Vol. 13 No. 20 · 24 October 1991

Arms and Saddam

Norman Dombey writes about Iraq’s nuclear programme and the Security Council’s response

4408 words

‘I have very high confidence that those nuclear reactors have been thoroughly damaged and will not be effective for quite some number of years,’ General Norman Schwarzkopf said on US television on 20 January, four days after the beginning of the air war in support of the liberation of Kuwait. Iraq’s ability to build nuclear weapons, he stressed, was at an end. The reactors in question were two small research reactors based at the Centre for Nuclear Research in Tuwaitha, about fifteen miles south-east of Baghdad. They had been supplied, equipped and supervised by the USSR and France, were used for research in physics, chemistry and medicine, with results that were published in the open scientific literature, and had been inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iraq is a party. The inspections took place at six-month intervals and the last inspection had been in November 1990. After that inspection the IAEA reported that there was no evidence of any diversion of nuclear materials from civil use.

Did these reactors, less than two months after their inspection, pose a threat to Allied forces or support Iraq’s military occupation of Kuwait? According to the Arms Control and Disarmament Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, these are the only reasons which, in international law, could justify an attack by British forces against an Iraqi facility. But of course the attack was carried out by US, not British forces; and there did seem to be a difference in perception between London and Washington on this matter at the outbreak of the Gulf War.

In the Los Angeles Times on 18 January Douglas Hurd listed the factors that authorised Britain to use force against Iraq, giving prominence to the 12 UN Security Council resolutions against Iraq, and, in particular, to the call for a full and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. He stressed, however, that ‘by far the most important reason for exercising the military option is to uphold international law and the authority of the United Nations.’ He did not mention the word ‘nuclear’ once; and the United Nations didn’t either, except in the context of the IAEA summary of its findings (the IAEA reports to the UN Security Council) following its November inspection. Security Council Resolution 487, passed after Israel’s bombing of a larger reactor at the Tuwaitha centre in 1981, was still in force. Strongly condemning Israel’s action, the resolution declared that the bombing of a reactor under safeguards was a ‘serious threat to the entire safeguards regime of the IAEA’; reiterated the ‘inalienable sovereign right of Iraq ... to establish programmes of technological and nuclear development ... for peaceful purposes’ and urgently called for Israel to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards.

In Washington the view was different. On 22 November President Bush had made much of the Iraqi nuclear threat. ‘Those who would measure the timetable for Saddam’s atomic programme in years may be seriously underestimating that situation and the gravity of the threat,’ he claimed. An article in Time Magazine in December asked ‘How soon will Saddam get the bomb?’ It concluded: ‘Not nearly so soon as the Bush Administration claims.’ Stories abounded in the American and British media about Iraq’s nuclear stockpile, uranium mines and gaseous centrifuges for uranium enrichment. The White House had discovered through its opinion polls that Iraq’s potential nuclear weapon capability provided a much more acceptable reason for US military action against Iraq than the restoration of a feudal royal family or the price of oil. Even more important, although not mentioned in any of the 12 Security Council resolutions, was the fact that the US had promised Israel that it would destroy Iraqi nuclear facilities in return for Israel’s refraining from direct involvement in the war.

Nine months after the bombing of the reactors, there has been much diplomatic activity in New York. On 3 April the Security Council passed Resolution 687 in order to deprive Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. To do this, a Special Commission was established with the job of finding and destroying Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons and its ballistic missiles. The resolution also asserts that the Security Council is ‘concerned by the reports in the hands of Member States that Iraq has attempted to acquire materials for a nuclear weapons programme contrary to its obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’. The IAEA was therefore instructed to remove all nuclear-weapon-usable material from Iraq and to destroy any facilities capable of producing such material. An IAEA inspection team returned to Iraq in May, a second team in June, and since then IAEA inspectors have been almost continuously present in Iraq. There have been regular skirmishes between the inspectors and the Iraqi authorities, and in one instance shots were fired by Iraqi military personnel over the heads of the inspectors. As I write, forty-four IAEA inspectors have just been released from a Baghdad carpark where they spent three days sequestered in a bus.

The IAEA had found no evidence of a breach of the nuclear safeguard system in November 1990: the nuclear-weapon-usable material (high enriched uranium or U235 for short) in Iraq was already under IAEA safeguards as nuclear fuel in the reactors or spent fuel in fuel ponds, or under IAEA seal if it was unused fuel for the two reactors. After the May inspection, officers of the IAEA reported that no nuclear material was found at Tuwaitha which was not known to the Agency and that the safeguarded fuel had not been diverted to any other use. The amount of unused U235 fuel which conceivably could have been diverted to weapon use without severe radiation problems amounted to six kilograms: well under the amount necessary for a nuclear weapon. The Iraqis did, however, have the good sense to close down their reactors before the US bombing and to attempt, not completely successfully, to move fuel and equipment away from the Tuwaitha site.

Most observers with knowledge of nuclear matters had reported around the time of the bombing that Iraq was some way off from a nuclear weapon capability. In a Library of Congress brief of November 1990 Warren Donnelly concluded that ‘Iraq cannot now make nuclear explosives and probably will not be able to for many years.’ In the March issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, David Albright and Mark Hibbs analysed the situation and found several areas of nuclear weapon technology in which Iraq was deficient quite apart from its lack of usable fissile material. Nothing the IAEA inspectors have found so far in any way suggests that Iraq had manufactured a nuclear weapon or was about to do so. What the inspectors have established over the summer is that Iraq was engaged in a very expensive and large-scale programme to enrich uranium. To be used for weapon purposes uranium needs to be enriched in such a way as to increase the percentage of the isotope U235 from the 0.7 per cent found in its natural state to over 90 per cent. (Natural uranium contains 99.3 per cent of the heavier isotope U238.) There are a number of methods for doing this and Iraq was carrying out research involving three of these: gaseous centrifuges, chemical enrichment of uranium and electromagnetic enrichment were all being studied at Tuwaitha. Furthermore, two large-scale production plants using electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS) were under construction, one at Tarmiyah just to the north of Baghdad and one at Ash-Sharqat between Tikrit and Mosul.

The most interesting feature of this discovery is the choice of electromagnetic separation as the method of enrichment. Electromagnetic separation, the method developed at Oak Ridge in the United States during the war, relies on the basic physical principle that charged particles travel in circular orbits in a strong magnetic field where the radius of the orbit is inversely proportional to the mass of the particle. So a beam of charged uranium ions containing both isotopes would separate in the magnetic field into two beams, thus enabling the isotopes to be separated. The Oak Ridge plant was closed after the war on the grounds that electromagnetic separation of uranium was far more expensive than gaseous or centrifuge diffusion and could only be effectively carried out for microscopic quantities of material. Until this year that was what everyone thought. The techniques needed for electromagnetic separation are not those of the nuclear industry; rather they are found in physics or chemistry research laboratories. EMIS requires the construction of powerful magnets, the manufacture of good vacuum systems and the preparation of ion sources, all of which are described in enormous detail in the open scientific literature.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that many Iraqi doctoral candidates in physics studied at my university throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Their applications for admission often specified some weapon-related topic involving uranium fission (more recently ‘X-ray lasers’, a subject of interest in relation to advanced thermonuclear weapons, has been popular), but they were firmly guided into some project that was considered harmless, such as the preparation of ion sources for atomic or nuclear experiments. These harmless techniques in many cases were just those required for the EMIS programme! (More recently, computer simulation of high-temperature plasmas, a subject of interest in relation to thermonuclear weapons, has been popular.)

Iraq was thus able to by-pass the extensive international system of controls which applies to specifically nuclear facilities and indeed seems to have designed and constructed the two EMIS plants without external help. The maximum design capacity of each of the two EMIS plants was estimated by the inspectors to be 15 kg of U235 a year. To achieve this 90 distinct separator units were to be installed at each site. When the first enrichment test took place, at Tarmiyah in February 1990, just eight separators were involved. At the time of the bombing 17 more separators were being installed. The inspectors also found that the ion beam current had not yet reached its design value in these tests. In fact, only about half a kilogram of enriched uranium, with an average enrichment of 4 per cent, had been produced before the bombing, though this included a few milligrams (i.e. one-thousandths of a gram) of uranium enriched to 40-45 per cent. The Ash-Sharqat plant was still being built when it was bombed. So the timescale of ‘many years’ given by Donnelly, Albright and Hibbs for the development of a weapon is absolutely in line with the inspectors’ findings: it would have been essentially impossible for plants such as these to have run without encountering problems in their first year or so. Systems which depend on high vacua being maintained over a long period are notorious for their high rate of breakdown and there were to be 90 such systems at Tarmiyah. A 1983 review article on EMIS by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute concludes: ‘What appears in theory to be a very simple and precise method for isotope separation turns out in practice to be extremely difficult if any more than laboratory-sized amounts of product are desired.’ A realistic estimate would have the two plants producing the requisite amount of high enriched uranium for a weapon (the IAEA consider this to be 25 kg of U235) by the mid-Nineties at the earliest, although after that there would have been a steady flow of weapon-usable material.

This estimate does not take the Iraqi centrifuge programme into account. Centrifuge technology would have been dependent on foreign suppliers, since specialist materials such as carbon fibre and maraging steel are required. The programme seems to have been at a very early stage of development. I understand that 12 rotors but no complete centrifuges were found. Yet in order to produce 25 kg of U235, 200 centrifuges working to design capacity for two years would be needed. No date can therefore be given for the completion of a centrifuge plant. (Pakistan took the best part of a decade to complete its centrifuge enrichment plant, even with Chinese help.)

What then was the basis for the Security Council assertion in April that Iraq had violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? The Iraqis themselves had always claimed that they had not manufactured any nuclear weapons. What they argued was that since Israel had not placed its nuclear facilities under safeguards as demanded by the Security Council in Resolution 487, and furthermore was now thought to possess nuclear weapons, their nuclear programme was designed to allow them the option of obtaining a nuclear weapon capability if circumstances were to warrant it. This policy was said to be consistent with Iraq’s obligations under the NPT. The argument was summarily swept aside by the Security Council.

Non-nuclear-weapon states such as Iraq have two main obligations under the NPT. Under Article Three they have to conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA which covers all nuclear materials in the state and requires that information about nuclear facilities be provided to the Agency. The IAEA was satisfied with Iraq’s compliance with safeguards in April when Resolution 687 was passed. Under Article Two Iraq undertook not to manufacture nuclear weapons. Presumably the Security Council took the view that Iraq had violated its obligations under this heading.

The NPT, like other arms control treaties, is a precise document drawn up by lawyers. It is only possible to violate such treaties in the letter, not the spirit: the general principle governing them was summarised by Dean Rusk in the 1968 Senate hearings into the NPT when he said that ‘the treaty deals only with what is prohibited, not with what is permitted’ – that is to say, what is not expressly forbidden is allowed. On the present evidence and contrary to the assertions of Security Council Resolution 687, Iraq, notwithstanding its crimes in international law under the UN Charter (invasion of Kuwait), the Geneva Protocol on chemical weapons (use of chemical weapons against Iran) and the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war (taking of hostages, setting fire to Kuwaiti oilfields), has not necessarily breached Article Two of the NPT. In particular, a nuclear programme which allows a weapon option may be consistent with NPT obligations.

Article One of the NPT reads: ‘Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.’ In fact, this article was written with the intention of allowing the United States to continue to help Britain with its nuclear weapons programme as set out in the 1958 US-UK nuclear co-operation agreement for military purposes. Thus while the first clause of Article One forbids the transfer of nuclear weapons from a nuclear-weapon state (e.g. USA) to another nuclear-weapon state (e.g. Britain), the second clause does not forbid assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons by one nuclear-weapon state (i.e. USA) to another nuclear-weapon state (i.e. Britain). And so to this day US experts from Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia routinely visit Aldermaston. Further-more, as provided for in the co-operation agreement, the US furnishes Britain with U235 for weapon purposes, complete non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon design information.

One thing we learn from this is that it is important to read arms control agreements carefully. Another is that special nuclear materials (the fissile or weapon-usable materials U235 and plutonium out of which a nuclear fission weapon is constructed) are not nuclear weapons. If this were not the case, the US would have been violating Article One since the NPT came into force in 1970. Similarly, neutron sources or non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons (such as specially-shaped chemical explosives and the electronic detonators which trigger the weapon) are not nuclear weapons. They are components of nuclear weapons.

Article Two, which gives the corresponding obligations of non-weapon states such as Iraq, states: ‘Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.’ Iraq certainly possessed U235, but that is not a nuclear weapon. It certainly attempted to procure capacitors in London, but they are not nuclear weapons. It now seems that it has uranium enrichment facilities, but they are not nuclear weapons (and are possessed by other states such as Holland and Pakistan). In the words of Mr Major on 17 January, ‘as far as we know Iraq does not possess nuclear weapons.’ So is a non-weapon state which has signed the NPT allowed a weapons programme?

Again we need look no further than the United States for a guide to what is allowed and forbidden in an arms control treaty. For example, Article Five of the ABM Treaty reads: ‘Each Party undertakes not to develop, test or deploy ABM systems or components which are sea-based, air-based, space-based or mobile land-based.’ Note the word ‘develop’ not ‘manufacture’, as in Article Two of the NPT: the ABM Treaty was drafted to forbid a wider range of activities. Nevertheless, the ABM Treaty did not deter President Reagan from launching the Strategic Defence Initiative, a programme whose purpose was precisely to provide a space-based ABM system for the US. State Department (and Foreign Office) lawyers justified the SDI programme on the basis that research on space-based ABM systems was not forbidden provided it took place in a ground-based laboratory and that space-based tests on sub-components for ABM systems were allowed.

A similar argument would, under Article Two, allow a non-nuclear-weapon state such as Iraq to do research on nuclear weapons and to manufacture, develop and test nuclear weapon components, provided it did not manufacture or otherwise acquire a nuclear weapon or seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of weapons. If the decision was made to manufacture a complete nuclear weapon, then the state concerned would be expected under the NPT to give the requisite three months’ notice of withdrawal from the treaty.

So much for argument: Security Council Resolution 687 now constitutes international law. Moreover the IAEA inspectors have shown that there was cause for concern, and as a result on 18 July the IAEA Board of Governors determined that Iraq had indeed been in violation of its safeguard agreement. Iraq had not manufactured nuclear weapons but, despite being required to do so by the agreement, it had not declared to the IAEA the details of the EMIS plant at Tarmiyah, which, although unfinished, had already enriched some uranium. Even this breach of safeguards is ambiguous, however. It is doubtful whether a more politically acceptable state would have been penalised. One effective kilogram of U235 is the definition of the quantity of nuclear material which is significant for safeguard purposes and much less than that had been produced at Tarmiyah.

Is it worthwhile spending time on legal niceties when the inspectors have clearly demonstrated the existence of a nuclear weapon programme in Iraq? After all, Saddam Hussein is an evil man and Iraq has violated international law in several respects. It seems to me that a sober analysis of the issues raised by the US response to Iraq’s nuclear programme is instructive for several reasons. First, the upholding of international law and the authority of the United Nations require due process; resolutions written by the US State Department and rubber-stamped by the Security Council do not foster respect for either international law or the authority of the United Nations.

Second, multilateral arms control agreements require a uniform non-discriminatory interpretation if they are to be treated seriously. If the US had real evidence of Iraq’s enrichment plants last autumn, it should have convened a special meeting of the IAEA’s Board of Governors which could have called for a special (challenge) inspection. The Bush Administration preferred, however, to leak information selectively to the press and use the Kuwaiti resolutions as a pretext for bombing all Iraq’s nuclear installations, declared or clandestine. It now seems that it is using its control of the Security Council to pack the latest IAEA inspection team with Americans (27 of the 44 involved in the bus incident are US citizens), who have been faxing details of the Iraqi programme direct to the US State Department rather than to IAEA headquarters in Vienna.

Third, Resolution 687 was imposed on Iraq as the defeated party in the Gulf War. It goes far beyond the NPT, in forbidding the use in Iraq of any weapon-usable material, whereas a basic principle of the NPT is that such material may be used by non-weapon states under safeguards. So the fuel for the bombed reactors must be removed from Iraq, even though most of it had been under safeguards in Iraq for over ten years. This may be a sensible measure while Saddam Hussein remains in power, but the resolution is not meant to be a temporary sanction: it claims to be the first step towards establishing durable peace in the Middle East. The real effect of Resolution 687 is to fulfil the US promise to Israel to remove all traces of nuclear development from Iraq and to uphold the Israeli position that their bombing of Tuwaitha in 1981 was justified, and to do so without seeking from Israel any commitment to international safeguards.

Four, the bombing of a functioning nuclear reactor constitutes a very alarming precedent. At least the reactor that the Israelis bombed had not yet been loaded with nuclear fuel. The disruption of a reactor core with the consequent liberation of highly radioactive materials can create an environmental catastrophe over a large area, as was demonstrated at Chernobyl. The Geneva Conventions go some way in attempting to avoid the environmental dangers of bombing nuclear reactors by forbidding attacks on nuclear electricity-generating stations (even though a power station is considered to be a military objective), unless the station provides ‘regular, significant and direct’ support of military operations. (The US would presumably argue that the Tuwaitha reactors were not covered by the Geneva Conventions since they were not electricity-generating stations.) Fortunately it seems that Iraq had expected the attack and had closed down the reactors. The environmental damage was therefore less severe than might have been the case. On the other hand, it is clear from the bombing that US military forces consider nuclear reactors to be legitimate targets in armed conflict. This is consistent also with the opposition of the United States, allied only with Israel, to a UN resolution in December 1989 aiming to prohibit the development, production and use of radiological weapons: this included a ban on the bombing of nuclear reactors.

Whatever the view in the United States, which, like the Soviet Union, can perhaps afford a few thousand square miles declared unfit for human habitation for hundreds or thousands of years. Western Europe is densely populated and possesses the highest concentration of nuclear reactors anywhere on the planet. The Royal Commission on Environmental Protection under Lord Flowers considered the effect of military attack on nuclear reactors in its sixth report and concluded: ‘In a nuclear war the effects of attack on nuclear installations would be one part of the general catastrophe, but an attack with conventional weapons leading to the release of radioactivity would produce some of the effects of nuclear weapons. The quantities of fission products which could be released are vast ... The unique aspect of nuclear installations is that the effects of the radioactive contamination that could be caused are so long-lasting.’ This was written some fifteen years ago; since then, there has been a huge increase in the number of nuclear installations in Western Europe. French nuclear capacity, for example, has increased by a factor of more than twenty over that period. In the European Community as a whole, nuclear capacity has increased by seven times since the report. It is therefore of far more than academic interest for Europe to try to construct an international framework which prohibits armed attack on nuclear reactors as part of the brave new world order.

What is to be learnt from the story of Iraq’s nuclear programme? One important point is that it is very easy for disinformation in such a technically complex subject to be fed to the media. On almost every day for nearly a year there has been a ‘new’ revelation. The forty kilos or so of Iraqi U235 supplied by France and the Soviet Union, and safeguarded by the IAEA, regularly became Iraqi ‘nuclear bomb material’ in reports; similarly, uranium mines (unprocessed ore is unsafeguarded, as the consensus is that it is harmless) became ‘military facilities’. Yet after months of being force-fed accounts of Iraqi nuclear activity, it appears that the forecast given by Warren Donnelly last November was correct: Iraq is unlikely to have a weapon capability for many years.

A second conclusion is that the IAEA safeguards system did work adequately. No safeguarded material was diverted. If the IAEA can be criticised, it is for only inspecting Tuwaitha once every six months, even though more than twenty-five kilos of U235 was there. But the IAEA Safeguards Division has a tight budget and cannot discriminate between non-weapon states with whom it has agreements, and so spends most of its budget where there are most reactors: that is, in Western Europe, Canada and Japan. The number of special challenge inspections should be increased to prevent any further breach of safeguards.

Most important of all, a regional agreement on nuclear safeguards in the Middle East needs to be negotiated which includes Israel. This is even more pressing given the news that Iraq was planning to follow Israel’s example and build its own plant for the production of the isotopes lithium six and hydrogen three (tritium), which are used in thermonuclear weapons and the thermonuclear boosting of fission weapons. The European Community could play its part: it has in Luxembourg its own force of nuclear inspectors with plenty of resources at its disposal. The EC could offer to help safeguard a regional agreement in the Middle East, either on behalf of the IAEA or in conjunction with the United States and Japan.

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Vol. 38 No. 4 · 18 February 2016

‘Once the Iraqi nuclear threat had been removed by the Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor in June 1981,’ Joost Hiltermann writes, ‘Iran no longer felt the need to pursue a nuclear path’ (LRB, 4 February). The opposite is true. Following the destruction of Osirak, Iraq decided to launch an independent nuclear programme in order to reduce its reliance on foreign suppliers. In the LRB of 24 October 1991 I described the findings of the IAEA inspectors following the first Gulf War. In place of a nuclear weapons programme based on plutonium produced by a reactor, Iraq had a team of indigenous scientists working on uranium enrichment using electromagnetic separation, the method developed at Oak Ridge and Berkeley in the United States during the Manhattan Project. The equipment was not subject to the restrictions imposed on reactor technology and the Iraqis made progress. It was brought to an end by the Gulf War in 1991 before it could produce sufficient enriched uranium for a weapon.

This indigenous Iraqi nuclear weapons programme, together with the use by Iraq of chemical weapons, persuaded Iran to begin its own nuclear weapon programme during the Iran-Iraq War. Iraq’s nuclear programme between 1981 and 1991 had a further consequence. Dick Cheney and Tony Blair used it to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq by emphasising the danger caused by Iraq’s WMDs, especially its nuclear component. Yet Cheney and Blair knew perfectly well in 2002 that the IAEA had dismantled all Iraq’s nuclear facilities several years earlier.

Norman Dombey
University of Sussex, Brighton

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