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“For 50 years, the Arms Control Association has educated citizens around the world to help create broad support for U.S.-led arms control and nonproliferation achievements.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
At the Crossroads on Iraq

Daryl G. Kimball

Three months after the return of UN arms inspectors to Iraq, chief inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei have, not surprisingly, reported mixed results. While there is broad international agreement on the need for Iraqi compliance with UN Resolution 1441, the UN Security Council is once again divided about the next steps.

After providing needed leadership for renewed and tougher inspections last fall, the Bush administration now asserts that further inspections are futile and threatens to go to war even without broad international support. Is there a need to take further action? Yes. Does this mean that armed invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s government is the advisable and necessary action at this juncture? No.

If ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction is the real goal and war is truly the last resort, then the United States and the Security Council can and must reinforce the powers of the UN inspectors and increase diplomatic and military pressure on Baghdad. The current inspections regime need not last indefinitely, as some fear it might. Blix told Time magazine, “If [the Iraqis] cooperate fully and spontaneously, then the time should be short. If it’s a moderate amount of cooperation…it’s a question of months.”

Baghdad has cooperated more than it did in the 1990s but has yet to provide a complete explanation of past activities and evidence that it has ceased its pursuit of prohibited weapons. Perhaps of greatest concern are the suspected and unaccounted for nerve and mustard agents; chemical and biological munitions; and the presence of ballistic missiles with ranges beyond UN-imposed limits.

Even unobstructed weapons inspections will not guarantee that every prohibited Iraqi weapon has been eliminated. But tough inspections can provide the necessary confidence that Iraq cannot reconstitute militarily significant chemical, biological, and nuclear capabilities. Further inspections might also produce more definitive findings to help the Security Council members bridge their differences on the next steps.

Currently, there is no imminent threat that justifies a full-scale invasion of Iraq and the many risks and casualties such a course entails. The return of the inspectors and the presence of U.S. troops are, for now, effectively containing the potential threat posed by Iraq. The ability of the United States to maintain the diplomatic and military pressure needed to sustain this process over the next several months exceeds its ability to absorb the political, monetary, and human costs of a precipitous military invasion.

Inspectors have now conducted nearly 600 inspections of more than 425 sites but are just now beginning to use all the tools, such as U2 overflights, afforded to them under Resolution 1441. More can and must be done to make inspections more effective and to compel greater Iraqi cooperation. To start, U.S. intelligence agencies have not yet supplied the inspectors with their most useful data on suspected weapons-related activities and should do so immediately. The United States and other UN members should take steps to further limit Iraqi access to dual-use items.

For their part, Blix and ElBaradei must test Iraq’s commitment to allow its weapons scientists and engineers to be interviewed without interference. They should also substantially beef up their contingent of just over 100 inspectors. This would enable them to maintain an ongoing presence at the most worrisome sites. The inspectors should also exercise their authority to prohibit the movement of vehicles and aircraft around suspected sites in order to prevent the movement of banned weapons materials.

It is also crucial that Blix and ElBaradei establish a timetable to compel greater Iraqi cooperation. Such milestones would clarify for council members whether Iraq is meeting its obligations and help restore much needed unanimity on how to respond if Iraq complies and if it does not. Blix has wisely established a March 1 deadline to begin destruction of Baghdad’s prohibited al Samoud 2 missiles.

It is certainly past time for Iraq to account for and verifiably destroy the rest of its proscribed weapons. But if President George W. Bush abandons tougher inspections and invades Iraq without support from the Security Council and greater evidence of an imminent threat, he may well undermine the very institutions and mechanisms needed to preserve international law and order. An undertaking so complex, serious, and deadly as invasion must have broader international approval and legitimacy.

Unless Blix and ElBaradei report that their efforts have become futile because of blatant Iraqi noncooperation, it remains in the United States’ vital interests to vigorously pursue the inspections process. The prudent course for the Security Council is to further strengthen the inspections regime, maintain pressure on Iraq, and restore consensus on how best to achieve its disarmament.