Could Iraq Have the Atomic Bomb?
by Gary Milhollin
The New York Times
November 19, 1997, p. A39.
While the United States, Russia and other countries search for
diplomatic solutions to the crisis in Iraq, the risk grows that
the weapons inspectors will never again be able to do their jobs
effectively. Last night, for example, Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian
Foreign Minister, proposed that in return for allowing the inspectors
to go back to work, their efforts would have to be brought to a
If the weapons inspections are at all compromised, however, the
world could face the prospect of an Iraqi atomic bomb in three to
Ever since the Persian Gulf war, Iraq's nuclear weapon team has
been busy designing a bomb. The latest blueprint, according to United
Nations inspectors, is of a sphere measuring 32 to 35 inches in
diameter with 32 detonators. The bomb would weigh less than a ton
and fit on a Scud missile, the weapon Mr. Hussein used in the war
to hit Israel and kill American troops.
Iraq has already successfully tested the bomb, using a "dummy"
nonnuclear core. To complete it, Iraq needs only nuclear fuel, and
the latest design requires a mere 35 pounds of highly enriched uranium.
Inspectors believe they have destroyed almost all the equipment
needed to produce such uranium, but the Iraqis know how to build
or import what they need. Indeed, Iraqi scientists have made great
strides in developing centrifuges, which can convert natural uranium
to nuclear weapon grade. A few thousand centrifuges can produce
enough high-grade uranium to fuel a few bombs per year.
Easily hidden inside an underground garage, these centrifuges
would be invisible to U-2 spy planes monitoring Iraqi weapons development.
Only inspectors on the ground have any hope of finding them.
Even under ideal conditions, putting a complete stop to weapons
research is impossible; inspectors can't arrest scientists or read
their minds. But inspectors can detect the special manufacturing
needed to create fuel for nuclear weapons.
Since inspectors have been in Iraq, they have sampled soil, air
and water, "swiping" surfaces to detect suspect atomic elements
and flying helicopters at low altitudes to sniff out undeclared
All this work gave inspectors a good chance of detecting any bombs
under construction. So long as short-notice inspections were allowed,
there was a good chance, too, of seizing and destroying any and
all manufacturing equipment before it could be moved.
But if inspections don't resume, or are watered down, the Iraqis
can reconstitute their efforts to build a nuclear bomb. In fact,
they have already moved important equipment outside the range of
monitoring cameras. Even if the inspection teams were to return
to Iraq next week, they would have to retrieve hundreds of pieces
of monitored equipment and then restart the accounting process.
If Iraq resumes its weapons production, it will sink the international
efforts to stop arms proliferation.
Despite these dangers, France and Russia have tried to rule out
military action and to broker a compromise. Indeed, France, in its
eagerness to placate Mr. Hussein, has proposed to close the books
on new inspections and to rely mainly on monitoring the biological,
chemical and nuclear weapons that have already been found.
But keeping track of what has already been found would not amount
to a serious inspection effort -- it would be "faking it," in the
words of one inspector. It would surrender all hope of finding the
secret manufacturing operations -- nuclear, chemical and biological
-- that remain the greatest threat posed by Iraq. There is no substitute
for aggressive long-term inspections. The United States must insure
that they continue.
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