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"[Arms Control Today is] Absolutely essential reading for the upcoming Congressional budget debate on the 2018 #NPR and its specific recommendations ... well-informed, insightful, balanced, and filled with common sense."

– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
The Task of Disarming Iraq
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Daryl G. Kimball

Despite the overall success of the global nonproliferation regime, a small number of nuclear and non-nuclear states threaten to undermine the norm against the development, possession, and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The record of Iraq is particularly troublesome, and it remains vital that the United States and the international community firmly, appropriately, and effectively respond to Baghdad’s proliferation behavior.

Prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein violated the rules established by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In the decade since, he has resisted United Nations Security Council mandates to allow weapons inspectors to dismantle Iraq’s proscribed weapons and missile capabilities.

Despite Iraq’s failure to cooperate and the gradual erosion of Security Council consensus on inspections, the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) from 1991 to 1998 succeeded in ridding Iraq of most of its WMD capabilities and stockpiles. It has been four years since UN weapons inspectors operated in Iraq, however, and it is now difficult to assess Iraq’s capabilities with precision. It is therefore prudent to assume that Iraq has or will soon have biological and chemical weapons and that it may, within a matter of years, acquire nuclear weapons.

It is vital that the response to Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction reinforce the rule of law and the norm against WMD everywhere. The necessary, though difficult, next step is for the United States to secure the Security Council’s reaffirmation and Iraq’s acceptance of a UN inspections regime under new, more effective rules.

Upon arriving in office, President George W. Bush supported the readmission of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq. More recently, top-level Bush administration officials argue that UN inspections are bound to fail and that nothing short of a pre-emptive military invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will suffice.

Such an approach risks greater instability in the Middle East and would require a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. It would also increase the likelihood that Iraq might use weapons of mass destruction to lash out at its neighbors and the invading force. This scenario could provoke Israel to launch a pre-emptory or retaliatory strike against Iraq, possibly involving nuclear weapons. The cure could be worse than the disease.

Furthermore, pre-emptive military action—particularly in the absence of Security Council backing—would reinforce the perception and the growing reality of the Bush administration’s arrogant and unilateralist approach to foreign affairs. Worse still, asserting a world order based on U.S. interests and military primacy would undermine the international security principles and institutions the United States has long sought to uphold.

A successful policy toward Iraq begins with winning consensus from the five permanent Security Council members for a new resolution that fortifies Resolutions 1284 and 687 by calling on Iraq to admit the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). The resolution should authorize unconditional access by UNMOVIC to inspect and dismantle Iraq’s WMD capabilities and use of appropriate and necessary means by Security Council members to enforce its activities.

Gaining Iraq’s acceptance of the current or a fortified inspectorate will not be easy. Washington must focus diplomatic pressure on France, Russia, and China, who can help persuade Saddam to readmit the inspectors. Given the choice of supporting nonproliferation norms or allowing a rogue state to defy the Security Council and risk U.S. military action, President Bush should be able to win Security Council support. Iraq must also be convinced that its cooperation and compliance with no-notice, intrusive inspections on an indefinite basis would protect it from invasion. If a unified Security Council tries and fails to persuade Iraq to submit to new inspections, the United States would be in a far better position to pursue UN authority for military enforcement of UN resolutions.

Given what UNSCOM and Western intelligence sources have learned about Iraqi weapons programs, new inspections of suspicious sites are likely to reveal important evidence of any ongoing WMD-related activities. What if UNMOVIC and the Security Council determine that Iraq is effectively blocking the implementation of the inspectors’ work or that it continues to develop prohibited weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them? The new Security Council resolution should make it clear that the cost of Iraqi noncooperation outweighs that of cooperation.

Complete and verified elimination of Iraq’s WMD programs, as called for in Resolution 687, is probably unattainable without full Iraqi cooperation, which is unlikely. But, if the inspection effort is focused on, and measured by, its contribution to the more fundamental objective of preventing Iraq from developing or using weapons of mass destruction, it will have made an enormous contribution to international peace and security.