How the IAEA went from lapdog to watchdog in Iraq

By Jacques E. C. Hymans | April 25, 2014


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

Gudrun Harrer

296 pages (Routledge), $135

From 1991 until 2003, debates about Iraq’s efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction were at the very epicenter of international politics. At the epicenter of the epicenter stood the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was tasked with uncovering and neutralizing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. Despite the agency’s many naysayers over the years, we now know that the combination of international inspections and economic sanctions during the 1990s did indeed reduce Iraq’s nuclear program to nothing. How did the IAEA succeed, why was its success not recognized by Washington and London until after 2003, and what does this history imply for current cases of proliferation concern, such as Iran?

In her new book, Dismantling the Iraqi Nuclear Programme: The Inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency, 1991-1998, the Austrian journalist and Middle East expert Gudrun Harrer scours the IAEA’s internal archive of daily inspection field reports to provide a finely detailed narrative of the agency’s remarkable transformation from sleepy lapdog to alert watchdog. Harrer’s research greatly improves our understanding of this important juncture in contemporary international history.

The United States was initially right to be skeptical of the IAEA, which just prior to the 1991 Gulf War had assured the world of Iraq’s “exemplary” respect for its nonproliferation safeguards. Washington preferred instead to put all weapons of mass destruction inspections of Iraq in the hands of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM), a new body that was directly answerable to the UN Security Council. If the United States had gotten its way, the IAEA might well have faded away into permanent irrelevance. Indeed, to this day many people wrongly believe that all the inspections in Iraq were carried out by UNSCOM. In fact, the UN Security Council settled on a compromise, according to which the IAEA would hold on to the nuclear dossier in Iraq, but UNSCOM would have the right to oversee the agency and even assign it work. The stage was set for a battle royal between the two organizations.

The UNSCOM versus IAEA rivalry was much more than a bureaucratic turf war. It was part of a larger debate over the proper role of international organizations in the new, post-Cold War world. The United States conceived of UNSCOM as a new kind of international organization. It was to be a bureaucratic tool directly accountable to the great powers, in contrast to the traditional model typified by the IAEA’s politically neutral international civil servants.

To survive the UNSCOM challenge, the IAEA had to prove that it was capable of becoming a more proactive defender of the nonproliferation norm. To this end, IAEA Director General Hans Blix constructed a special Iraq Action Team that rejected the sleepy, paper-pushing tendencies of the agency’s Department of Safeguards. The Iraq Action Team’s spirit of innovation and persistence was crucial to cracking open the secrecy of the Saddam regime and revealing much of its nuclear misbehavior. The team’s work in Iraq was also the crucible for a new organizational culture and self-image for the IAEA as a whole.               

The UNSCOM challenge was essential for the IAEA’s organizational transformation. By 1993, however, the unproductive side of the organizational rivalry was starting to overwhelm the productive energy that it had initially unleashed. Under the tutelage of the United States, UNSCOM started sending the IAEA’s inspectors on wild goose chases based on very poor intelligence. Worse still, when they failed to find anything on these expeditions, they were accused of being blind, lazy, or even soft on the Saddam regime. Harrer elicits a remarkable admission from former US Undersecretary of State for Nonproliferation Robert Einhorn that Washington was purposely dragging out the IAEA’s work in order to justify the continuation of the tough economic sanctions regime.

This is not to suggest that the IAEA quickly got to the bottom of things in Iraq. It was only in 1995, after the powerful Saddam henchman Hussein Kamel defected to Jordan, that the Iraqi regime finally fessed up to much of its past illicit activity. Perhaps the most startling revelation was that Iraq had launched a “crash program” to misuse IAEA-safeguarded nuclear fuel rods to make a single nuclear bomb in the immediate aftermath of its invasion of Kuwait. The IAEA’s failure to discover this cheating was a big miss, even though the “crash program” had hardly progressed beyond the drawing board by war’s end. As a result of this revelation, many observers became firmly convinced that the inspectors were useless, and that Iraq must still be hiding even bigger secrets—even though Kamel himself confirmed that Iraq’s nuclear efforts had ceased at the end of the war.    

Although the IAEA was unable to extract the whole truth from Iraq prior to 1995, the same was true of UNSCOM. Indeed, UNSCOM’s lightning searches for biological and chemical weapons were much less successful than the IAEA’s patient nuclear investigations. Harrer’s historical research demonstrates that the presumed tradeoff in international inspections between respectful demeanor and concrete results is a false one. The IAEA’s common courtesy beat UNSCOM’s cowboy bravado hands down in terms of the amount and quality of information elicited from Iraq’s scientists.  

UNSCOM’s aggressive attitude also caused the Iraqis to respond in kind, producing a negative spiral that ended up greatly impeding the IAEA’s work as well. The final straw came in 1998, after UNSCOM chief Richard Butler reacted disproportionately to Iraq’s refusal to allow a large number of his inspectors to hunt for chemical and biological weapons inside the ruling Ba’ath Party headquarters building. The UNSCOM-Iraq standoff prompted the United States to launch Operation Desert Fox: 650 bombing sorties and 400 cruise missiles fired against suspected nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons laboratories. Harrer dryly remarks, “Nobody seems to have asked the obvious question: If these places were known to US intelligence, why hadn’t this information been passed on to UNSCOM and IAEA so these sites could be inspected and monitored?”

Saddam responded to Operation Desert Fox by kicking out the inspectors from both UNSCOM and the IAEA. Thereafter, Iraq went uninspected for more than four years, leading to the proliferation of “known unknowns” about its weapons-of-mass-destruction efforts that the United States and Great Britain used to justify their all-out invasion of the country in 2003.     

The sketchy circumstances surrounding Operation Desert Fox—including its timing at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal—produced a widespread feeling among UN insiders that the organization’s good name had been misused as a cover for US military aggression. As a result, the bulk of the UN Security Council swung hard against UNSCOM. In December 1999, its chemical, biological, and missile dossiers were handed over to a new body: the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission. The creation of this new organization represented the triumph of the traditional type of international organization against the UNSCOM alternative. The new body was explicitly modeled on the IAEA’s Iraq Action Team and headed by none other than former IAEA Director General Hans Blix.

The revival of the traditional role of international civil servants, however, made the Anglo-Americans even less likely to listen to the UN inspectors’ reassuring findings about Iraq’s limited weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities in the run-up to the war in 2003. The disconnect between US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the one hand, and Blix and IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei on the other, ended up producing a disaster for everyone.    

The story of the nuclear inspections in Iraq and the resulting transformation of the IAEA is not merely of historical interest. The debate over Iran today bears an uncanny resemblance to the Iraq debate of the 1990s. Many expert observers believe that Iran is hiding ongoing nuclear work and has tried to destroy evidence of past illicit activities. Without a full accounting of Iran’s nuclear activities past and present, the prospects of a durable diplomatic settlement are nil. The IAEA will inevitably be called to make that accounting. Will it be able to maintain the same blend of toughness and neutrality that it showed in Iraq in the 1990s? And if it does, will the United States be willing to accept the inspectors’ conclusions? The prospects for peace depend on the answer to these two questions.

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