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Nuclear Last updated: February, 2013

Despite membership in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) since 1969, Iraq determinedly pursued nuclear weapons for much of Saddam Hussein's rule. Multiple factors drove Iraq's nuclear ambitions, including external security threats, particularly from Iran, and Saddam's belief that nuclear weapons were symbols of modernity and power.[1] Had Saddam not invaded Kuwait in 1990, inviting both the increased scrutiny of the international community and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq might have succeeded in clandestinely developing nuclear weapons.

As a condition of the Persian Gulf War's ceasefire agreement, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) implemented resolution 687, leading to international oversight of the elimination of Iraq's nuclear program and infrastructure. By 1994, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors believed they had destroyed, disabled, or removed all nuclear weapons related technology and materials from Iraq.[2] However, UNSC resolution 687 called for continued international monitoring and verification to ensure Iraq did not restart its WMD programs, and in August 1998 Iraq rejected further cooperation with inspectors. This decision was an important element of the Bush administration's 2003 charges that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. A second brief inspection process, from November 2002 to March 2003, sought to clarify such accusations, but ended prematurely due to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. In September 2004, the U.S. Iraq Survey Group declared they had found no evidence that Saddam had reactivated Iraq's nuclear weapons program during the inspections hiatus.[3]

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. Iraqi parliamentary ratification of both remains pending. [4]

Capabilities

The Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), and later the Nuclear Weapons Project (coded Petrochemical-3), directed Iraq's nuclear program.[5] During the height of the program in the late 1980s, it is estimated that the combined manpower of the IAEC and PC-3 organizations was approximately 7,000 people.[6] Both organizations were located at the Al-Tuwaitha facility, also home to all of Iraq's research reactors including the 5MW IRT-5000, the 40MW Tammuz-1 (a.k.a. Osirak) and the 500KW Tammuz-2 (a.k.a. Isis) reactors.

Prior to coalition bombings in 1991, it is estimated that Iraq had the equivalent of 36.3 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in its research reactor fuel (a quantity suitable for one gun-type or two implosion-type nuclear devices).[7] Iraq intended to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) through electromagnetic isotope separation (EMIS) at two large facilities, Al-Tarmiya and Ash Sharkat, but the process failed to progress. The Iraqis hid most of their EMIS equipment from the IAEA during its first inspections, but inspectors subsequently located and placed these materials under IAEA control.[8]

In the face of international pressure, Saddam continued to employ nuclear weapons-dedicated engineers and physicists into the mid-1990s. Although the number of these employees is uncertain, defector Khidir Hamza—Saddam's former Director of Nuclear Weaponization—claims that Saddam retained a few thousand scientists.[9] However, actions taken under UNSCR 687 encumbered Iraq's nuclear program. By 1997, the IAEA had destroyed over 50,000 square meters of Iraq's factory floor space, approximately 2,000 weapons-related items, and more than 600 metric tons of special alloys. Inspectors had also placed some 500 tons of natural uranium and around 1.8 tons of low enriched uranium dioxide under IAEA control.[10]

The current Iraqi government is not pursuing a civil nuclear program of any significance. Most of Iraq's capabilities deteriorated throughout years of inspections, sanctions, and two wars, and its remaining nuclear capabilities are limited to medical and agricultural applications. Recent focus in Iraq has been on the cleanup of radioactively contaminated sites. The Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) owns all former nuclear sites and facilities and heads Iraq's decommissioning efforts.[11]

History

1956 to 1980: Laying the Nuclear Foundation
Iraq began a civil nuclear program in 1956, soon after commencement of the U.S. Atoms for Peace program, and acquired a 2MW research reactor from the Soviet Union in 1962. In 1968, Iraq signed the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state, ratifying it in 1969. Iraq is not known to have become interested in nuclear weapons until the mid-1970s, when Saddam Hussein served as President of the IAEC (1973-1979).

In 1974, an Iraqi delegation traveled to Paris to negotiate the purchase of a reactor similar to the French Osiris reactor. Then-Vice President Saddam Hussein visited Paris a year later to sweeten the proposed deal with promises of cheap Iraqi oil. By 1976, Iraq had closed a $300 million deal with France for two reactors—one the 40MWt Osirak reactor, and the second an 800KWt reactor called Isis.[12] Iraq next set out to build a radiochemical laboratory. It contracted the Italian firm SNIA-Techint in 1979 to build a pilot plutonium separation facility along with a uranium refining and fuel manufacturing plant. Neither facility was subject to IAEA safeguards.[13] Iraq also imported large shipments of natural uranium from Portugal, Brazil and Nigeria in the 1970s and in the early 1980s.[14]

While Iraq's investments were ostensibly directed towards peaceful nuclear activities, a number of red flags appear in hindsight, including leadership statements. Prior to his Paris trip, Saddam told the Lebanese news magazine Al-Usbu al-Arabi that Iraq's agreement with the French would be "the first concrete step toward the production of the Arabic atomic weapon" and that Iraq needed help obtaining nuclear weapons to counter Israel's nuclear arsenal.[15] Tensions, and ultimately a ten-year war with Iran further fueled Saddam's nuclear ambitions.

1980 to 1990: Israeli Preemption and Its Consequences
Israel was greatly concerned by Iraq's reactor deal with France. In April 1979, saboteurs bombed a warehouse in the French Mediterranean town of Seyne-sur-Mer, where the Osirak and Isis reactor cores awaited shipment to Iraq. Both cores received hairline fractures in the explosion. The Iraqis believed Israel's Mossad was responsible for the incident.[16] Nonetheless, Iraq accepted the damaged cores rather than waiting the two years the French estimated it would take to rebuild them. In June 1981, before the facility had been brought online, an Israeli air strike destroyed Osirak.[17]

To hedge its bets, Iraq simultaneously explored the gaseous diffusion process, with the intention of either: (1) producing low enriched uranium as feedstock for EMIS; or (2) expanding gaseous diffusion capacity to produce HEU in the event EMIS efforts failed.[21] However, Iraq encountered several problems implementing its enrichment strategy.

Iraq developed the EMIS project in three coinciding phases. The first phase at Al-Tuwaitha produced Iraq's first operational electromagnetic and magnet-separator. The Iraqis conducted all basic research and design for the EMIS project at this site, and Iraq's first separation of uranium occurred in 1986 at Al-Tuwaitha. In the second phase, Iraq built four additional magnet separators, but each operated below its designed capacity. Despite difficulties in the second phase, the Iraqis continued to build two identical separators at Al-Tarmiya and Ash Sharkat; however, technical problems slowed the project.[22]

The gaseous diffusion project that began in 1982 was initially successful in developing barrier material. Continued efforts, nevertheless, required an industrial infrastructure well beyond Iraq's capabilities. [23] Iraq also faced difficulties in machining precision components, and the entire gaseous diffusion effort was cancelled in 1989.

Concurrent weaponization efforts were more successful than the enrichment programs. Iraq intended to use an implosion design for its first nuclear weapon. Primary work on weaponization was done at the Al-Atheer complex, where Iraqi scientists labored to overcome problems with the conventional high-explosive charges needed to compress the core of the nuclear device. Confident that a working weapon was on the horizon, Iraq selected a southwestern site for an underground nuclear test.[24]

With a rapidly progressing bomb design, Iraq lacked only a sufficient quantity and quality of fissile material to have all of the necessary components of a nuclear device.[25] However, the 1991 Persian Gulf War forced Saddam to alter his plans. Fearing the imminent end of his regime, he ordered a "crash program" to extract enough fissile material from reactor fuel to produce a bomb that could be used against invading Coalition forces or Israel. The Iraqis diverted approximately 39.5 kg of HEU from their safeguarded HEU fuel. [26] Coalition bombing unknowingly hampered this effort by destroying many of Iraq's facilities and diverting Iraqi attention away from the nuclear program. [27]

1991 to 1998: Inspections Reveal the Truth
In 1991, the UNSC adopted Resolution 687, ending the Gulf War. UNSCR 687 also directed the IAEA to find and dismantle Iraq's nuclear weapons program, and to ensure Iraqi compliance with the NPT through comprehensive and ongoing monitoring and verification.

Iraq's initial cooperation with the IAEA was minimal, as early declarations did not disclose the full extent of the nuclear program. Iraq's first declaration to the IAEA in April 1991 did not report all of the nuclear program's facilities, including the EMIS uranium enrichment facilities at Al-Tarmiya and Ash Sharkat, nor did the Iraqis divulge any of their nuclear weapons development and production research. Nevertheless, inspections revealed much of the program and forced Iraq to admit its weapons aspirations, including research at Al-Tuwaitha and Al-Atheer. [28]

Between May 1991 and October 1997, the IAEA completed a series of 30 inspection campaigns, oversaw the destruction and disablement of nuclear program facilities and weapons-related items, and removed all weapons-usable nuclear material from Iraq. 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. [29] By 1994, the IAEA's campaign to incapacitate Iraq's nuclear program through "destruction, removal, and rendering harmless" its nuclear facilities and materials was complete. Monitoring and verification continued until December 1998. Two prominent members of the Iraqi nuclear program, Hussein Kamel and Khidir Hamza, defected in the mid-1990s and provided the IAEA and the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) with a more coherent picture of Iraq's program.[30] Kamel and Hamza's revelations included evidence of the "crash program," Iraq's EMIS program, and Iraq's use of declassified data from the U.S. Manhattan Project.[31]

Recent Developments and Current Status

Despite the absence of IAEA inspectors on the ground from 1999 to November 2002, no credible evidence has emerged through renewed inspections indicating that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear program prior to the March 2003 invasion. Iraq, however, maintained its nuclear expertise, including design information, scientists and engineers, and a powerful and effective concealment apparatus. A January 2001 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.[32]

Facing the imminent U.S. invasion and claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, IAEA inspectors were permitted to return to Iraq in November 2002 to verify that Iraq had not restarted its nuclear program. On 7 March 2003, IAEA Director General Mohamed El-Baradei reported to the UNSC 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."[33]

Subsequent to the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's Iraq Survey Group (ISG) took up the hunt for evidence of illicit WMD programs. ISG inspectors, led first by former UN weapons inspector David Kay and later by Charles Duelfer, visited numerous sites across Iraq where they sifted through documents and interviewed scores of Iraqis. 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.[34] 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."[35] The retention of scientists and other resources, including the secreting away of documents and technology, would have allowed Iraq to return to a "Strategic Balance" with Israel when sanctions dissolved, and to project strength in order to deter potential aggressors. However, since Iraq did not have the ability to continue its program at its full potential following the Gulf War, Saddam instead sought to deter adversaries by falsely aggrandizing Iraq's overall WMD capabilities.[36]

Meanwhile, as these facts came to light, so too did reports that nuclear-related equipment and materials had disappeared from Iraq following the 2003 invasion. According to the IAEA, dual-use items were "systematically removed" from facilities the IAEA had monitored prior to the war.[37] Concerns existed that these items could be sold to groups or countries interested in producing nuclear weapons. However, in mid-January 2005, Mr. Duelfer officially brought the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to a halt and quelled most of these concerns. The chief inspector of the ISG stood by his September 2004 report in which he had reported no findings of stockpiles of biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. The search had continued following the September 2004 report due to the White House's belief that there was still a possibility that weapons had been removed from Iraq, or hidden somewhere deep within the country. Nevertheless, U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed that such a possibility is very slight.[38]

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. A formal report was released in March 2005. The committee accused the intelligence community of using insufficient sources, being too wedded to previous assumptions, and failing to research the issues to a reasonable degree. The report states the intelligence community was "almost completely wrong" in its assumptions about Iraq's nuclear program.[39] Most intelligence agencies faced accusations about their failures prior to the invasion including the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

The post-Saddam Iraqi government has so far adhered to the nonproliferation regime. Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) owns all remnants of Saddam's former nuclear program. In cooperation with the multilateral Iraq Nuclear Facility Dismantlement and Disposal Project, the ministry has worked to eliminate most of Iraq's remaining nuclear infrastructure, much of which poses health and safety risks. [40]

In 2009, Iraqi Minister of Science and Technology Ra'id Fahmi announced Iraq's interest in developing a peaceful nuclear program. He cited both research and the growing demand for electricity as reasons Iraq is exploring the feasibility of nuclear technology. In February 2009, Iraq reportedly approached France regarding future nuclear cooperation and the purchase of a reactor. Iraq could not legally pursue a civil nuclear program until the UNSC lifted the Saddam-era restrictions on its nuclear activities specified in resolutions 687 (1991) and 707 (1991). [41]

In a letter to the UNSC dated 18 January 2010, the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed its support and compliance with the international nonproliferation regime. The Security Council welcomed Iraq's assurances and affirmed "[...] its readiness, once the necessary steps have been taken, to review, with a view towards lifting, the restrictions in resolutions 687 (1991) and 707 (1991) related to weapons of mass destruction and civil nuclear activities." [42] Ultimately, on 19 December 2010 the UNSC lifted sanctions 687 and 707. However, in a statement to al-Alam newspaper, Science and Technology Minister Raed Fahmi asserted, "Iraq needs at least 10 years to implement its programme for peaceful use of nuclear energy, in addition to its financial costs that range between U.S. $4-5 billion." [43] Given the many security and economic challenges faced by the Iraqi government, even this assessment seems overly optimistic. Significant Iraqi investment in nuclear power or other nuclear technologies seems unlikely in the near future.

Sources:
[1] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 1, p. 24, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[2] Federation of American Scientists, "IAEA and Iraqi Nuclear Weapons," www.fas.org.
[3] Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 2, p. 7, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[4] UN Security Council, "Security Council Presidential Statement Welcomes Steps Taken by Iraq to Support International Non-proliferation Regime, Comply with Disarmament Treaties," Press Release SC/9871, 26 February 2010, www.un.org.
[5] 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.
[6] "Projects Managed by the Iraqi Nuclear Weapons Program Known as PC-3," Federation of American Scientists Central Intelligence Agency Gulflink Collection, August 1991, www.fas.org.
[7] Nuclear Control Institute, "Iraq's Crash Program to Build A-Bomb Should Come as No Surprise," 26 August 1995, www.nci.org.
[8] Federation of American Scientists, "IAEA and Iraqi Nuclear Weapons," www.fas.org.
[9] Khidhir Hamza with Jeff Stein, Saddam's Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda, (New York, NY: Scribner Press, 2000), p.333.
[10] 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. 44, www.carnegieendowment.org.
[11] IAEA, "Project on Iraq former nuclear program," www.iaea.org.
[12]The Iraqis called the two reactors Tammuz-1 and Tammuz-2.
[13] 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, 9 October 2002 www.iraqwatch.org.
[14] IAEA, "Iraq Nuclear File: Key Findings," www.iaea.org; Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 2, p. 9, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[15] 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.
[16] Khidhir Hamza with Jeff Stein, Saddam's Bombmaker: The Terrifying Inside Story of the Iraqi Nuclear and Biological Weapons Agenda, (New York, NY: Scribner Press, 2000), p. 109.
[17] Federation of American Scientists, "Osiraq/Tammuz 1," www.fas.org.
[18] 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.
[19] Federation of American Scientists, "Osiraq/Tammuz 1," www.fas.org.
[20] IAEA, "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, 8 October 1997, p. 35, www.iaea.org; David Albright and Khidhir Hamza, "Iraq's Reconstitution of Its Nuclear Weapons Program," Arms Control Today, October 1998, www.armscontrol.org.
[21] David Albright and Khidhir Hamza, "Iraq's Reconstitution of its Nuclear Weapons Program," Arms Control Today, October 1998, www.armscontrol.org.
[22] IAEA, "Fourth Consolidated Report," pp. 35, www.iaea.org.
[23] David Albright and Khidhir Hamza, "Iraq's Reconstitution of Its Nuclear Weapons Program," Arms Control Today, October 1998, www.armscontrol.org.
[24] Federation of American Scientists, "Iraqi Nuclear Weapons," www.fas.org; IAEA, "Fourth Consolidated Report," pp. 54-56, www.iaea.org.
[25] Federation of American Scientists, "Iraqi Nuclear Weapons," www.fas.org.
[26] 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, 9 October 2002, www.iraqwatch.org.
[27] Federation of American Scientists, "IAEA and Iraqi Nuclear Weapons," www.fas.org.
[28] Global Security, "IAEA and Iraqi Nuclear Weapons," www.globalsecurity.org.
[29] 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.
[30] Jacques Baute, "Timeline Iraq: Challenges & Lessons Learned from Nuclear Inspections," IAEA Bulletin 46/1, June 2004.
[31] IAEA, Report of the fourth IAEA inspection in Iraq under Security Council resolution 687 (1991); Federation of American Scientists, "Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Program: From Aflaq to Tammuz."
[32] 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," pp. 273-275.
[33] Mohamad ElBaradei, "Statement to the UN Security Council," 7 March 2003, www.iaea.org.
[34] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 1, p. 24, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[35] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 2, p. 1, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[36] "Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD," Central Intelligence Agency, No. 1, p. 28, 30 September 2004, www.cia.gov.
[37] Louis Charbonneau, "U.N. fears bombmakers may get Iraq nuke items — diplomats," Reuters, 12 October 2004.
[38] Dafna Linzer, "Search for Banned Arms In Iraq Ended Last Month; Critical September Report to Be Final Word," The Washington Post, 12 January 2005.
[39] U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, "Overview of the Report," 29 March 2005, pp. 8-9, www.wmd.gov.
[40] IAEA, "Project on Iraq former nuclear program," www.iaea.org.
[41] "Science minister says Iraq is studying building of nuclear power reactor," BBC Monitoring Middle East, 20 June 2009, www.bbc.co.uk. For more information regarding the restrictions imposed on Iraq's nuclear program by the UNSC see, "Text of UNSCR 707 (1991)," at www.un.org.
[42] UN Security Council, "Security Council Presidential Statement Welcomes Steps Taken by Iraq to Support International Non-proliferation Regime, Comply with Disarmament Treaties," Press Release SC/9871, 26 February 2010, www.un.org.
[43] "Iraq needs 10 years to build 'peaceful' nuclear programme – minister," BBC Monitoring Middle East – Political, 19 December 2010, www.bbc.co.uk.

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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