Overview of IAEA Nuclear Inspections in Iraq

 Steven Dolley and Paul Leventhal[1]
Nuclear Control Institute 

June 14, 2001

  It is important and timely to examine the International Atomic Energy Agencys (IAEA) inspections of Iraqs nuclear program, both before and after the Gulf War. Distinctly absent from most policy discussions of the topic are voices critical of the Agencys performance in Iraq. The IAEAs record of shortcomings and failures in detecting nuclear-weapons development in Iraq should be weighed against its accomplishments when assessing any potential role for the Agency in the event inspections are resumed in Iraq.

The only IAEA visits to Iraq since Saddam kicked U.N. inspectors out in late 1998 have been two brief trips to verify the amount and status of Iraqs declared stocks of natural and low-enriched uranium.[2] However, there have been troubling indications over the last two years that Saddams nuclear-weapons program has not only survived, but been reinvigorated. In a speech televised in Baghdad last September, Saddam told his nuclear energy officials that the battle is your battle, that Iraqs enemies will be defeated when their losses will be as huge as the gains they had hoped to achieve, and that the Nuclear Energy [Association] has a big duty in this field.[3] Salman Zweir worked for 13 years as an engineer for the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission before defecting to the West in late 1998. Zweir, who worked on the centrifuge uranium enrichment program, claims that Saddam recalled him and many other technical personnel to the nuclear-weapons program in the fall of 1998. Zweir refused, was imprisoned and tortured, and eventually escaped to the West.[4] Some other recent reports of alleged defectors are less credible.[5] The general picture that emerges is an ongoing, active effort by Iraq to build nuclear weapons.

The IAEA performance in Iraq has not been reassuring. Iraq learned early on that it could conceal a nuclear weapons program by cooperating with the IAEA. Khidhir Hamza, a senior Iraqi scientist who defected to the United States in 1994, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that Saddam Hussein approved a deception-by-cooperation scheme in 1974. "Iraq was careful to avoid raising IAEA suspicions; an elaborate strategy was gradually developed to deceive and manipulate the agency," Hamza said.[6] The strategy worked. Iraq, as a signer of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, was subject to IAEA inspections on all nuclear facilities. But IAEA's inspectors had failed to detect the Iraqi "Manhattan Project," which was discovered after the Gulf War by IAEA teams at sites identified by the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM).

The IAEA's track record of missing evidence of Iraq's nuclear weapons program both predates and post-dates the Gulf War. In 1981, Israeli air strikes destroyed Iraq's nearly complete Osirak research reactor because Tel Aviv feared Iraq's plutonium-production capacity if the plant was allowed to start up. After the attack, IAEA inspector Roger Richter resigned from the agency to defend Israel's action. He had helped negotiate the IAEA's "safeguards" arrangement for the reactor and later told Congress that the agency had failed to win sufficient access to detect plutonium production for weapons.[7] In August 1990, only weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait, IAEA safeguards director Jon Jennekens praised Iraqi cooperation with the IAEA as "exemplary," and said Iraq's nuclear experts "have made every effort to demonstrate that Iraq is a solid citizen" under the nonproliferation treaty.[8]

In 1991, after the Gulf War, the U.N. awarded the nuclear-inspection portfolio in Iraq to the IAEA rather than UNSCOM, following a concerted lobbying campaign by the IAEA, supported by the United States and France. The principal argument was political: With only a few years remaining before the Non-Proliferation Treaty had to be extended, it would be extremely damaging for the treaty's survival if the agency were downgraded in any way.

Its turf battle won, the IAEA continued to see things Iraq's way. In September 1992, after destruction of the nuclear-weapons plants found in the war's aftermath, Mauricio Zifferero, head of the IAEA's "Action Team" in Iraq, declared Iraq's nuclear program to be "at zero now. . . totally dormant." Zifferero explained that the Iraqis "have stated many times to us that they have decided at the higher political levels to stop these activities. This we have verified."[9]

But it eventually became clear that Iraq had concealed evidence of its continuing nuclear bomb program. In 1995, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Gen. Hussein Kamel, fled to Jordan and revealed that he had led a "crash program" just before the Gulf War to build a crude nuclear weapon out of IAEA-safeguarded, civilian nuclear fuel, as well as a program after the war to refine the design of nuclear warheads to fit Scud missiles. Iraqi officials insisted that Kamel's work was unauthorized, and they led IAEA officials to a large cache of documents at Kamel's farm that, the Iraqis said, proved Kamel had directed the projects without their knowledge.

The Kamel revelations refuted an IAEA claim, made in 1993 by Hans Blix, then Director General of the IAEA and currently head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), that "the Iraqis never touched the nuclear highly enriched uranium which was under our safeguards."[10] In fact, the Iraqis had cut the ends off of some HEU fuel rods, and were preparing to remove the material from French- and Russian-supplied research reactors for use in weapons when the allied bombing campaign interrupted the project.[11] The IAEA accepted a technically flawed claim by Iraqi officials that the bomb project would have been delayed by the need to further enrich the bomb-grade fuel for use in weapons.[12] Also, defector Hamza later made clear that Iraq could have made direct use of the material in a bomb within a few months.

There were sharp differences between UNSCOM and the IAEA on how to conduct weapons inspections.[13] UNSCOM was more confrontational, refusing to accept Iraqi obfuscations and demanding evidence of destroyed weapons---what former UNSCOM chief Rolf Ekeus once called "the arms-control equivalent of war." The IAEA has been more accommodating, giving Iraqi nuclear officials the benefit of the doubt when they failed to provide evidence that all nuclear weapons components had been destroyed and all prohibited activities terminated. Ekeus acknowledged "a certain culture problem" resulting from UNSCOM's "more aggressive approach, and the IAEA's more cooperative approach."[14] The result was a widespread and dangerous perception that Iraq's nuclear threat was history, while Iraq was generally perceived to be concealing other weapons of mass destruction because UNSCOM consistently refused to accept unverified claims of their elimination.

There were intelligence reports, received and deemed reliable in late 1996 by UNSCOM chief inspector Scott Ritter, that Iraq had constructed one to three complete sets of components for nuclear bombs, lacking only the fissile material to make them operational.[15] Khidir Hamza wrote that at least one such set of components had been assembled and displayed for Hussein Kamel immediately prior to the Gulf War.[16] These components have never been accounted for, nor has Iraqs nuclear-bomb design been surrendered to the IAEA. Based on the IAEAs own inspection reports, Nuclear Control Institute has documented several other important unresolved issues regarding Iraqs nuclear weapons program,[17] demonstrating the inaccuracy of IAEA Director-General ElBaradeis December 1997 statement that the IAEA has managed to remove or destroy or render harmless all nuclear items that came to our knowledge.[18]

The absence of evidence of ongoing Iraqi efforts to build the bomb after the Gulf War was construed by the IAEA as evidence of the absence of a bomb program. The fact Iraq made unsubstantiated claims and the IAEA could not find any evidence to dispute those claims should have been cause for concern, not an excuse to cease intrusive nuclear inspections in favor of ongoing monitoring and verification, as the IAEA had proposed in early 1998. A major lesson to be learned from this period is that, when doubts persist, the presumption should be that active investigation and inspections must be continued, not abandoned in frustration.

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. IAEA officials have admitted that it would be difficult if not impossible to detect the covert acquisition by Iraq of the small amounts of fissile material needed for a few bombs, and the Agencys ongoing monitoring and verification plan is predicated on the assumption that Iraq retains the technical capability to exploit, for nuclear weapons purposes, any relevant material to which it might gain access.[19] If Iraq has been able to smuggle in the needed material from, say, Russia or another former Soviet republic, the nuclear threat could be quite real. Any future role for the IAEA in Iraq should be considered in the light of lessons learned from past failures.

[1] Steven Dolley is research director, and Paul Leventhal is president, of the Nuclear Control Institute.

[2] Nuclear Inspectors Praise Iraq, Associated Press Wire Service, January 24, 2001; IAEA, IAEA Inspectors Conclude Nuclear Materials Inspection in Iraq, PR 2000/04, January 26, 2000.

[3] Saddam Hussein, September 10, 2000, quoted in Patrick Clawson, Iraq: A Blast from the Past?, Policywatch, #497, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 23, 2000.

[4] Marie Colvin, Saddam Builds New Atom Bomb, Sunday Times of London, December 24, 2000.

[5] In January 2001, another unnamed defector, claiming to have worked in the nuclear-bomb program, asserted that Iraq possesses two fully operational bombs and is currently making more. Jessica Berry, Saddam Has Made Two Atomic Bombs, Says Iraqi Defector, London Telegraph, January 28, 2001. Another alleged defector claimed that Iraq had actually conducted a successful underground test of a nuclear device beneath a dry lakebed near Baghdad in September 1989---despite the fact that no significant seismic events were detected anywhere in Iraq during that month. Uzi Mahnaimi and Tom Walker, Defector Says Iraq Tested Nuclear Bomb, Sunday Times of London, February 25, 2001; Gwynne Roberts, Was This Saddams Bomb?, Sunday Times of London, February 25, 2001; Did Iraq Conduct a Clandestine Nuclear Test?, Reuters Wire Service, June 11, 2001; Did Iraq Conduct a Nuclear Weapon Test?, Trust & Verify, March/April 2001. 

[6] Khidir Hamza, Inside Saddams Secret Nuclear Program, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 1998.

[7] Ex-Inspector Asserts Iraq Planned to Use Reactor to Build A-Bombs, New York Times, June 20, 1981; Roger Richter, Suppose You Were a Reactor Inspector, Washington Post, June 24, 1981; Roger Richter, Testimony before the Subcommittees on International Security and Scientific Affairs, Europe and the Middle East, and on Economic Policy and Trade, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, June 25, 1981.

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

[9] Zifferero, quoted in Washington Post, September 3, 1992, p. A39.

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

[11] IAEA, Fourth Consolidated Report of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency under Paragraph 16 of Security Council Resolution 1051 (1996), S/1997/779, October 8, 1997, p. 50.

[12] Edwin S. Lyman, Iraq: How Close to a Nuclear Weapon?, Nuclear Control Institute, November 30, 1995 (http://www.nci.org/i/ib113095.htm). See also Paul Leventhal and Edwin Lyman, Who Says Iraq Isnt Making a Bomb?, International Herald Tribune, November 2, 1995 (op-ed page) (http://www.nci.org/a/a11295.htm): IAEA officials now insist that Iraq faced a daunting 12 to 18 months to prepare the bomb fuel, but a leading U.S. government expert told us the task was peanuts---a good undergraduate lab exercise.

[13] This issue is examined in detail in Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley, Iraqs Inspector Games, Washington Post, Outlook Section, November 29, 1998, pp. C1, C4. (http://www.nci.org/v-w-x/wp112998.htm)

[14] 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 (http://www.nci.org/s/sp61097.htm).

[15] Barton Gellman, Iraqi Work Toward A-Bomb Reported: U.S. Was Told of Implosion Devices, Washington Post, September 30, 1998, p. A1; personal communications with Scott Ritter, September-October 1998.

[16] Khidir Hamza (with Jeff Stein), Saddams Bombmaker, New York: Scribner, 2000, pp. 239-240. Also, Shyam Bhatia and Daniel McGrory provide the following accout (without providing the source of their information) of a conversation that allegedly took place between Dr. Jaffar Jaffar and Saddam Hussein immediately after the Gulf War in early 1991:

Saddams main nuclear centers, like Tuwaitha and Tarmiya, that produced weapons-grade uranium had been destroyed. But the components manufactured for the beach ball operation [Kamels crash program] had been salvaged and hidden by the SSO [State Security Organization]. Saddams scientists assured their president that when the dust settled and the likes of UNSCOM had given up, he could buy plutonium or weapons-grade uranium from the black market and slot it into place.[Dr. Jaffar told Saddam] Saadi, we still have the chassis safely hidden. Give us the engine and we can be back on the road. If you buy weapons-grade material, I promise that your scientists can build three nuclear bombs in three months. Jaffar listed what Iraq had managed to save: three sets of explosive lenses, neutron generators, the uranium casings for the bomb (called the tampers), the firing sets and the electronic gadgetry that had been tried and tested at Al Atheer before the start of Desert Storm. Shyam Bhatia & Daniel McGrory, Brighter than the Baghdad Sun: Saddam Husseins Nuclear Threat to the United States, Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1999, p. 289.

[17] Steven Dolley, Iraq and the Bomb: The Nuclear Threat Continues, Nuclear Control Institute, February 19, 1998 (http://www.nci.org/i/ib21998.htm); Steven Dolley, Iraqs Nuclear Weapons Program: Unresolved Issues, Nuclear Control Institute, May 12, 1998 (http://www.nci.org/iraq/iraq511.htm). All of the major issues documented in these reports remain unresolved today.

[18] Mohamed ElBaradei, quoted in Washington Post, December 4, 1997, p. A34. ElBaradeis 1997 statement is at odds with the IAEAs February 1999 report that the Agencys monitoring plan takes into account the prudent assumption that Iraq has retained documentation of its clandestine nuclear programme, specimens of important components and possibly amounts of non-enriched uranium. The possibly qualifier is puzzling, given that Iraq retains large, declared stocks of natural uranium and smaller but significant declared stocks of low-enriched uranium, which were inspected by the IAEA in January 2000 and again in January 2001 (see footnote 2 above).

[19] 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. 8. The possibility of Iraq acquiring quantities of weapons-usable material on the black market is not far-fetched. A report presented at a recent IAEA conference documented some 550 reported incidents of nuclear materials smuggling. Two-thirds of these incidents have been confirmed, and about one in 10 of the incidents involved plutonium or highly enriched uranium. How many of these incidents involved Iraq was not reported. Rob Edwards, Plutonium for Sale, New Scientist, May 26, 2001.