As of August 2006, Iraq Watch is no longer being updated.
Click here for more information.

The Iraqi Maze: Searching for a Way Out

By David Albright & Kevin O'Neill,
Institite for Science and International Security

Published in The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 8, No. 3
Fall-Winter 2001

Published by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies


Over a decade after the end of the 1990-91 Gulf War, the challenge to international security posed by Iraqi efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD) remains unresolved. Following the war, the UN Security Council imposed an extraordinary set of constraints and obligations on Iraq to ensure that it does not possess WMD and long-range missiles for their delivery. Now, however, these constraints and obligations are in a state of disarray. U.S. President George W. Bush has complained that the economic and military sanctions imposed on Iraq are now as porous as "Swiss cheese."*1 George Tenet, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told a congressional hearing in February 2001 that one of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's key goals is to "sidestep the 10-year old economic sanctions regime by making violations a routine occurrence for which he pays no penalty."*2

With no UN Security Council-mandated inspections in Iraq since December 1998, the status of Iraqi WMD programs grows increasingly uncertain. According to Tenet: "Our most serious concern with Saddam Hussein must be the likelihood that he will seek a renewed WMD capability both for credibility and because every other strong regime in the region either has it or is pursuing it."*3

Analysts have been particularly concerned about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Michael Eisenstadt, a Persian Gulf security expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has pointed out that although several Middle Eastern countries have chemical and biological weapons, nuclear weapons have a special cachet. Because Iraq apparently did not succeed in building nuclear weapons prior to the Gulf War, or during the period when UN and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors were active in Iraq, Saddam is likely to work hard to obtain them now. According to Eisenstadt, Iraq cannot afford to be caught without nuclear weapons in the next major crisis, in light of its previous failure.*4

Concerns of the threat to the United States posed by an Iraqi biological weapons program are also growing, in light of the October 2001 incidents involving the delivery of anthrax powder to several U.S. news agencies, the office of the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, mail-sorting facilities, and perhaps other targets. Even if Iraq is not behind these incidents, fear has grown that Saddam Hussein could use biological agents as a terrorist weapon.

Preventing Iraq from possessing WMD must remain a preeminent goal of the UN Security Council. A nuclear-armed Iraq would inflame the Middle East. It would threaten the very existence of Israel, a threat that both Israel and the United States would consider eliminating by force. It would pose a threat to world oil supplies, which the United States could not leave unchallenged. It also would trigger a crisis between those that wanted to eliminate the Iraqi nuclear threat by force, and those that would want to accommodate Iraq. A nuclear-armed Iraq would prompt other states in the region to seek nuclear weapons or other WMD. The fear of Iraqi nuclear weapons is almost certainly leading Iran, for example, to accelerate its own nuclear weapons efforts.

This article analyzes the current status of international sanctions and obligations imposed on Iraq, and assesses proposals aimed at addressing the deadlock. It is based in part on discussions held at a June 2001 conference, sponsored by Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), entitled "Understanding the Lessons of Nuclear Inspections and Monitoring in Iraq: A Ten-Year Review."*5 A range of governmental and non-governmental experts, who have years of experience in dealing directly with the Iraqi situation, including current and former IAEA Action Team inspectors, attended the conference. Most of the analysts and government officials quoted in this article spoke either at this conference or at a subsequent ISIS-organized panel on Iraq held at the June 2001 nonproliferation conference of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.*6

The article begins by describing the origins of the international sanctions and obligations imposed on Iraq, and then discusses how UN-mandated inspections constrained Iraqi WMD programs from 1991 to 1998. It then evaluates the slow erosion of the sanctions against Iraq and the impact of the halting of UN-mandated inspections in December 1998. The article analyzes the proposals of the Bush administration, as of June 2001, to reform the international sanctions against Iraq and to step up efforts to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime. Based on this analysis, the article concludes that the best possible way to address the worsening problem of Iraqi proliferation is a vigorous effort to reintroduce intrusive, rigorous nuclear inspections and monitoring in Iraq.


A series of interlocking UN Security Council resolutions passed over more than a decade have established a wide range of constraints and obligations on Iraq. The resolutions covering Iraqi WMD and missile programs are not traditional arms control agreements. The Security Council imposed these resolutions as part of a cease-fire agreement with Iraq at the conclusion of the Gulf War. They were necessary because of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and systematic violations by Iraq of all major arms control treaties it had signed and ratified. Iraq has yet to comply with the conditions outlined in these resolutions, so the sanctions that they established have remained in place.

The fundamental resolution remains UN Security Council resolution 687, adopted in April 1991. Among other topics, this resolution addresses the conditions for the lifting of sanctions on the import by UN member states of commodities—principally oil—originating in Iraq and the export of civil and military goods to Iraq. Under resolution 687, Iraq is to "unconditionally accept the destruction, removal or rendering harmless, under international supervision" of all of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons-related assets, and longer-range missile programs (ranges over 150 kilometers).*7 Iraq also is to accept the implementation of on-going monitoring and verification systems to ensure that these programs are not reconstituted. With regard to its nuclear weapons program, Iraq is obligated to "unconditionally agree not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons or nuclear-weapons-usable material," or any facilities for the production of nuclear weapons or weapons-usable material.*8 Thus, the resolution bans Iraq from possessing separated plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) or obtaining technology for producing separated plutonium or for enriching uranium. This ban will remain in place even after sanctions are lifted.

Once these conditions in resolution 687 are met, the ban on Iraqi oil sales and the importation of civilian goods into Iraq would be lifted. Resolution 687 also gives the Security Council the authority to lift the ban on the sale of military goods to Iraq, "taking into account Iraq's compliance with the resolution and general progress towards the control of armaments in the region."*9 Faced with Iraqi deception of UN inspectors and its failure to comply with resolution 687, the Security Council passed resolution 707 in August 1991. This resolution requires Iraq to "halt any nuclear activities of any kind, except for the use of isotopes for medical, agricultural, or industrial purposes" until the relevant obligations under resolution 687 are met.*10

Resolution 687 created the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) to carry out the tasks related to dismantling biological, chemical, and proscribed missile programs, and designated the IAEA to carry out the tasks related to dismantling the Iraqi nuclear program. The IAEA created a special unit, known as the Action Team, to carry out these tasks.*11 The Security Council approved plans for on-going monitoring and verification of Iraqi compliance in resolution 715, adopted in October 1991.*12 An export-import mechanism, which includes lists of items subject to monitoring, as well items that are banned altogether, was approved in Security Council resolution 1051, adopted in March 1996.*13 Action Team and UNSCOM inspections began almost immediately after resolution 687 was adopted and continued until December 1998, when the inspectors left Iraq prior to Operation Desert Fox, in which the United States and Great Britain attacked Iraqi command and control, military installations, and suspected WMD production facilities. These inspections uncovered and destroyed the vast bulk of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program, and also eliminated much of Iraq's other WMD programs and longer-range ballistic missile programs. However, significant concern remains about the remnants and reconstitution of all of these programs.


Current Action Team Leader Jacques Baute said that, as of December 1998 when the inspectors left Iraq, the Action Team compiled a "coherent picture of Iraq's [pre-Gulf War] nuclear program, and could find no evidence of on-going nuclear activities in Iraq."*14 However, the Action Team noted that Iraq had left unanswered some important questions about aspects of its program. The Action Team also could not be certain whether Iraq pursued low-level research and development work on uranium enrichment technologies and nuclear weapons design during the period of its inspections because of the low signatures of such activities.

While on-going monitoring and verification activities were in place, the Action Team's continuous presence in Iraq made it difficult for Iraq to coherently and systematically resume its nuclear weapons work. According to Dimitri Perricos, a former IAEA Action Team Deputy Leader who is now a senior official with the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), the successor organization to UNSCOM, "inspections were based on unprecedented rights of access to information, locations, verification technology and people, with complete logistical support to effect that access."*15 Between 1994 and the end of 1998, Action Team inspectors made thousands of random, no-notice inspections of more than 300 Iraqi sites and facilities that were deemed capable of supporting nuclear activities. According to Baute, "we would get in the car, and the Iraqi `minders' with us would not know which facility we were visiting until we arrived there."*16

New verification technologies were developed and deployed in Iraq. The Action Team took "swipe samples" from facilities to check for uranium, plutonium, or other materials indicating prohibited work. Dual-use equipment was tagged and kept under surveillance. To detect radioactive materials in the environment, car-borne and airborne radiation surveys of Iraq were taken, vegetation samples were collected, and air-sampling stations were set up.

UNSCOM likewise accomplished much. However, in late 1998, it had many unanswered questions, particularly about the Iraqi biological weapons program.

With the inspectors out of the country, these capabilities are no longer available to UNMOVIC or the Action Team. Baute says that the absence of inspectors severely limits the ability to understand Iraqi activities. Satellite imagery, other information provided by IAEA member states, and information gathered from the Security Council's review of contracts under the oil-for-food program (discussed below) can add to the Action Team's knowledge about Iraqi activities. Baute says, however, that the inspectors have "lost our major advantage: follow-up in the field."*17

Ambassador Robert Gallucci, who was the first Deputy Executive Director of UNSCOM, has pointed out the conditions that allowed inspections to work in Iraq. Their success, he has stated:

followed from the fundamental political realities. [First,] we had an essentially united Security Council....[S]econd, we had popular support in the United States, in the international community, and—in retrospect, remarkably—in the region. And third, there was always the plausible threat of the resumption of hostilities....[I]f the inspections did not go well...a full-scale military campaign would resume.*18


Observers agree that the sanctions on Iraqi oil exports and on the import of civilian commodities to Iraq have prevented Iraq from rebuilding its military-industrial base. However, the sanctions have also caused a severe and highly visible decline in the welfare of the Iraqi population. Saddam Hussein has worked to create the false impression that sanctions are somehow unjust, but he ignores that Iraq has refused to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions. To help create this impression, Saddam has periodically interfered with the supply of food and medicine provided by the oil-for-food program, and also has undersold oil that contributes funds for these goods, in order to exacerbate the sanctions' impact on the Iraqi people. At the same time, the regime has raised significant revenues from smuggled oil. According to former Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation Robert Einhorn, Iraq has raised $1-2 billion annually that it has spent on the Iraqi elite to bolster support for the regime and also on items for proscribed weapons programs. These funds have not been spent on bettering the condition of the Iraqi people.

To alleviate the plight of the Iraqi people, the Security Council has increasingly loosened restrictions on how much oil Iraq may sell, as long as the revenues from oil sales are subject to Security Council control. In April 1995, the Security Council adopted resolution 986, which permits limited oil sales with the revenues paid into a UN escrow account that is then used to purchase food, medicine, and other humanitarian commodities for the Iraqi people.*19 Iraq chose not to accept this "oil-for-food" resolution for more than a year after its adoption.

After the IAEA Action Team and UNSCOM inspectors left Iraq in December 1998, the Security Council undertook an effort to provide Iraq a roadmap to compliance and to create incentives for getting inspectors back into the country. By this time, political support for continuing the sanctions among several Security Council members, particularly China, France and Russia, had severely eroded.

In December 1999, one year after inspectors left Iraq, the Security Council adopted resolution 1284, establishing UNMOVIC as the successor organization to UNSCOM. To improve the condition of the Iraqi people, resolution 1284 lifts the cap on oil exports that may be used to pay for imports under the oil-for-food program. To give Iraq the incentive to allow inspectors back in, resolution 1284 also provides that sanctions on the import of civil goods be suspended for 120-day renewable periods, once "reinforced" on-going monitoring and verification systems have been established, and after Iraq has complied with "key remaining disarmament tasks" needed to fulfill the disarmament obligations under resolution 687.*20 The resolution also narrowly defines UNMOVIC's mandate by providing that Iraq's obligations in allowing ongoing monitoring and verification and in complying with the remaining disarmament tasks are to be "clearly defined and precise."*21

Meeting the terms of resolution 1284, however, does not give Iraq free and unfettered access to its oil revenues. Even if the terms of the resolution are met, resolution 1284 continues to subject revenues from oil sales to "effective financial and other operational measures" to ensure that Iraq does not import banned items.*22 The United States has stressed that Iraqi oil revenues are to remain in UN-controlled escrow accounts until Iraq fully meets its obligations under resolution 687. In the U.S. view, it will not be sufficient if Iraq meets the "key remaining disarmament tasks" and allows implementation of "reinforced" on-going monitoring and verification activities, as defined by resolution 1284.

During the negotiations over resolution 1284, France proposed much less stringent controls over Iraqi revenues than provided for by the existing escrow system. According to a former Clinton administration official, the French proposal amounted to an "ex post facto review of Iraqi finances, with no provision to punish Iraq in the event of smuggling" other than the lifting of the suspension of sanctions. The United States, which supported the existing escrow system (or something as stringent), rejected the French proposal. The United States proposed the language that was eventually adopted—"effective financial or other operational measures"—as a way to defer the disagreement with France, rather than scuttle the entire resolution as a result of this impasse.*23

Resolution 1284 only "reaffirms [the Security Council's] intentions … on the termination of prohibitions" set forth in resolution 687; when these prohibitions will be "terminated" is left open-ended.*24 Partially as a result, Iraq rejected resolution 1284 and refused to allow the resumption of inspections. According to former Action Team Leader Garry Dillon, Iraq believes that resolution 1284, "despite, or perhaps because, of its flexible wording, would be a rock around its neck that would forever prevent it from getting its hands on its oil revenues."*25


During the 2000 U.S. presidential election campaign, candidate George W. Bush and his foreign policy advisors strongly criticized the Clinton administration's policy towards Iraq. They charged that Saddam Hussein had effectively won the propaganda war and managed to place the blame for the suffering of the Iraqi people squarely on the international community, in particular the United States and Britain. This shifting of blame had occurred despite the oil-for-food program significantly improving the circumstances of Iraq's population.*26

By the late 1990s, a number of foreign capitals were increasingly willing to overlook Saddam's own neglect of his people. Rather than ask why Iraq was not spending revenues from smuggled oil to benefit the Iraqi populace, or why there were unspent funds in the oil-for-food escrow account established by the UN Security Council, many countries wrongly concluded that the UN-imposed sanctions were to blame. Many countries, non-governmental organizations, and even members of the U.S. Congress openly questioned the purpose of continuing the sanctions on Iraq. The "Arab street" also increasingly viewed the sanctions as unjust, and Osama bin Laden has used the sanctions as a rallying point in his calls for a jihad against the United States.

For its part, Iraq had launched a diplomatic effort to end its isolation. In 2000, tens of civil aircraft from several countries, including Bulgaria, France, Great Britain, Jordan, Russia, and Syria flew to Baghdad without obtaining UN approval. Several countries have upgraded their diplomatic relations with Iraq. Among the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, only Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have not reestablished ties. To regain full control over the revenues derived from unfettered oil sales without allowing inspectors back in, Baghdad apparently calculated that all it had to do was continue to ride out the growing "sanctions fatigue" in the international community and the UN Security Council. With access to these revenues, Iraq could then go about building up its conventional military and WMD programs by circumventing export controls through illicit procurements and bribery. Saddam Hussein's presumed ambition of attaining military supremacy in the Persian Gulf region would then be attainable.

After taking office in January 2001, the Bush administration conducted a several-month-long policy review and recommended shifts in U.S. policy to address the deteriorating situation. According to then-Assistant Secretary of State Einhorn, "the incoming Bush administration recognized immediately that the status quo was not sustainable and that time was not on our side."*27 Saddam Hussein remained a threat to the Persian Gulf region. Moreover, the successful acquisition by Saddam Hussein of nuclear weapons or other WMD had to be prevented.

According to Einhorn, the policy review concluded that the key to containing the Iraqi threat was to maintain control over Iraqi oil revenues and stop oil exports outside the oil-for-food program. To achieve this goal, the Bush administration articulated three main tactical objectives for U.S. policy towards Iraq. First, the United States would seek to recapture the initiative from Saddam Hussein, by demonstrably making it easier for Iraq to import commodities that would improve the circumstances of the Iraqi people. Second, the United States would attempt to rebuild support for a reinvigorated sanctions regime among UN Security Council members and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf region, where fractures have weakened international sanctions. Finally, the United States would work to reverse the increasing pessimism that the problem of disarming Iraqi WMD and long-range missile programs is unsolvable.

Under the Bush administration's plan, sanctions will continue to be a main pillar of this policy. The key to building support for international sanctions against Iraq is to make them more focused on WMD and military-related items and dual-use goods. Under the current system, suppliers are prohibited from providing many dual-use items to Iraq. To expand the list of permitted goods, the administration's plan would include a "goods review list," a long list of dual-use items that would be subject to review by the Security Council before they could be exported to Iraq. Under the proposal, if contracts do not contain items either on the goods review list or proscribed by Security Council resolutions, they would be approved automatically. As for the dual-use items appearing on the goods review list, these contracts would be screened. According to Einhorn, "members of the Security Council would look at these contracts and determine whether they believe the humanitarian need is compelling, and that the risks of diversion to military programs are manageable. . . . If we convince ourselves that the risks are manageable, we will approve those transfers."*28 In addition, the contract approval procedures would be streamlined.

To enforce these "smart sanctions," the administration proposed strengthening the capabilities of border checkpoints in Jordan, Syria, and Turkey to ensure that proscribed items are not imported into Iraq. These checkpoints also would be used to ensure that oil is not illicitly exported from Iraq. Iraq's neighbors would bear primary responsibility for manning the checkpoints under the proposal, but that they will need technical assistance. Under the proposal, they would receive financial support paid from Iraqi funds held in UN escrow accounts.

A significant obstacle to implementing such an arrangement is the concern of neighboring countries that they will suffer from the end of preferential trade with Iraq. To allay these fears, the administration plan would permit these countries continued access to inexpensive oil and energy supplies from Iraq. Under the proposal, energy purchases would be allowed, but cash proceeds could not go directly to Iraq. Barter trade would be permitted, but any cash purchases would have to go into a specially created escrow account. Einhorn has also noted that the Bush administration proposal would set aside funds to compensate for any Iraqi retaliation: "We need to set aside funds, called a safety net, to compensate Iraq's neighbors if Iraq decides to retaliate against them."*29

According to Einhorn, the United States is committed to returning inspectors to Iraq, but is concerned that Iraq will not allow intrusive inspections to resume. "We're not prepared to lower our standards of compliance," said Einhorn, adding, "we are not willing to dumb-down the monitoring and inspection system in order to get to a point where even Iraq feels comfortable with the arrangements."*30

After several weeks of negotiations on a new resolution that would incorporate the Bush administration proposals, the UN Security Council voted unanimously on June 1, 2001, to extend the current oil-for-food regime for only one month instead of the customary six months.*31 The purpose was to allow for more time to work out the details of the new resolution. An initial deadline of July 3 was set to conclude the new resolution, but intensive negotiations throughout June failed to achieve a consensus among the permanent five members of the Security Council. Russia was reportedly the only holdout. Rather than put a British-sponsored resolution supporting the proposal to a vote under the threat of a Russian veto, the Security Council decided to simply extend the current oil-for-food regime for an additional five months.*32 Following this decision, U.S. and British officials pledged to press for the adoption of smart sanctions in November 2001, when the oil-for-food resolution is debated again.*33

The negotiations over implementing the U.S. and British proposal have been difficult, with Russia remaining its most vocal opponent among the permanent five Security Council members. Differences of opinion regarding the composition of the goods review list have been reported to be a key sticking point. In a statement prepared for an open meeting of the UN Security Council on June 26, Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov stated: "as a result of the imposition of the so-called `smart sanctions,' the lawful trade and economic interests of many countries, including Russia, might suffer."*34 It is unknown whether Russia's opposition will soften before the November deadline, especially given the broad cooperation that has developed between the United States and Russia following the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Earlier this year, experts outside the Bush administration were skeptical that revising the sanctions regime will have a lasting impact on slowing Iraqi efforts to erode the international sanctions. The Washington Institute's Michael Eisenstadt expressed concern in June 2001 that even if a new Security Council resolution were adopted, Russia, France, and China would be likely to take actions that would undermine it.*35 Historically, these countries have sought to walk a fine line between supporting UN Security Council consensus and maintaining ties with Iraq, leading to a continuing weakening of the sanctions regime. "They [Russia, France, and China] will always pull us in the direction of the further watering down sanctions," Eisenstadt said, "and as a result, I don't think that the passing of this resolution will be end of the story."*36

The new sanctions regime may not eliminate the claim that the Iraqi people are suffering at the hands of the West. According to Eisenstadt, the propaganda war will go on: "if Saddam Hussein wants to undersell his oil [or] under-order food and medicine … then he can do it, and we can't force him to do otherwise."*37 Former Action Team Leader Dillon says: "Iraq's general population are the losers under the present system and will likely remain so under the new proposals."*38

Persuading Syria, Jordan, and Turkey to support the Bush administration proposal appeared difficult in mid-2001, and still may be difficult today. Eisenstadt believes that Iraq's neighbors are unlikely to agree to effective border controls, as there are too many vested interests threatened by the proposed arrangements. Moreover, Iraq's neighbors would be susceptible to domestic unrest caused by their active participation in the proposed border control arrangement. Jordan, in particular, has a large expatriate Iraqi community and many economic interests tied to Baghdad. According to Eisenstadt, many Arabs "see the effort to revamp sanctions as simply another effort to consolidate American hegemony in the region and to continue the despoliation of Iraq."*39 Saddam Hussein has been successful at manipulating such sentiments in the past.

Iraq preemptively rejected the smart sanctions proposal. Following the June 2001 announcement that the Security Council was negotiating a resolution to implement smart sanctions, Iraq halted legitimate oil sales and, in Dillon's words, "called upon its ever-resourceful, though increasingly resourceless, population to seek new ways to make new sacrifices."*40 The Security Council's decision not to vote on the resolution in July was hailed by Baghdad as "a defeat for the Anglo-American policy against Iraq."*41


During the 2000 U.S. presidential race, the Bush campaign supported the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. Following its review of Iraq policy, the Bush administration continued to advocate a regime change. "The most reliable and durable way of addressing Iraq's WMD and other military capabilities would be to replace the regime in Baghdad," said Einhorn. "Given these conclusions, regime change became a very important component of the Bush administration policy toward Iraq."*42

Replacing the regime will not be simple, however. Independent experts do not believe that Saddam Hussein can be easily overthrown. Eisenstadt says that a credible effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein militarily will require the logistical support of Iraq's neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Eisenstadt said in June 2001 that there was "no support in the region for any of the various regime-change plans that have been floated in this country."*43

In many respects, this calculus has not changed after September 11. While senior U.S. Defense Department officials have called for the occupation of southern Iraq by U.S. troops and the installation of a London-based Iraqi opposition group at the helm of a new government, unilateral U.S. action would be highly risky. Moderate Arab states have continued to resist U.S. efforts to expand the conflict to Iraq. Even Great Britain has warned that it cannot support broadening the "War on Terrorism" to include Iraq, absent compelling evidence that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks. Indeed, without strong evidence of Iraq's complicity, unilateral action to overthrow Saddam Hussein today would likely shatter the international coalition that now supports military action against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. International support for military action against Baghdad might be more easily obtained if such force were employed to enforce newly reinvigorated UN Security Council inspections.


June 2001 marked the 30th month since IAEA Action Team and UN inspectors were withdrawn from Iraq. The lack of inspections and monitoring in Iraq makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to detect, let alone assess, Iraqi efforts to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program and other WMD programs. Given Saddam Hussein's long-standing commitment to obtain nuclear weapons, it is likely that Iraq continues this quest. It is prudent to assume that Iraq has used the two and one-half years since the inspectors left to accelerate its WMD and missile programs. For example, Iraqi work on short-range missiles, viewed by the intelligence community as test beds for proscribed long-range missiles, has continued and perhaps been accelerated. Similarly, research and development efforts for the nuclear weapons program, which may have been small and dispersed before the end of 1998, could have proceeded more openly and with little fear of discovery since then.

Even with smart sanctions fully operational, it is not possible to prevent key materials, items, and components from reaching Iraq. Einhorn acknowledges that continued Iraqi smuggling "is almost inevitable."*44 As Dillon observes, Iraq's borders are mostly just "lines in the sand…crossed by camel trains every day."*45

Although Iraq faces formidable challenges in reconstituting its domestic capability to make nuclear weapons, it can do so significantly faster than many other countries. It also has had 10 years to think through a strategy of reconstitution and to learn from its mistakes. Iraq can be expected to create more focused and productive weapons programs at a reduced cost, size, and visibility. There are two general pathways for Iraq to acquire nuclear weapons. The first is to secretly acquire a nuclear weapon or a sufficient quantity of separated plutonium or HEU from abroad. The second is to develop the indigenous capability to produce these materials.

Expert opinions regarding how close Iraq may be to acquiring nuclear weapons are uncertain and vary from a few months to several years, depending on the scenario. The most optimistic projection is offered by the U.S. government, which according to Einhorn, views Iraq as not capable of indigenously building a nuclear explosive for at least five years from early 2001.*46 Former Action Team Leader Dillon argues that as of 1998, Iraq would have needed "five years, plus or minus two years" to enrich sufficient uranium and produce a nuclear explosive. However, he adds that Iraq would need only "one year, plus or minus one year" to build a nuclear explosive if it secretly acquired enough fissile material or, in the extreme, a functional nuclear weapon.*47 ISIS's own assessment concluded that, as of late 1998, Iraq needed two to seven years to enrich enough uranium for a first nuclear device.*48 If Iraq should acquire fissile material abroad, ISIS estimated that it could assemble a nuclear explosive in less than one year.*49

If Iraq were to obtain nuclear weapons, what would it do with them? Some experts assess that Saddam Hussein might immediately test a nuclear explosive device, even if it is the only weapon he has. A nuclear test would dramatically demonstrate Iraqi nuclear weapons capability and other countries could not be certain that Iraq did not have additional weapons available. Others conclude that Saddam will do nothing if he has only one or two weapons, but instead seek to obtain more. Still others believe that Saddam would eventually mount a campaign of leaks that he has nuclear weapons. Finally, some argue that Saddam would bide his time, but eventually would be emboldened by his nuclear weapons capability to instigate a crisis, thereby forcing him to demonstrate his capability. The fact is, no one can be sure.

It is also uncertain how Iraq would deliver a nuclear weapon to its intended target. In the extreme case, Iraq might be able to deliver nuclear weapons by ballistic missiles to countries in the Middle East. It is also conceivable that Iraq would try to conceal a nuclear explosive device in a ship for clandestine delivery overseas.

The Iraqi biological weapons program also presents an on-going threat. Iraq may have hidden significant parts of its biological weapons program from UNSCOM inspectors and is believed to have made significant progress during the late 1990s in reconstituting and improving its biological weapons effort. Even if Iraq is not involved in the October 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, some experts are worried that Saddam Hussein, motivated by revenge, spite, or opportunity, might use anthrax or other agents in a similar manner against the United States and its allies.


The key to a successful Iraqi effort to acquire nuclear weapons is the possession of nuclear material. One significant, over-looked step that could delay an Iraqi attempt to quickly obtain a nuclear arsenal is to remove existing uranium stocks from the country. This material includes approximately 1.7 metric tons (MT) of low-enriched uranium (LEU) and several hundred MT of natural uranium.*50 Should Iraq master one of the uranium enrichment technologies that it was pursuing before the Gulf War, its LEU stock would provide a means to rapidly make enough HEU for at least one nuclear weapon. The natural uranium could become the feedstock for many more. This uranium remains in Iraq because the Action Team did not have a mandate under resolution 687 to "remove, destroy or render harmless" this uranium. Without further enrichment or irradiation in a nuclear reactor, it is not "weapons-usable nuclear material."

Any use of this uranium by Iraq would be illegal. Security Council resolution 707 prohibits Iraq from undertaking any nuclear activities that would require stocks of natural uranium or LEU, at least until it comes into full compliance with its obligations under resolution 687. The uranium is presently under IAEA seal, and is subject to routine, annual IAEA safeguards inspections once every January under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Although the IAEA inspections can verify that this uranium has not been diverted as of the date of the inspection, they cannot guarantee that Iraq will not divert the material to a clandestine enrichment program immediately after the inspectors leave. Owing to the one-year gap between inspections, Iraq may not care if the IAEA detects a diversion, particularly if it is able to enrich the LEU up to HEU and assemble one or two nuclear weapons in the meantime.

The Security Council should undertake to remove these stocks from Iraq, particularly the smaller and more significant LEU stock. As in the case of Iraqi oil exports, Iraq could be compensated for its "export" of these stocks by placing funds in the UN oil-for-food escrow account, or another escrow account. Buyers might include Italy (which originally supplied the LEU), Russia, or the United States. Until this source of nuclear material for an Iraqi nuclear weapon is removed, the IAEA should undertake at once to apply remotely verified seals to reduce the time needed to detect a possible diversion of this material from a year to weeks or even a few days.


For the past decade, the United States has sought to keep Saddam Hussein "in a box," as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright used to say.*51 This policy of containment of Iraq has relied on various instruments, including economic sanctions, weapon inspections, "no-fly zones," and the threat or use of force. At the same time, U.S. policy increasingly has looked at ways to achieve a change in the Saddam Hussein regime. Although critics of the Clinton administration advocated a more aggressive approach to regime change, both sides agreed that the removal of Saddam Hussein was necessary before Iraq could truly satisfy the conditions of resolution 687. The Bush administration appears to be continuing this policy of containing Saddam Hussein and seeking a regime change. But after all this time, is it Saddam Hussein who is in a box, or is it the United States and the rest of the international community?


Containment is increasingly difficult to maintain. The debate over the prospects of regime change is as controversial as ever. Among those who advocate a more aggressive approach to toppling Saddam, the central weakness of their argument remains widespread disbelief that regime change will be easy, come quickly, or lead to a successor regime that will be any better.*52 Even more timely safeguards and the removal of existing uranium stocks from Iraq cannot guard indefinitely against the surreptitious acquisition of nuclear material for a bomb, or the reconstitution of chemical and biological weapons programs.

Reorienting a containment strategy may be the only option available to the United States. Despite obvious flaws, muddling through may be the only policy. The immediate problem would remain finding ways to encourage Iraq to comply with its obligations, while simultaneously controlling its oil revenues and advocating the overthrow of Saddam.

Dillon, however, suggests that the current "contain-and-seek-to-topple" strategy is not workable and believes that serious efforts should be made to resume inspections in Iraq, thereby improving the chances for detecting efforts by Iraq to reconstitute its WMD programs and, at a minimum, deterring such reconstitution attempts.*53 He recommends an approach that could allow Iraq to gain control over its oil revenues if it complied with Security Council resolutions, but one that would also ensure that Iraq abided by its obligations to the Security Council by authorizing decisive military action as the penalty for noncompliance.

Dillon proposes to return to the original conditions of resolution 687. The rules were changed, he states, as a result of resolution 1284. Iraq wants to regain control of its oil revenues, but sees no possibility of doing so under resolution 1284. By returning to the original arrangement under resolution 687, controls on Iraq's oil revenues would be lifted unconditionally following Iraq's compliance; the intermediate steps of resolution 1284—the suspension of civil imports, and the continued control over oil revenues, in exchange for Iraq's less-than-complete compliance with its disarmament obligations—would be avoided. Unless Iraq is given the prospect for regaining control over its revenues, Dillon believes that Iraq will never comply with either resolution 1284 or with any proposal that continues to control Iraq's oil revenues indefinitely.

Reverting to resolution 687 would provide Iraq the incentive of reaching its objective on a realistic schedule. The proposal foresees that Iraq would invite UNMOVIC and the IAEA to return to Iraq and would provide the necessary cooperation to enable them to collect and verify information regarding Iraq's satisfaction of the requirements of the relevant paragraphs of resolution 687. For their part, UNMOVIC and the IAEA would return to Iraq and implement their respective "reinforced" on-going monitoring and verification plans. Within this implementation, all necessary resources should be deployed to collect and verify the required information. UNMOVIC and the IAEA would report to the Security Council within a predetermined time to enable the Council to reach a conclusion on Iraq's technical compliance.

Dillon points out that this conclusion is by no means certain to be positive. "It is not a `dumbing-down' of conditions for compliance," he says, "nor is it the `hide-and-seek' option that is included in the package suggested by Russia." Russia's June 2001 proposal, offered in response to the U.S./British resolution, would require inspectors to find banned activities within a short time period.*54 In contrast to the Russian proposal, Dillon's proposal could serve as a final opportunity for Iraq to seek to prove that it is in technical compliance with its obligations. Under Dillon's proposal, should the Security Council be satisfied with the information provided by UNMOVIC and the IAEA, it would issue a new resolution lifting both the oil embargo and the ban on exporting civil goods to Iraq. In this resolution, the Security Council would also: (1) reaffirm the necessity for the ongoing monitoring and verification of Iraq's compliance with its obligations under the relevant resolutions; (2) reaffirm the rights—particularly right of access—of the inspectors; and (3) continue the basic prohibitions found in resolution 687 against possessing WMD, the wherewithal to make WMD, and certain missiles. The Security Council could also undertake to review the ongoing utility of that resolution at regular intervals.

Dillon's proposal depends on clearly delineating what constitutes material breaches by Iraq of its obligations. Such violations would include any action by Iraq that impedes the effective implementation of on-going monitoring and verification by UNMOVIC or the IAEA; any attempt by Iraq to acquire, develop, use, or conspire to use WMD; or any attempt, intent, or conspiracy by Iraq to initiate military action against another state. If Iraq committed a material breach of this agreement, the resolution would commit the Security Council and the member states of the coalition formed before the Persian Gulf War, augmented as appropriate, to take all necessary actions, including military, to neutralize the effects of any such material breach.

A critical component of Dillon's proposal is the preemptive empowerment of the "existing" alliance to deal with material breaches of Iraq's commitments. In effect, it requires the Security Council to commit to the view that Iraqi moves aimed at military conquest of its neighbors or WMD acquisition is, in political terms, a capital offense warranting and perhaps requiring military action. Although Iraq is in violation of resolution 687, and thus already may be viewed as committing a capital offense, political support for military action has severely weakened over the last several years. The September 11 attacks and President Bush's declared War on Terrorism may have increased political support within the United States for military action against Iraq, but it remains to be seen if the UN Security Council and moderate Arab states agree. If the United States and Britain act alone, they are almost certain to face harsh international condemnation for a large-scale military attack on Iraq, potentially jeopardizing international support for military action in Afghanistan. By gaining authority "up-front," however, the United States and Britain would be in a better position to launch military strikes if Iraq were found in material breach of its commitments.

Dillon argues that preauthorizing the use of military force in the event of a material breach would merely represent the recognition of what would happen anyway, but with requisite Security Council support. In the event that Iraq "commited a warlike action, with or without WMD," Dillon believes that the United States, Britain, and possibly other countries would respond with "decisive military action." "So why not be up-front?" he asks: "Could the Security Council possibly be shocked or outraged? Could differently focused members of the Council wish to grant Iraq license to commit a material breach?" As an example, one can point to resolution 687, which states with respect to chemical weapons: "grave consequences would follow any further use by Iraq of such weapons."*55 On the other hand, why should Iraq object to this proposal? If Iraq, as it has frequently asserted, has already fully satisfied its obligations, the issue of decisive military action would be reduced to a redundant technicality.

If verification is reconstituted, it can succeed. Ephraim Asculai, a retired senior official at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and, in June 2001, an ISIS Senior Research Fellow, has concluded that success would depend on the perseverance and ability of the inspectors, the allocation of essential resources (including manpower, equipment, and logistics), and sufficient backing by the Security Council. Also central to success, he adds, would be Iraqi steps to increase transparency and abandon concealment efforts. Such a verification arrangement would have the highest probability of uncovering any illicit activities or the presence of illicit items. However, Asculai cautions that one must always remember that there are no absolute assurances of the discovery of every illicit activity or item. "Should Iraq come clean, and offer full transparency," Asculai says that the urgent task of the inspectors "will be to learn and verify all the relevant facts, while the world heaves a collective sigh of relief."*56

Why should the administration consider a proposal that emphasizes the reintroduction of inspections? According to former UNSCOM Deputy Executive Director Gallucci:

It is worthwhile to make the point that the Iraqi objectives remain the same; that, unconstrained, they will seek to regenerate the programs that were made illegitimate by resolution 687; that the international community still has an interest from stopping them from doing that; that by insisting on an inspection regime, before they are made legitimate, puts the Iraqis in the position of either refusing the inspections, or accepting them and then having to wrestle with them and throw them out.*57

Such an approach would show that Iraq is violating the will of the Security Council. At that point, collective action would be much easier to justify.


The War on Terrorism provides a singular opportunity for the Security Council to unite on the problem of Iraqi WMD and missile proliferation. The world feels a new urgency to eliminate the risk posed by biological weapons. Nuclear weapons in the hands of irresponsible nations or terrorists remain just as unacceptable.

It may be that the long lasting splits in the Security Council over Iraq cannot be overcome and the status quo will persist. It may turn out that the Bush administration proposal for smart sanctions is the strongest approach that the Security Council can accept. At least, this proposal will make it hard for Iraq to reconstitute its conventional forces to the point where it can threaten its neighbors. In the end, an imperfect containment policy may be the only possibility under the current circumstances.

However, it seems certain that if such a proposal were adopted, it would not quickly lead to the resumption of inspections of Iraq's nuclear weapons program, other WMD programs, and banned missile efforts. One must recognize that sanctions alone cannot prevent Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons, nor can sanctions lead to a workable strategy if Iraq succeeds in acquiring such weapons. Absent Iraqi cooperation in allowing inspections to resume, it is prudent to assume that something untoward is going on in Iraq. Iraqi claims to the contrary are not credible if left untested, given Saddam Hussein's track record. The mere possession of nuclear weapons by Iraq would have disastrous regional and global effects, inevitably drawing the United States into military confrontation. Should Iraq use biological weapons or be shown to have provided them to a terrorist group, military conflict would be likely.

As a result, options that emphasize the role of quickly reintroducing inspections and monitoring provide the best possible alternatives for reducing the threats posed by Saddam Hussein to the United States, its allies, and to Iraq's neighbors. Without inspections, there is little to deter Iraq from seeking nuclear weapons and other WMD, and no assurances that the international community will detect Iraqi efforts to obtain such weapons before Iraq possesses them.

The proposal offered by Dillon, despite the risks associated with it, deserves serious consideration. Allowing Iraq to regain control of its oil revenues certainly could make it easier for Iraq to acquire foreign goods that can be used for WMD. For this reason, the Bush administration will likely resist such a proposal as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power. But WMD programs are not that expensive, and Saddam Hussein already has sufficient funds from his illicit sale of oil. Preventing Iraq from re-arming conventionally is more effectively accomplished by robust, and internationally supported, military sanctions than controls on oil revenues.

Critics have already renewed their calls for increased efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein militarily. But that approach is dangerous. Toppling the regime, even if viable, may not lead to drastic changes in Iraqi attitudes, since Saddam Hussein's likely heirs are not better—and perhaps worse—than Saddam Hussein himself. Providing lip service and some material support to the Iraqi opposition will have little, if any, effect on Saddam Hussein's WMD efforts. A failed invasion attempt may even legitimize Iraqi possession of WMD in the eyes of much of the world.

Rejecting Dillon's proposal because of a lack of faith in inspections is a mistake and shortsighted. The past two years have shown that international security is undermined when it must depend on sanctions without inspections. Claims that Iraq cannot make nuclear weapons or is at least many years from possessing them appear to be more aimed at minimizing the threat posed by Iraq than on factual analysis. Critics will also object that the proposed inspections will be a sham. But no one is advocating anything but the most robust inspections. The international community will more likely respond in a united and forcible manner to Iraqi noncompliance with inspections than to Iraqi refusal to accept smart sanctions. In any case, until inspections resume, the Action Team and UNMOVIC must be maintained at a high state of readiness. The inspectors proved their need and value in the 1990s. With proper political and technical support, the Action Team and UNMOVIC can do their jobs effectively.

It is not too early to start thinking about the real consequences of a nuclear-armed Iraq. It is certainly unlike India, Pakistan, or any other case of nuclear proliferation. Some in the world could live with Iraqi nuclear weapons and even praise the achievement. Israel, the United States, and industrial states dependent on Persian Gulf oil could not. Will the Western world need to confront Iraq militarily, and demand that it disarm? How many countries would oppose such a confrontation? Innovative options are urgently needed.

Taking into account these considerations, priority must be given to measures that will help the international community avoid a nuclear-armed Iraq or one armed to the teeth with intermediate-range ballistic missiles and weaponized biological and chemical agents. Success will depend on making Iraq a higher priority in both the United States and abroad. Only when the UN Security Council, especially its permanent members, unanimously cautions Iraq, and places before it the option of inspections versus total and real isolation, will there be a chance of resuming inspections. The critical weakness of the Bush administration policy to date is that it has not inspired international support in favor of tough, rigorous inspections. Those who focus only on overthrowing Saddam should reconsider, and at least support confronting Iraq with a stark choice. Iraq must either give up its prohibited programs and accept intrusive inspections or face a harsh military reaction.



*1 - The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, February 22, 2001, "Press Conference by the President,"

*2 - Testimony before the U.S. Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence, "Worldwide Threat 2001: National Security in a Changing World," 107[th] Cong., 1st session, February 7, 2001,

*3 - Ibid.

*4 - Michael Eisenstadt, "Lessons Learned and Looking Forward," paper prepared for "Understanding the Lessons of Nuclear Inspections and Monitoring in Iraq: A Ten Year Review," sponsored by the Institute for Science and International Security, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, June 14-15, 2001 ("ISIS Conference on Iraq").

*5 - "ISIS Conference on Iraq". Referenced speakers were on-the-record, and transcripts from these particular sessions have been or are being prepared. All direct quotations are used with the permission of the presenters. Although a wide variety of views were expressed at this conference, the conclusions of this article are the sole responsibility of the authors. Transcripts of selected addresses and presentations from this conference are available at the ISIS web site,

*6 - "New Leaders and New Directions," a conference sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ronald Reagan World Trade Center, Washington, DC, June 18-19, 2001 (hereafter "2001 Carnegie Non-Proliferation Conference"). The Carnegie Endowment has published materials related to the panel on Iraq on its web site

*7 - UN Security Council resolution 687, April 3, 1991,

*8 - Ibid.

*9 - Ibid.

*10 - UN Security Council resolution 707, August 15, 1991,

*11 - In UN Security Council resolution 1284, December 17, 1999,; UNSCOM was replaced by the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).

*12 - UN Security Council Resolution 715, October 11, 1991,

*13 - UN Security Council Resolution 1051, March 27, 1996,

*14 - Jacques Baute, " The IAEA Action Team's On-Going Monitoring and Verification Program," keynote address, ISIS Conference on Iraq (transcript being prepared).

*15 - Dimitri Perricos, "Uncovering the Secret Program—Initial Inspections," ISIS Conference on Iraq,

*16 - Baute, "The IAEA Action Team's Ongoing Monitoring and Verification Program."

*17 - Ibid.

*18 - Robert Gallucci, "Reflections on Establishing and Implementing the Post-Gulf War Inspections of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs," lunch address before the ISIS Conference on Iraq,

*19 - UN Security Council Resolution 986, April 14, 1996,

*20 - UN Security Council resolution 1284.

*21 - Ibid.

*22 - Ibid.

*23 - Former Clinton administration official (name withheld by request), telephone conversation with Kevin O'Neill, August 29, 2001.

*24 - Ibid.

*25 - Garry Dillon, "The Iraq Dilemma," 2001 Carnegie Non-Proliferation Conference ,

*26 - For example, a 2000 UN report concluded that "despite all constraints, difficulties, and shortcomings … the program has succeeded in providing substantial assistance to address Iraq's pressing humanitarian needs through the large-scale importation of civilian goods." Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to Paragraph 5 of Security Council Resolution 1281 (1999), UN Secretary General documentS/2000/520, June 1, 2000.

*27 - Robert Einhorn, "The Emerging Bush Administration Approach to Addressing Iraq's WMD and Missile Programs," keynote address before the ISIS Conference on Iraq,

*28 - Ibid.

*29 - Ibid.

*30 - Ibid.

*31 -UN Security Council resolution 1352, June 1, 2001,

*32 -UN Security Council resolution 1360, July 3, 2001,

*33 -According to U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, the United States "will continue to work on the new [sanctions] policy to get the policy implemented by the Council. … [The United States has] accepted a proposal for a five-month rollover, and we'll use the next 150 days to try to implement what the Council said it would do in terms of a new policy. We think it's a better policy and one that the Council should follow." Department of State, Daily Press Briefing (transcript), July 3, 2001,; See also Bernie Woodall, "US and Britain Ready Renewed Sanctions Effort," Reuters, August 17, 2001.

*34 -For the Russian government's public analysis of the U.S./U.K. proposal, see Statement by Sergei Lavrov to an Open Formal Meeting of the UN Security Council, June 26, 2001,

*35 - Eisenstadt, "Lessons Learned and Looking Forward."

*36 - Ibid.

*37 - Ibid.

*38 - Dillon, "The Iraq Dilemma."

*39 - Eisenstadt, "Lessons Learned and Looking Forward."

*40 - Dillon, "The Iraq Dilemma."

*41 - Hafidh Hassan, "Iraq Hails Dropping of UN Vote as Victory," Reuters, July 3, 2001.

*42 - Einhorn, "The Emerging Bush Administration Approach."

*43 - Eisenstadt, "Lessons Learned and Looking Forward."

*44 -Einhorn, "The Emerging Bush Administration Approach."

*45 - Dillon, "The Iraq Dilemma."

*46 -Einhorn, "The Emerging Bush Administration Approach."

*47 -Garry Dillon, interview by David Albright, Washington, DC, June 19, 2001.

*48 - David Albright and Khidhir Hamza, "Iraq's Reconstitution of its Nuclear Weapons Program," Arms Control Today 28 (October 1998),

*49 - Ibid.

*50 - David Albright, "A Special Case: Iraq," in David Albright, Frans Berkhout, and William Walker, Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities and Policies (Oxford: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 348.

*51 - See, for example, Office of the Spokesman, U.S. Department of State, January 3, 2000, "Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright Interview on NBC's `Meet The Press' With Tim Russert and Andrea Mitchell,"

*52 - For a recent discussion of this debate, see Daniel Byman, "Iraq after Saddam," Washington Quarterly 24 (Autumn 2001), pp. 151-162.

*53 - The discussion of Garry Dillon's proposal is based upon his remarks before the 2001 Carnegie Non-Proliferation Conference and on conversations with the authors.

*54 - The Russian proposal suspends the oil embargo on Iraq, and gives Iraq control of the bulk of its oil revenues, immediately upon the deployment of reinforced on-going monitoring and verification systems by UNMOVIC and the IAEA. UNMOVIC and the IAEA would then have 60 days to draw up plans for reinforced on-going monitoring and verification and to establish a set of "key disarmament tasks" that Iraq needed to satisfy before sanctions would be lifted. UNSCOM and the IAEA would then report to the Security Council within 180 days, at which time the Security Council would decide whether the sanctions imposed under resolution 687 would be lifted.

*55 - UN Security Council resolution 687.

*56 - Ephraim Asculai, interview by David Albright, Washington, DC, June 23, 2001.

*57 - Gallucci, "Reflections on Establishing and Implementing the Post-Gulf War Inspections."









Home - Search - WMD Profiles - Entities of Concern - Iraq's Suppliers - UN Documents
Government Documents - Controlled Items - Perspectives - Subscribe

About Iraq Watch - Wisconsin Project - Contact Us

As of August 2006, Iraq Watch is no longer being updated. Click here for more information.

Copyright © 2000-2006
Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control