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IRAQ'S BREAKOUT POTENTIAL
By Matt Rice
Vol 1. No. 12
22 September 1998
This week, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will try to gather support at the United Nations to counter Iraq’s defiance of the Security Council-mandated inspections regime. If inspections were to cease permanently, how quickly could Iraq reconstruct its prohibited weapons programs?
At the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 ordered the government of Iraq to halt development and destroy existing stockpiles of any non-conventional weapons capability and any ballistic missile capable of a range in excess of 150 km. The Security Council established the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) to direct and monitor the destruction of ballistic missiles and chemical and biological weapons and tasked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to investigate and supervise the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear program. The inspection and monitoring regime conducted by UNSCOM and the IAEA has generally been successful, overseeing the destruction of more prohibited weapons than were destroyed by Coalition forces during the Gulf War. UNSCOM's painstaking efforts have been hailed as evidence to the viability of intrusive verification regimes embodied in the Chemical Weapons Convention and foreseen for the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention.
More recently, however, UNSCOM's efforts have been increasingly frustrated. The resignation of Scott Ritter, the former chief of UNSCOM's Concealment and Investigations unit, came on the heels of escalating intransigence by Iraq in its dealings with UN inspection teams. In early August, the Iraqi government denied access to 'new' sites not previously subject to inspector purview. On September 3, UNSCOM Executive Director Richard Butler reported to the Security Council that access to previously inspected sites was being restricted as well. Most recently, on September 14, the Iraqi parliament unanimously criticized the Security Council decision to suspend periodic review of economic sanctions levied against Iraq and paved the way for an end to all cooperation with UNSCOM.
Countdown: Six Months
Given continued frustration of UNSCOM efforts, could Iraq reconstitute its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile capabilities? According to Scott Ritter, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Ritter testified in late August before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees that, absent continued inspections, "Iraq will be able to reconstitute the entirety of its former...capabilities within six months."
Iraq’s former WMD capabilities were substantial. Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq maintained one of the most deadly chemical and biological weapons (CBW) capabilities in the developing world. According to UNSCOM findings, Iraq deployed seventy-five 600-km-range Al Hussein ballistic missiles tipped with biological or chemical warheads. Iraq possesses extensive experience developing and producing such agents. At its peak, the Iraqi CBW arsenal included over 30,000 liters of deadly biological agents (anthrax, botulinum toxin, and aflatoxin) and a demonstrated capability to produce and deploy a variety of chemical weapons as well (VX, Mustard Gas, Sarin). Iraq probably maintains the necessary precursor chemicals and documentation for the production of chemical agents, and commercial production facilities could be readily adapted for such an effort. A similar effort could result in a near term limited production capability of biological agents.
A renewed ballistic missile program could also pose a major threat to regional stability. While 817 of the known 819 prohibited ballistic missiles had been accounted for by the end of 1997, Iraq has presumably continued its efforts to develop a medium to long-range ballistic missile capability. In private meetings Ritter maintains that Iraq probably has between five and twelve missile assemblies and missile components for up to 25 missiles apparently salvaged from destroyed stockpiles. Under the guise of work on allowed short-range missile systems, Iraq could acquire the expertise and materials for the break-out production of longer-range variants. An extensive network of covert procurement companies has been set up to import both dual-use and prohibited material, including machine tools, liquid and solid propellant, and engine components, all of which would be essential for renewed development and production.
A Renewal of Nuclear Ambitions?
Major Ritter claims that Iraq maintains the components for three "implosion-type devices," minus the fissile material. A former Iraqi nuclear scientist, now residing in the United States, warned recently of the quickness with which Iraq would resume its nuclear weapons research in the absence of inspections. However, Iraq's ability to deploy nuclear weapons would take much longer than the renewal of its other non-conventional weapons development programs. Iraq’s nuclear weaponization and uranium enrichment infrastructure was heavily damaged during the Gulf War. The IAEA, with the assistance of UNSCOM, has certified that Iraq is free of all fissile material and nuclear-weapons-related production facilities. Iraq does maintain the technical know-how to again attempt uranium enrichment. However, even assuming an immediate return to pre-Gulf War conditions, Iraq is probably 5-7 years away from the possession of enough highly enriched uranium for a rudimentary nuclear explosive device. The illicit acquisition of fissile materials from outside sources could speed this process significantly.
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