This study examines why Saddam Hussein pursued nuclear weapons and, as a basic aspect of that question, how he might have employed that capability had he acquired it, whether for deterrence, warfighting, or something else. As the key decision maker in Iraq, Saddam's own thinking was central. His perception of regional threats, primarily from Iran and Israel, were a prime motivator. In addition, Saddam viewed acquiring nuclear weapons as a potent vehicle to help legitimize his regime and burnish his personal image as leader both at home and in the Arab World, as a modernizer and defender of national interests. A better understanding of the Iraqi case can also clarify the enduring issues related to how regional leaders may view nuclear weapons in this world of looming proliferation.
The West often tended to assume that if Iraq ever acquired this capability, it would have adopted a posture similar to that which had characterized the theory and practice of the superpowers during the Cold War, resulting in a more stable mutual deterrence. However, rather than viewing nuclear weapons as a stabilizing factor through strategic deterrence, Iraqi thinking suggested a potentially destabilizing approach, given the intent to change the status quo and the balance of power in the region. Iraqi thinking on deterrence entailed a far from benign "aggressive deterrence" by providing a shield for a more assertive—and potentially very disruptive—policy beyond Iraq's borders. Iraq also perceived that nuclear weapons had a warfighting role, in addition to a deterrence role, with nuclear military doctrine developed even at the operational level. Iraqi military doctrinal publications and operational documents from the 1980s, developed with the anticipated imminent acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability, contain the distilled rationale, assumptions, and real-world preparation for Iraq's development, force integration, and use of such weapons. Moreover, the Iraqi regime's threshold for use of such weapons seems to have been considerably lower than conventional wisdom posited (at least in regional conflicts).