Iraq and the Value of On-Site Inspections

By Ifft, Edward | Arms Control Today, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Iraq and the Value of On-Site Inspections


Ifft, Edward, Arms Control Today


In the dramatic speech secretary of State Colin Powell made to the UN security Council on Iraq and its alleged weapons of mass destruction on February 5, 2003, a key piece of the evidence presented was images of decontamination trucks at a presumed chemical weapons facility. This was offered as proof that Iraq both possessed chemical weapons and was attempting to deceive inspectors from the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), the body charged by the security Council with carrying out inspections in Iraq. It turned out that the vehicles were likely water trucks-not that unusual in a desert land-that inspectors had earlier seen up close at that facility.

Other pieces of evidence-a "truck caravan" near a facility thought to be related to biological weapons, drone aircraft, suspicious activity at a ballistic missile factory, and so on-were items about which inspectors already had, or could probably have relatively easily obtained convincing explanations.

Indeed, although Powell's presentation was front-page news around the country and the world, less attention was paid to information that the UN's chief weapons inspectors, Hans Blix, head of UNMOVIC, and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei provided a week later to the security Council.

As the country strives to digest the recent Iraq Survey Group (ISG) report by Charles Duelfer and implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission with respect to the gathering and use of information related to weapons of mass destruction, part of this effort could usefully be given to gaining a better understanding of the possibilities, limitations, and proper use of on-site inspections (OSI). The public, the media, and government officials must avoid the twin perils of becoming disillusioned by expecting too much from OSl, on the one hand, and gaining false confidence from it, on the other.

Inspections are but one imperfect tool in the arms control and nonproliferation toolbox, but as the Iraq example shows, they can play a singularly useful role in assessing the credibility of intelligence gathered by other means, such as satellites. Policymakers need to pay greater heed to the potential benefits of OSI in promoting confidence that legal controls are working and in promoting global security. As Jacques Baute, the head of the IAEA effort in Iraq wrote recently, such inspection "benefits the international community, which receives the level of assurance it seeks, and also the inspected party, which is given the opportunity to demonstrate the reality of its compliance."1

Over the years, these tools have been applied to a growing number of situations, from stabilizing the arms control competition between the United States and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) to multilateral organizations such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to specialized regimes such as the Container security Initiative. Inspections are now so widespread and routine that teams of Russians and international inspectors visiting U.S. facilities do not merit even cursory notice in local media.

For most of the past half-century, at a time when it was being rejected by the Soviet Union, the United States argued that OSl was the sine qua non for arms control. Now, however, even as OSl is more widely accepted and its tools sharper, U.S. and some foreign officials appear conflicted about the value of such visits. Just before UNMOVIC began its work in Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney called such inspections "at best useless." One has the impression that in some countries little weight is given to the efforts and conclusions of inspection regimes if they do not support other political objectives. At the same time, any disruption of an inspection regime, as we have seen when the IAEA was forced out of North Korea, can quickly lead to an international crisis.

The Iraq Experience

The greatest attention has of course been focused on inspections in Iraq. …

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