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Non-conventional weapons, sanctions and the threat of war

This article was originally published in CASI's July 2002 Newsletter (View full contents)

The rise and fall of ‘linkage’

The ceasefire that ended the Gulf War established a connection between Iraq’s destruction of its stocks of non-conventional weapons and the lifting of the export sanctions on Iraq. In particular, United Nations Security Council Resolution (SCR) 687 that laid out the ceasefire conditions in April 1991 stated that the sanctions on Iraqi exports and international financial transactions would "have no further force or effect" once the Council agreed that Iraq had complied with its disarmament obligation. This is a linkage that many in the anti-sanctions movement have long opposed, as it prolongs the suffering of a civilian population in an attempt to exert pressure on a government.

Almost twelve years after this resolution was passed, the linkage, though remaining formally in force, has been blurred and called into question by the actions of the US and UK governments. A new condition for the lifting of sanctions – the removal of the present ruling administration of Iraq – has been repeatedly, though usually tacitly, invoked. Indeed, at the very Security Council meeting that passed the resolution, David Hannay, the UK representative stated that "My Government believes that it will in fact prove impossible for Iraq to rejoin the community of civilized nations while Saddam Hussein remains in power" [S/PV.2981, 3 April 1991]. The Security Council itself contributed to the confusion of its earlier position when, in SCR 1284 (December 1999), it stated that full compliance with UN weapons inspectors would lead only to a suspension, and not a lifting, of economic sanctions, and that the sanctions could be re-imposed every 120 days on the wishes of one permanent member of the Security Council alone, or immediately on the recommendation of the weapons inspectors.

The official Iraqi position since 1998 has been that the disarmament obligations have been fulfilled and that the Security Council therefore has no excuse not to lift the sanctions. The weapons inspectors of the United Nations Special Commission (Unscom) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), present in Iraq from 1991 until their withdrawal in December 1998, certified throughout their later reports that extensive disarmament had indeed taken place. However, the US and UK strongly dispute the extent of Iraq’s disarmament.

A review of the evidence for the contending claims

The IAEA reported to the Security Council on 13 April 1998 that Iraq had compiled a "full, final and complete" account of its previous nuclear projects, and there was no indication of any prohibited activity. The following December it restated that Iraq’s nuclear weapon programme had been eliminated, "efficiently and effectively", with Iraqi cooperation. The Security Council Panel on Disarmament itself reported in March 1999 that "there is no indication that Iraq possesses nuclear weapons or any meaningful amounts of weapon-usable nuclear material or that Iraq has retained any practical capability (facilities or hardware) for the production of such material".

In contrast to the inspectors’ claims, some Iraqi defectors have continued to argue that Iraq is developing a nuclear programme. Khidhir Hamza, whose statement that he was a senior nuclear scientist in Iraq’s nuclear weapons team seems credible, is one of the most outspoken; in an article in The Wall Street Journal, he wrote that "Iraq has already designated a site for nuclear weapon testing and if intelligence estimates are correct the first tests could happen by 2005 […] Each day we wait, we allow him to go further toward that goal" [‘Each day we wait, Saddam grows more powerful’, 10 December 2001]. However, doubt has been cast on the plausibility of some of Mr Hamza’s claims. The president of the Institute for Science and International Security, the watchdog group at which Hamza has been based since his defection, stated in November 1999 that he found Hamza’s report for the organisation "to be deficient in several ways" with "several inconsistencies".

IAEA inspectors continue to check Iraq’s remaining stocks of low-enriched and natural uranium, which are kept under seal. The most recent inspection in January 2002 was carried out with full Iraqi compliance. Iraq has given no indication that it intends to weaponise this uranium, but – given the prospect of a UK/US invasion of Iraq – this may change. Ben Bradshaw, then the UK Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for the Middle East, spoke of how this material could be developed into weaponry "within five years" [‘Iraq: the myth and the reality’, The Guardian, 15 March 2002]. One option, originating from a proposal made by former IAEA inspector David Albright, is that Iraq’s nuclear stocks could be removed from the country, possibly in return for assurances from the US and UK not to attack Iraq. This has not been taken forward, even though this course may substantially reduce any potential threat that Iraq could pose to global security.

Iraq’s chemical weapons are perhaps the greatest source of controversy. Unscom reported in November 1997 that "significant progress" had been made since 1991 in destroying Iraq’s stocks of mustard and nerve agents, precursor chemicals, loaded munitions and rockets containing sarin nerve gas. Former Unscom inspector Scott Ritter has reported that both he and Unscom chairman Rolf Ekeus were convinced that the disarmament of Iraq’s chemical weapons was almost complete by early 1995. It remains unclear whether Iraq managed to weaponise VX agents, as tests conducted by independent scientists were inconclusive.

UK government ministers frequently cite the final substantive reports delivered by Unscom on 25 January 1999, which repeatedly state that Iraqi claims about the disposal of chemical produced prior to 1990 "cannot be verified". These statements are taken as evidence by ministers that Iraq remains a threat. However, many – if not all – of these chemicals may have already been used by Iraq in its war against Iran (1980-88): Iraq refused to release details of this use, to avoid the political repercussions in its relations with Iran that would result. As a result, these weapons would remain unaccounted for, but no longer in anyone’s possession. Even if some of these items were retained by Iraq, Unscom internal papers from 1998 discuss how these materials could no longer be weaponised by Iraq as the chemical agents would have long deteriorated.

Iraq’s biological weapons (BW) capabilities remain unknown. Unscom destroyed Iraq’s main biological weapons facility, al-Hakam, in 1996. Scott Ritter, who headed Unscom’s unit charged with uncovering Iraq’s attempts at concealing its facilities, wrote in Arms Control Today (June 2000) that, "in all of their inspections, the monitors could find no meaningful evidence of Iraqi circumvention of its commitment not to reconstitute its BW program". Furthermore, Ritter has maintained that Iraq has never been able to develop an effective dispensing mechanism for biological weapons, which would be necessary for their use in an offensive capacity. However, some analysts contend that Iraq mixed aflatoxin with chemical agents to use against the Kurdish population in 1988. Ritter’s analysis has also been strongly questioned by many other former Unscom inspectors, and he remains a minority voice among weapons experts.

Iraq was obliged to destroy its missiles with a range greater than 150km. Inspectors certified in October 1997 that they had proof that 817 missiles, out of Iraq’s known stock of 819 missiles, had been destroyed. There is reliable information that Iraq has converted lorries into missile launchers since 1999. However, these seem to be only short range rocket systems which Iraq is not prohibited by the Security Council from developing. The US, in a confidential briefing to the permanent members of the Security Council in May 2002, presented material to show that Iraq had converted short-range missiles to extend their range. The evidence for this claim is not publicly available.

Negotiations and threats

As the weapons inspectorate, now constituted as the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (Unmovic), has not been allowed to conduct inspections in Iraq since 1998, it remains impossible to assess the extent to which Iraq has been developing its prohibited weapons, if at all. Negotiations have been conducted between a team headed by United Nations Secretary-General and Iraqi representatives from 7 March 2002, after Iraqi leaders stated from February that they would consider the possibility of the return of inspectors. Iraq had offered to allow a British team to undertake inspections at sites of their choosing, but the British government rejected this possibility in favour of Unmovic inspections.

In negotiations, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri asked in particular for time limitations on inspections, a condition that is likely to be deemed unacceptable not only by the UK and US but also by other Security Council members. Sabri also asked the Security Council for clarification on whether economic sanctions could be lifted as long as the current Iraqi government remains in place. Although Iraqi weapons experts and Unmovic’s chairman attended meetings in May and apparently engaged in detailed technical discussions, a third round of talks broke up in early July without agreement on the return of inspectors. Pointedly, the Security Council did not provide an answer to Sabri’s question about the conditions for the lifting of sanctions, contributing to Iraq’s lack of confidence in the weapons inspection process.

Unmovic’s chairman, Hans Blix, has been keen to stress the new organisation’s difference from Unscom. Unscom was tainted by its infiltration by US agents who passed confidential information to the US government, to assist with the destabilisation of the Iraqi government, and who coordinated dissident army officers in Iraq with a view to encouraging a coup attempt. Blix seems to be aware that the integrity of the weapons inspections system has been undermined, especially as it taught Iraq that the survival of the regime was put at risk through cooperation. In an interview, Blix insisted that Unmovic contains "a greater international mix" in its personnel, and that he has insisted that "We’re not there to insult or provoke. […] We have to remember that inspectors are not an occupying army. We are not international police" [‘U.N. inspectors at arm’s length’, The Baltimore Sun, 13 January 2002].

However, the disincentives to cooperation that Blix and the UN Secretariat seem to be have been intent on removing have received reinforcement from members of the US administration. Whatever the truth in the opposing claims about the retention and development of these weapons, the discussion of the linkage with economic sanctions has since September 11th been overtaken by the prospects of US and UK military action on Iraq with the aim of changing the Iraqi administration.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell, usually portrayed as standing at the less hawkish end of the Bush administration, was quite clear on this point in an interview with the Financial Times on 12 February 2002: "Sanctions and the pressure of sanctions are part of a strategy of regime change". In this respect, Powell was merely repeating the long-standing US position that only the ousting of the government will be sufficient for the termination of sanctions. The prospect for sanctions’ removal that kept the Iraqi government cooperating – albeit only intermittently and never completely – with weapons inspectors over seven and a half years has thus been once again undermined.

The UK government has joined the US in muddying the carrot but has retained a stick: ministers have indicated that military strikes would not take place if Iraq cooperated fully with weapons inspectors. Members of the US administration have sought to remove this incentive as well. President George Bush, in his State of the Union address on 29 January, claimed that Iraq was part of an "axis of evil" and set off the present round of speculation over when, and how, the US would topple the Iraqi government irrespective of cooperation over weapons inspections.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly stated that inspections are not sufficient to deflect US attempts to oust the government. The State Department, after initial hesitation in presenting the same perspective, joined in on 5 May. "U.S. policy is that, regardless of what the inspectors do, the people of Iraq and the people of the region would be better off with a different regime in Baghdad," Powell said on an interview with ABC Television, "the United States reserves its option to do whatever it believes might be appropriate to see if there can be a regime change."

Legitimation for this viewpoint has come from Charles Duelfer, Unscom’s former deputy chairman and US State Department official, who has declared that renewed inspections should not detract from military strikes. Duelfer claimed that, if Washington were to accept a new inspections system – however intrusive – "we would have kicked the Iraq problem down the road without addressing the fundamental threats that the regime poses" (‘Insepctors to Iraq? It’s not that simple’, Miami Herald, 11 January 2002). His views have been supported by former senior Unscom members David Kay and Richard Spertzel. However, Duelfer’s credibility as a commentator has been undermined by the revelation (in the Washington Post, 2 March 1999) of his role in a covert US operation from 1996, unknown to Unscom chairman Ekeus or his successor Richard Butler, to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military in matters unrelated to Unscom’s special weapons mandate, and presumably to assist in attempts to overthrow the Iraqi government.

Members of the US government also seem to have made attempts to discredit the inspections system more directly. According to a detailed report in the Washington Post on 16 April, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had earlier this year asked the CIA to investigate Blix’s past performance in an apparent attempt to undermine the legitimacy of his judgements on Iraq.

The result of the new emphasis on leadership change in US policy is that the Iraqi regime is left with few incentives to cooperate with weapons inspectors: an invasion may be in the planning either way. The one remaining advantage that the Iraqi leadership may sense is that compliance with the inspectors may exacerbate international opposition to US plans. To circumvent the opposition, one course that the US administration may still take is to insist on a highly intrusive and open-ended inspections system that it is confident Iraq will reject or will obstruct when in place, and this can then be taken as a reason to launch a military attack on Iraq. This seems to be the option favoured Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, who told reporters on 15 April that any new inspections system would have to be "enormously intrusive" – indeed considerably more intrusive than the unprecedented process that Unscom pioneered.

Whether Unmovic or the other members of the Security Council will allow their role to be used in this manner, in which the lack of any incentive for Iraq to comply will result in continuing concern over the development of non-conventional weapons, is a further element of uncertainty.

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CASI Newsletter - July 2002



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Iraq sanctions reform

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Non-conventional weapons, sanctions and the threat of war

Vulnerability in the face of conflict




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