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Steven Dolley
Research Director
Nuclear Control Institute

February 19, 1998

Nuclear Inspections in Iraq: Time to "Close the Nuclear File"?

As the United States prepares to resume bombing of Iraq because of Iraq's continuing ballistic-missile and chemical-biological weapons (CBW) programs, pressure is building to close the book on the United Nation's investigation of Iraq's nuclear weapons program. This pressure was catalyzed by the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) October 1997 report to the Security Council, which concluded that there were no remaining "significant discrepancies" between the IAEA Action Team's findings during nearly seven years of inspections and Iraq's most recent "full, final and complete declaration" of its nuclear program.

At the same time, IAEA stated that it could not guarantee the completeness of this declaration, because "[s]ome uncertainty is inevitable in any country-wide technical verification process which aims to prove the absence of readily concealable objects or activities. The extent to which such uncertainty is acceptable is a policy judgment."1 [emphasis added]

IAEA reported that, though it was not excluding the option of further inspections if new information were received, IAEA's "activities regarding the investigations of Iraq's clandestine nuclear programme have reached a point of diminishing returns and the IAEA is focusing most of its resources on the implementation and technical strengthening of its plan for the ongoing monitoring and verification of Iraq's compliance with its obligations under the relevant Security Council resolutions."2

Based on these IAEA statements, Russia, China, and France are urging the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) and the IAEA to "close the nuclear file" on the investigation of Iraq's "historical" nuclear weapons program.3 Under the terms of Resolution 687, the cease-fire resolution ending the Gulf War, IAEA is charged, "through the Secretary-General, with the assistance and cooperation of the Special Commission," with the mission of conducting "immediate on-site inspection of Iraq's nuclear capabilities based on Iraq's declarations and the designation of any additional locations by the Special Commission…"4 In practice, UNSCOM has taken responsibility for assessing intelligence and other information pointing to new locations for inspections, while IAEA has carried out those inspections and monitored declared facilities and equipment.

Russia and China now want UNSCOM to certify, as a first step toward lifting international sanctions, that Iraq is in compliance with Resolution 687's requirement that all elements of Iraq's nuclear-weapons program have been removed, destroyed or rendered harmless. The IAEA mission then would shift to ongoing monitoring and verification ("OMV"), relying primarily on periodic routine inspections of declared facilities and equipment, remote monitoring of Iraqi facilities, and environmental sampling designed to detect prohibited activities, such as uranium enrichment.

However, after a January 22 briefing by UNSCOM head Richard Butler, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson stated that "We don't see any reason to close the nuclear file because there are significant gaps in our judgment. There are still patterns of concealment, insufficient information provided by Iraq and generally a lack of cooperation."5 Nonetheless, most reporting and analysis of the current Iraqi threat focuses on CBW and missiles.

The popular perception being conveyed in the news media is that the Iraqi nuclear threat is a thing of the past.6 Although the missile and CBW threats are quite real, there is no basis to conclude that the nuclear threat is any less urgent, given the likelihood of a small, concealed weaponization program that could be rapidly activated by the acquisition of relatively small amounts of fissile materials---highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

It is difficult to reconcile IAEA's desire to move from investigative inspections to a long-term monitoring posture with its conclusion in the same report that several sets of important issues regarding the Iraqi nuclear-weapons program remain unresolved, including:

An IAEA technical team that visited Iraq in December 1997 failed to achieve satisfactory resolution of any of these issues, nor did UNSCOM head Richard Butler during his visit to Baghdad in January 1998.8

Also troubling was the public confirmation in June 1997 by outgoing UNSCOM head Rolf Ekeus that Iraq had produced nuclear-weapon components and that they have never been found; nor has the claimed destruction of them ever been verified.

Iraq produced components, so to say, elements for the nuclear warhead. Where are the remnants of that? They can't evaporate....We feel that Iraq is still trying to protect them. And that is part of our...efforts...to find these remnants. They may not exist. We know that they have existed. But we doubt they have been destroyed. But we are searching.9

This paper assesses what has been learned about Iraq's nuclear-weapons program over the course of nearly seven years of IAEA inspections, considers the outstanding questions that remain to be answered, and evaluates the danger that Iraq retains a weaponization program and could produce nuclear weapons in short order.

What We Do Know About Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Program

1. Iraq produced a workable design for a nuclear weapon.

Iraq claims to have begun its weaponization research in 1987, and by the start of the Gulf War had completed a fifth revision of a detailed design for an implosion-type bomb fueled by highly enriched uranium (HEU). In September 1991, IAEA inspectors seized Iraqi weaponization documents, including a 1990 progress report on bomb-design work by Group 4 of "PC-3," Iraq's code name for the weaponization division of its Manhattan Project.

A U.N. official who examined the Iraqi design work in 1992 said he was sure that a bomb built to their specifications would work.10 Weaponization work proceeded well beyond the design stage. Iraq was developing a 32-point electronic firing system to trigger the bomb. Extensive tests of high-explosive lenses were carried out, some of them using depleted uranium as a non-fissile dummy core.11 Iraqi scientists also did test castings of small-scale natural uranium spheres as research toward developing the bomb's spherical, highly enriched uranium core. Iraqi nuclear scientists claimed they dissolved the products of these experiments in acid to prevent their examination by inspectors.12

David Kay, former head of the IAEA Action Team in Iraq, concluded that such non-nuclear experimentation might eliminate the need for a full-scale nuclear explosive test.

The Iraqis had already validated their design work by testing various weapons components....As long as you are not interested in developing the latest cutting edge multi-stage fusion device, it is no longer necessary to test weapons by taking a bomb out and setting it off. Weapons are tested at the component level, with inert material, and with computers.13

In fact, Kay found that many of the computer codes used by the Iraqis in their weapon-design work were publicly available and "much, much better" than codes used by U.S. and British weapons designers in the 1960s.14

Another, simpler weapon-design option---a gun-type assembly---was also available to Iraq, though it was not the main focus of their research. The gun design fires one piece of HEU into another to create a critical mass. According to Kay, it "is an easy design that almost anyone could do with a little thought and reading ..." Kay concluded that the Iraqis already knew enough to make an effective gun-type weapon, and even possessed tungsten-carbide piping suitable for manufacture of such a bomb.15 This design is so straightforward that Manhattan Project scientists did not test it before it was used to destroy Hiroshima.16

A report prepared by five former U.S. nuclear weapons designers concluded that a technically skilled team of terrorists could construct a crude but workable nuclear bomb if they acquired access to plutonium or HEU. The report estimated that the team's preparation, prior to its acquisition of fissile material, would require "a considerable number of weeks (or, more probably, months)…,"17 casting significant doubt on estimates that Iraq was several years away from completion of a workable nuclear weapon design.

Iraq had also made significant progress on the fabrication of key nuclear-weapon components. IAEA inspectors discovered that Iraq had fabricated high-explosive lenses and the molds to manufacture them, electronic firing systems, test castings of uranium bomb cores, and various neutron-initiator devices.18 With the exception of a few crude neutron initiators, no weapons components have been located.

2. Iraq began to divert its safeguarded HEU to a nuclear-weapons "crash program."

In August 1995, a strange series of events led to a major breakthrough in documenting Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. General Hussein Kamel, a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein and former head of the nuclear-weapons program, defected and was debriefed by the United Nations. He revealed many secrets of the Iraqi nuclear program, including previously unknown orders he had issued to prepare to divert Iraq's safeguarded HEU research reactor fuel into a crash weaponization program in late 1990. Kamel later returned to Iraq and was promptly murdered.

U.N. inspectors were taken by Iraqi officials to General Kamel's farmhouse, where they were shown an enormous cache of documentation related to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program. Iraqi officials insisted that General Kamel had been solely responsible for concealing this and other information from UNSCOM and the IAEA. Since 1995, the Iraqis have repeatedly characterized Kamel as the rogue head of a covert weapons program, the details of which he had concealed from the Iraqi leadership.

During two IAEA inspections in late 1995, Iraqi officials revealed further details of the crash program, which had been established in August 1990. The Iraqis planned to dissolve their research reactor fuel elements at a secret facility at the Tuwaitha site in order to separate the weapons-usable HEU. In January 1991, the facility was complete. Iraq later acknowledged that the technicians had begun cutting off the ends of fuel elements and were awaiting authorization from General Kamel to commence HEU separation when Gulf War bombing seriously damaged the facility. The HEU recovery equipment was covertly moved to another, secret nuclear facility at Tarmiya.

Significantly, the IAEA found that the most recent documents surrendered by Iraq on the crash program were dated June 1991, which "might indicate that the 'crash programme' was not abandoned until it became evident to Iraq that the reactor fuel was to be removed from the country (the first shipment took place in November 1991)."19

In late 1990, the Nuclear Control Institute had warned of the possibility of a crash Iraqi program to divert its safeguarded civilian nuclear fuel for use in weapons---ironically, about three months after the Iraqi leadership decided to proceed down this path.20 Concerns about Iraq's safeguarded HEU stocks were dismissed at the time by many analysts, who estimated that Iraq was up to 15 years away from the bomb.21 In a study prepared for NCI in May 1991, Dr. J. Carson Mark, former head of the theoretical division at the Los Alamos National Laboratory concluded that, if Iraq had used only its declared, safeguarded HEU, fabrication of two "metal implosion systems" each with a yield "in the kiloton range would probably be possible."22

Prior to the Gulf War, the IAEA was particularly cavalier about the Iraqi HEU risk. In August 1990, only weeks after the invasion of Kuwait, IAEA safeguards director Jon Jennekens praised Iraq's cooperation with IAEA as "exemplary," and "said the IAEA is not concerned that, if Iraq were to be put under great military or diplomatic pressure, the Iraqi leadership would seize its store of HEU and build a nuclear device. 'Such a calculation doesn't make practical sense,' Jennekens said." Jennekens extolled Iraq's nuclear experts, who, he said, "have made every effort to demonstrate that Iraq is a solid citizen" under the NPT.23

Even as late as 1993, IAEA Director-General Hans Blix made a point of emphasizing that

the Iraqis never touched the nuclear highly-enriched uranium which was under our safeguards, which in some ways indicate also that the safeguard had an effect. Had they touched anything -- (inaudible) -- immediately discovered, and these would have been reported, and they would have evoked a governmental opinion and governmental action. They didn't want to do that. So they never touched the material which was under safeguard ...24

NCI asked Blix to retract his statement because Iraq had been found to have secretly moved the HEU in January 1991 and not reported its location to IAEA for several months, in violation of its safeguards agreement. Moreover, the Iraqis had cut the ends off some HEU fuel elements---in preparation, as Iraq later admitted,25 for HEU recovery operations. The IAEA refused to back down on this point until after General Kamel's 1995 revelation of the crash program.

At the time that the crash program was discovered, Iraq claimed that it had planned to build a 50-centrifuge cascade to re-enrich the 80% enriched HEU of Russian origin, but had barely begun construction by January 1991. The IAEA, in public statements, used this claim to support its argument that the crash program would not have achieved its goals by April 1991, when the next IAEA inspection had been scheduled to take place.26

However, Iraq's claim was puzzling because there was sufficient HEU in the fresh 80% enriched and lightly irradiated 93% enriched fuel for a single weapon, and Iraq would have gained very little by further enriching the 13.7 kg of fresh 80% enriched fuel. Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI's scientific director, analyzed the crash program and calculated that reenrichment would not have been necessary at all, because "23.3 kg of 93% equivalent HEU would be available with relatively simple chemical processing..."27

The IAEA now appears to agree that re-enrichment of the fresh 80% enriched fuel would not have been necessary for the crash program to succeed, stating in the October 1997 report that Iraq "more logically" would have re-enriched only the HEU from the irradiated 80% enriched and 36% enriched fuel, not that recovered from the fresh fuel; and that re-enrichment would have reduced the time required to produce "a second weapon," suggesting that sufficient HEU for a first weapon could have been recovered without re-enrichment.28 Once direct-use material such as HEU is available, the "conversion time" required to make it into nuclear-weapons components is estimated by IAEA to be on the "order of weeks (1-3)" in the case of oxide, and on the "order of days (7-10)" in the case of metal.29

3. Iraq's clandestine nuclear procurement network continued to operate after the Gulf War.

Iraq continues to import dual-use technologies with nuclear relevance. As of April 1997, according to IAEA,

Iraq is still able to import technological equipment, recent examples of which include a plasma spray machine, a general purpose CNC milling machine and personal computer components having 1996-generation microprocessors. These items were imported through trans-shipment, via neighbouring countries, thus avoiding the identification of Iraq as the end-user.30

Resolution 687 does not prohibit dual-use technology imports by Iraq, provided they are declared and subject to monitoring by IAEA. The IAEA has found that Iraq continues to engage in deceptive procurement practices, apparently in violation of the laws of various exporting nations, but the IAEA does not name the nations in the report.

Iraq promised IAEA that it would provide a written description of its post-war procurement system, but thus far has failed to do so.31 In a November 24 briefing for the Security Council, IAEA downplays the matter, reporting that "[t]he information so far provided by Iraq is incomplete, but the provision of the missing information should be a simple administrative matter. This is not a matter of major significance."32

Iraq received at least some outside offers of nuclear weapons assistance after the end of the Gulf War. The material obtained by IAEA at General Kamel's farmhouse documents the participation of Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence service, in international procurement operations. The Iraqis initially denied, and then attempted to minimize, Mukhabarat's role in procurement.

IAEA reported that "[t]he Mukhabarat files also contained some information regarding unsolicited offers of assistance to Iraq's clandestine nuclear programme that were judged [by the Iraqis] to warrant further investigation." IAEA requested information on "all significant offers of assistance to its clandestine nuclear programme." A series of lame excuses followed: "Subsequent discussions on this topic were usually met with statements ... that the person responsible for that file was various 'on vacation' or 'on sick leave' or otherwise unavailable. When the matter was addressed during the July 1997 visit, by the technical team, the team was advised that, for no apparent reasons, the file had been destroyed."

Eventually Iraq provided IAEA with correspondence indicating "that the Mukhabarat were confident that the source of the information [the unsolicited offer of assistance] was valid and worth pursuing" and that the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) requested that Mukhabarat "endeavour to obtain samples from the source." 33 The IAEA report does not say whether the correspondence or other evidence indicates what these "samples" were, or whether they were obtained by Mukhabarat from the source.

An even more troubling incident that occurred in October 1990 was discussed during the IAEA technical team's visit to Iraq in late December 1997. A "foreign national" (name and nationality not revealed in the IAEA report) offered to provide "nuclear weapon design drawings" as well as technical and procurement assistance. The Iraqis claimed that they did not follow up on this or any other offers of outside assistance after the Gulf War because they feared sting operations. IAEA said it had found no evidence to contradict these claims or to provide a basis for further investigation of them.34

4. Iraq had made progress on a ballistic-missile delivery system for a nuclear warhead.

The Iraqis planned to deliver their nuclear weapon by means of a Scud missile modified to increase its range and payload. Former UNSCOM head Rolf Ekeus pointed out that Iraq's long-range missile program "is a fundamentally nuclear program...definitely not for conventional explosives," with the goal of using missiles to deliver chemical and biological weapons as "secondary" to the nuclear mission.35 But delivery-system R&D apparently lagged behind warhead-design work, and it is not clear that the main barrier of payload weight had been overcome by the time of the Gulf War.36 Since the war, Iraqi long-range missile R&D, and covert procurement of missile parts has continued, in violation of Resolution 687.37

It is important to note that nuclear weapons can be delivered by numerous means, with missiles being the most technically difficult modality. A study by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment concluded that

Delivery vehicles may be based on very simple or very complex technologies. Under the appropriate circumstances, for instance, trucks, small boats, civil aircraft, larger cargo planes, or ships could be used to deliver or threaten to deliver at least a few weapons to nearby or more distant targets. Any organization that can smuggle large quantities of illegal drugs could probably also deliver weapons of mass destruction via similar means, and the source of the delivery might not be known. Such low technology means might be chosen even if higher technology alternatives existed.38

A recent review of Iraq's nuclear program suggests that Hussein "might have considered trying to get such a [nuclear] bomb to Israel, possibly by boat, for detonation in the roadstead of Haifa Harbour. This is a premise that is circulating in present-day Beirut and is thought to have originally been debated by Iranian Pasdaran terrorists."39

What We Don't Know About Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Program

1. Weapons design documentation

In June 1997, Rolf Ekeus, then the chief executive officer of UNSCOM, stated that

The problem is maybe in that we [UNSCOM] by nature are suspicious concerning the weapon design. It is clear that the Iraqi specialists managed to acquire a considerable understanding of weapons design, warhead design. And there are those of our specialists inside the Commission who insist that there we have a major problem---namely that if Iraq would one way or the other manage to buy somewhere outside especially HEU in enough quantities it would be possible for Iraq to work to create a viable weapon. I'm now talking implosion technology....40

The IAEA's ability to put together the pieces of the Iraqi nuclear puzzle is hampered by Iraq's refusal to provide IAEA with a comprehensive report on progress achieved in the nuclear weapons program. According to the IAEA, only one "significant weaponization report [was] directly obtained and retained in the custody [of] an IAEA inspection team," and much documentation on weaponization is still missing. For example, an Iraqi computer print-out of former PC-3 equipment doesn't include listings of Group 4 weaponization, or centrifuge program, equipment and materials.

The Iraqis also make the dubious claim that they cannot locate any additional documents on weaponization---for instance, the main register of nuclear-weapon design drawings.41 According to David Kay, "it's like your dog chewed your homework excuse. This doesn't happen in a nuclear weapons program. It tells you they're still trying to hide something." Kay emphasized that locating and analyzing the final Iraqi weapon design is critical to discovering how close Iraq got to the bomb.42

2. Nuclear weapons components

As noted above, no Iraqi nuclear-weapon components (except basic neutron initiators) have ever been located. This does not mean that no such components were ever fabricated. Iraq has admitted that it fabricated explosive lenses, neutron initiators, test firing systems, and dummy uranium cores. As Rolf Ekeus stated last year, UNSCOM believes that there are more components to be found.43

In November 1997, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated that, regarding inspections in Iraq, "[t]here are four categories of weapons of mass destruction that concern us. In the nuclear field that file is the closest to being closed. But we are concerned there are still some components there."44 [emphasis added]

According to a recent trade press report,45 IAEA was informed in 1995, after the seizure of documents at General Kamel's farmhouse, that in late 1990, Iraq had constructed a full-scale model of its nuclear bomb design, fabricated to scale using metal components. The report cites "sources inside the Iraqi nuclear program but not directly involved in key aspects of the weaponization effort," and says that IAEA and UNSCOM hold radically opinions about the significance of the model. IAEA reportedly believes that Iraq is still three to four years away from acquiring the ability to manufacture an effective nuclear weapon, whereas UNSCOM believes Iraq could build a bomb in less than a year.46

Gary Dillon, head of the IAEA Action Team, acknowledged that an Iraqi informant had claimed such a model existed, "but it was a claim without any basis for follow-up." IAEA has found no evidence to support the existence of such a model, and has not discussed the matter with UNSCOM, according to Dillon.47

IAEA has examined Iraqi documents indicating "that a signficant decision had been taken regarding the dimensions of the explosive lens of choice," 48 but providing no indication of development of other weapon components. Iraq rejected an IAEA suggestion "that this decision [on an explosive lens] strongly indicated that similar decisions had been taking regarding the design of the weapon internals."49 Thus, Iraq admitted the lens decision, but denied that such decisions had been made about any other components. Even after receiving the information about a full-scale model weapon, the IAEA reported it "has no information that contradicts Iraq's statement that it had never identified nuclear-weapon design options beyond those preliminary concepts..."50 If it was constructed, the scale model provides a basis for further challenging Iraq's claim to have made only minimal progress on weapons design.

3. Centrifuges

For all their evasiveness, the Iraqis have been perhaps the least forthcoming on the matter of centrifuges. IAEA reported that, as of October 1997, Iraq has made available almost no documentation on its centrifuge uranium enrichment program. Only a few of the centrifuge drawings that Iraq obtained from German technical experts have been made available to IAEA by Iraq, and they "contain only minor details." IAEA concluded that it could not rule out the possibility that centrifuge components and documentation are still being withheld by Iraq.51 Nor has IAEA been able to dismiss conclusively the possibility that a pilot centrifuge cascade existed (or still exists) undetected somewhere in Iraq.

Some important centrifuge documentation may have briefly been in IAEA custody at one point in 1991. Former inspector David Kay wrote that one in four of the documents seized by Iraqis from IAEA inspectors on September 22, 1991, the day before the notorious parking lot standoff, were never returned. Based on hurried initial assessments before the material was repossessed by the Iraqis, the inspectors concluded that the documents probably discussed key aspects of centrifuge program.52 It should be noted that IAEA has not recovered any documents from Iraq dealing with "super-critical" centrifuges, despite admissions from German centrifuge experts that they provided Iraq with design information on such centrifuges.53

Concerns about Iraq's progress on centrifuge enrichment are magnified by the IAEA's inability to account for over a ton of uranium from projects at the Tuwaitha nuclear research facility.54 If Iraq has managed to conceal ton quantities of uranium from the IAEA, it could retain a substantial amount of feedstock to reactivate its centrifuge program.

4. The international procurement network

Even after seven years of IAEA investigations, almost no information on Iraqi procurement has been publicly released, making it impossible to judge how much IAEA has discovered and how much remains undisclosed by Iraq. As former UNSCOM chief Rolf Ekeus recounted,

When our inspectors found machines, equipment and weapons components that had been imported by Iraq, it became necessary for UNSCOM to approach the relevant supplier companies to investigate the complete extent of their dealings with Iraq. Most of the companies were reluctant to talk to our investigators, and only insistent requests to respective governments for support could give us direct, or sometimes indirect, access to the company. For that reason, assurances of protection from public exposure had to be given in order to encourage the companies and their governments to accept our investigation of their dealings with Iraqi authorities.55

Given the increasing difficulty of locating key documents as time passes, it is unlikely that a complete picture of Iraq's pre-war procurement network will ever emerge.56 Even more troubling, as noted above, Iraq's international procurement network is known to have continued operation after end of the Gulf War. UNSCOM and IAEA are tasked to fully account for, and assist the Security Council in shutting down, any ongoing procurement of prohibited materials and technology. But information on continuing procurements is still far from complete.

Iraqi Nuclear Breakout: A Clear and Present Danger

In assessing the nuclear threat from Iraq, it is important to underscore that the human infrastructure of Iraq's nuclear-weapons program remains in place. As David Kay put it, "I don't think the program by any means is dead. The heart of a program is not equipment. The heart of a program is scientific and technical information and knowledge. The same 10 to 15,000 people that worked on the program before the war are still working."57

Iraq's nuclear team was not disbanded, and the nuclear scientists "are essentially prisoners" of Saddam's regime.58 These scientists are interviewed periodically by IAEA, but the IAEA does not keep the scientists under surveillance.59 It remains unclear how closely their movements and their work are monitored by intelligence agencies. According to Paul Stokes, a deputy leader of the IAEA Action Team, there is significant evidence from defectors and other intelligence sources that these scientists continue their work at undeclared sites in Iraq.60 Iraqi nuclear scientists often taunt the inspectors. One looked a U.N. inspector in the eye and said, "We are waiting for you to leave."61

A major concern is that Iraq is capable of building a workable nuclear bomb if the requisite nuclear material could be obtained. Despite some differences with UNSCOM over weaponization, IAEA concluded its October 1997 report by noting that "Iraqi programme documentation records substantial progress in many important areas of nuclear weapon development, making it prudent to assume that Iraq has developed the capability to design and fabricate a basic fission weapon, based on implosion technology and fueled by highly enriched uranium."62

As a result, preventing Iraq from acquiring plutonium or highly enriched uranium is given as a top priority by the IAEA: "Iraq's direct acquisition of weapons-usable nuclear material or nuclear weapon-related technology...will continue to be a matter of major concern to IAEA, and high priority will continue to be given to the investigation of any indication of such acquisition."63 But the IAEA all but concedes its inability to detect the presence of smuggled fissile material inside Iraq: "Iraq's direct acquisition of weapon-usable nuclear material would also present a severe technical challenge to the OMV [ongoing monitoring and verification] measures and great reliance must be placed on international controls."64 Unfortunately, international controls on fissile materials are far from adequate, and national controls in Russia and other former republics of the Soviet Union, are extremely weak. With some 294 tons of separated plutonium and some 20 tons of highly enriched uranium projected to be in civilian commerce in the year 2000,65 relying on the NPT and IAEA safeguards as the primary means of preventing Iraq from getting the bomb is a dangerous gamble---one that failed in 1990.66

Another option for Iraq would be to reconstitute its covert uranium enrichment program based on centrifuge technology. There is evidence that, since the end of the Gulf War, Iraq has attempted to acquire hydrofluoric acid, used to convert natural uranium into uranium hexafluoride for enrichment.67 Based on performance achieved by the Iraqis with their prototype centrifuge, IAEA conservatively estimated that the potential output of a 1,000 centrifuge cascade would be about ten kilograms of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium annually. Had construction been completed, Iraq's Al Furat centrifuge manufacture facility would have been capable of manufacturing up to five thousand centrifuges a year, enough to supply an enrichment facility that could produce fifty kilograms of HEU per year.68 IAEA has started to implement its OMV program, but it is by no means certain that the IAEA could detect a small, well-hidden centrifuge facility. Former IAEA Action Team inspectors Jay Davis and David Kay concluded that, "[b]ecause of the centrifuges' small size, cascades of even 1000 or more---enough to produce material for several bombs a year---are relatively easily concealed."69

Conclusions and Recommendations

After examining the evidence, it is prudent to assume that there is a small, well-concealed nuclear weapons program in Iraq, possibly with fully developed components suitable for rapid assembly into one or more workable weapons if the requisite fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium) were acquired. If Iraq has been able to smuggle in the needed material from, say, Russia or another former Soviet republic without being detected, the nuclear threat could be quite real and even eclipse the CBW threat.

As a P-5 member of the Security Council, the United States should provide a counterweight against pressure by Russia on UNSCOM to close the nuclear file, and on the IAEA Action Team to limit its investigation. Nor should the halting of nuclear inspections be seized upon as an acceptable last-minute compromise by those anxious to find a diplomatic solution to avert U.S. military strikes against Iraq.

The IAEA has had a bad track record when it comes to Iraq, and should be extra cautious about suspending its investigation. In September 1992, the late Mauricio Zifferero, then head of the IAEA Action Team, said that Iraqi nuclear program "is at zero now," and that the Iraqis "have stated many times to us that they have decided at the higher political level to stop these activities. This we have verified. We're completing our investigation of the program and find no evidence of the program being continued."70 Zifferero further claimed that the Iraqi nuclear weapon program "is totally dormant."71

Even in its most recent reports, IAEA seems to place an almost naive confidence in the absence of evidence contradicting unsubstantiated Iraqi claims. When doubt exists, the presumption should be that investigation and active inspection need to continue.The number of significant discoveries since Zifferero's overconfident 1992 declaration should lead us to greet IAEA statements that inspections have reached a point of "diminishing returns" with skepticism.

The unclear division of nuclear responsibilities between IAEA and UNSCOM has resulted in tension and disagreement. After leaving UNSCOM, Rolf Ekeus mentioned that there "was also a certain culture problem with our [UNSCOM's] more aggressive approach, and the IAEA has a more cooperative approach..."72 Better coordination and consultation between the two agencies will be required if the remaining questions about Iraq's nuclear weapons program are to be answered.

One historical note relevant to the current crisis comes from David Kay, who wrote that Hussein "used the chemical weapon threat mainly as a distraction for Israeli intelligence, to draw them away from the nuclear program. So we need to be looking at the whole picture."73 We cannot dismiss the possibility that Saddam Hussein might be pursuing a similar diversionary strategy today with his CBW and missile shell game.

Another series of air strikes, or even a prolonged bombing campaign, are unlikely to destroy all of Iraq's capability to produce and use weapons of mass destruction. The United States seems prepared to use military force to force Iraqi acquiescence in meaningful inspections, including access to presidential sites. Such acquiescence should include full and complete resolution of the five unresolved nuclear-program issue areas specified by IAEA and noted above. Saddam Hussein would be likely to read the closing of the nuclear file as a sign of weakness on the part of the United Nations, making reconstitution of his nuclear weapons program all the more likely and making resolution of questions related to missiles and CBW more difficult.

U.N. inspectors must also keep close track of Iraq's dual-use technology base. IAEA has set up a process to deal with Iraqi requests to release or relocate dual-use equipment from the nuclear program, or to change use of monitored buildings. So far, 27 out of 29 such requests have been approved. Once released to the Iraqis, subsequent inspection of these technologies and buildings is uncertain at best; IAEA requires only that monitoring occur "at a frequency commensurate with their significance."74

Finally, tighter controls must be implemented across the board on commerce in plutonium and highly enriched uranium. When he stepped down as UNSCOM chief last year, Ambassador Rolf Ekeus warned that "[t]he present nuclear threat from Iraq is, in my judgment, linked to the possible import by Baghdad of highly enriched uranium (HEU)....The lack of HEU, together with the effective brake that has been applied to the country's missile programs, constitute the real bottleneck for Iraq for the acquisition of a nuclear weapon."75

Unless nuclear nations stop producing materials by the ton that can be used by the pound to build nuclear bombs, the risk of diversion to the nuclear-weapon program of Saddam Hussein, and of other would-be nuclear powers, will remain high.

End Notes

1. IAEA, Fourth Consolidated Report of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency under Paragraph 16 of Security Council Resolution 1051 (1996), October 8, 1997 [hereafter "S/1997/779"], pp. 21-22.

2. S/1997/779, p. 22.

3 John Goshko, "3 Powers at U.N. Disagree on Iraq's Nuclear Status," Washington Post, January 23, 1998, p. A34.

4. U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 (adopted April 8, 1991), paragraph 13.

5. Quoted in Robert Reid, "U.N.-Iraq," AP wire service story, January 22, 1998.

6. For example, a recent article cited unnamed "Western analysts" to support the claim that Iraq's "nuclear program has been proved to be dismantled." Daniel Pearl, "A Primer on the Weapons-Inspection Snag in Iraq," Wall Street Journal, February 11, 1998, p. A19. In another article, a chart on "Deadly Technologies," detailing "verifiable weapon capabilities in selected Mideast countries," lists Iraq in the chemical, biological, and advanced missile technology categories, but not in the "developing or existing nuclear" category. Neil King, "Iraq is One of Many with a Doomsday Arsenal," Wall Street Journal, February 18, 1998, p. A14.

7. S/1997/779, p. 20, paragraph 75.

8. IAEA, "Appendix: Report on the International Atomic Energy Agency technical team visit to Iraq, 19 to 21 December 1997," S/1998/38, January 15, 1998; UNSCOM, "Report on the Visit to Baghdad from 19 January to 21 January 1998 by the Executive Chairman of the Special Commission Established by the Security Council under Paragraph 9(b)(I) of Security Council Resolution 687 (1991)," S/1998/58, January 22, 1998.

9. Rolf Ekeus, statement at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 10, 1997, quoted in "Could Iraq Build an Atomic Bomb Today if It Were Able to Buy Fissile Material?," Nuclear Control Institute, November 26, 1997.

10. Quoted in Gary Milhollin, "Building Saddam Hussein's Bomb," New York Times Magazine, March 8, 1992, p. 33.

11. Glenn Zorpette, "How Iraq Reverse-Engineered the Bomb," IEEE Spectrum, April 1992, p. 23.

12. S/1997/779, p. 30.

13. David Kay, "Iraqi Inspections: Lessons Learned," Eye on Supply, Winter 1993, p. 89.

14. Ibid.

15. David Kay, quoted in Zorpette, 1992, op cit., p. 65.

16. The July 1945 "Trinity" test at Los Alamos used the more complicated implosion design, and the fissile material was plutonium. This design was used in the "Fat Man" bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.

17. J. Carson Mark, et al., "Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?," in Preventing Nuclear Terrorism, Report and Papers of the International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism, Ed. Paul Leventhal & Yonah Alexander, 1987, p. 59.

18. S/1997/779, pp. 56-62.

19. S/1997/779, p. 53.

20. Paul Leventhal, "Is Iraq Evading the Nuclear Police?," New York Times, December 28, 1990, op-ed page. See also "Present Assessments Understate Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Potential," Statement of Paul Leventhal, Nuclear Control Institute, presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee, November 30, 1990.

21. "How Long to Saddam's Bomb? Some Experts Say ...," Proliferation Watch, Volume 1, Number 5, November/December 1990, p. 19. A chart shows twenty different estimates of how long it would take Iraq to acquire a "nuclear device" or "nuclear weapon." The estimate by NCI of less than six months was the shortest.

The Bush Administration attempted to walk a fine line on the issue of Iraqi nuclear weapons. On the one hand, they tried to drum up support for Operation Desert Storm by emphasizing Iraq's nuclear-weapons aspirations. However, they did not want to undercut domestic support for sending U.S. forces into harm's way by suggesting that Iraq might be able to attack these troops with nuclear bombs. As a result, administration officials downplayed the risk of a "crude bomb" made from diverted HEU, but contended that the risk of Iraq acquiring nuclear weapons within one to five years was significant. Patrick Tyler, "Specialists See Iraq Unlikely to Build A-Bomb in Near Future," Washington Post, November 8, 1990, p. A62.

22. Dr. J. Carson Mark, "Some Remarks on Iraq's Possible Nuclear Weapon Capability in Light of Some of the Known Facts Concerning Nuclear Weapons," Nuclear Control Institute, May 16, 1991, p. 27.

23. Quoted in Mark Hibbs & Ann Maclachlan, "No Bomb-Quantity of HEU in Iraq, IAEA Safeguards Report Indicates," NuclearFuel, August 20, 1990, p. 8.

24. Hans Blix, press conference at the National Press Club, Washington, DC, May 20, 1993, transcript, p. 8.

25. S/1997/779, p. 50.

26. IAEA Statement, "Expanded Response to the Points Raised in the IHT Article 'Who Says Iraq Isn't Making a Bomb,' Leventhal and Lyman, 2 November 1995," November 16, 1995. This statement was apparently written by Gary Dillon, now the head of the IAEA Action Team.

27. Dr. Edwin S. Lyman, "Iraq: How Close to a Nuclear Weapon?," Nuclear Control Institute, November 14, 1995, p. 4. See also Paul Leventhal and Edwin Lyman, "Who Says Iraq Isn't Making a Bomb?," International Herald Tribune, November 2, 1995, op-ed page.

28. S/1997/779, p. 3.

29. International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA Safeguards Glossary: 1987 Edition, 1987, p. 24, Table II.

30. IAEA, Third Consolidated Report of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agenchy under Paragraph 16 of U.N.SC Resolution 1051 (1996), S/1997/297, April 11, 1997, p. 4.

31. S/1997/779, p. 20.

32. IAEA, "Notes of the International Atomic Energy Agency Briefing to the Security Council on 24 November 1997," S/1997/950, December 3, 1997, p. 6.

33. S/1997/950, pp. 4-5. The IAEA report does not give the dates of this exchange of correspondence, nor does it specify whether the exchange occurred before or after the Gulf War.

34. IAEA, "Report on the International Atomic Energy Agency Technical Team Visit to Iraq, 19 to 21 December 1997," S/1998/38, January 15, 1998, p. 4 & p. 7.

35. Rolf Ekeus, quoted in "Could Iraq Build an Atomic Bomb Today...," op cit.

36. During the crash program, Iraq concluded that the weight of the nuclear payload had to be reduced to less than one ton if it was to be delivered successfully by the Al Abid satellite launch rocket then under development. S/1997/779, p. 60.

37. Jeffrey Smith, "Iraq Buying Missile Parts Covertly," Washington Post, October 14, 1995, p. A1; "Jordan Seizes Missile Parts Meant for Shipment to Iraq," Washington Post, December 8, 1995, p. A44.

38. U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), Technologies Underlying Weapons of Mass Destruction, December 1993, p. 197.

39. Al J. Ventor, "How Saddam Almost Built His Bomb," Jane's Intelligence Review, December 1997.

40. Rolf Ekeus, quoted in "Could Iraq Build an Atomic Bomb Today...," op cit.

41. S/1997/779, pp. 8-10.

42. David Kay, quoted in "Investigation shows that it's possible that Saddam Hussein is close to having a nuclear weapon," NBC Nightly News, December 4, 1997, NBC News Transcripts.

43. Rolf Ekeus, presentation at the Carnegie Endowment, June 1997, op cit.

44. Madeleine Albright, CBS "Face the Nation," Host, Bob Schieffer, November 9, 1997, CBS transcript, p. 4. Secretary Albright did not elaborate on her comment, so it is not clear what she meant by the term "components."

45. Mark Hibbs, "IAEA and UNSCOM Puzzled Over Iraqi Mockup of Nuclear Bomb," Nucleonics Week, February 12, 1998, p. 16.

46. Ibid. Hibbs reported that IAEA based its assessment on advice from U.S. nuclear-weapons experts, whereas UNSCOM relied on non-U.S. experts. Robert Kelley, a U.S. expert who did advise IAEA, contends that, due to "internal bickering and jockeying for status" within the weapons program, Iraq was "technologically at least five years away" from acquiring nuclear weapons after the Gulf War. "Former Inspector says Iraq Had No Nukes," United Press wire service story, December 5, 1997.

47. Gary Dillon, IAEA Action Team, personal communication with Paul Leventhal, February 13, 1998.

48. S/1998/38, p. 6.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. S/1997/779, pp. 39-41.

52. Quoted in Zorpette, 1992, op cit., p. 63.

53. S/1997/779, p. 40.

54. S/1997/779, Table 1.1, p. 34.

55. Rolf Ekeus, "Ambassador Rolf Ekeus: Leaving Behind the UNSCOM Legacy in Iraq," Arms Control Today, June/July 1997, p. 5.

56. There is some reason to believe that IAEA discovered the "mother lode" of procurement documents in the summer of 1991, but were forced to relinquish them to the Iraqis. On August 24, 1991, IAEA inspectors "came upon a room lined with bookshelves that held the secrets they were looking for: a series of three-ring binders containing key foreign suppliers' catalogues, each painstakingly translated into Arabic; copies of correspondence with those suppliers; and records detailing purchasing history for virtually every piece of major equipment in the bomb program." The Iraqis would not allow the inspectors to remove these documents. Later, while the inspectors were outside the facility, they saw smoke rising from the building's stacks, suggesting that documents were being burned. Jeffrey Smith & Glenn Frankel, "Saddam's Nuclear-Weapons Dream: A Lingering Nightmare," Washington Post, October 13, 1991, pp. A1, A44-45.

57. David Kay, quoted by NBC Nightly News, op cit.

58. David Albright, Institute for Science and International Security, quoted in Mark Hibbs, "France Expected to Help Russia Terminate IAEA Investigation in Iraq," NuclearFuel, January 12, 1998, p. 4.

59. Gary Dillon, head of the IAEA Action Team, personal communication with Paul Leventhal, February 13, 1998.

60. Ventor, 1997, op cit.

61. Quoted in Milhollin, 1992, p. 30.

62. S/1997/779, pp. 61-62.

63. S/1998/38, p. 8.

64. S/1997/779, p. 22.

65. David Albright, Frans Berkhout, & William Walker, Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities and Policies, 1997, Table 6.8, p. 184, and p. 253. See also "The Plutonium Threat," Nuclear Control Institute, March 1997.

66. As noted Iraq had begun to divert safeguarded HEU, and then proceeded to hide it, without the IAEA's knowledge, in direct violation of IAEA safeguards. For an analysis of specific problems with the IAEA safeguards system, see Paul Leventhal, "IAEA Safeguards Shortcomings--A Critique," Nuclear Control Institute, September 12, 1994, and Marvin Miller, "Are IAEA Safeguards on Plutonium Bulk-Handling Facilities Effective?," Nuclear Control Institute, August 1990.

67. Ventor, 1997, op cit.

68. S/1997/779, pp. 41-42.

69. Davis & Kaye, 1992, op cit., p. 25.

70. "Iraqi Nuclear Program 'at Zero,' U.N. Aide Says," Washington Post, September 3, 1992, p. A39.

71. Caryle Murphy, "Long-Term Monitoring Seen for Iraq," Washington Post, September 8, 1992, p. A16.

72. Rolf Ekeus, remarks at the Carnegie Endowment, June 1997, op cit.

73. David Kay, 1993, op cit., p. 98.

74. S/1997/779, p. 11.

75. Quoted in "Ambassador Rolf Ekeus: Leaving Behind the UNSCOM Legacy in Iraq," Arms Control Today, June/July 1997, p. 4.

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