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Newsday, April 27, 1998

U.S. Must Fight for Monitoring Of Iraq's Continued Atom Threat

By Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley

The International Atomic Energy Agency's latest report on Iraq, delivered to the United Nations Security Council earlier this month, finds no evidence of a surviving nuclear weapons program.

The agency's proposed action: Switch from inspections to less intrusive monitoring that would "minimize the disturbance to Iraq's industrial and technical activities." The report helps efforts by Russia and France, Iraq's original nuclear benefactors, to close the Iraqi nuclear file as a major step toward lifting economic sanctions that block their lucrative trade deals with Iraq.

Unless the United States challenges the IAEA's nuclear clean bill of health for Iraq, the Security Council may well have to accept it. This would set a dangerous precedent for Security Council deliberations on a UN special commission's reports on Iraq's biological, chemical and missile programs, in the absence of evidence of such programs.

As often as the atomic agency has been fooled by the Iraqis, its conclusions on Saddam Hussein's nuclear program are astonishing. The agency found "no indication of prohibited materials, equipment or activities" and said Iraq had completed a "full, final" declaration of its secret nuclear program.

There is an eerie familiarity to all of this. Right after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the IAEA's top inspector called Iraqi cooperation with the safeguards agency "exemplary" and praised Iraqi scientists as "solid citizens" of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The agency hadn't a clue of the vast Iraqi Manhattan Project-style nuclear weapons program that was later unearthed.

The inspection chief said the agency was "not concerned" Iraq might seize bomb-grade fuel from research reactors and turn it into bombs. Yet this is precisely what the Iraqis set out to do in 1990, between inspection visits, as revealed by the former head of the bomb program who defected in 1995. Allied bombings halted the effort, but it is now apparent that Iraq was poised to activate a plan to build at least one nuclear weapon over six months.

Important questions about Iraq's nuclear weapons program still must be resolved before there can be any serious consideration of closing the nuclear file. A study issued by the Nuclear Control Institute in February pointed to the IAEA's own detailed reports to show that key nuclear weapons components remain unaccounted for; that Iraq never gave the agency its bomb design or any proof it issued orders to halt the bomb program; and that Iraq's clandestine procurement of nuclear materials and equipment continued after the war and may still be active. There is special urgency because all of Iraq's western-educated nuclear scientists remain in Iraq.

The IAEA is gravely mistaken to assume that the absence of evidence of Iraqi efforts to build the bomb is evidence of the absence of a bomb program. The prudent course is to assume there is a small, well-concealed nuclear weapons unit in Iraq with components for rapid assembly into one or more bombs - and to redouble inspection and other investigative efforts to find it. If the needed nuclear material were smuggled into Iraq from, say, Russia or another former Soviet republic, the nuclear danger could be imminent and even eclipse Iraq's chemical and biological weapons threat.

In contrast with the IAEA, the UN Special Commission on Iraq has shown itself unwilling to accept Iraq's foot-dragging and evasions. Earlier this month, commission director Richard Butler reported to the Security Council that, regarding chemical, biological and missile inspections, "the commission's mandate does not permit it to accept disarmament by declaration alone." Butler detailed the information gaps Iraq must fill before the commission could certify Iraqi compliance.

If the IAEA believes its inspections have reached a point of "diminishing returns" and wants to switch to less-intrusive monitoring, the Security Council should let it do so. But then the commission should be authorized to take over the inspections and prevent Hussein from terrifying the world with a nuclear fait accompli.

Paul Leventhal is president and Steven Dolley is research director of the Nuclear Control Institute.

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