ships in the Gulf. Moreover, they should press for a nonproliferation regime for the entire Middle East, enforcing rigorous inspections and banning the importation of nuclear materials not just to Iraq but to all nations in the region, including Israel.

``Taking out'' Saddam's incipient nuclear capability by preemptive attack is no permanent solution, as it was not when Israel struck the Osirak reactor some years ago. It will simply provoke Saddam or his successors to try all the harder to obtain what is being denied them. Only the patient negotiation of a balanced treaty banning weapons of mass destruction from the entire Middle East will suffice.

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