Chirac goes nuclear: addendum

This post serves as a small addendum to Edward’s post Not Amused about Chirac’s threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary. This addendum will hopefully broaden and continue the discussion his statements generated. I won’t be talking about the possibility of nuking Iran or other rogue states here, that element has been covered extensively by Edward’s post, especially in the comments section.

As to Chirac’s nuclear threat, yesterday’s Ouest France suggested Chirac made the statement to reaffirm France’s position as a serious player after having lost credibility with the EU constitution referendum. After the non-vote several commentators suggested that France had been demoted to a second-degree country. From Ouest France:

Jacques Chirac entend ainsi montrer qu’il dispose encore d’un atout européen, alors que la France est l’un des deux pays membres responsables de la panne actuelle de l’Union. Au demeurant, plus que par des nécessités stratégiques, le discours de l’île Longue est dicté par la volonté d’un président affaibli d’exercer son autorité jusqu’au terme du quinquennat. En réaffirmant le seul pouvoir que personne ne peut lui ravir : la maîtrise du feu nucléaire.

Short summary/interpretation: Politically weakened Chirac is reminding himself and the French that they still have balls. He is also repositioning France as a first rate power in Europe.

Furthermore, he also used the threat to justify the costly maintenance of France’s nuclear arsenal. By stressing the overhaul of the arsenal, focussing on smaller weapons, he did away with the WMD threat as its sole raison d’être. Smaller nukes on submarines can target terrorists instead of complete nations, hence: ”We still need nukes, but different ones. We are adapting to new circumstances.” Or, if you will: “We can turn Tora Bora into a nuclear wasteland if we want to.”

Another possibly very important thing about Chirac’s speech:

Par ailleurs, le chef de l’Etat élargit la notion d’intérêts vitaux aux « approvisionnements stratégiques » et à la défense des pays alliés. La dépendance énergétique de l’Europe, révélée par la crise gazière entre la Russie et l’Ukraine, explique, pour une part, cette évolution.

France’s vital interests are being extended to include « strategic reserves » and the defence of allied countries. Europe’s energy dependency, as exemplified by the gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine can explain, at least partly, this development. Dear commenters, fire away!

20 thoughts on “Chirac goes nuclear: addendum

  1. Well, I think I’ve already said enough on my own post :). But someone sent me a mail which is quite relevant here, so I will take the liberty of quoting it:

    Deterrence/counter-deterrence: it only works between enemies that consider the other rational, that believe the other will act (hence the text books that recommend a leader behave in a manner that is perceived as irrational), that do not make mistakes, and that have something on this earth to lose.

    Chirac has extended nuclear deterrence from nuclear, chemical, and/or biological attack, with an obvious manner of attack, to energy supply attack; and he has extended the manner of attack to include less obvious sources: this is very dangerous.

    He has also avoided considering what many think is the military challenge of the 21st century: actions by what are called `non-state actors’.

    `Bunker busters’ appear cheap — billions of Euros per year rather than hundreds of billions. But they will fail, so they suddenly become too expensive.

    Rather than pay for these kinds of `bunker busters’ I think that France and the rest of Europe will be better off militarily if it spends a fortune each year on alternative sources of energy.

  2. “Chirac has extended nuclear deterrence from nuclear, chemical, and/or biological attack, with an obvious manner of attack, to energy supply attack; and he has extended the manner of attack to include less obvious sources: this is very dangerous.”

    Indeed, also from Ouest France:Chirac évoque “le partage des matières premières, la distribution et l’évolution des ressources naturelles. Cette évolution pourrait être cause d’instabilité, surtout si elle devait s’accompagner d’une montée des nationalismes”Nevertheless, Chirac did visit an army naval base. A more or less significant part of the threat was aimed at consolidating public investment in the defence industry. For internal use.

    I think it is important to consider as many motivations as possible. Future will tell which one mattered most.

    But I do agree with the conclusion of your mail sender about alternative sources of energy.

  3. Reading through the posts and comments on this topic, one question comes up in my mind …

    Do I really think that, if push came to shove, France would would use nuclear power in a offensive military move?

    My answer here is no, even the frogs aren’t this stupid.

    This does not make the question and discussion any less interesting though but it changes the pivotal question …

    If I reckon that France’s threat is essentially an empty one what is the meaning of all this military hardlining then.

    If the idea is to revive and re-invoke some of France’s “rayonnement internatonale” e.g. in a European context it certainly works but I doubt whether France actually wants to be considered a country which seriously ponders nuclear retaliation on terrorist attacks. I mean, even the Texan gunslinger has not proposed this (right?), at least officially. Will France become any stronger in a European context after this … no way; her labour market is still in shambles and the economy is growing sluggishly on the back of a huge public debt. In essence no European countries would most likely want to be in collusion with a France with itchy nuclear trigger fingers, but then again I don’t believe the fingers really are that itchy.

    In the end, I think the energy reserve thesis is much more accurate in the sense that it actually has an interesting yet very bold strategic perspective behind it.

    But alas, with France’s foreign policy you never know!

  4. I disagree. The reference to “approvisionnements stratégiques” isnt Russia but the Persian Gulf. Chirac is saying that France could intervene if Iran messes with international market like closing the Ormuz Strait.

  5. “Chirac is saying that France could intervene if Iran messes with international market like closing the Ormuz Strait.”

    This is fine, but lets continue the thought experiment a little. Let’s imagine that Iran waits till after it has nuclear weapons to close the straight. Then what exactly is Chirac saying?

    That there will be a conventional military response plus sanctions, or that there will be a nuclear one. As Claus indicates, even GWB doesn’t go this far.

    Part of the rationale behind nuclear doctrine has always been that there should be a level of uncertainty surrounding its application, but the degree of confusion rather than uncertainty created by what Chirac has said is probably unprecedented coming from a major democratic power.

    Incidentally though, your mention of the Ormuz straight does seem to be completely to the point, since according to the FT:

    “Iran is the fourth biggest oil exporter and main supplier to Japan, South Korea, France and Italy.”

    Of course, Bert, in the other thread, may also be to the point in that maybe we shouldn’t be reading this in the Iran context at all (although in this case I find the whole process surreal). OBL also just made a speech. Maybe Chirac was speaking in the longer-term about any country which aided and abetted a terrorist organisation which planted a ‘dirty nuke’ on French soil. The dangers of this happening at present seem, thankfully, slight, although Chirac may inadvertently have raised the level of possibility in the longer term.

    Certainly, since delivery is an issue, and an – eg – Iran with nuclear weapons could not conceivably hope to reach French soil with a conventional delivery system, the possibility of having ready a response using a non-conventional one must enter their heads. The more we irresponsibly play around with all this, the more the stakes will go up, and up, and up, it seems to me.

    So my vote is still with putting the money into alternative energy, and trying by this means to take the teeth out of the threat.

  6. Hmm. Chirac appears to have announced extended deterrence, as in the old days of stationing Pershing/Cruise in Europe to prove that the yanks wouldn’t choose to let us sink or swim over a nuclear threat to the homeland.

    I think the replacement of Trident’s looking like a done deal, don’t you? What’s the betting on an Anglo-French nuclear project to go with the Anglo-French carrier project, even if it’s only a nuclear retrofit for the Anglo-French Storm Shadow missile?

  7. “Do I really think that, if push came to shove, France would would use nuclear power in a offensive military move?”

    I would think almost certainly not. France has been 100% bluster for at least a decade. This brings me to a related point on Iran. Everyone talks about Iran’s rationality and how well Mutual Assured Destruction works as a detterence theory (an agreement which seems odd since many of the same people were so against it when applied to the USSR). But even given all that, is Iran really in a MAD situation if it destroys Israel with nuclear weapons? If they avoided Jerusalem for religious reasons they could annihilate more than 2/3 of the Israeli population by hitting only three targets: Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Be’er Sheva. They could hit 2/3 of the population with only two targets: Tel Aviv and Haifa. The could hit 1/2 of the population with only one target: Tel Aviv. If you kill 2/3 or 1/2 of a population, I’m pretty sure the country is done. Two out of the last three presidents have stated that Israel could be completely destroyed by nuclear weapons while Iran would merely suffer ‘damages’ in retaliation. Presuming an Israeli counterstrike I’m sure there would be serious damage to Iran, but it has a population of 68 million. The Israeli counterstrike isn’t going to hit anywhere near the 1/10th level and both Iranian presidents are correct, it would be survivable.

    So Israel is gone and Iran has survived the Israeli counterstrike. Unlike Iraq in Kuwait, Iran has no intention of occupying Israel. The UN mandate to get Saddam out of Kuwait only extended to stopping the occupation. Is it true that France would use its weapons afterwards to complete the Assured Destruction concept? I seriously doubt it. Would they support using US nuclear weapons to complete the Assured Destruction concept? I seriously doubt it. Would France or Europe invade Iran? I seriously doubt it. Would they support a US invasion? I hope so, but I can already flesh out the counterarguments–see the World response to Cambodia or the Sudan–so long as the genocide hits other people…

    I’m quite sure there are a large number of high-level Iranian officials who think along the lines of the above. It might be well advised to disabuse them of the notion that their country would ‘survive’. Unfortunately I’m not sure anyone in Europe is in a position to do that.

  8. Ho, talking about this, mr Chirac I have discovered a very dangerous plot being set up agaist strategic french interests. The plotters are somewhere in here Portugal. Problem is.. I don’t know exactly where.

    So.. please please PLEASE nuke the whole country to hell and back.

    And when you’re done.

    Nuke us again – just to make sure.

    (Cavaco won)

  9. Bert, in the other thread, may also be to the point in that maybe we shouldn’t be reading this in the Iran context at all

    Oh, I didn’t say Iran didn’t figure, in fact I was careful not to say that.
    My comments were prompted in part by those – AMac credibly, John F.Opie crassly, others too – who held that the speech could only be interpreted as a response to recent developments in the Iran problem, and should be praised (or damned) on that basis alone.

    The context struck me as wider than that. And also shallower too. Remember that one of Chirac’s first acts as President, and the first of his many miscalculations, was an essentially meaningless reassertion of French nuclear status at Muraroa.

    Giscard’s been quoted recently as saying “For the first time in 50 years, France no longer has a project for Europe.” Gaullist nuclear diplomacy has always encouraged European neighbours to shelter under the French nuclear umbrella. The independent deterrent remains an asset, in part because of its uniqueness among the core Europe group Chirac still dreams of coalescing around himself. So he brashly busks through one of the old tunes to ingratiate himself with a hostile or at best indifferent crowd.

    I don’t doubt that a strategic review will have discussed Iran intently. Discussions on energy security will have featured Iran, alongside Russia and the Caucuses, Saudi stability, and even West Africa and Chavez too. Iran will have appeared prominently in the counterproliferation dossier as well. It’s just that I can’t make the logic of nuclear deterrence make sense in this case. Others in both threads have struggled to do so too. So I reach for another explanation. Chirac’s sparse toolkit contains a hammer. With the grave conviction of a practised ham, he explains the nail-like qualities of the world’s problems.

    One last thing. In one sense I think we absolutely should be reading Chirac’s speech in an Iran context. It’s a point I thought you nailed, and which didn’t need me repeating: the forceful assertion of a nuclear strategy, with the bogus innovation of “low yield” turning deployment into an active proposition, makes further proliferation virtually inevitable, and settles Iran implacably on its course to nuclear status.

    Whether it can be stopped is still an open question, but Chirac ain’t helping.

  10. “With the grave conviction of a practised ham, he explains the nail-like qualities of the world’s problems.”

    Sorry, totally inane comment, but I like this figure of speech very much. Nice writing, Bert.

  11. “Oh, I didn’t say Iran didn’t figure, in fact I was careful not to say that.”

    Ok, point taken. I think we can certainly agree though that there are still two issues: how to explain what Chirac said, and how others will read it.

    Some interesting quotes here:

    “It is shameful for the people of France that their president brandishes atomic weapons on the pretext of fighting terrorism,” said Gholam Ali Hadad-Adel, speaker of Iran’s right-wing parliament.”

    “The French need to make an effort to remove the shame of the the massacre of millions of Algerians, France’s support for Saddam Hussein and the massacres in Africa and Rwanda,” Hadad-Adel said in a speech to deputies carried by state radio.”

    Amongst other issues I think it is fascinating that the Iranians should be riled up with Chirac since they see him as a supporter of Saddam Hussein. This may be an indication of how the Teheran regime is eyeing what is happening in Iraq, and indeed how recent US attempts to incorporate the Sunnis in the political process and de-criminalise Baathism may be being perceived by Iraq’s Shia population.

    Also try this one:

    Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree on Saturday, appointing Brigadier General Hossein Salami as the new commander of the Air Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Another senior Guards commander, Brigadier General Mohammad-Reza Zahedi, was put in charge of the IRGC Ground Forces.

    Salami is known as the father of the IRGC’s “asymmetric warfare” doctrine, which he helped to develop in the months preceding the war in Iraq. The military doctrine is based on two components as strategic tools in any military confrontation: the massive use of suicide operations to target U.S. and Western interests around the world, and the use of weapons of mass destruction.In his new position as commander of the IRGC’s Air force, General Salami will be in charge of the country’s ballistic missile development project, a key component of the asymmetric warfare doctrine….In the July 2004 speech, Salami had argued for the use of oil as a weapon by Muslim countries to put pressure on the West.

    So I think I find myself in quite substantial disagreement with the thrust of Sebastian’s comment, which seems to imply that the Iran nuclear capacity will be directed principally at Israel.

    I think this is a non-starter for them. No clarification was needed from Chirac to make the Iranians aware that any moves in this direction would bring them in direct conflict with nuclear capacity in the UK, France and the United States. This has been clear since the old days of the cold war. It has also been clear that this is an effective deterrent.

    So I think we need to look elsewhere:

    “In the July 2004 speech, Salami had argued for the use of oil as a weapon by Muslim countries to put pressure on the West.”

    I think the battle ground is going to be our vulnerability to energy pressure, in particular since others (Russia?, Venezuela? Nigeria?) may be mobilised to play ‘footsie’ here.

    The perceived weakness of the United States following the Iraq war, and the shield offered by having a nuclear capacity will probably encourage Iran to try its hand in extending its influence in Southern Iraq and Western Afghanistan. The nuclear threat will probably increasingly be used, as Salami indicates, asymetrically. That is to say they may well use uncertainty as to whether they have a nuclear capacity to deliver a “suitcase bomb” in the heart of one of the major nuclear powers (read UK, France and United States) as a central plank in their disinformation war.

    Incidentally the Afghan destination has the added attraction of being the centre of the poppy industry, and Iran does seem to be a high-road along which this lucrative and hard to control trade moves. In the event of oil santions there are still other ways of making money.

    So my guess is that Israel will only play a role in all this at the rhetoric level. I doubt the Iranian leaders have any serious intention of ‘messing’ with Israel, and in any event (unless anyone else has a better idea than I do), aren’t you still liable to fluctuations in wind direction here. I mean, a nuke on Israel, apart from hitting the extensive Israeli arab population could also wipe out significant numbers of Palestinians I think. Not, then, a very practical proposal.

  12. Iranian nuclear weapons could not be directed against Israel without murdering a vast number of Palestinians (non West Bank Israeli Arabs) in the process. Exterminating Israel is rhetoric. Controlling Gulf oil economies is reality.

    Chirac’s speech seems perfectly clear to me. It’s a warning that if a nuke goes off in Europe, perhaps as part of the asymmetric warfare strategy of a state being attacked with conventional weapons (eg Iran), France will retaliate. The element of uncertainty concerns just how much proof of such a linkage France would require, but the objective is deterrence.

  13. I think you’re entirely right. I’m very sceptical of the argument that Iran gets a bomb and instantly hurls it at Israel and that this eliminates the latter. After all, you’d be a fool to launch your *first* nuclear weapon, no?

    It’s also unlikely that bomb no.1 is going to be a megaton-plus beast. It’s also not terribly likely that the first bomb of the first type developed in rush conditions would work perfectly. It’s a fact that Israel maintains effective air defences and effective civil defence, and the Palestinians are a sort of nuclear hostage. You betcha they don’t have access to the shelters.. soon as the first two bombs are done you fire them at Israel, one gets shot down, one fizzes at 2/3 of intended yield, several thousand Israelis die, several tens of thousands of Palestinians die..and urban Iran (yourself included) gets vapourised by 200+ megaton level deliveries. Great prospect, no?

  14. “That is to say they may well use uncertainty as to whether they have a nuclear capacity to deliver a “suitcase bomb” in the heart of one of the major nuclear powers (read UK, France and United States) as a central plank in their disinformation war.”

    This is very unlikely. Nuclear bombs in general are one thing. “Suitcase bombs” are an entirely different and much more difficult technology. They are difficult to build and very difficult to maintain. (That is why scare stories of a suitcase bomb stolen from Russia are much less scary than stories of a standard nuclear weapon stolen from Russia. Suitcase nukes haven’t been maintained for almost a decade in Russia. They wouldn’t work even if somehow stolen).

    I’m not at all suggesting that Iran would attack Israel before testing nukes. Why would that be necessary? They can test nukes in the desert and once that happens no one is going to risk stopping them because they will claim to have built multiple nuclear weapons before they tested the first one. At that point they will build what they want. At that point, I worry that they will attempt to destroy Israel. You need maybe 12. Four for each target so that at least two get through. Once you have tested the technology your main worry is fuel. The way things are going diplomatically, fuel is going to be no problem at all for Iran.

    As for the Palestinian hostage issue, are you talking about people living in Tel Aviv, or the West Bank? Iran doesn’t need to target the West Bank, and the radiation issue isn’t as big of a deal as people seem to think when you only need to hit three targets. Radiation fears during the Cold War (where tens of thousands of bombs were contemplated in a continent-destroying exchange) are one thing, but are totally different when you only need to hit three targets. Iran could totally destroy Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Be’er Sheva and cities as close as Jerusalem should still be quite livable almost right away. (This is partially in response to the wind comment).

    The problem isn’t that they will act to destroy Israel within minutes of the first publicized test. The problem is that they would act to destroy Israel within years of the first test. Their willingness to do so, and even risk a nuclear counterstrike since they know it won’t be a MAD situation, has been expressed multiple times, over multiple years by multiple presidents and high-ranking clerics. If it was once, decades ago, by a former president and no one else, I wouldn’t be so worried. It isn’t. It has been mentioned by Rafsanjani (one of the highest level clerics and a former president) and current president Ahmadinejad as well as alluded to by a number of lower-level people. It has been mentioned and alluded to when these people were at the height of their power, not when they are down in the depths. The West just doesn’t respect the influence of religion in people’s lives. We may think it is superstitious nonsense, but it really does motivate a vast number of people. It just isn’t wise to ignore the repeated religious pronouncements of a country which doesn’t recognize a difference between church and state. Often, crazy people mean what they say–even though it is obvious to everyone else that what they say is crazy. It strikes me as unwise to act as if high level people in Iran just don’t mean what they repeatedly say.

  15. Cheers, Guy. I must say there’s a part of me that’s happy they have a General Salami.
    Could he be opposite number to General Franks?

  16. I have to say I´m a bit piqued by Alex´s comment that Israeli casulaties would be in the ´thousands´. It seems many people still don´t realize on what sort of scale these weapons operate. You don´t need a yield in the megatons to level a city, a moderate 25-35Kt yield on a single major city would would leave more people dead then the Tsunami disaster*.

    And if the Irianian theocrats really believe they can weather the return blow the term “MAD mullahs” would be entirely appropriate.

    *And unlike the tsunami, this disaster would be man made.

  17. Chirac’s statement is partly the outcome of a genuine strategic reassessment ( combined with his usual delusional view that impresses his European neigbours.

    But, personally, I think there’s another domestic element at play here. Chirac is reminding voters that the president has his finger on the button. It’s the subliminal beginning of a message he will be sending for the next 17 months that this arsenal should not be put in the hands of a hyperactive man who can’t control his temper and has “issues” with his wife: Nicolas Sarkozy.

    You read it here first.

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