Timeline IRAQ:
Challenges & Lessons Learned from Nuclear Inspections

by Jacques Baute

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Blindspots & Skyshots: The Inspection Gap 1998-2002

ruins of a facility in Iraq

IAEA Inspectors assess the ruins of a facility used to produce highly enriched uranium. (Iraq, 1991-1998)

In the fall of 2002, the world had not yet come to grips with the ramifications of nearly four years without inspections on the ground in Iraq, following operation Desert Fox in mid-December 1998. Consequently, as the "experimental results" normally provided by field activities were no longer available, every possible speculation, including the most pessimistic interpretation of fuzzy intelligence or worst case scenarios extrapolated from procurement attempts, were taken at face value.

Four years without inspections is certainly of significance in the development of a nuclear programme, especially considering what Iraq was able to do in the four years between 1987 and 1990. On the other hand, it is clear that, contrary to what was possible during the 1980s and early 1990s, sanctions were in place.

Moreover, there is no comparison of Iraq's available assets at the end of 1986 and the situation at the end of 1998. In the absence of inspections, high-resolution commercial satellite imagery which became available at the end of 1999, provided a useful tool to try to remain in contact with the reality in the field (it is now widely used to prepare safeguards inspections worldwide). Overhead imagery had been utilized by the Agency in Iraq since 1991, in the form of photographs from U2 planes. Unfortunately, while allowing us to prepare well for inspections, imagery, as expected, proved to be far from sufficient to assess the existence or absence of nuclear activities.

The use of human intelligence proved to be an even greater challenge, given the possibility for anyone to embellish, if not create stories that end up being unverifiable. How many of the concerns raised by defector's reports, or as the result of imagery observations, could have easily been resolved had inspectors been in the field?

Moreover, while it is difficult to measure the deterrence induced by an inspection regime, the broad conditions provided by Security Council resolution 687 and other resolutions, together with their implementation aimed at optimising inspection effectiveness, were clearly providing a level of deterrence quite effective in preventing any prohibited activity of significant scale.

The adoption of Security Council resolution 1409, in May 2002, provided the Agency with a new mandate, resulting in developing a novel type of advanced experience: The process of reviewing all contracts to export goods to Iraq in order to identify what items might be of relevance for a hidden nuclear programme would allow the Agency to build an understanding of procurement networks, reflect on what items would be choke points and identify areas of possible concerns, based on the procurement of humanitarian or infrastructure rehabilitation goods.

But again, even that detailed information, compiled with clandestine procurement attempts, was far from enough to assess what was actually occurring in the country.

The Last Round: Under the Magnifying Glass 2002-03

The last period of inspections, between November 2002 and March 2003, was of a quite different nature, with regard to global attention and what seemed to be at stake. Some perceived that war or peace were now firmly resting on the shoulders of the IAEA and UNMOVIC inspectorates.

While it was clear that the decision would ultimately not be in the hands of the inspectorate but in those of the of Security Council members, it was vital that the Agency do its best to provide the Council with all possible facts and reliable conclusions in a timely fashion to support its decisions.

The IAEA relied on four years of preparation, including its comprehensive databases on sites, equipment and personnel, its refined "coherent picture", and former inspectors to benefit from the experience accumulated before December 1998. Thus, the Agency was able, within three months, to address most of the concerns raised by Member States.

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