Under a dramatic and far-reaching global spotlight, the International Atomic Energy Agency's experience in Iraq reached a turning point in March 2003. Its nuclear inspection team - together with teams of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the rest of the UN organisations operating in Iraq - had to withdraw ahead of announced military operations. The diplomatic route to disarming Iraq had reached an impasse.
Today, international inspection teams tracking weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes in Iraq work in the wings, ready to resume operations in Iraq at the UN Security Council's call. The mandate of international inspection stands, with the IAEA's Iraq Nuclear Verification Office (INVO) in Vienna in charge of the nuclear file.
The IAEA's nuclear inspection and verification experience in Iraq stretches over a span of three decades, addressing activities from the mine to the weapon. Agency inspectors led the discovery and dismantlement of Iraq's secret nuclear weapons programme in the 1990s, and after the 1990s round of inspections had stopped, they had found no evidence, up to March 2003, that the programme had been revived since 1998.
Since the first Iraq inspections under Security Council mandate in early 1991, the road of nuclear verification in Iraq has proved to be long and hard, and valuable lessons were learned that have benefitted the international community and strengthened the IAEA inspectorate. This article highlights the IAEA's extensive experience in Iraq, the main challenges, and selected key lessons drawn from them.
Much is known in the nuclear verification community about the limitations of IAEA safeguards in the 1980s and of the corrective steps that were taken. Until then, the nature of the traditional approach, thought to be adequate by the international community, had enough loopholes for Iraq to begin a clandestine nuclear weapons programme and remain undetected for a decade.
It is unfortunate that in some arenas some continue to portray the early safeguards limitations as an indicator of the IAEA's inability to provide credible assurance of a State's adherence to its obligations under non-proliferation agreements. Iraq had joined the global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the 1970s as a non-nuclear-weapon State and had concluded the required NPT safeguards agreement with the Agency.
Back then, it seemed that the international community was convinced that NPT non-nuclear-weapon States would remain committed to their pledges, and thus, the Agency's role would simply be the verification of the State's declared nuclear materials and installations. The mistake of the whole community was not to acknowledge that a meaningful verification system must implement measures aimed at detecting if a State was trying to deceive the system via the conduct of undeclared activities.
Addressing these loopholes - i.e. developing the lessons learned of the initial discovery of Iraq's undeclared programme under the tougher inspection regime mandated by the Security Council in the 1990s - was the main objective of the IAEA's programme for strengthening safeguards, and ultimately led, in 1997, to the adoption of the Additional Protocol to NPT safeguards agreements. The Protocol gave IAEA inspectors more authority, broadening the scope of information and access that States had to provide to the IAEA for nuclear safeguards and verification.
If inspectors had such authority in 1991, for instance, Iraq would not have been able to develop most of its clandestine activities in undeclared buildings at its Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Centre, as turned out to be the case. Had the Agency been able to put together and analyse information from an extended declaration required from the inspected country, from the quite numerous open sources in the late 1980s, and from information from other States, they would have known more about Iraq's apparent intentions and the world would not have waited for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait before zeroing in on the clandestine nuclear programme.