Iraq's Reconstitution of Its Nuclear Weapons Program

October 1998

By David Albright and Khidhir Hamza

Iraq has provided few credible indications that its nearly three-decade quest for nuclear weapons has ended. Since its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, however, Iraq has had an extremely difficult time making any progress in building nuclear weapons. The economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council after the invasion disrupted many vital imports, particularly for Iraq's uranium enrichment program. The allied bombing campaign destroyed many of its key nuclear facilities.

The subsequent, highly intrusive inspections mandated by the Security Council and carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Action Team in cooperation with the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) exposed and destroyed vast amounts of nuclear equipment and materials. In the process, the inspections uncovered a long-standing and determined clandestine nuclear weapons program, despite Iraqi denials until 1995 that such a program existed. Currently, essentially all of Iraq's pre-Gulf War nuclear facilities and equipment have been eliminated or converted to non-proscribed purposes under periodic Action Team inspections. But Iraq retains its nuclear cadres and its extensive knowledge and experience built up before the Gulf War. Moreover, some key unanswered questions remain about Iraq's effort to build the nuclear weapon itself—called "weaponization" here—and to build a gas centrifuge enrichment program to enrich uranium for weapons purposes.

Since the war, Iraq is suspected of having made progress on a number of bottlenecks in its weapons program, at least those which could be done with little chance of detection by inspectors. These activities include design work, laboratory efforts, subcomponent production, and the operation of test machines. If the inspection system becomes ineffective, Iraq could reconstitute major aspects of its nuclear weapons program that would likely be discovered under the current inspection regime, a combination of historical investigations and an on-going monitoring and verification (OMV) system. Even under the OMV regime, Iraq's illicit acquisition of plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the former Soviet Union would be very difficult to detect. Because of this and other weaknesses, the OMV system needs improvement to be effective in deterring and detecting Iraq's banned activities.

There are few alternatives. A nuclear-armed Iraq would be extremely dangerous. Nuclear weapons would aid Saddam Hussein in ensuring his own survival and increasing his regional power. If he detonated a nuclear explosive underground, the international community, and in particular the United States, may not risk intervention, particularly if definitive information about the size of Iraq's nuclear arsenal is lacking.

Essential to any discussion about about Iraq or the OMV system are estimates of the time needed for Iraq to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. Such an assessment requires a thorough understanding of Iraq's pre-war program and reasonable inferences about its activities after the war. This article attempts to summarize this discussion and outline some of the most important scenarios of how Iraq may reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. In addition, this article looks at a neglected part of the entire inspection process, namely improving methods to reduce the risk posed by the Iraqi nuclear scientists. There is wide agreement about their central importance to any Iraqi attempt to reconstitute its nuclear program. Yet, little has been done to reduce the threat they pose.


Acquiring a Safeguarded Fuel Cycle

Since its inception in the early 1970s, Iraq's nuclear weapons program has depended on deception and determination. Originally, the plan, which one of us (Hamza) authored, was to acquire a complete nuclear fuel cycle able to produce and separate plutonium. The plan focused on the foreign acquisition of complete nuclear facilities with training in their use conducted in the supplier country.

During the 1970s, Iraq concentrated on acquiring nuclear facilities overseas that would have been under IAEA safeguards, since Iraq had signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. Nonetheless, Iraq reckoned it could defeat the safeguards at these facilities or secretly build undeclared duplicate facilities.

In 1976, Iraq succeeded in buying from France a 40-megawatt materials test reactor called the Tammuz-1 reactor, or Osiraq reactor, that ran on weapons-grade uranium fuel. In 1979, Iraq established a radiochemical laboratory, equipped through a contract with the Italian company SNIA-Techint, suitable for laboratory research on reprocessing. It also acquired a fuel fabrication plant from Italy that was suitable for making natural uranium targets for secret irradiation in the Osiraq reactor.

Iraqi teams calculated that the Osiraq reactor could conservatively produce about 5 kilograms to 7 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium per year. This value could be higher or lower depending on how the targets were arranged in the reactor; it also depended on the frequency of visits by IAEA inspectors and French personnel. The Iraqis believed that the safeguards on the reactor, which would have included periodic inspections and surveillance cameras, could have been defeated. Prior to visits by IAEA inspectors and French personnel, Iraq planned to pull out the unsafeguarded targets. Iraq had also developed plans to defeat the cameras.

Before Iraq could illicitly produce any plutonium and put the IAEA's safeguards to the test, however, Israel bombed the reactor in June 1981, shortly before the reactor was scheduled to go into operation. The radiochemical laboratory and fuel fabrication plant were not bombed. Later, the fabrication facility was used to produce unsafeguarded targets which were irradiated in a Russian-supplied research reactor to produce plutonium. The reactor also irradiated bismuth targets to make polonium-210, a material used in beryllium-polonium neutron initiators which trigger the nuclear explosion. Material from the targets was extracted in the Italian radiochemical laboratory, which was expanded in the early 1980s.


Iraq Goes Underground

Following the bombing of the Osiraq reactor, Iraq decided to: (1) replace the Osiraq reactor or to develop a heavy water or enriched uranium reactor and associated plutonium separation capability; and (2) develop a uranium enrichment production capacity.

Iraq tried to replace the Osiraq reactor, but by 1985, it realized that it could not buy a replacement. Before the bombing, Iraq had developed plans and purchased some minor items for a 20- to 40-megawatt heavy water natural uranium reactor. After delays in buying a replacement reactor, Iraq decided to pursue this reactor project again. In the late 1980s, however, it put its plans on hold, facing resource limitations. But Iraq continued its efforts to learn how to separate plutonium from irradiated fuel and to make heavy water. Depending on the success of the enrichment programs, Iraq may have reconstituted the nuclear reactor project.

Even before the Israeli bombing of the Osiraq reactor, Iraqi scientists had been evaluating the development of uranium enrichment technologies. However, Iraq has declared that a decision by the Iraqi leadership to pursue these options came after the June 1981 bombing. An Iraqi evaluation finished in 1981 concluded that electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS) was the most appropriate technology for Iraq and that gaseous diffusion was the next most appropriate option. Gaseous diffusion was planned to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) which could be used as a feedstock for EMIS, dramatically increasing overall HEU production in EMIS separators. If EMIS was unsuccessful, the plan called for expanding the gaseous diffusion facility to produce HEU directly. At the time, gas centrifuge technology was viewed as too difficult to accomplish. (See below.)



The goal of the EMIS program was to build two production units, each able to achieve 15 kilograms per year of weapons-grade uranium using natural uranium feed. Iraqi estimates of the HEU output using LEU feed (enriched to 2.5 percent uranium-235) vary between roughly 25 kilograms and 50 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium per year. The variation reflects different plant designs and performance uncertainties.

After several years of research and development work of mixed success, Iraq nonetheless started in 1987 to build its first EMIS production facility at Tarmiya, north of Baghdad. Also in late 1987, Iraq decided to build a replica of Tarmiya at Al Sharqat, about 200 kilometers northwest of Baghdad. This facility, which was built by Iraqis only, was originally viewed as a second production site that would come into operation roughly at the same time as Tarmiya. In the late 1980s, this plan was modified to one where Al Sharqat would operate after Tarmiya was finished. Iraq also sought unsafeguarded LEU on the international market during the late 1980s. However, it has declared that its search was half-hearted and unsuccessful. Whether this declaration is complete is unclear. As of 1997, the Action Team had not pursued this issue further.

The EMIS program faced repeated delays and technical problems, and by the time of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Tarmiya was at least a year behind schedule. At that time, Tarmiya was not expected to produce its first goal quantity of weapons-grade uranium, or 15 kilograms, until at least 1992, assuming that the plant would function well and that a stock of LEU would be used. If natural uranium was used, the date for the production of the first goal quantity would have been 1993 or later.

Because of the large size of EMIS facilities, few expect Iraq to try to secretly rebuild its EMIS production facilities. In addition, it still has to overcome several technical problems, including problems in vacuum technology and ion sources, before its separators would work properly. Armed with a stock of LEU, however, Iraq could produce 15 kilograms per year of weapons-grade uranium with a facility about one-third the size of Tarmiya.


Enrichment Options

By 1987 or 1988, when it became apparent to the Iraqi leadership that the gaseous diffusion program was not progressing well, Iraq decided to de-emphasize this effort. It instead concentrated on chemical enrichment as a source of LEU feedstock for the EMIS program. By 1990, Iraq had made little progress in building a chemical enrichment plant. However, both programs could be reconstituted, although substantial technical challenges would need to be overcome before Iraq could operate production-scale facilities.

After the cancellation of the gaseous diffusion program, the team started to work on gas centrifuges. The team had already been transferred from the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center to a new site on the northern edge of Baghdad near Rashdiya, later named the Engineering Design Center (EDC). This change reflected a change of authority from the Atomic Energy Establishment to the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization.

This group managed to acquire extensive overseas cooperation in designing and building gas centrifuges, so much so that inspectors have characterized the assistance as key to progress in the centrifuge program.

Despite such help, at the time of the Gulf War, Iraq was still a few years from an operating plant able to produce goal quantities of weapons-grade uranium, declared by the centrifuge program as 1,000 centrifuges producing 10 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium per year. Because of the relatively small size of a gas centrifuge program and the extensive progress made before the war, Iraq is viewed as likely to reconstitute its gas centrifuge program.



Iraq's effort to produce a nuclear explosive started in the mid-1980s. Under a 1988 plan, Iraq intended to have its first weapon by the summer of 1991, based on an implosion design. Iraq had worked on developing the capability to make fissile material for many years prior to this date, and Iraq has explained that the decision at that particular time reflected the expectation that domestically produced HEU would become available within a few years. Iraq intended that its nuclear weapons would be put on ballistic missiles. Iraq faced many problems in trying to reduce and ruggedize its design to fit on top of a ballistic missile.

Questions remain about the status of Iraq's weaponization program at the time of the allied bombing campaign in January 1991, when most activities were halted. Nevertheless, the Action Team inspectors have concluded that with the accelerated effort under the crash program, Iraq could have finished a nuclear explosive design by the end of 1991, if certain technical problems were overcome. However, it would have needed longer to prove a design for the Al Hussein missile. This missile, for example, would have required a warhead with a diameter of 70 centimeters to 80 centimeters, much smaller than the diameter of the design nearing completion that had a diameter of about 120 centimeters.

Iraq was also planning to build a nuclear test site, called the Al Sahara Project. At the time of the allied bombing campaign, Iraq had picked candidate sites in southwest Iraq but it had not performed a site investigation. In addition, according to a senior Iraqi nuclear official, Iraq did not plan to conduct a test before it had accumulated a few nuclear weapons. Iraq has stated that it planned to develop confidence in its weapon designs through an extensive experimental testing program that stopped short of a full-scale nuclear test.


Crash Program

By the time Iraq invaded Kuwait, Iraq still lacked an indigenous source of fissile material; its enrichment plants were still far away from producing HEU. In mid-August 1990, the Iraqi leadership ordered the diversion of its stock of safeguarded HEU fuel. Iraq's initial plan was to extract the HEU from the fuel, further enrich a portion of it, and build a nuclear weapon. The goal was to execute this plan within six months, although by the time of the allied bombing campaign in mid-January 1991 which stopped the effort, Iraq had fallen several months behind. A nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile would have taken significantly longer.


Iraq has denied trying to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program after the Gulf War, although Iraqi documents suggest otherwise, at least for the period right after the war. Documents dated early June 1991 but finished several weeks earlier, called for salvaged equipment for processing safeguarded HEU fuel to be moved from the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center to Tarmiya. Only in late May did the first inspection team show up at Tarmiya, unknowingly halting any Iraqi effort to reconstitute these projects there.

Determining whether Iraq has conducted any proscribed nuclear activities since the Gulf War remains a thorny problem for the Action Team and UNSCOM. Little evidence has surfaced since the defection in August 1995 of General Hussein Kamel, then head of the Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization (and Saddam Hussein's son-in-law), suggesting that Iraq has been conducting secret nuclear weapons work. Given the nature of the Iraqi regime, however, few accept that it has given up its nuclear weapons ambitions. Iraq's persistence in weakening inspections and hiding equipment, information and materials over the past seven years at great cost in lost oil revenue has only intensified suspicions about its intentions.

There is no simple answer to how much Iraq has accomplished in its nuclear weapons program since 1991 or how quickly Iraq could obtain nuclear weapons in the future. Below, we consider several important scenarios by which Iraq could build nuclear weapons. These estimates assume that the activities are carried to fruition without being discovered by the inspectors.


What Iraq Still Has

Iraq has demonstrated many times in the past seven years that it will make great sacrifices to preserve its basic resources for its weapons program. Nonetheless, vast amounts of equipment, materials and facilities have been destroyed by the inspectors. There are no known facilities working on nuclear weapons. The IAEA routinely says it has no evidence that banned activities are happening. However, an IAEA statement that it found "no evidence of any activity" does not mean that it has "evidence for no activity." This distinction is important.

Iraq is known to have kept its nuclear weapon teams together following the Gulf War. These teams are kept together by force and intimidation. They appear not to be significantly reduced in size or number from before the Gulf War. Many of these scientists are now in "unreal career paths," according to one Action Team inspector, and could be quickly redirected to nuclear weapons activities, if a decision were made to do so. Iraq has a relatively complete set of documents, despite its frequent protestations to the contrary. It has undoubtedly continued since the war collecting relevant data, reports and information throughout the world. Travel by Iraqis and Internet access have continued.

Following the Gulf War, Iraq established a program at its universities to train a new generation of nuclear scientists and provide more advanced instruction to members of the program. The new scientists are viewed as more loyal to the regime and may apply their expertise only in Iraq, further inhibiting defections. Many key nuclear scientists also gained experience and confidence after the war by rebuilding Iraq's civil industries. Nuclear scientists were instrumental in putting oil refineries, telephone exchanges and power stations back into operation under adverse conditions.

We believe that Iraqi scientists have been conducting theoretical design work and small-scale research and development in a wide range of proscribed areas since inspections began. Iraq may have also modified non-banned items that would be useful for small-scale research and development (R&D) and manufacturing work. Small numbers of such items may have been smuggled from abroad. Nonetheless, extensive progress by Iraqi scientists has been likely hampered by poor working conditions and the IAEA's and UNSCOM's intense scrutiny of the Iraqi program and facilities (and the difficulty in smuggling in key items, or items in sufficient quantity, from abroad).

However, these hardships should not disguise an important cultural shift in the nuclear program. In a new era of international sanctions, intense scrutiny and a lack of funds, new and more ruthless management teams are likely to emerge. The lack of accomplishments prior to the Gulf War, frequently exposed by the inspectors, will drive the new program to correct old mistakes and be more self-reliant and productive. Iraq's core asset is its seasoned and well-experienced cadre. These scientists can be expected to create more focused and productive programs at a reduced cost, size and visibility.


Post-War Weaponization

Prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Iraq was unable to achieve its goal of making a nuclear explosive or weapon. This weakness inhibited its ability to take advantage of the safeguarded HEU fuel before the start of the allied bombing campaign. Iraq probably has focused on making sure it would not be so limited again, if it were presented with a new supply of plutonium or HEU. It is difficult to detect small-scale weaponization work, such as high explosive lenses, uranium metallurgy and neutron initiators—even under the most intrusive inspection regimes. Based on our own assessment conducted in mid-1997, we concluded that in early January 1991 Iraq was within a few months to a year of building a nuclear explosive. Building a weapon able to be mounted to a ballistic missile would have required more time.

After the war, scientists in the weaponization program worked six days a week, eight hours per day. They had time to resolve several theoretical design issues they could not properly evaluate during the crash program. They conducted a range of theoretical activities, such as computer simulations of the atomic explosion. They also worked on more advanced explosives for the device. These activities led to a much better understanding of nuclear explosives and their behavior.

Iraq worked on small-scale experiments to improve its knowledge of particular components. It may have smuggled in subcomponents, machine tools and other items. Technicians could have continued to improve their skills in making uranium components by using surrogate materials. Iraq has worked on improving the design of high-explosive lenses and its ability to make them.

A special problem for Iraq is the neutron initiator. Its pre-war design was based on beryllium and polonium-210, a highly radioactive material with a half-life of about one year. Any polonium-210 Iraq may have successfully hidden from inspectors would have decayed away by now. Because Iraq obtained its polonium by irradiating bismuth targets in its research reactor, which is now defunct, it cannot produce more. Thus, Iraq needs a new type of neutron generator, and one likely candidate is a pulsed neutron generator based on tritium and deuterium. Iraq obtained several pulsed tritium-deuterium generators that are used in the oil exploration industry. One of the "oil well logging" devices could be suitable to trigger a nuclear explosive. Iraq also had established a program before the war to build its own pulsed neutron generator, but this program did not progress very far.

One of us (Hamza) was involved in an attempt in 1991 to create an off-shore company in Jordan to produce tritium-deuterium generators. The company would have produced these generators for the oil industry, but in secret; it would also have produced miniaturized neutron generators for use in Iraqi nuclear weapons. The company would have depended on the involvement of an East European expert with long experience in building such devices. This expert was not told the true purpose of the company, but he said that a civilian endeavor could no longer be done in Iraq because of the UN sanctions. Hamza pulled out of the project when Iraq stated that he could not take his family with him to Jordan. He believes that the company was never built in Jordan.

Assuming that Iraq has done nothing on weaponization since the Gulf War, we estimate that Iraq may need more than a year to reconstitute its program and finish a device, absent the fissile material. However, this scenario appears unlikely. The more likely scenario is that Iraq has made progress since the war, although the extent of progress is difficult to judge. Our conclusion is that Iraq could make a nuclear device within two to 12 months after deciding to do so, assuming it acquired sufficient fissile material. We also believe that the more probable time is closer to two months if HEU is obtained. The lower bound of two months includes the time needed to make components out of HEU and conduct any final testing of the device. The design would probably be an implosion system. However, Iraq was working on a gun-type device before the war, but it did not emphasize this design because of an anticipated scarcity of HEU. After the war, this design could have been perfected. If plutonium were obtained, Iraq would likely need more time, but still less than 12 months, to build a modified implosion device. Because the estimated time to complete a device is less than a year, likely considerably less than a year, the emphasis must remain on preventing Iraq from acquiring fissile material.

Our assessment appeared to be confirmed by Scott Ritter, an UNSCOM inspector who resigned in August 1998. He said that UNSCOM had intelligence information which indicates that Iraq has components necessary for three nuclear weapons, lacking only the fissile material. However, Ritter's statement has been challenged as unsubstantiated by UNSCOM, IAEA and U.S. officials. At least three of the four sources Ritter cited as the basis for his information have disputed Ritter's account, according to IAEA and U.S. officials.


Procurement of Fissile Material

Iraq denies ever making any attempt to procure fissile material abroad after the war. It also denies any serious attempt to do so before the war. Iraq has readily admitted, at least after Kamel's defection, that it received many offers for fissile material from abroad. One senior official said in 1996 that in the last 10 years, Iraq had received over 200 offers of everything from red mercury to fissile material to complete nuclear weapons. He insisted that Iraq had turned down every offer.

One offer, however, is being investigated by the Action Team. This offer, described in summary in a one-page document found at Kamel's farm after his defection, was purported to be by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's gas centrifuge program. An intermediary approached Iraqi intelligence in October 1990 with the following offer: Khan was prepared to give Iraq project designs for a nuclear bomb and to provide assistance in enriching uranium and building a nuclear weapon. He would also ensure any requirements of materials from Western European countries through a company Khan owns in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He requested a preliminary technical meeting to discuss the documents that he was willing to sell.

However, a meeting with Khan directly was not possible at that time, given the situation. An alternative of setting up a meeting with an intermediary, who had good relations with the Iraqi intelligence agents, was mentioned as a possibility. Iraqi intelligence officials believed the motive was money. Both the Pakistani government and Khan vehemently deny any such offer. Whether or nor Khan was involved, the Iraqis took this offer as genuine. Iraq's statement that it rejected this offer appears credible.

One of us (Hamza) knew of this offer at the time, and believes Iraq would not have pursued it. This type of offer would have given those involved too much knowledge and control over highly secret nuclear programs. What if they talked? Pakistan has had close relations with the United States. If the offer was a scam, large amounts of money could be at risk.

Despite these cases, we know of no evidence that Iraq has procured plutonium or HEU overseas since the war. But concern remains that Iraq may have already attempted to do so in the former Soviet Union. We cannot exclude the possibility that it has already obtained fissile material there. Nonetheless, preventing Iraq from acquiring nuclear explosive material abroad, particularly in Russia and former Soviet republics, remains a difficult but absolutely essential goal.


Gas Centrifuge Program

The gas centrifuge enrichment process is the most critical of the technologies Iraq pursued to make fissile material domestically. This type of activity is difficult to detect under the current OMV system. Before the war, Iraq made substantial progress in mastering the operation and construction of a variety of gas centrifuge designs. It also acquired illegally a large number of highly classified gas centrifuge design, operation and manufacturing documents from German centrifuge experts.

Suspicions remain that gas centrifuge activity resumed after the war at Rashdiya. Little verified information exists for activities at Rashdiya after the war. It was not bombed at all during the war, and it was not inspected until the summer of 1991, and then only in a cursory manner. Iraq has declared that in March 1991, it started bringing evacuated equipment and materials back to Rashdiya, but had not finished reconstituting its program by the time it accepted the UN Security Council Resolution 687 (the Gulf War cease-fire resolution) in April. Iraq says that it did not resume any centrifuge work at Rashdiya or elsewhere after the war.

Nevertheless, questions remain about why Iraq decided to hide Rashdiya's existence. Although Iraq chose to tell the inspectors about many of the centrifuge program's accomplishments and the existence of other unknown centrifuge sites, it decided not to reveal Rashdiya or the extent of foreign assistance. Iraq continued to deny the importance of Rashdiya even after defectors had identified the site in 1991. Iraq came clean about Rashdiya and the extent of foreign assistance only after Kamel's defection in 1995, when exposure was certain.

Iraq also continues to maintain that all centrifuge program reports and progress reports were destroyed during the bombing or after the war. This statement is viewed by the Action Team as non-credible because documents from the rest of the Iraqi nuclear programs continue to surface. The collection of papers from Kamel's farm also included several tons of maraging steel and large quantities of carbon fiber, both key materials in making gas centrifuges. The inspectors did not know that Iraq still had this material. Whether some was used in small-scale R&D activities is unknown. In addition, Iraq may have acquired more such materials. An Iraqi official has bragged to inspectors that overseas procurement of maraging steel is no problem.

Iraq could have made progress in the following areas. It could have improved its ability to make centrifuge components to high tolerances, an absolute must for the successful operation of centrifuges and a difficult problem for Iraqi industry. Centrifuge experts could have expanded their theoretical and "hands-on" knowledge of single machines or a few hooked together by pipes into a cascade. Iraq may have also procured illicitly more machine tools to make centrifuge components. Despite this progress, Iraq would still face formidable challenges in making significant progress toward building a facility able to make kilograms of weapons-grade uranium annually. It would also need to acquire a stock of uranium hexafluoride, a demanding task.

We consider two cases, which both assume that Iraq has not started to build a centrifuge facility, whose goal capacity is taken as 10 kilograms per year of weapons-grade uranium. These cases also assume that Iraq may opt for a simpler centrifuge design that is easier to build and requires materials and equipment that are less controlled internationally.

The first case posits that Iraq needs to procure manufacturing equipment, build a manufacturing plant, conduct additional testing of the centrifuge design, produce uranium hexafluoride and manufacture 1,000 to 2,000 centrifuges. We estimate that Iraq would need about three to seven years to accomplish this set of tasks and produce its first 10 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium. The second case assumes that Iraq just needs to manufacture the centrifuges in sufficient number, having finished all necessary testing and procurement of materials and equipment. In this case, Iraq would need an estimated two to three years to bring the plant into operation and produce its first 10 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium. In brief, Iraq would need at least a few years to construct and operate a clandestine gas centrifuge enrichment plant. Because Iraq would need to procure several key items abroad, the inspection system needs to have a strong export-import focus in order to have a better chance of detecting Iraq's procurement efforts.


Focus on Iraqi Scientists

The Action Team realized soon after inspections started the importance of identifying and interviewing key Iraqi nuclear scientists. Most key scientists have been identified. Over a hundred are periodically interviewed by the Action Team. However, this process is inadequate in obtaining necessary information or ensuring early warning if these scientists are engaged in prohibited activities.

Most of the scientists are virtual prisoners. They live in fear of their government's punishments if they do or say anything outside the limits imposed by it. Even if they manage to leave, their families are held hostage with the possibility of terrible reprisals against them if they reveal any significant information. Currently, Iraqi scientists are interviewed in the presence of government security officials. This arrangement gives the Iraqi regime control over what the scientists can say and provides an easy way to control the information flowing to the inspectors. One of us (Hamza) was told that in case the inspectors found out his former role as head of the weaponization program, he was not to make himself available to inspectors. If he was forced to talk to them, he was instructed to claim not to remember anything about what he did.

On one inspection, the other author (Albright) was able to interview Iraqi scientists only in groups or in the presence of a "minder." One-to-one contacts usually involved pleasantries or being pulled aside to be "fed a line." In one case, the head of the gas centrifuge program tried to convince him that the first gas centrifuge facility would have taken years to finish.

Typically, the interviews are video-taped by the Iraqis. These tapes provide the Iraqis with a means to analyze in detail the information that is revealed in those sessions, any mistakes that are made, and the underlying knowledge and strategy of the inspectors. The genesis of this interviewing process dates to the beginning of inspections. One inspector said that it did not occur to the inspectors to do it any other way. "We just did not think about it," he added.

At least, the inspectors need to have the right to interview the scientists without their "minders," particularly under the OMV program. Ideally, such interviews should be conducted in another country. An alternative is to conduct the interviews in a secure room, which for example exists at the Baghdad Verification and Monitoring Center.


Getting the Scientists Out

A better solution is to create a method to allow Saddam's cadre of knowledgeable nuclear weapon scientists and their families to leave Iraq safely. With years of valuable experience before the war, Iraq's nuclear weapon experts are both a valuable and necessary asset to implement a decision to seek nuclear weapons. If the key scientists leave, Iraq may be unable to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program.

A practical method to implement this proposal is for the United States to link its support for lifting sanctions to Iraq agreeing to allow certain scientists and their families to leave Iraq. Such a method would avoid the need for Security Council agreement and permit the United States to name the scientists it wants out.

Would any scientists leave Iraq voluntarily? There is a growing recognition that many of the nuclear experts are not committed to remaining in this highly repressive police state. Most of the experts were arbitrarily assigned to the nuclear weapons program after returning from overseas education. After suffering years of hardships created by sanctions, many scientists and their families could be expected to leave. As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of the former nuclear weapon scientists have been identified through captured Iraqi documents and Action Team inspections. The resettlement of just a few dozen key scientists would devastate Saddam's ability to rebuild his nuclear weapons program.

Key to the success of this initiative is protecting the scientists and their families from retaliation. The United States would be a possible resettlement country, because it can provide adequate protection against Saddam's agents if he decides to violate Security Council resolutions. The Security Council would also need to assign the Action Team and UNSCOM the task of investigating any suspected retaliation against family members in Iraq. In the event of retaliation, the Security Council must be ready to punish Iraq decisively.

The scientists would need to be provided economic support until they could find adequate employment. Any costs during this resettlement process could be collected from Iraq, just as the costs of UNSCOM and Action Team inspections are taken from proceeds of Iraqi oil sales. For their part, these experts would commit not to work in any weapons of mass destruction program and agree to host government or Action Team monitoring to ensure that they are not violating their commitment or secretly helping Saddam to rebuild his military programs.

Time is running out to deprive Saddam of his most valuable remaining nuclear weapons asset. If successful, this initiative could nip an Iraqi nuclear weapons program in the bud. The alternative is letting the nuclear cadre, intimidated by Saddam, remain in Iraq, awaiting the inevitable orders to reconstitute the nuclear weapons program or train the next generation of nuclear weapons experts.



Ensuring that Iraq does not build nuclear weapons will require vigilance. The chance of Iraq building nuclear weapons in secret depends critically on the effectiveness of the OMV system. If inspections become ineffective, even if sanctions remain, Iraq's chance of success will be unacceptably high. Iraq has developed a deep understanding of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the entire inspection system. It appears to have a strategy to weaken inspections at will. Although a robust and constantly improving inspection system is necessary to detect and thwart Iraq's proscribed nuclear activities, Security Council enforcement of the inspections, backed up by U.S. and British willingness to use military force, will remain vital to the future effectiveness of inspections.

The OMV needs improvement, including a more system-wide approach to its design and deployment. More environmental monitoring in Iraq is needed. Improved cooperation on detecting illicit imports into Iraq is also increasingly vital, as the sanctions become less effective. International efforts to improve controls over fissile material in the former Soviet Union must receive a higher priority. With a strengthened, enforced OMV program, Iraq is far less likely to build nuclear weapons in secret. If key Iraqi scientists are brought to the West, Saddam Hussein may find it difficult to succeed in building nuclear weapons for many years.

Ultimately, the goal of the inspections in Iraq is to buy time, in hopes that the regime will either change or give up its ambitions for nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. A highly confrontational inspection system has little chance of lasting for decades in any country. It is a tribute to the Security Council, and in particular the United States, that the inspections have lasted this long. But the system of stringent inspections must remain effective at least as long as the current regime persists on its noncooperative path. The stakes are high. A nuclear-armed Iraq could haunt the world for decades, and make the accomplishment of Middle East peace a dream of the past.