[International Herald Tribune Logo]
International Herald Tribune
Thursday, March 5, 1998

Now Is a Good Time to Revisit Saddam's Nuclear Capability

By Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley

WASHINGTON - The diplomatic arrangement that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan concluded with Iraq has averted U.S. air strikes for the time being. But by creating a ''Special Group'' of diplomats to oversee UN inspections of Saddam Hussein's presidential sites, he is laying a new bureaucracy on top of an already fragmented inspection regime.

This arrangement could trigger more turf battles of the sort that have plagued the relationship between the UN Special Commission on Iraq, or Unscom, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. It could further undermine attempts to ferret out Iraq's surviving nuclear weapons capability (still a clear and present danger) while undercutting the campaign to find and destroy Iraq's other weapons of mass destruction.

Immediately after the Gulf War in 1991, the Vienna-based IAEA lobbied hard at the United Nations to retain the lead role for nuclear inspections in Iraq, despite its dismal record of misjudging Iraq's nuclear intentions and missing evidence of its weapons program at every turn.

The cease-fire resolution was soon crafted to provide for a sharing of responsibilities between the IAEA and Unscom in the nuclear sphere, while giving Unscom exclusive control over the search for Saddam's chemical and biological weapons and missiles.

The results of this relationship - including strong differences between the agencies on how to assess the current nuclear threat and how to deal with it - provide important lessons on pitfalls to avoid at this critical juncture.

Last June, the outgoing Unscom director, Rolf Ekeus, expressed concern that the nuclear weapon components manufactured by Iraq before the Gulf War had never been found.

''We doubt they have been destroyed, but we are searching,'' he said at the Carnegie Institute for Peace.

And, in what he flagged as a ''difference'' with the IAEA, he said Unscom experts believed Iraq was capable of making a ''viable weapon'' if it could buy a sufficient quantity of plutonium or highly enriched uranium. The expert advising the IAEA recently put Iraq's ''time to a bomb'' at five years.

The IAEA, in its latest reporting to the UN Security Council, complains of having reached a point of ''diminishing returns'' in its inspections and proposes a shift to a less intrusive monitoring arrangement. Russia, France and China seized upon this to propose closing the nuclear file on Iraq.

Yet the IAEA's own detailed reports show that Iraq's nuclear scientists are still in place, that key nuclear weapons components remain unaccounted for, that major gaps still exist in Iraqi reporting of its postwar nuclear weapon design work and that Iraq's clandestine procurement of nuclear equipment and materials continues.

It would be a big mistake to assume that the absence of evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program is evidence of such a program's absence.

In 1990, Saddam successfully engaged in a grand deception to deflect the world's attention from his nuclear weapons program by drawing attention to his chemical weapons threat. After the Gulf War, a vast Iraqi Manhattan Project was unearthed, and most of it was destroyed.

Today the danger is that Saddam is trying to divert attention from a small but deadly remnant of that program - a well-hidden unit that could use retained blueprints and components to turn out weapons made with smuggled fissile material on short order.

There is an opportunity to use the establishment of the new Special Group to reinvigorate the UN's flagging nuclear investigation. The choice of UN disarmament undersecretary Jayantha Dhanapala to head up the Special Group is a good one. The Sri Lankan diplomat is highly respected and trusted in nuclear nonproliferation and arms control circles.

Mr. Dhanapala is capable of promoting cooperation between the IAEA and Unscom if this were made a part of his mandate. He could begin - both to end interagency bickering and to ''test'' Iraqi intentions - by insisting that Iraq produce four crucial reports, long promised but never delivered, on unaccounted-for design drawings, fabricated components, procurement activities and government planning for nuclear weapons.

If Iraq continues to stonewall despite his request, it would become clear that the UN must press forward with intrusive nuclear inspections as long as Saddam remains in power.

Mr. Leventhal is president and Mr. Dolley is research director of the Nuclear Control Institute. They contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

[What's New]What's New[Iraq] Saddam & the Bomb[Home Page]Home Page