IAEA Iraq Inspections: Lessons Learned and Future Implications

Rhianna Kreger
June 4, 2014

Panel Discussion

IAEA Iraq Inspections

IAEA personnel examine remains from Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapon program following the Persian Gulf War. Source: (c) IAEA Action Team

Dismantling the Iraqi Nuclear Programme: The Inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency, 1991-1998

On May 26, 2014, the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP) and the Verification Research, Training and Information Center (VERTIC) co-hosted a panel discussion entitled “Dismantling the Iraqi Nuclear Programme: The Inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency, 1991-1998.”

It featured Hans Blix, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and former head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), Gudrun Harrer, author of Dismantling the Iraqi Nuclear Programme and senior editor of Der Standard, Laura Rockwood, fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University and former principal legal officer at the IAEA, and Jacques Baute, director of IAEA Safeguards Information Management. Elena Sokova, VCDNP executive director, moderated the event.

Gudrun Harrer

Dismantling the Iraqi Nuclear Programme

Gudrun Harrer discussed the key findings of her recently published book, Dismantling the Iraqi Nuclear Programme. Her study explores the relatively opaque side of the efforts to dismantle the Iraqi nuclear weapon program: the role of the IAEA, which is often overshadowed by the more commonly told perspective of UNMOVIC or its predecessor, the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM). Her main conclusion is that IAEA Iraq inspections were successful, not least because they strengthened the role of the IAEA as “the” nuclear watchdog. Unfortunately, that success did not prevent the use of force in 1998 or the war of 2003. “Nuclear verification works,” she concluded, “but at the same time, there is no guarantee that it can be linked to a sustainable political solution for nuclear nonproliferation.” The conditions for success—such as strong cooperation in the UN Security Council and the resulting strong mandate, as well as sweeping access rights for inspectors—will be difficult to replicate in the future. At the same time, the Iraq experience amounted to a training course in new verification methods, technologies, and legal instruments.

Hans Blix

Iraq: Lessons Learned

Hans Blix praised Dr. Harrer’s book for its significant contribution to the literature about safeguards and nonproliferation. According to Dr. Blix, Dr. Harrer succeeded in correcting the largely UNSCOM/UNMOVIC-dominated narrative about the weapon inspections in Iraq.

Dr. Blix agreed with Dr. Harrer that the nuclear inspections in Iraq were successful. The bodies in charge of inspections had, by the end, a complete understanding of the Iraqi program. Dr. Blix further explained that “you will never get down to zero uncertainty or reach a total clarity.” In the end, it was a political decision when and whether the Iraqi nuclear dossier had to be closed; the IAEA, however, did not have doubts that dismantlement of the nuclear program had been completed.

Dr. Blix believes that many lessons could be derived for future verification efforts, such as those that will help resolve the current impasse in Iran. For example, Dr. Blix extolled the usefulness of knowing the history of each particular site. In today’s circumstances, states like Iran could gain by providing such information. Moreover, Dr. Blix said, the IAEA inspections in Iraq resulted in many new tools and concepts that constitute the core of IAEA verification efforts today. In this regard, he highlighted the importance of the Additional Protocol, particularly for states with nuclear programs of concern. He also supported the “state-as-a-whole” approach, the importance of using open source information, including trade data and satellite imagery, as well as the use of intelligence information, as long as it is provided to the IAEA and can be corroborated.

The experience of Iraq would be difficult to replicate, Dr. Blix noted, primarily because it was a defeated country that had no choice but to allow such unfettered access. He explained, however, that IAEA inspectors sought to maintain an objective, balanced relationship with Iraqis, and that, in general, it is always preferable to have the cooperation of the host country. As a rule, a state that feels threatened will be reluctant to provide information; the same is true when suspicions exist that such information could be used for military purposes.

Dr. Blix pointed out the importance of maintaining the status of inspectors as international civil servants; such status (which is closely linked to the length of contracts) allows them greater even-handedness and independence in their activities as well as helps maintain institutional memory.

Jacques Baute

The IAEA’s Shift in Focus

Focusing on the technical side of the inspections in Iraq, Jacques Baute discussed how the IAEA shifted from its previous focus in the 1980s and, through the exigency of Iraq, developed several new technical means and processes, as well as expanded its focus to undeclared sites. It acquired a more detailed understanding of the verification tools and methods for uranium enrichment, underscored the power of environmental sampling, made systematic use of overhead imagery, introduced the notion of unannounced inspections, and started using open source information for safeguards analysis. According to Dr. Baute, one of the key abilities of the IAEA during this time was “to adapt to the challenge by acquiring capabilities and skill sets in new areas of the fuel cycle and information collection process.” Most importantly, the Agency learned about the power of consensus: broad political agreement enables a technical body to be effective.

Laura Rockwood

The Key Stakeholders

Laura Rockwood elaborated on legal aspects of the IAEA inspections in Iraq, particularly the relationships between key stakeholders: the relationship between the IAEA director general (DG) and the UN Security Council, between the DG and the IAEA Board of Governors, between the IAEA and UNSCOM, and the various relations with the Iraqi government.

According to Dr. Rockwood, the experience in Iraq laid the foundation for current and future inspection practices. Some arrangements, such as the monitoring of imports and exports, could be used, on a mutual basis, for a future weapon-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East. The Iraqi inspections helped clarify many important definitions (such as “nuclear weapon-usable material” or “weaponization”), and introduced the “country-level approach” to the implementation of safeguards and obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. She also emphasized the need to track national nuclear programs at an early stage, noting that when the program reaches the stage at which it only needs weapon-grade fissile materials to create nuclear weapons, it is too late for introducing inspections. Dr. Rockwood echoed other panelists in highlighting the potential disconnect between the work of the IAEA and political decisions. Consensus among the UN Security Council members was vital for the success of inspections in Iraq, she said; the stronger the cohesiveness of the Permanent Five members, the easier it is for the Agency to achieve its goals.

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