Iraq's Reconstitution of Its Nuclear Weapons Program

By Albright, David; Hamza, Khidhir | Arms Control Today, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Iraq's Reconstitution of Its Nuclear Weapons Program


Albright, David, Hamza, Khidhir, Arms Control Today


Iraq has provided few credible indications that its nearly three-decade quest .for nuclear weapons has ended. Since its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, however, Iraq has had an extremely difficult time making any progress in building nuclear weapons. The economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council after the invasion disrupted many vital imports, particularly for Iraq's uranium enrichment program. The allied bombing campaign destroyed many of its key nuclear facilities.

The subsequent, highly intrusive inspections mandated by the Security Council and carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Action Team in cooperation with the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) exposed and destroyed vast amounts of nuclear equipment and materials. In the process, the inspections uncovered a long-standing and determined clandestine nuclear weapons program, despite Iraqi denials until 1995 that such a program existed. Currently, essentially all of Iraq's pre-Gulf War nuclear facilities and equipment have been eliminated or converted to non-proscribed purposes under periodic Action Team inspections. But Iraq retains its nuclear cadres and its extensive knowledge and experience built up before the Gulf War. Moreover, some key unanswered questions remain about Iraq's effort to build the nuclear weapon itself-called "weaponization" here-and to build a gas centrifuge enrichment program to enrich uranium for weapons purposes.

Since the war, Iraq is suspected of having made progress on a number of bottlenecks in its weapons program, at least those which could be done with little chance of detection by inspectors. These activities include design work, laboratory efforts, subcomponent production, and the operation of test machines. If the inspection system becomes ineffective, Iraq could reconstitute major aspects of its nuclear weapons program that would likely be discovered under the current inspection regime, a combination of historical investigations and an on-going monitoring and verification (OMV) system. Even under the OMV regime, Iraq's illicit acquisition of plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the former Soviet Union would be very difficult to detect. Because of this and other weaknesses, the OMV system needs improvement to be effective in deterring and detecting Iraq's banned activities.

There are few alternatives. A nucleararmed Iraq would be extremely dangerous. Nuclear weapons would aid Saddam Hussein in ensuring his own survival and increasing his regional power. If he detonated a nuclear explosive underground, the international community, and in particular the United States, may not risk intervention, particularly if definitive information about the size of Iraq's nuclear arsenal is lacking.

Essential to any discussion about about Iraq or the OMV system are estimates of the time needed for Iraq to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. Such an assessment requires a thorough understanding of Iraq's pre-war program and reasonable inferences about its activities after the war. This article attempts to summarize this discussion and outline some of the most important scenarios of how Iraq may reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. In addition, this article looks at a neglected part of the entire inspection process, namely improving methods to reduce the risk posed by the Iraqi nuclear scientists. There is wide agreement about their central importance to any Iraqi attempt to reconstitute its nuclear program. Yet, little has been done to reduce the threat they pose. Acquiring a Safeguarded Fuel Cycle

Since its inception in the early 1970s, Iraq's nuclear weapons program has depended on deception and determination. Originally, the plan, which one of us (Hamza) authored, was to acquire a complete nuclear fuel cycle able to produce and separate plutonium. The plan focused on the foreign acquisition of complete nuclear facilities with training in their use conducted in the supplier country. …

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