Arms and Saddam

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

‘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.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in