Disarming Iraq: Nonmilitary Strategies and Options

David Cortright and George A. Lopez

The uncertainty regarding Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which has increased since United Nations weapons inspectors left Iraq almost four years ago, appears to be approaching a crisis point. Concerned that Baghdad is rebuilding its programs to produce nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, the Bush administration has strengthened its call for regime change in Iraq and spurred an increasingly vocal debate about the possibility of forcibly overthrowing the Iraqi dictator.

Whatever the merits of regime change in Iraq, discourse in Washington has focused on military options for dealing with Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction without due consideration for the progress that UN weapons inspectors could make if they were readmitted to the country. In a world where the war on terrorism may take on new contours at any moment and challenges to U.S. policy mount daily in the Middle East, it is essential to explore scenarios that do not carry the diplomatic and strategic risks of military action. If U.S. officials determine that the costs of war against Iraq are too great, policy-makers must understand that there are alternative, viable options for achieving U.S. nonproliferation objectives.

Indeed, recent press reports indicate that military action may not get the domestic and international support it requires. The Europeans, never particularly supportive of a second Persian Gulf War, have become increasingly concerned that military action will interfere with the possibilities for brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians.1 Middle Eastern governments, like that of Saudi Arabia, have outright opposed an attack, and the Iraqi Kurds, who figure in some planners’ vision of regime change, are wary of U.S. military action.2 In the United States, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have reportedly expressed reticence about invading Iraq; and most recently Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser to former President George H. W. Bush and was a chief architect of the Gulf War, wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in which he argued, “An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign that we have undertaken.”3

UN inspectors were remarkably successful in their efforts to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, and although Saddam Hussein is likely reconstituting certain programs, evidence suggests that he does not pose an immediate threat to the United States. The past success of inspectors indicates that a high level of confidence in Iraq’s disarmament could be achieved if they were allowed to resume their work. The United States should push for the resumption of inspections in Iraq and also establish an “enhanced containment” system to monitor Iraq’s borders and prevent illicit materiel from entering the country.

Although a program of inspections and enhanced containment would not effect regime change and might not achieve the level of certainty of weapons control that would come with U.S. troops occupying Baghdad, it also is free of the costs and uncertainties that accompany those scenarios. Instead, a combination of resumed weapons inspections and enhanced containment addresses U.S. nonproliferation objectives and provides a viable, robust option for preventing Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction.

A Continuing Danger

Saddam Hussein poses a significant threat to regional and international security. His regime has initiated two wars and has developed and used chemical weapons and ballistic missiles against neighboring states and its own citizens. UN inspectors discovered after the Gulf War that Iraq had vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons as well as a major program to develop nuclear weapons. In fact, U.S. analyst David Albright and former Iraqi nuclear engineer Khidhir Hamza estimated in 1998 that Iraq had been only a few months from building a nuclear explosive when the Gulf War began.4

But after Iraq’s defeat in 1991, UN weapons inspections were an effective tool that largely disarmed Iraq and prevented it from reconstituting its weapons programs. According to reports by the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which were charged with overseeing Iraq’s disarmament, weapons inspections during the 1990s neutralized a substantial portion of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. An independent panel of experts established by the Security Council in 1999 to evaluate the results of UN weapons inspections came to the following conclusion: “In spite of well-known difficult circumstances, UNSCOM and [the] IAEA have been effective in uncovering and destroying many elements of Iraq’s proscribed weapons programmes…. The bulk of Iraq’s proscribed weapons programmes has been eliminated.”5

The IAEA concluded in 1998 that “there is no indication that Iraq possesses nuclear weapons or any meaningful amounts of weapon-useable nuclear material.”6 According to UN reports, UNSCOM achieved “significant progress” in destroying Iraq’s chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities. UNSCOM was able to account for all but two of the 819 Scud missiles known to have existed at the start of the Gulf War. There is no evidence of successful long-range missile development since then. Former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter concluded in a June 2000 article in Arms Control Today:

It was possible as early as 1997 to determine that, from a qualitative standpoint, Iraq had been disarmed. Iraq no longer possessed any meaningful quantities of chemical or biological agent…and the industrial means to produce these agents had either been eliminated or were subject to stringent monitoring. The same was true of Iraq’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.7

Sanctions constrained Iraq’s ability to rebuild its conventional forces and further handicapped its nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile programs. Sanctions have loosened considerably in the past year, but the most important restriction, UN control over Iraq’s oil revenues, remains firmly in place. Because of these continuing financial restrictions, the Baghdad government has been denied control over more than $150 billion in oil revenues.8 As a result, Iraq has been unable to rebuild and modernize its armed forces. Iraq’s annual military expenditures dropped from an average of nearly $19 billion in the 1980s to an estimated $1.4 billion annually since the imposition of sanctions.9 Thus, UN financial controls have curtailed Iraq’s conventional rearmament and its ability to produce weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.

Nevertheless, despite past successes of inspections and the retarding effect of sanctions, UN officials have been unable to determine the status of Iraq’s weapons programs since UNSCOM’s departure from Iraq in 1998. U.S. and other intelligence services have continued to gather information on suspected weapons activities using national technical means and reports from Iraqi defectors, but clearly the lack of sources on the ground in Iraq represents a serious intelligence gap. Hearings this July on Iraq before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee produced a range of estimates and warnings about Baghdad’s continuing or renewed weapons activity, especially in the area of chemical and biological weapons.

Most experts agree that Iraq has maintained stockpiles of chemical weapons materials and still possesses considerable biological weapons potential. Of greatest concern is VX, the most lethal and persistent of the chemical weapons Iraq produced. More than 150 tons of VX precursor elements remain unaccounted for.10 It is also possible that Iraq retains the means to deliver chemical and biological weapons short distances. The United Nations reported in January 1999 that 50 conventional missile warheads Iraq claimed to have destroyed could not be accounted for.11

Estimates of Iraq’s potential for developing nuclear weapons vary. According to a January 2001 report from the U.S. Department of Defense, “Iraq would need five or more years and key foreign assistance to rebuild the infrastructure to enrich enough material for a nuclear weapon.”12 In the summer of 2001, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation Robert Einhorn agreed that Iraq was five years away from being able to produce a nuclear explosive.13 But the head of the German intelligence agency, August Hanning, told The New Yorker, “It is our estimate that Iraq will have an atomic bomb in three years.”14

Hans Blix, the head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), the successor agency to UNSCOM, confirmed recently that he has been briefed on possible weapons construction sites in Iraq and has received tips about other potential weapons activities. Blix noted that nothing has been proven, but in light of the accumulating evidence and Iraq’s past behavior, it is prudent to assume that the Baghdad government has been attempting to rebuild its weapons capacity.

Assuring the Return of Inspectors

The picture that emerges from this assessment is of a regime likely committed to the redevelopment of weapons of mass destruction, but constrained by diminished resources and the successes of UNSCOM’s efforts. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is clearly dangerous, but there is time to thwart Iraq’s reacquisition of weapons material and technology without resorting to war, provided that weapons inspections are allowed to begin soon.

Of course, getting UN inspectors back into the country is easier said than done, as demonstrated by Iraq’s intransigence over the last four years. Although the Security Council has recently demonstrated a new consensus on the need for weapons inspections, Iraq has refused to budge in its meetings with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. UN and U.S. officials have correctly insisted on the right of free and unfettered access for UNMOVIC inspectors. There can be no backing away from the right of no-notice, intrusive inspection that was key to the success of UNSCOM, and the monitors must have access to so-called presidential sites and other suspected weapons locations. However, Saddam Hussein does need some incentive to cooperate with the United States and the United Nations.

The sanctions imposed on Iraq shortly after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the prospect of their relief have been the primary carrot and stick used to coerce Baghdad into complying with inspections. Resolution 687 stipulated that once UNSCOM determined that Iraq had been fully disarmed of its weapons of mass destruction, the sanctions would be lifted. Although UN Security Council Resolution 1409 loosened the sanctions regime this May, allowing Iraq to import civilian goods more freely, its most important element—UN control of Iraqi oil revenues—remains in place.

Despite smuggling and kickback schemes, the UN escrow account still captures approximately 85 percent of Iraq’s oil income.15 Baghdad urgently wishes to regain control of these revenues, which at a production rate of 2 million barrels a day comes to nearly $20 billion a year. In fact, Iraq could dramatically increase oil production, but UN sanctions have prevented Iraq from attracting the necessary foreign investment to develop its potential further. Iraq possesses some of the largest, most easily accessible oil reserves in the world, and oil industry executives have described Iraq as the “Klondike of the 21st century.”16 With adequate investment in exploration and production, Iraq could significantly increase its rate of oil export to perhaps as high as 6 million barrels a day, tripling its current rate of production and raising potential oil revenues to a staggering $60 billion a year.

That revenue is enormously important to Iraq and is crucial to rebuilding its shattered economy, but such an economic windfall remains out of reach as long as sanctions are in place. The lure of these vast oil revenues is a powerful inducement that can be used to gain Baghdad’s cooperation. It should be possible for the United States and the United Nations to use this Iraqi objective to their advantage by structuring an inducement plan that offers the prize of oil revenues in exchange for full compliance with UN mandates.

That, of course, was the deal offered by Resolution 687, but the rules of the game were changed by Resolution 1284, passed in December 1999, which created UNMOVIC. Instead of promising to lift the sanctions once Iraq had fully cooperated, Resolution 1284 said only that the Security Council would provisionally suspend the sanctions for 120 days once Iraq had come into compliance with its disarmament obligations. After 120 days, the council would have to vote to renew the sanctions relief for another 120 days, and so on. Because of Security Council voting rules, this would have effectively given the United States the power to keep the sanctions on Iraq in place indefinitely.

According to Rolf Ekeus, the former head of UNSCOM, “the language of suspension” added an element of “instability and insecurity” for Iraq and was probably the major reason why Baghdad rejected the resolution when it was passed.17 Iraq needs to know whether it will get anything for its cooperation, Ekeus noted. This crucial element has been missing in recent years. A clear statement from the United States that sanctions would indeed be lifted if Iraq cooperates with UN inspectors would reinsert a vitally important element into the diplomatic equation and could be decisive in gaining Iraqi compliance.
Unfortunately, U.S. officials have done exactly the opposite. Far from stating unequivocally that sanctions will be lifted if Iraq cooperates with UN weapons inspectors, U.S. officials have declared that sanctions will remain in place indefinitely. In November 1997, for example, President Bill Clinton remarked that “sanctions will be there until the end of time, or as long as [Hussein] lasts.”18 This spring, President George W. Bush said that “the policy of my government is the removal of Saddam”; and Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “The U.S. policy is that regardless of what the inspectors do, the people of Iraq…would be better off with a different regime in Baghdad.19

Under these circumstances, Baghdad has no reason to cooperate, and sanctions have lost their potential bargaining leverage. To overcome this problem, U.S. and UN officials should return to the terms of Resolution 687, which specified that sanctions against Iraq would be lifted upon completion of the UN disarmament mandate. A clarification of this original Security Council obligation could help to gain Iraqi compliance. A restatement of the council’s original intent would remove ambiguities left by Resolution 1284 and provide Baghdad a clear and compelling incentive for cooperating with UN inspections.
Russia has advocated this approach for several years. In June 2001, Moscow offered a draft Security Council resolution that sought to clarify the ambiguities of Resolution 1284 by reaffirming the Security Council’s obligation to lift sanctions upon completion of the UN disarmament mandate. Under the terms of the Russian proposal, once UNMOVIC and the IAEA certified that a reinforced, ongoing monitoring and verification system was fully operational within Iraq, sanctions would be suspended and oil revenues returned to the control of the Iraqi government.20

Former weapons inspector Garry Dillon proposed a similar approach at a June 2001 conference in Washington. Dillon suggested that the Security Council adopt a new resolution pledging to lift remaining sanctions upon receipt of satisfactory assurances from UNMOVIC and the IAEA of Iraq’s disarmament. The proposed resolution would specify Iraq’s obligation to permit the continued operation of the ongoing monitoring and verification system, and it would also maintain the continuing arms embargo and prohibition against developing weapons of mass destruction.21

Finding a way to induce Iraqi cooperation is crucial if there is to be a diplomatic solution to the looming crisis over its weapons of mass destruction. A clear and unambiguous commitment to lift sanctions and revenue controls upon fulfillment of the UN disarmament mandate could provide the necessary incentive to gain Iraqi cooperation. The United States has refused to consider any easing of coercive pressure, however, and has become fixated on the goal of armed regime change. The U.S. policy of regime change and unyielding hostility toward the Baghdad government goes beyond the mandate of UN policy and has become a major obstacle to the resolution of the crisis.

Of course, giving up the tough rhetoric on Iraq may seem like appeasement to some. To be sure, making offers to aggressors can be seen as a sign of weakness and may embolden an outlaw regime to further acts of belligerence. But in truth the United States would simply be offering Iraq what it did 11 years ago, and any inducements would be strictly conditional, with conciliatory gestures linked to clear and unequivocal concessions from the Baghdad regime and the elimination of Iraq’s capability to develop weapons of mass destruction.

“Enhanced Containment”

Whether or not Baghdad permits the resumption of effective UN weapons inspections, it will be necessary to create an externally based, vigorously enforced system of enhanced military containment to restrict the flow of weapons-related goods into Iraq. Morton Halperin, former director of policy planning at the State Department, described such a system as “containment plus” during July testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to Halperin, such a system would build upon the new sanctions regime established by Resolution 1409. “Its goal would be to tighten the economic embargo of material that would assist Iraq in its weapons of mass destruction and other military programs as well as reducing Iraq’s receipt of hard currency outside the UN sanctions regime.”

The UN restrictions on Iraqi imports have not been 100 percent effective because there is presently little or no international monitoring of commercial crossings into Iraq. Shippers of approved humanitarian goods stop at the border to have documents authenticated so that they can receive payment from the UN escrow account, but their cargoes are not inspected. The limited customs and border monitoring stations operated by neighboring states lack the ability to impede the flow of weapons. An enhanced containment system would seek to establish a long-term capability for blocking Iraqi rearmament through strict controls on the import of weapons and dual-use military goods, putting greater teeth into Resolution 1409.

The chief component of enhanced containment would be a significant strengthening of border monitoring in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and other states surrounding Iraq. To date, such states have not supported proposals for border monitoring, in part because of political and economic pressures from Baghdad. They do not want to disturb the growing commercial trade with Iraq that has developed in recent years. The challenge is to create an effective system for inspecting sensitive cargoes, while avoiding disruption to the thriving civilian commerce that is vitally important to local economies. Technology can help in this effort. The use of advanced scanning equipment would enable trained monitors to detect the shipment of nuclear materials and other prohibited weapons-related goods without major disruption to commercial traffic.

The “smart border” concept now being developed by the governments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico could serve as a model for the kind of system that would be needed on Iraq’s borders. Newly developed X-ray scanning machines are now available that can quickly inspect trucks and containers for contraband.22 The smart border concept also employs an electronic pass system of the kind being used on toll bridges and tunnels in the United States. A machine-readable electronic pass and automated detection system would enable approved vehicles to pass quickly without inspection. If such a system were installed on Iraq’s borders, passes could be issued to humanitarian agencies and other trusted suppliers of civilian goods financed through the UN escrow account. Those with electronic passes would proceed without stopping, while others would be required to stop for inspection or pass through the X-ray detection equipment.

Technology alone will not do the job. Enhanced border monitoring will also require the deployment of UN-approved international monitoring experts to work alongside officials from host countries. These international customs officials would help host countries in maintaining and operating the detection equipment and upgrading customs controls. A model for such a system can be found in the Sanctions Assistance Missions that were established by European nations during the UN sanctions in Yugoslavia from 1993 through 1995. Such customs assistance missions would substantially upgrade and improve border-monitoring capabilities in the countries neighboring Iraq.

When combined with continued military sanctions and revenue controls, the proposed border control system could preserve the containment of Iraq and help to prevent the redevelopment of weapons of mass destruction. No monitoring program can prevent smuggling entirely, but the proposed system could make illegal shipments more difficult.

The economic costs of the proposed system could be paid through the UN escrow account, as part of the budget for UN operations in Iraq. In addition, the United States could provide financial support and technical assistance to frontline states to help them offset the costs of monitoring equipment and additional customs staffing. But the greatest obstacles to creating an effective border monitoring system are not financial or technical but political.

Persuading frontline states to cooperate with the proposed monitoring mechanisms will require diplomatic bargaining. The United States and other major powers must be ready to offer substantial economic incentives and political assurances to Jordan, Syria, and other states in the region. This will be necessary in part to parry Iraq’s attempts to undermine the proposed border monitoring system. When the Security Council considered the British-U.S. proposal for revamping sanctions in May 2001, for example, Iraq warned neighboring countries that “compliance with this plan by any state or government would cause grievous harm to its interests.”23 If Baghdad were to cut off oil supplies or trade with Jordan or Syria, the local economic impacts would be enormous. The United States and its partners must be ready to counteract such pressures by providing assurances of economic assistance and political support in the event of hostile moves by Iraq.

To win support for enhanced containment, the United States should be prepared to improve political relations with countries in the region previously considered inimical. Among the diplomatic steps the United States might consider would be removing Syria from the list of states supporting terrorism. This would be a powerful inducement for gaining Syrian cooperation, which would be critical for controlling oil exports and limiting illegal payments to Baghdad. Washington might also consider dropping Iran from the “axis of evil” and adopting new political initiatives to build political and military cooperation with Tehran. Establishing new political partnerships with countries in the region will be essential to creating a cooperative border monitoring system that can prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction.

Russian political support is also essential if the enhanced military containment of Iraq is to be successful. Russia has been implicated in past weapons-smuggling incidents in Iraq and has supported Iraq politically in the Security Council. Russia is in the midst of a major political realignment toward the West, however, and realizes that it has more to gain from cooperation with Washington than from its ties to Baghdad. Moscow and Washington are now cooperating across a broad range of international security issues and should be able to build upon this emerging partnership to forge a joint approach to the containment of Iraq.


Those committed only to a military solution and regime change in Iraq may consider a strategy of inspections bolstered by enhanced border control as too conciliatory, as “soft on Saddam.” In fact, the proposals outlined here call for an increase in international pressure on the Iraqi government. Continuing revenue controls, intensive diplomatic efforts to resume weapons inspections, and the creation of an enhanced containment system through strengthened border monitoring—these are the elements of a credible, coercive policy.

It is impossible to know what precise mix of carrots and sticks will prompt the Iraqi leadership to permit the re-entry of inspectors. Should the push to restart weapons inspections fail, or should Iraq obstruct the inspectors once they begin their work, the United States and the Security Council could adopt additional coercive measures. If Iraqi obstruction or aggressive action becomes egregious, the Security Council might choose to reiterate previous language authorizing “all necessary means” for achieving UN objectives.

The proposals outlined here present viable strategies for the continued denial of Iraq’s weapons ambitions, while offering the prospect of greater regional cooperation and stability. They offer realistic alternatives to the military scenarios currently being discussed in Washington. In light of the dangers and uncertainties associated with what could be a large-scale and destructive war in the region, the nonmilitary options outlined here deserve immediate and thorough consideration.

1. Patrick E. Tyler, “Europeans Split With U.S. on Need for Iraq Attack, Citing Mideast as Priority,” The New York Times, July 22, 2002, p. A5.
2. Todd S. Purdum, “Bush Team Is Divided Over Getting Tougher With Saudis,” The New York Times, August 12, 2002, p. A7; John F. Burns, “Kurds, Secure in North Iraq Zone, Are Wary About a U.S. Offensive,” The New York Times, July 8, 2002, p. A1.
3. Thomas E. Ricks, “Some Top Military Brass Favor Status Quo in Iraq; Containment Seen Less Risky Than Attack,” The Washington Post, July 28, 2002, p. A1; Brent Scowcroft, “Don’t Attack Saddam,” The Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2002, p. A12.
4. David Albright and Khidhir Hamza, “Iraq’s Reconstitution of Its Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Today, October 1998, p. 11.
5. “Report of the First Panel Established Pursuant to the Note by the President of the Security Council on 30 January 1999 (S/1999/100) Concerning Disarmament and Current Ongoing Monitoring and Verification Issues,” United Nations document S/1999/356, March 30, 1999.
6. Ibid.
7. Scott Ritter, “The Case for Iraq’s Qualitative Disarmament,” Arms Control Today, June 2000, p. 8.
8. Meghan L. O’Sullivan, “Iraq: Time for a Modified Approach,” Policy Brief 71, The Brookings Institution, February 2001, p. 4.
9. General Accounting Office, “Weapons of Mass Destruction: UN Confronts Significant Challenges in Implementing Sanctions Against Iraq,” May 2002, p. 14.
10. Jean E. Krasno and James S. Sutterlin, The United Nations and Iraq: Defanging the Viper, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, forthcoming).
11. “Letter Dated 25 January 1999 from the Executive Chairman of the Special Commission established by the Secretary-General pursuant to paragraph 9(b)(i) of Security Council resolution 687 (1991) addressed to the President of the Security Council,” United Nations document S/1999/94, January 29, 1999.
12. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Proliferation: Threat and Response,” January 2001, p. 40.
13. Robert Einhorn, “The Emerging Bush Administration Approach to Addressing Iraq’s WMD and Missile Programs,” Keynote address at “Understanding the Lessons of Nuclear Inspections and Monitoring in Iraq: A Ten-Year Review,” conference sponsored by the Institute for Science and International Security, Washington, D.C., June 2001.
14. Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Great Terror,” The New Yorker, March 25, 2002, p. 75.
15. General Accounting Office, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” p. 7.
16. Raad Alkadiri, “The Iraqi Klondike,” Middle East Report, Fall 2001.
17. Interview with Rolf Ekeus, “Shifting Priorities: UNMOVIC and the Future of Inspections in Iraq,” Arms Control Today, March 2000, p. 5.
18. Barbara Crossette, “For Iraq: A Doghouse with Many Rooms,” The New York Times, November 23, 1997, p. A4.
19. Press conference in Crawford, Texas, April 6, 2002; ABC News This Week, May 5, 2002.
20. Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, “Draft Resolution on Iraq,” June 26, 2001.
21. David Albright and Kevin O’Neill, “The Iraqi Maze: Searching for a Way Out,” The Nonproliferation Review, Fall/Winter 2001, p. 10.
22. Elisabeth Bumiller, “White House Announces Security Pact With Mexico,” The New York Times, March 22, 2002, p. A18.
23. Alex Wagner, “U.K., Russia Issue Draft Proposals to Revamp Iraqi Sanctions Regime,” Arms Control Today, June 2001, p. 22.

David Cortright is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum. George A. Lopez is director of policy studies and senior fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.