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7 March 2003
Essay, published in the Wall Street Journal

Mission Possible: Nuclear Weapons Inspections in Iraq

by IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei

For the past three months, a cadre of highly trained inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been on a focused mission: to verify, through intrusive inspection, the existence or absence of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq. These inspections have recently been characterized by some as a "mission impossible" - a task too challenging to warrant continued pursuit. This, in my view, is a mischaracterization. I cannot speak for UNMOVIC - the UN organization tasked with chemical, biological, and missile inspections in Iraq - however, the facts on the nuclear side speak for themselves: after three months back in Baghdad, nuclear weapons inspections are making marked progress.

The inspector's role is not that of a cloak-and-dagger detective, but neither are inspectors the passive "observers" that some have suggested. The IAEA's nuclear weapons inspectors are physicists, chemists, and engineers with decades of experience in nuclear weapons research and development, nuclear material safeguards, and intrusive international inspection. A high percentage of the current IAEA team had experience in Iraq dating from the 1991-1998 timeframe - a period during which the IAEA successfully seized nuclear-related documents based on information provided by defectors, convinced Iraq to provide volumes of additional information describing its existing nuclear weapons programme, destroyed or neutralized Iraqi facilities and equipment related to nuclear weapons production, and confiscated and removed from Iraq its nuclear weapons-usable material. In the past three months they have conducted over 200 inspections at more than 140 locations, entering without prior notice into Iraqi industrial facilities, munitions factories, military establishments, private residences, and presidential palaces, following up on inspection leads provided by other States, confiscating nuclear related Iraqi documents for further scrutiny, interviewing scientists and engineers known to have played a key role in Iraq's past nuclear weapons programme, lowering themselves by rope into abandoned underground reactor chambers, and - taking advantage of the "signature" of radioactive materials - conducting radiation surveys over thousands of kilometres of Iraqi roads and collecting samples of soil, air, water, and vegetation and particulate matter from key locations in Iraq for laboratory analysis.

In short, the nuclear inspectors in Iraq have been far from idle, and their efforts far from futile. The IAEA's inspectors have systematically examined the contents and operations of all Iraqi buildings and facilities that were identified, through satellite surveillance, as having been modified or newly constructed since December 1998, when inspections were brought to a halt. They have determined the whereabouts and functionality of Iraq's known "dual-use" equipment - that is, equipment that has legitimate industrial uses, such as precision machining, but that could also be used for the high-precision manufacture of components relevant to a nuclear weapons programme. And while their task is by no means complete, the inspection results achieved to date are worthy of careful consideration. In my update to the United Nations Security Council today, I will present the latest inspection results in detail, on issues such as whether Iraq has used aluminium tubes and high-strength magnets as part of efforts to enrich uranium, Iraq's indigenous capability for flow-forming aluminium cylinders, and the reported attempts by Iraq to import uranium from Niger.

A key facet of these inspections has been the degree of co-operation on the part of Iraq. Throughout the past three months, Iraqi authorities have provided access to all facilities, without conditions and without delay, and have made documents available in response to inspectors' requests. However, the level of their co-operation was initially "passive"; thus in our reports to the Security Council and meetings with Iraqi officials, we emphasized the need for a shift to more "proactive" support on the part of Iraq - that is, making every effort to assist inspectors by voluntarily making available documentation, people and physical evidence that could help to fill in the remaining gaps in our understanding. This urging, backed by the threat of the use of force, ultimately led to improvement. In recent weeks, Iraq has: agreed to the use of overhead surveillance flights by American, French, Russian, and German aircraft in support of the inspecting organizations; committed to encouraging its citizens to accept interviews in private in Iraq, as requested; and provided lists of additional Iraqi personnel who might be relevant to verification issues. This kind of co-operation should speed up the verification process and generate additional credibility for the assurances that result.

Nuclear weapons inspections in Iraq are making marked progress. To date, we have found no substantiated evidence of the revival in Iraq of a nuclear weapons programme - the most lethal of the weapons of mass destruction. No verification programme can provide absolute guarantees that every facility or piece of equipment has been seen; there is always some degree of risk - and for that reason we need to continue to maintain a monitoring and verification presence in Iraq well into the future. For the present, we intend to continue our programme of intrusive inspection, making use of all the authority granted to us by the Security Council and all the information provided by other States. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, and provided that the level of co-operation by Iraq accelerates and support by other States continues, the IAEA should be able, in the near future, to provide the Security Council with credible assurance regarding the presence or absence of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq.