Timeline IRAQ:
Challenges & Lessons Learned from Nuclear Inspections

by Jacques Baute

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Detection & Deception: On the Weapons Trail 1991-95

The adoption of resolution 687 by the UN Security Council, in April 1991, was an important milestone. In this cease-fire resolution of the first Gulf war, the Agency was requested to map out and neutralise Iraq's nuclear programme and ensure Iraq's compliance with its NPT and resolution-related obligations through a far-reaching and ongoing monitoring and verification system.

Could a verification body dream of better conditions than being provided unconditional access to any individual, documents and technology that would help strengthen the conclusions? But despite such excellent conditions, our job was still far from easy.

The challenge at that time started with a learning phase - learning about Iraq's covert programme, including its most sensitive aspects, its weapons development; learning how to use the tremendous rights provided by the resolution; and learning how to team with UNSCOM, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq. UNSCOM was tasked with a similar mandate for chemical and biological weapons and missiles and was requested to provide "assistance and cooperation to the Agency" (a vague definition, at best, to prevent possible variations on the understanding).

For the IAEA, one challenge was establishing the right structure for tackling Iraq's nuclear file. The first - perhaps too modest - response was to start with an IAEA Action Team made up of three professionals, reporting directly to the Director General, relying on the roster of inspectors from the Department of Safeguards, and calling on Member States to provide the expertise not readily available in-house. Gradually, however, the team grew in order to meet the challenges and, by December 2002, had become the Iraq Nuclear Verification Office (INVO) with more than 20 professional staff members.

Perhaps the biggest misconception was the time the "Iraq project" was expected to last. The timeframe cited by the Security Council in resolution 687 was expressed in days. Apparently, it was generally expected that the task could be completed in no more than a few months. As a result, the team went through a serious struggle when, at the end of 1993, a major turnover of personnel occurred, leaving only the Action Team leader to provide continuity. Newcomers had to rebuild the institutional knowledge with an innovative attitude. Major effort was made to develop a team approach, with a high priority in securing vital information through advanced structured databases, avoiding unnecessary restriction to information circulation, unless its sensitivity demanded a strict "need to know" approach.

That lesson, learned the hard way in 1994, was certainly a pillar of the success of the Agency's resumption of activities in November 2002. By then, staff turnover had once again led to a situation where INVO's Director was almost the only survivor of the senior staff involved in the preceding four (1994-98) years of inspections.

As IAEA inspections moved on in 1991, it became clear that Iraq's initial reaction certainly did not match the expectation in terms of transparency set by the Security Council. During the first months of inspections, Iraq's obvious objective was to hide as much as possible of its past programme. Unannounced intrusive inspections, in an attempt to circumvent concealment actions - such as Iraq's cleanup of enrichment facilities and its efforts to hide sensitive information from inspectors - became a powerful tool that forced Iraq to readjust its approach, and reveal some of its programme components by the summer of 1991. The extent of Iraq's clandestine programme was broadly uncovered, well before Iraq's forthcoming (and revised) declaration in 1995.

This was due to various inspection techniques, including for instance particle analysis of swipe samples, that has become since then one of the most effective verification tools in the nuclear area. Other factors behind the progress made were the realization of Member States that sensitive information provided to the Agency can lead to dramatic discoveries, the thorough and professional approach of experienced safeguards inspectors mixed with experts in non-traditional areas, and the development of systematic and comprehensive analytical approaches, in particular to gain understanding of the depth of Iraq's procurement effort during the 1980s.

The Agency's mandate for the destruction, removal or rendering harmless of Iraq's proscribed materials, equipment and facilities was practically completed by early 1994 (but not in 45 days as foreseen in Security Council resolution 687). At that time, there was no more weapon useable material, i.e. plutonium or high-enriched uranium (HEU), left in the country, no single use equipment was intact (even dual use items linked to the prohibited programme were destroyed) and all buildings with dedicated features had been destroyed. Even facilities that Iraq had not yet acknowledged as being linked to prohibited activities were destroyed, such as Al Atheer, the weaponisation centre, denied to be such until the summer 1995.

In August 1994, after having operated for three years on a campaign mode (sending teams of inspectors from headquarters for inspections that were limited in time), the Agency began its permanent presence in Baghdad. Fully unannounced inspection subsequently became the order of the day. The Agency had the possibility to inspect anyplace, at anytime, which proved to be a far more effective inspection regime.

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