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Nuclear Last updated: September, 2014

Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, Iraq actively pursued nuclear weapons from the early 1970s through 1991. Following the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq's program was subject to unprecedented international oversight under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 687, and by 1994 inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believed they had verified the complete dismantlement of Iraq's nuclear weapons program. [1] In October 1998, Iraq rejected further cooperation with the IAEA, prompting concerns that Iraq might not have abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions. A second brief inspection process began in November 2002, but was ultimately cut short by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. While the Second Gulf War was launched in large part due to concerns that Iraq might have reconstituted its WMD programs, the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) established in its wake found no evidence that Saddam had reactivated Iraq's nuclear weapons program during the inspection hiatus. [2] The post-Saddam Iraqi government has taken a cooperative stance vis-a-vis the nuclear nonproliferation regime, including by signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the IAEA Additional Protocol in 2008. However, the recent unrest within Iraq, underlined by the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has given rise to increased concerns over the security of Iraq's remaining nuclear facilities.

History

Early Interest, Israeli Preemption, and Covert Activities: 1956 to 1990
Iraq's nuclear activities began in 1956, shortly after the commencement of the U.S. Atoms for Peace program, with the establishment of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission and its acquisition of a 2MW research reactor, the IRT-5000, from the Soviet Union in 1962. [3] These early activities were likely driven by peaceful intentions, but almost immediately after signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state in 1968 and ratifying the treaty a year later, Iraq launched a nuclear weapons program in the early 1970s in violation of its commitments.

During its initial efforts, Iraq pursued the plutonium pathway to the bomb, acquiring two research reactors from France in 1976 (the larger 40MWt Osiraq reactor, or Tammuz I, and the smaller 800KWt Isis reactor, or Tammuz II), as well as a fuel manufacturing facility and a pilot plutonium separation and handling laboratory from the Italian firm SNIA-Techint in 1979. [4] All of these facilities were located at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center near Baghdad, and with the exception of the Italian-supplied "hot cell" plutonium handling facility, were placed under IAEA safeguards. [5] While Iraq's investments were ostensibly directed towards peaceful nuclear activities, Saddam, then Vice President, stated in September 1975 that procurement of a French-built reactor represented, "the first Arab attempt at nuclear arming." [6]

Greatly concerned by Iraq's procurement efforts, Israel bombed the Osiraq facility in June 1981, destroying the reactor core before it was set to come online. According to statements from scientists involved in the program, the attack precipitated a shift in Iraq's strategy, from one based on openly acquiring a latent capability to produce and recover plutonium for weapons to one based on covertly developing a uranium enrichment capability at undeclared facilities. [7] Over the next decade Iraq pursued several enrichment methods, including electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS), gaseous diffusion, and gas-centrifuges.

The EMIS project received priority attention for much of the 1980s, and in 1987 Iraq contracted a Yugoslav firm to build a facility in Al-Tarmiya north of Baghdad capable of producing 15 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium per year. [8] That same year, Iraq also decided to build a second, replica EMIS facility at Ash Sharqat, northwest of Baghdad. Work on the gaseous diffusion method began at Tuwaitha in 1982, but was subsequently moved to a site near Rashdiya in northern Baghdad. Iraq hoped this effort could produce low enriched uranium (LEU) feedstock for further enrichment in the EMIS program, but due to difficulties in machining precision components, the gaseous diffusion project was abandoned in 1987 or 1988 in favor of gas-centrifuges. [9] Although centrifuges were originally deemed too difficult to develop, Iraq was able to make significant headway in the late 1980s with assistance from centrifuge experts associated with West German firms. [10] Concurrent with its work on uranium enrichment, Iraq also conducted extensive research on nuclear weapon design and assembly, primarily at the Al-Atheer and Al Qa Qaa complexes. [11]

Despite this progress, Saddam, facing the prospect of a U.S.-led response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, was forced to alter his plans and initiate a "crash program" to acquire fissile material for nuclear weapons. Codenamed Project 601, Iraqi scientists were directed in August 1990 to recover safeguarded highly enriched uranium (HEU) from French- and Russian-supplied research reactors. [12] According to the IAEA, had the crash program been successful, Iraq would have been able to extract around 25 kg of HEU, which "could have resulted in the availability by the end of 1991 of a quantity of HEU sufficient to manufacture a single low-yield nuclear device." [13] Coalition bombing unknowingly hampered this effort by destroying many of Iraq's facilities and diverting Iraqi attention away from the nuclear program. [14]

International Inspections Reveal the Extent of Iraq's Program: 1991 to 1998
Following the end of the Gulf War in 1991, UNSC Resolution 687 directed the IAEA to find and dismantle Iraq's nuclear weapons program, and ensure Iraqi compliance with the NPT through comprehensive ongoing monitoring and verification. Despite this broad and unprecedented mandate, the IAEA initially received only minimal cooperation from Iraq. In its first declaration to the IAEA, Iraq failed to disclose the existence of EMIS uranium enrichment facilities at Al-Tarmiya and Ash Sharqat, as well as its weaponization research. Nevertheless, inspections revealed much of the program and forced Iraq to admit to its weapons aspirations, including research at Tuwaitha and Al-Atheer. [15]

Between May 1991 and October 1997 the IAEA completed a series of 30 inspection campaigns, oversaw the destruction and disablement of nuclear facilities, and removed all weapons-usable nuclear material from Iraq. [16] Other nuclear materials were accounted for and placed under the IAEA's control, including some 500 tons of natural uranium and approximately 1.8 tons of low enriched uranium dioxide. [17] By 1994, the IAEA's campaign to incapacitate Iraq's nuclear program through "destruction, removal, and rendering harmless" of its nuclear facilities and materials was complete. [18] IAEA inspections were reinforced by information from two prominent members of the Iraqi nuclear program, Hussein Kamel and Khidir Hamza, both of whom defected in the mid-1990s and provided the IAEA and the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) with a more coherent picture of Iraq's program. [19] Kamel and Hamza's revelations included evidence of Iraq's "crash program," its work on EMIS technology, and its use of declassified data from the U.S. Manhattan Project. [20]

Through late 1998 the IAEA continued to monitor Iraq's nuclear activities despite the regime's reluctance to cooperate fully. Following Saddam's announcement in October 1998 that he would end all cooperation with UN inspectors, UNSCOM Chairman Richard Butler issued a scathing report to the UNSC detailing Iraq's efforts to obstruct the commission's mandate. [21] The report became the basis for the December 1998 U.S. and British bombing campaign known as Operation Desert Fox. [22] IAEA and UN inspectors withdrew from Iraq that same month, and Saddam did not permit their reentry for another four years.

The Iraq War and its Aftermath: 2003 to 2010
In January 2001, a U.S. Defense Department report assessed that "Iraq would need five or more years and key foreign assistance to rebuild the infrastructure to enrich enough material for a nuclear weapon," adding that the amount of time needed could be "substantially shortened" if Iraq obtained fissile material from a foreign source. [23] Facing the prospect of a U.S. invasion and claims that it had weapons of mass destruction, Iraq permitted IAEA inspectors to resume verification activities within the country. Although Iraq retained its nuclear expertise, including design information, scientists and engineers, and a powerful and effective concealment apparatus, IAEA Director General Mohamed El-Baradei reported to the UNSC on 7 March 2003 that "After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indications of the revival of a nuclear weapon program in Iraq." [24]

After the Second Gulf War, which removed Saddam from power in April 2003, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's Iraq Survey Group (ISG) was tasked with uncovering evidence of Iraq's alleged illicit WMD programs. In its comprehensive report issued on 30 September 2004, the ISG concluded there was no evidence to suggest that a coordinated effort to restart Iraq's nuclear program had existed since the first Gulf War ended in 1991. [25] Inspectors instead found that Saddam Hussein had planned to recreate his WMD programs after the lifting of international sanctions. The ISG report states that as early as 1991, Saddam told his advisors he wanted to continue to employ Iraq's nuclear scientists, a theme the report claims "persisted throughout the sanctions period." [26] However, since Iraq lacked the ability to continue the program at its full potential, Saddam instead sought to deter adversaries by falsely aggrandizing Iraq's overall WMD capabilities. [27]

As a result of the ISG's findings, the United States Congress arranged for a Senate Committee inquiry into the U.S. intelligence community's prewar assessments on Iraq. In a formal report released in March 2005, the committee accused the intelligence community of using insufficient sources, being too wedded to previous assumptions, and failing to conduct substantial research on the issues. The report states the intelligence community was "almost completely wrong" in its assumptions about Iraq's nuclear program. [28] Most intelligence agencies faced accusations about their failures prior to the invasion, including the National Security, Central Intelligence, Defense Intelligence, and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agencies.

Recent Developments and Current Status

The post-Saddam Iraqi government has taken several noteworthy steps to demonstrate its support for the nonproliferation regime, including ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol and the CTBT in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Prior actions, including Iraq's provisional implementation of the Additional Protocol, led the UNSC to lift Saddam-era restrictions on its nuclear activities in December 2010. [29]

After years of inspections, sanctions, and conflict, Iraq's nuclear capabilities are now limited to medical and agricultural applications. Citing research interests and a growing demand for electricity, former Iraqi Minister of Science and Technology Raed Fahmi announced in 2009 that Iraq would explore the feasibility of developing a peaceful nuclear program. [30] Given domestic instability and cost considerations, however, the current Iraqi government is not pursuing nuclear power or other nuclear technologies at this time.

Iraq has also worked in cooperation with international partners through the Iraq Nuclear Facility Dismantlement and Disposal Project to eliminate most of Iraq's remaining nuclear infrastructure, much of which poses health and security risks. [31] Indeed, widespread unrest and looting, including from nuclear facilities in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War, created concerns that nuclear and other radioactive materials as well as dual-use technologies could fall into the hands of extremist groups. [32] Such concerns have become more acute with the escalation of activities by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group that has seized large swathes of territory in eastern Syria and across northern and western Iraq. In July 2014, ISIS reportedly seized approximately 40 kilograms of uranium compounds from a scientific university in the northern city of Mosul. [33] However, the IAEA noted that the material was "low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear nonproliferation risk." [34] However, Baghdad concluded an agreement with the United States shortly after the ISIS theft on a "Joint Action Plan to Combat Nuclear and Radioactive Smuggling" in September 2014, demonstrating both sides' concerns that the ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria and the domestic turmoil within Iraq will create ongoing security challenges for Iraq's remaining nuclear installations. [35]

Sources:
[1] Federation of American Scientists, "IAEA and Iraqi Nuclear Weapons," www.fas.org.
[2] Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 2, p. 7, September 30, 2004, www.cia.gov.
[3] Etel Solingen, Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths is East Asia & The Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 143.
[4] Etel Solingen, Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths is East Asia & The Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 143.
[5] Roger Richter, "Testimony form a former safeguards inspector," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Vol. 37 (1981): 29, accessed September 12, 2014, www.isis-online.org.
[6] Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, (New York: Norton, 2007), p. 321.
[7] Steve Weissman and Herbert Krosney, The Islamic Bomb; the Nuclear Threat to Israel and the Middle East (New York, NY: Times Books, 1981), pp. 227-233. Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, (New York: Norton, 2007), p. 323.
[8] David Albright, "Iraq's Program to Make Highly Enriched Uranium and Plutonium for Nuclear Weapons Prior to the Gulf War, The Institute for Science and International Security, October 9. 2002 www.iraqwatch.org; Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, (New York: Norton, 2007), p. 322.
[9] Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, (New York: Norton, 2007), p. 324.
[10] David Albright, "Iraq's Program to Make Highly Enriched Uranium and Plutonium for Nuclear Weapons Prior to the Gulf War," The Institute for Science and International Security, October 9, 2002, www.iraqwatch.org.
[11] Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, (New York: Norton, 2007), p. 349; Federation of American Scientists, "IAEA and Iraqi Nuclear Weapons," www.fas.org.
[12] IAEA, "Report on the Twenty-Eighth IAEA on-site Inspection in Iraq under Security Council Resolution 687 (1991)," S/1995/1003, December 1, 1995, www.iaea.org.
[13] IAEA, "Report on the Twenty-Eighth IAEA on-site Inspection in Iraq under Security Council Resolution 687 (1991)," S/1995/1003, December 1, 1995, www.iaea.org; IAEA, "The Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions Relating to Iraq," (GC(40)/1), August 12, 1996, www.iaea.org.
[14] David Albright, "Iraq's Program to Make Highly Enriched Uranium and Plutonium for Nuclear Weapons Prior to the Gulf War," The Institute for Science and International Security, October 9, 2002, www.iraqwatch.org.
[15] Global Security, "IAEA and Iraqi Nuclear Weapons," www.globalsecurity.org.
[16] Mohamed ElBaradei, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011), p. 31.
[17] Garry B. Dillon, "The IAEA Iraq Action Team Record: Activities and Findings," in Iraq: A New Approach, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2002, p. 41, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[18] United Nations Security Council, Fourth Consolidated report of the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency under paragraph 16 of Security Council Resolution 1051 (1996), S/1997/779, October 8, 1997, p. 16, www.iaea.org; Garry B. Dillon, "The IAEA Iraq Action Team Record: Activities and Findings," in Iraq: A New Approach, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2002, p. 41, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[19] Jacques Baute, "Timeline Iraq: Challenges & Lessons Learned from Nuclear Inspections," IAEA Bulletin 46/1, June 2004.
[20] IAEA, "Report of the fourth IAEA inspection in Iraq under Security Council resolution 687," S/24593, 31 August - 7 September 1992; Federation of American Scientists, "Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Program: From Aflaq to Tammuz."
[21] Mohamed ElBaradei, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011), p. 34; Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, (New York: Norton, 2007), p. 469.
[22] Mohamed ElBaradei, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011), p. 34; Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, (New York: Norton, 2007), p. 469.
[23] U.S. Department of Defense, "Proliferation: Threat and Response," January 2001, p. 40; Joseph Cirincione with Jon B. Wolfsthal and Miraiam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction, (Washington, DC: Carnegie, 2005), pp. 273-275.
[24] Mohamad ElBaradei, "Statement to the UN Security Council," March 7, 2003, www.iaea.org.
[25] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 1, p. 24, September 30, 2004, www.cia.gov.
[26] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 2, p. 1, September 30, 2004, www.cia.gov.
[27] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 1, p. 28, September 30, 2004, www.cia.gov.
[28] The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, Report to the President of the United States, March 31, 2005, pp. 8-9.
[29] United Nations Security Council, "Resolution 1957 (2010)," December 15, 2010, www.un.org.
[30] Martin Chulov, "Iraq goes nuclear with plans for new reactor programme," The Guardian, October 27, 2009.
[31] Federation of American Scientists, "Iraqi Nuclear Weapons," www.fas.org.
[32] Charles D. Ferguson and William C. Potter, The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism, (Monterey: Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, 2004), pp. 271-274; Louis Charbonneau, "U.N. fears bombmakers may get Iraq nuke items - diplomats," Reuters, October 12, 2004.
[33] Michelle Nichols, "Iraq tells U.N. that 'terrorist groups' seized nuclear materials," Reuters, July 9, 2014.
[34] Alan Cowell, "'Low-Grade Nuclear Material Is Seized by Rebels," The New York Times, July 10, 2014.
[35] U.S. Department of State, "U.S. and Iraq Sign a Joint Action Plan to Combat Nuclear and Radioactive Smuggling," Press Release, September 3, 2014, www.state.gov.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on Iraq

  • Nuclear weapons program comprehensively dismantled by the IAEA from 1991 to 1997
  • Used chemical weapons against Iran and its Kurdish population during the 1980s
  • Pursued offensive biological weapon capabilities from 1985 until the 1990s