Prague, 5 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- When Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov said on Tuesday that U.S. policy was casting the specter of nuclear war over Iraq, analysts paid no heed or dismissed it as hollow rhetoric from a communist politician. But when Russian President Boris Yeltsin said yesterday that U.S. President Bill Clinton's "noisy" policy in the Gulf could spark "world war," it prompted Western concern and puzzlement.
Leading independent American nuclear weapons experts say there is little or no chance the U.S. would resort to nuclear weapons if and when it launches any kind of strike against Iraq. But they also acknowledge that a new Pentagon defense policy and the development of a nuclear missile--- designed for missions which could arise in Iraq-- have partly fueled vestigial Cold War Russian fears. Fears that Washington was slow to allay.
Seleznyov's comments came at a special State Duma session to discuss the standoff in Iraq. Seleznyov told deputies: "We are talking possible war here, maybe global."
The same day in an interview with ITAR-TASS, the director of the government's environmental control department, Viktor Kutsenko, spoke of unpredictable environmental consequences from what he described as a "local tactical nuclear strike on Iraq."
Yesterday, a communist member of the State Duma's defense committee, Vladimir Volkov, asserted on the Duma floor that the Americans were planning a nuclear strike on Iraq. He specifically mentioned the B61-11 nuclear missile, as part of such a planned attack. Volkov's statement came at about the same time Yeltsin issued his warning of the possible world war as a result of U.S. policy toward Iraq.
It is unclear whether Russian concerns over a possible American nuclear attack prompted Yeltsin's remarks. But the U.S. embassy in Moscow was quick to issue a statement yesterday which stated in part that "the U.S. has no plans or intentions of using nuclear weapons against Iraq. We are aware of the enormous implications of using nuclear weapons." It was the first public statement from Washington categorically ruling out nuclear weapons as part of a possible U.S. attack on Iraq.
Bill Arkin, a regular contributor to the monthly "Bulletin of Atomic Scientists," says Washington's previous statements, such as Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon's statement last week that all options remain open towards Iraq, have fueled not only rhetoric from Russian nationalists but genuine concerns among Kremlin policy makers.
"The reluctance of the Clinton administration to rule out the use of nuclear weapons has resulted in a lot of speculation in the news media about their potential presence in the conflict," Arkin told RFE/RL.
John Pike, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, like Arkin, virtually rules out a U.S. nuclear strike on Iraq. But he says Russian concerns are not baseless.
"It is declared American policy that if a country like Iraq used biological weapons or chemical weapons of mass destruction, that the United States might respond with nuclear weapons and this was a policy that was recently confirmed a couple of days ago by the White House press secretary," Pike explained to RFE/RL.
Pike refers to Presidential directive 60, issued by Clinton last November, that in part reserves Washington's right to strike back with nuclear weapons in the case of a biological or chemical attack by enemy forces. Israeli officials have voiced fears of a possible Iraqi chemical or biological strike on their soil during the current tensions between Washington and Baghdad.
There is also the issue of the American B61-11, mentioned by Volkov. Although Pike rules out its use, he explains the weapon was developed partially due to Pentagon concerns that American forces failed to destroy hardened underground Iraqi bunkers during the 1991 Gulf War. Such seemingly impenetrable bunkers--allegedly storing chemical and biological weapons-- would be targeted during a potential upcoming U.S. strike. And this is part of the stated mission of the B61-11, which was first deployed into the U.S. nuclear arsenal in December 1996.
But Arkin argues the Pentagon developed the weapon for more banal reasons.
"The reason the B-61 modification 11 bomb was developed and produced was because the United States had a new bomber--the B-2--which was not able to carry the old earth-penetrating weapon which was called the B-53, because the B-53 was too big."
Pike notes that if the need arises, the U.S. is already equipped with so-called "Bunker-Buster" bombs that could hit underground Iraqi bunkers.
"We used specially designed bunker busting bombs during the last Gulf war, and since then there have been significant improvements in the accuracy and the lethality of conventional non-nuclear bombs specifically to destroy hardened underground bunkers," Pike said.
Arkin says the Bunker Busters were tested in the waning days of the 1991 Gulf War.
"During the war a new type of weapon was developed, one that was 5,000 pounds, with a very long, strong steel nose that was able to penetrate into the ground before detonation and this was sort of rushed into development." Arkin also notes the bombs were used on two bunkers north of Baghdad just two days before the Gulf war ended.
While it is impossible to predict how events may unfold in the upcoming weeks in Iraq, the Russian rumors of American nuclear strikes suggest that the White House and the Kremlin still have a way to go in ridding old Cold War fears and suspicions.