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Iraq: How Far To Go Before Possessing A Nuclear Weapon?

  • Jeremy Bransten

This week, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) issued a report calling attention to the danger posed by Iraq's continued attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. Of greatest concern is the possibility that Iraq could acquire the capability to make a nuclear bomb -- something Baghdad could do within months, according to the IISS, if it acquires enriched uranium or plutonium. How real is this threat? And is Iraq unique in the region in being close to acquiring this capability?

Prague, 13 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The respected, London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) appeared to lend credence to the U.S. government's warnings about Iraq this week, when it published a report saying that Baghdad -- if it obtained enough fissile material -- could produce a nuclear bomb within a matter of months.

The 78-page report primarily draws together information gathered by UN weapons inspectors, as well as experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in addition to more recent data. Since UN inspectors withdrew from Iraq in 1998, some of the IISS's information is based on extrapolation, but the value of the report, its writers say, is that it is the first time all of the available information on Iraq's weapons programs has been gathered in one place, making it a good starting point for policy analysis.

At first glance, the IISS's most worrisome conclusion is that Iraq would be capable of producing a nuclear weapon within months if it acquired enough fissile material, specifically enriched uranium.

RFE/RL contacted Dennis Gormley, senior fellow for technology and defense policy at the IISS, and asked him how big of an "if" this is. How easy is enriched weapons-grade uranium to come by?

"I think it's a big 'if,'" Gormley says. "There are obviously two ways of getting it: One is to steal it or acquire it through the black market. There, we think the possibility is a relatively low one. But one needs to keep in mind that the International Atomic Energy Agency, since 1993, has reported 400 instances of trafficking of nuclear materials -- some 26 pounds of highly enriched uranium and a pound of plutonium have been involved in those transactions. Now, while that may not seem like a lot, it does at least offer the potential prospect, however low, that material can be acquired. And I guess the greatest concern would probably be the large stockpiles of material in the former Soviet Union."

Twenty-six pounds of highly enriched uranium is about half of what Iraq would need to produce a crude atomic bomb.

Charles Heyman, editor of "Jane's World Armies," a publication that tracks nations' current military capabilities, is another expert on Iraq's weapons program. He agrees that although the possibility exists that Iraq could gradually get its hands on enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, the process would be arduous. He tells RFE/RL there is no indication that Baghdad has managed to do so, despite numerous attempts.

"The generally accepted opinion is that Iraq has been trying to obtain fissile material for some considerable time -- years, in fact -- and they haven't been able to do it. So the percentage chance of Iraq getting that fissile-type material -- enriched uranium or something like that -- is pretty low."

If, however, Iraq did manage to obtain the fissile material it needed, experts believe it would be only a step away from manufacturing a nuclear bomb. And this sets it apart from its neighbor Iran and other states in the region, according to the IISS.

Dennis Gormley explains: "My sense is that Iraq is ahead. The reason why our judgment was that they're several months away is that all of the other design work related to the creation of a first-generation nuclear device has largely been accomplished. The estimate was, before the beginning of the Gulf War, that they were within one to three years of developing a small number of nuclear devices. And the assumption is that if the Gulf War had not occurred, by the end of the 1990s, they would have had on the order of 12 -- a dozen or so -- nuclear devices."

Gormley says it is important to remember that Iraq, under its leader Saddam Hussein, has devoted enormous resources to its nuclear weapons program -- both before and after the Gulf War: "Iraq, compared to Iran, has spent an awfully longer period of time developing the wherewithal to put together a nuclear device. The Iraqi program has had billions of dollars spent on the objective of creating a nuclear weapon. The infrastructure included well over 10,000 people associated with their production and design facilities. So it's been a substantial program that's been documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In my view, it's much in advance of the Iranian program, although I must admit, we don't know very much about the Iranian program."

Charles Heyman is less sure that Iran is so far behind Iraq in nuclear-weapons research, and he notes that the country could soon have a functioning nuclear reactor at Bushehr, thanks to Russian help.

In any case, Heyman believes a U.S.-led strike against Iraq would also be aimed at dissuading Iran from continuing with its nuclear program. "Certainly they would have capabilities, and it's quite possible that American coalition action against Iraq would send a signal to other countries that are very near to acquiring a nuclear capability. This may be, actually, one of the hidden aims of the operation."

Possessing nuclear weapons does not mean a country necessarily has the means to deliver them. According to the IISS, Iraq currently has about 12 al-Hussein missiles, with a range of 650 kilometers, capable of hitting targets in Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kuwait.

Dennis Gormley says this type of missile is smaller than a rocket originally developed by Iraq before the Gulf War and would be more difficult to outfit with a crude nuclear warhead, though he notes the task would not be impossible.

"The current missile that they have -- the al-Hussein -- has about 500 kilograms of delivery capacity, and it's 0.8 meters in diameter. That would force them to develop a design which they've worked on, to be sure, but a more difficult design than the original, larger design they had in mind back in 1990."

To sum up, as far as nuclear weapons are concerned, Western experts believe Iraq is advanced in its quest to acquire a functional nuclear weapon, but it must surmount two significant barriers: its lack of enough enriched uranium and its lack of a compatible missile-delivery system.

Depending on your point of view, Iraq could be many years away from posing a nuclear threat to the world -- or the threat could be very real and immediate if you believe Baghdad could succeed in smuggling in the supplies it needs.

As U.S. President George W. Bush phrased it in his speech to the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday, "The first time we may be completely certain he [Saddam Hussein] has nuclear weapons is when, God forbid, he uses one. We owe it to all our citizens to do everything in our power to prevent that day from coming."

Dennis Gormley, at the IISS, tells RFE/RL that both the Bush administration and the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair are expected to release their own reports on Iraq's weapons program in the next two weeks.

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