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The Inevitable Failure of Inspections in Iraq

Charles Duelfer

The United States is currently in the throes of a public debate over using military force to accomplish regime change in Iraq because of the threat Saddam Hussein could pose with weapons of mass destruction. The risks of a military invasion are serious, and some analysts are suggesting that the Bush administration instead pursue the return of United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq. Although this course of action would not achieve regime change, proponents argue that it would succeed in disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, and it would do so at a far lower cost.

Unfortunately, as demonstrated by the experience of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 1991 to 1998, any weapons inspectors sent into Iraq under the ground rules of the existing UN Security Council resolutions and the existing Iraqi regime are doomed to fail. The only uncertainties are how long they will last, whether they will inhibit Iraq’s programs at all, and what role their presence will have in the overarching politics surrounding their almost inconsequential presence. Although inspectors accomplished much during their time in Iraq, their successes were temporary. The categorical goals established by the Security Council were not achievable at a price either the council or Iraq was willing to pay. It turned out that the permanent disarmament goals imposed on Iraq were out of proportion with the inspectors’ tools and the rewards and punishments the Security Council could practically impose. The result was a political and military muddle with the inspectors caught in the middle.

The Security Council passed Resolution 687 as part of the cease-fire arrangements ending the Persian Gulf War. The resolution, among other things, required Iraq to rid itself permanently and unconditionally of all nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capabilities and allow inspectors full access to verify and monitor compliance forever. Resolution 687 also created a positive incentive for Iraqi compliance by linking a decision to lift sanctions with Iraq’s fulfillment of the disarmament provisions. The potential for negative reinforcement was implicit in the fact that the resolution was passed under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, meaning that military force could be used to enforce compliance.

The role of the inspectors was intended to be straightforward. The burden of proof was placed explicitly on Iraq: Baghdad was obligated to make full declarations about its weapons programs and accept monitoring and verification activity as determined necessary by UNSCOM and the IAEA. The UN inspectors were obligated to verify the Iraqi declarations and report their evaluations to the Security Council, which would then make decisions on sanctions. The inspectors were not intended to answer, What illicit capability does Iraq have left? In principle, their job was strictly to verify that Iraq had fully declared and accounted for its weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq’s obligations were clear; the incentives for cooperation were sizable; and the job of the inspectors in the process was simple—on paper. Unfortunately, in reality the inspectors’ job proved to be anything but. The dynamics between Iraq and the Security Council, with the weapons inspectors in between, proved inconsistent with the objective of forcing Iraqi disarmament.

The UN Was Hesitant to Use Force

Immediately after inspectors arrived in Iraq, Baghdad began a pattern of only partially complying with Resolution 687 and testing the will of UNSCOM, the IAEA, and the Security Council. The response was tepid enough to convince Iraq that it could obstruct inspections without triggering a military response.

The first instance of noncompliance occurred in June 1991—the very month inspectors began work in Iraq—when IAEA inspectors were blocked in an effort to get access to calutrons Iraq was concealing. In the aftermath of this blocked inspection, the Security Council dispatched UNSCOM Executive Chairman Rolf Ekeus and IAEA Director-General Hans Blix to Baghdad to seek Iraqi agreement to comply. Subsequent discussion in the council yielded the strongly worded Resolution 707, which strengthened the mandated authorities of the UNSCOM and the IAEA and explicitly laid out the obligations of Iraq and the rights of UN inspectors.

Specifically, the resolution noted that Iraq had failed to comply on many scores by concealing activities, not providing access, and not making full disclosures as required. The resolution stated that Iraq’s failures put it in “material breach of its acceptance of the relevant provisions of resolution 687 which established a cease-fire and provided the conditions essential to the restoration of peace and security in the region.” The implication of this language was that if Iraq was in violation of its obligations of the cease-fire resolution, then military operations against Iraq might be resumed.

On the one hand, this was the high-water mark for the council in its collective demands on Iraq to comply. However, what Baghdad saw in this episode was the Security Council’s lack of will to recommence military action—it had blocked inspectors and only been sanctioned with words. No enforcement action had been taken. Moreover, it was quite apparent that U.S. forces in the region were being withdrawn. Demobilization of the Desert Storm buildup was proceeding even in light of Baghdad’s violent suppression of uprisings in the north and south of Iraq.

Thus it became clear to Baghdad early on that the risk of noncompliance was limited. The council was not going to invade Iraq to secure compliance with the disarmament goals, so there was no risk to the regime directly resulting from defiance of UN resolutions. Hence, the circumstances and elements of Resolution 707 were an early indication of an inherent flaw in the dynamic between the Security Council, Iraq, and the inspectors.

In fact, only two military attacks were ever conducted in support of inspection work. In January 1993, a very limited bombing raid by U.S., British, and French planes was conducted in response to Baghdad’s refusal to permit UNSCOM aircraft to fly into Iraq. The second attack was the December 1998 bombing by the United States and the United Kingdom called Desert Fox, which was carefully limited to four days.

Inspectors Were Undermined

The Security Council resolutions intentionally placed the inspectors in a position superior to Iraq. The Iraqis had to make their case to the inspectors, and the inspectors would report to the council. But in practice, Iraq worked to change this dynamic by appealing directly to sympathetic council members and the secretary-general. Moreover, the inspectors’ power over Iraq was derived from its relationship with the Security Council, so to the extent that Iraq could put distance between the council and the inspectors, the inspectors’ authority and ability to enforce Iraqi compliance was degraded.

Iraq decided moment by moment how fully it would comply with inspectors, and with each case of obstruction the inspectors had to make a decision as to whether they should report it to the Security Council. For example, if inspectors did not receive required biannual forms on the consumption of chlorine at a water purification facility, should they complain to the Security Council? Should an UNSCOM inspector report to New York headquarters if Iraqis at an inspection site said that they did not have a key for a certain room?

It quickly became clear that the Security Council could not be involved in issues other than major breaches, and Iraq learned that small offenses would not be punished. Simply put, would the council want to go to war because some scruffy, arrogant inspector could not get into a building that might be empty and that Iraq said was important to its national sovereignty and dignity? Clearly not. Baghdad developed a good sense of how to limit access rights incrementally in ways to which the council could not respond proportionately. It learned to keep its obstruction below the threshold that would trigger a response from the council.

Furthermore, Iraq worked incessantly to erode the credibility and position of the inspectors, so that when they did complain to the Security Council, their claims were challenged. Iraq accomplished this by accusing the inspectors of malfeasance and threatening to end all cooperation with the council—a problem epitomized by the 1997-1998 controversy over inspectors’ rights of access to sites Iraq claimed were sensitive or special.

UNSCOM was convinced that decisions about weapons of mass destruction were taken at the presidential level and therefore that corresponding documentation would be in presidential areas. But when inspectors attempted to access locations such as the presidential secretary’s office, Iraq blocked them and trivialized their goals by mockingly arguing to the council and the public that Saddam Hussein would not put weapons of mass destruction in his offices. Moreover, Iraq attacked the inspectors’ motives, claiming that they were serving the interests of only one council member, the United States, in its well-known objective of overthrowing the regime.

Such tactics eventually paid off. The UN secretary-general intervened to resolve the matter, thus shifting the power dynamic between the inspectors and Baghdad and radically undermining UNSCOM’s position. By agreeing to mediate the dispute, the secretary-general effectively made the Iraqis and the inspectors equals in presenting their cases before the Security Council. The secretary-general undertook to review the work of UNSCOM independently and discussed the possibility of conducting a “comprehensive review” that would allow outside evaluation of the questions of Iraqi compliance.
The implication, of course, was that the secretary-general did not trust that the inspectors were doing their jobs properly, and because the inspector’s power flowed from the UN, his intervention radically diminished the inspectors’ ability to force Iraqi compliance.

Weapons Were Vital to Iraq

Inherent in the design of Resolution 687 was the assumption that Iraq would value the ability to export oil and engage in normal commerce more than it valued weapons of mass destruction capability—an assumption that turned out to be dead wrong. Discussions with senior Iraqi officials eventually revealed the enormous importance the regime attached to these weapons.

For the regime, possession of weapons of mass destruction was an existential issue. Deputy Prime Minster Tariq Aziz, among others, pointed out that, during the Iran-Iraq war, hitting cities deep in Iran with long-range missiles and countering of human wave attacks (particularly in the battle for al Fao) with massive use of chemical weapons saved Iraq. Moreover, Baghdad believes that its possession of biological and chemical weapons during the 1991 Gulf War helped deter the United States from marching on Baghdad. Thus, the regime has two experiences in which it feels its very survival was linked to possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Nothing in the UN resolutions changed that judgment by Iraq. If anything, the lesson Baghdad learned from the Gulf War is that such weapons—especially nuclear weapons—are even more important than they had thought. Senior Iraqis privately acknowledged that it had been a mistake to invade Kuwait before completing a nuclear weapon. They are convinced the outcome of the war would have been radically different if Washington had had to consider an Iraqi nuclear capability. Certainly, Saddam Hussein understands that today’s debate about invading Iraq to effect regime change would not be taking place if Baghdad could threaten to hit U.S. forces or Israel with a nuclear weapon.

Unfettered Access Was a Myth

The phrase “immediate, unrestricted, and unconditional access” is oft repeated in Security Council language and sounds potent in the Security Council chambers in New York City. Implementing such access is another story. Practical measures taken to carry out inspection activity inevitably warned Iraq of what was coming, and the necessary compromise gave Iraq an advantage.

For example, Resolution 707 clearly states UN aircraft may fly anywhere and land anywhere. But this does not mean that inspectors can simply load up a plane, fly into Iraq, and land unannounced at some airport near a site designated for inspection. Iraq has, with good cause, an active air defense system. UNSCOM therefore had to establish procedures for notifying Iraq of UN flights over its territory to ensure they would not be shot down, but by doing so they gave Iraq advance warning of inspections. (Such procedures also applied to the U-2 surveillance aircraft flown by the United States on behalf of the UN.)

Such compromises marked all steps of inspection work and were a never-ending source of friction between the inspectors and the Iraqi government. The result of the pragmatic measures taken to conduct inspections was that Iraq was given advance warning.

Resources Were Mismatched

It is obvious but worth remembering that Iraq had the resources of a relatively wealthy nation-state to deploy in its efforts to obstruct inspections and that there was no higher priority for the government of Iraq, with the exception of protecting the president. By contrast, the inspection staff numbered a couple of hundred people who operated in the context of an international organization that valued transparency.

Iraq has one of the world’s most elaborate security and intelligence establishments, which it used to study inspector activities in detail and to monitor and contain the inspectors. For example, Iraq could observe the movement of inspectors from their offices and radio ahead to sites in the direction of their travel. Locations containing prohibited weapons or involved in illicit activity would be certain to have some amount of warning, which personnel could use to protect sensitive material. Locations distant from Baghdad could be secure in the knowledge that they would have significant warning times while inspectors traveled. Thus, the pragmatic compromises that UNSCOM had to make, as mentioned above, were compounded by Iraq’s effective use of its considerable resources.

From discussions with Iraqis no longer in Iraq, but who were involved in countering the inspectors, it is clear that Iraq developed a solid understanding of the entire system of inspection activity and worked to exploit every possible window into it. Techniques included paying individuals to provide information, seeking information from cooperative governments, keeping close surveillance on inspectors in Iraq and elsewhere, intercepting communications, and so on. Inspectors tried various methods to elude or deceive such efforts, but as a last resort Iraq always had the option of blocking access and therefore preserving ambiguity about what was going on at a site selected for inspection. The net result was that, although UNSCOM conducted hundreds of “no notice” inspections, perhaps a handful were truly surprise inspections.

The Council Was Divided

The members of the Security Council have different interests and priorities, and Iraq was able play one off against the other to weaken the inspection regime. The UN inspectors were placed between a dedicated, unitary actor on the one hand (Iraq) and a coalition of countries on the other (the Security Council). Over time, the incentives, agendas, and priorities of the countries on the council naturally shifted. Those of Iraq, especially with regard to matters it considered vital, such as its weapons programs, remained more constant. Hence, time has tended to favor the dedicated, unitary actor.

Baghdad has enormous potential rewards to disperse in support of its objectives, and it uses them accordingly, creating economic incentives for council members to lift sanctions. For example, Russia has an agreement to develop the large western Qurnah oil fields—contingent upon the lifting of sanctions. Iraq also dispenses its oil-for-food contracts with a close eye to who supports it in the council. When France supported the United States in revising the sanctions in 2001, it subsequently received far fewer contracts. With similar acumen, Iraq has succeeded in getting its neighbors to engage in the lucrative business of smuggling oil and other prohibited activities.

In a like fashion, Baghdad has disrupted the coalition by demonstrating that its ability to absorb pain is greater than the Security Council’s willingness to inflict it. Sanctions on Iraq have greatly hurt its civilian population (though not, of course, its leadership). Up until the end of the UNSCOM and IAEA presence in Iraq in 1998, the council was confronted with, on the one hand, UN reports on the devastating effect of sanctions on children and other innocents, and on the other, inspector reports that Iraq had not yet fully complied with disarmament. Members reasonably asked how much work UNSCOM had left and whether it was worth sustaining punishment of civilians. Were people suffering because of some insignificant outstanding issues? Iraq had been claiming for years that it had complied with Resolution 687; was it possible that the inspectors were wrong? The burden of proof, which was so central to the inspection process, was thus shifted from Iraq to the inspectors.

Using sanctions to enforce disarmament allowed a regime such as Saddam Hussein’s to take its own population hostage. The situation is not unlike a plane hijacker shooting one passenger every 15 minutes until he is allowed to take off. Under such circumstances, a dedicated individual actor can outlast a collective. By eroding the will of the United Nations—and even the Security Council—to enforce strictly the constraints on Iraq, Baghdad was able to isolate the inspectors, leaving them in a very lonely position when confronting obstructions on the ground.

Politics Trumped Science

The inspection regime was further weakened by the placement of the inspectors—particularly the executive chairman of UNSCOM and the director-general of the IAEA—at the junction of technical and political worlds. At the technical level, inspectors could be fairly categorical and analytical in their assessments. The closer one got to the Security Council, however, the more political and technical issues were mixed. Pressures from all sides were a major factor in the inspectors’ work, and objective reports and judgments became, in practice, impossible.

An example took place in the spring of 1995. At that time, Iraq was relentlessly demanding that the council remove the oil embargo because Baghdad said that it had complied fully with inspections and that UNSCOM and the IAEA had even finished putting monitoring systems in place. Iraq explicitly demanded that either the Security Council act on the embargo or it would quit cooperating. At the same time, some members of the council had begun asking UNSCOM how much more remained to be done. The French actually proposed that Ekeus report to the council on a monthly basis to assure it that progress was being made.

However, UNSCOM experts remained concerned about a number of issues such as whether Iraq produced the chemical agent VX, whether all missiles were accounted for, and whether there was an offensive biological weapons program. Indeed, in February 1995 UNSCOM had for the first time interviewed a defector who credibly reported that Iraq maintained material in all prohibited areas. Most obviously troubling were biological weapons, which Baghdad denied, often ludicrously, having ever produced despite enormous evidence to the contrary.

In May, Iraq informed Ekeus that, if he gave a positive report to the Security Council in June concerning Iraq’s fulfillment of disarmament in the chemical and missile areas, then it would satisfy him on his concerns about offensive biological weapons programs. Ekeus recognized that council support was weakening and took a decision to straddle all the technical doubts about Iraqi compliance. His report skipped over some of UNSCOM experts’ concerns in the missile and chemical areas. Tariq Aziz found this satisfactory and invited Ekeus to Baghdad where he made a very limited admission, saying that Iraq had had a modest offensive biological weapons program which had produced some agent but that the agents had never been weaponized and had been destroyed before the war.

This admission was demonstrated to be grossly inadequate three weeks later, when Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, defected to Jordan. He had been in charge of all of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, and in the aftermath of his defection Baghdad admitted that its previous declarations were wrong and that illicit activities in all areas had been going on—and in fact were still going on—while UNSCOM had been monitoring the country. For example, Iraq had continued to procure material in support of long-range missile development, and it had even conducted surface-to-surface missile tests without UNSCOM monitors being aware.


Weapons of mass destruction apparently have fundamental importance to Baghdad, and the inability of the Security Council to sustain an equivalent threat to impose its will permanently makes long-term prospects for renewed inspections bleak. Baghdad may agree to a return of inspectors in the face of a military threat to remove the regime. But the practical cost of keeping such a military threat in place is huge, and as time goes on Iraq can be expected to apply all the same tactics discussed above for dividing the council and eroding the effectiveness of inspectors.

In December 1999, the Security Council passed Resolution 1284, following a year-long debate over Iraq in the aftermath of Operation Desert Fox and the departure of inspectors. The resolution reaffirms the disarmament goals set forth in all preceding resolutions, and as such the basic dynamics between the council, Iraq, and the inspectors are the same. The resolution creates a new inspector organization, called UNMOVIC, to replace UNSCOM, but the fundamental relationship problems that existed before remain.

Any decision to recommence inspections should therefore be part of a broader political or security strategy that would use inspectors to contain Iraq temporarily. Should such a course be taken, the near-term effectiveness of a reimposed inspection system could be greatly enhanced in a few ways.

First, inspectors should be mandated to interview the few hundred key scientists, engineers, and technicians who were involved in the previous weapons of mass destruction efforts and have them account for their activities since December 1998. The UN knows who these individuals are. If, as is suspected, Iraq has been continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, some or most of these people will have been involved.

Second, the conditions for such interviews must be changed. Iraqi government observers must not be present. The previous UNSCOM agreement to the presence of such “minders” was a mistake. The fact that junior workers would shake with fear at the prospect of answering a question in a way inconsistent with government direction made this obvious.

Third, and most important, the UN should offer sanctuary or safe haven to those who find it a condition for speaking the truth. The people are key to these programs. Access to the people under conditions where they could speak freely was not something UNSCOM ever achieved except in the rare instances of defection. I often summarized this problem to Washington by suggesting that, if UNSCOM had 100 green cards to distribute during inspections, it could have quickly accounted for the weapons programs.

Yet, even by expanding the inspection system’s abilities beyond that presently envisioned, the long-term problem is the regime. Is it realistic to think that, if Iraq cooperated and maybe even complied to the satisfaction of the inspectors, the Security Council would return full control of all Iraqi oil revenues to Baghdad? Is it realistic to think that Baghdad would then still continue to comply and permanently give full access to inspectors? Is it realistic to think that the Security Council would be able to sustain the will to impose drastic penalties if Iraq proceeded to limit inspector access gradually or even tossed the inspectors out altogether? No. Setting down this path yet again would be an exercise in political delusion. Moreover, given the political advantages that Baghdad would gain from making temporary concessions, reinstalling inspectors would actually be counterproductive in the long term for our nonproliferation goals.

On the other hand, if Iraqis got the opportunity to create a new government in Baghdad, then much would be possible. Not only might it be possible to lift sanctions, but Iraq’s disarmament could also remove pressures that other actors in the region feel to develop weapons of mass destruction. To date, the lesson of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is that they helped the regime survive; and regional states, such as Iran, have taken note. Long-term prospects for diminishing the spreading biological, chemical, and nuclear threat will only be reduced when the fundamental problem—the management in Baghdad—is changed. Moreover, quite apart from issues of disarmament, the enormous potential of the Iraqi people will never be achieved under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Narrowly defining the solution to the Iraq problem as the reinsertion of inspectors misses the larger and longer-term problem.

Iraq will likely engage in further dialogue with the United Nations on the possibility of allowing inspectors to return if the United States continues to move toward using force to support a policy of regime change. But sending inspectors back into Iraq would be nothing more than a tactical decision that is part of a political and military strategy to address issues far beyond disarmament.

Charles Duelfer is a visiting resident scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 1993 to 2000 he served as the deputy executive chairman of UNSCOM.