On January 27, UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Hans Blix and IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei presented to the UN Security Council their required updates on the progress of weapons inspections inside Iraq. The updates arrive as the differences between the overt strategies of Security Council members reach a new level of sharpness. Permanent members China, France and Russia staked out their position over the preceding week: the inspections are satisfactorily helping to provide the Council with assurances regarding Iraq’s non-conventional weapons and related programs, a military assault may have grave consequences for regional stability and the prevention of international terrorism, and the inspectors themselves must declare their inability to work in Iraq before the Council can consider changes in its policy. By contrast, the United States, along with Great Britain, has acknowledged neither positive results from the inspections process nor the inspectors’ prerogative to assess the continued validity of their own work. Both factions among the Security Council’s Permanent Five will find much in the Blix update to substantiate their positions.

The goal of successive Security Council resolutions, and thus the inspectors’ mandate under Resolution 1441 of November 8, 2002, is limited to divesting Iraq of non-conventional weapons and dismantling the related programs. Throughout the 1990s, US administrations vacillated between the Security Council’s goal of disarmament and Washington’s goal of regime change. Under the Clinton administration, the regime change agenda persistently served to impede disarmament, most apparently for 14 days in November 1998, when Iraq withdrew all cooperation with inspections in response to the Iraq Liberation Act signed by President Bill Clinton. Shortly after George W. Bush came into office in early 2001, his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was faced with a rapidly eroding sanctions regime. Powell proposed a “re-energized” sanctions policy ostensibly aimed at reducing restrictions on some civilian imports while streamlining controls on Iraqi imports of proscribed military goods and dual-use goods. But, due to pressure from within the Bush administration, this new policy was short-lived. Regime change is strongly backed by Bush and by Congress, but is not the official policy of any other Security Council member. The US policy of regime change in Iraq is behind the crisis within the Security Council over whether inspections or war are the way to secure Iraq’s disarmament.

Toward Peaceful Disarmament

By the standard of containing Iraq’s non-conventional weapons capacity and hence keeping Iraq’s potential for aggression acceptably low, inspections have worked. As a result of the ceasefire agreement with Iraq in 1991, Resolutions 687 and later 715 established an ongoing long-term monitoring and verification system (OMV), with an export/import control mechanism to assure that Iraq did not reconstitute or retain its prohibited chemical and biological weapons and missiles with a range greater than 150 km. From 1991-1998, the implementation of the OMV was a vital element of the disarmament process, as UNSCOM personnel left tamper-resistant monitoring equipment at sites and conducted frequent follow-up visits. The inspectors collected valuable baseline information that has increased the speed and effectiveness of the current UNMOVIC and IAEA inspection teams.

Vast improvements to surveillance and detection technologies over the last five years will increase the effectiveness of a new OMV that could be established as early as February 2003. Inspectors would also conduct in-person OMV visits frequently enough to reassure the Security Council about Iraq’s non-conventional weapons capabilities. Ensuring the re-establishment of an effective OMV is a more important goal than the hot pursuit of unanswered questions, as it serves to deter the Iraqi government from reconstructing its non-conventional facilities. It also provides the Security Council with assurances that Iraq is not conducting activities prohibited by Council resolutions.

Those who advocate the continuation of inspections would find much in the January 27 updates to the Council to support their position. ElBaradei told the Security Council that “we have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons program since the elimination of the program in the 1990s.” He also made his most direct pitch for a non-violent solution, ending his presentation with a direct appeal to the US: “These few months would be a valuable investment in peace because they could help us avoid a war. We trust that we will continue to have your support as we make every effort to verify Iraq’s nuclear disarmament through peaceful means, and to demonstrate that the inspection process can and does work, as a central feature of the international nuclear arms control regime.”

Blix, too, endorsed elements of the Iraqi approach, mentioning how “Iraq has on the whole cooperated rather well,” and how inspectors’ “reports do not contend that weapons of mass destruction remain in Iraq.” Blix did not acknowledge that large-scale production of prohibited weapons is extremely unlikely while Iraq sits in the full glare of international scrutiny. But the negative findings of inspectors inside Iraq—who have investigated all the sites named by the US and Britain as potential weapons production facilities—imply that the Iraqi threat is, at least, contained.

Seizing Upon Ambiguity

But the overt goal of the Security Council—containing Iraq—has been abandoned by the US, most clearly in Bush’s National Security Strategy launched in September 2002. The Bush team argues that even a contained Iraq can equip terrorists. Further, administration officials have explicitly articulated regime change and enhanced control over the Persian Gulf region as US policy goals. Naturally, the Bush administration cannot make their case for war internationally on this basis. But it does not need to.

Instead, the Bush team can also draw upon the nature of the inspectors’ mandate to justify military action. As US officials argue again and again, inspections have not verified Iraq’s claims to have either destroyed its proscribed weapons or refrained from resuming their production. This line of argument dovetails with the inspections process: as Blix has repeatedly stated, under the terms of the Security Council resolutions, the burden of proof is on Iraq to demonstrate that it has disposed of the weapons stocks it held before 1991, and is not developing them again.

One day before Blix’s update, Powell said at the World Economic Forum in Davos: “Where is the evidence—where is the evidence—that Iraq has destroyed the tens of thousands of liters of anthrax and botulinum we know it had before it expelled the previous inspectors? […] We’re talking about the most deadly things one can imagine, that can kill thousands, millions of people.”

Blix has been more reticent about the “missing anthrax,” but has said enough to appear to endorse the administration’s point. In his update, the chief inspector referred to how anthrax “might still exist” in Iraq, though the maximum possible quantities he mentioned were less than a fifth of the alleged “stockpile” of anthrax Powell had adduced in December 2002. Inspectors have to account for the possibility that the “missing anthrax” might still exist, without pronouncing judgment upon how likely that is. Seizing upon this ambiguity, the Bush administration transforms a case for concern into a case for war.

Exhibit A: Anthrax

The confusion is between what Iraq could have produced before 1991, and what it actually did produce. Iraq could have produced considerably more biological agents than it declared if, firstly, all of Iraq’s claims to have lost, damaged and destroyed growth media were untrue; and, furthermore, if its claim that its fermentors (turning the growth media into weaponizable agents) were not used for certain periods of time was also untrue. Taking the maximalist position that Iraq could have fully utilized all imported growth media, without any failed or destroyed batches, and engaged its fermentors at top production continuously, UNSCOM stated in its January 1999 report that Iraq could have produced three times as many anthrax spores as it declared.

UNSCOM’s calculation used a figure of 520 kg of yeast extract that was unaccounted for. This seemingly large quantity amounts to less than 11 percent of the total amount of yeast extract destroyed under UNSCOM supervision in 1996 (4,942 kg). The Iraqi government claimed that it unilaterally destroyed a quantity of growth media at a site adjacent to al-Hakam prior to the arrival of inspectors in 1991. This explanation holds some credibility, as UNSCOM was able to conclude that it “confirmed that media was burnt and buried there but the types and quantities are not known,” and thus could not reduce the quantity of material still classified as unaccounted for. Therefore, whether the quantity of unaccounted-for material is within a reasonable error margin — particularly given that UNSCOM acknowledged its understanding of Iraq’s destruction of its weapons in 1991 was of “considerable uncertainty” — is itself open to question. Nevertheless, it is impossible for UNMOVIC to come to a firm conclusion on this matter, leaving the way open for the Bush administration to allege that Iraq still holds a deadly stockpile.

One further problem with the US argument is that any anthrax spores produced before 1991 would probably no longer be infectious. As Middle East military expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a 1998 report on the status of Iraq’s biological weapons programs, “the shelf-life and lethality of Iraq’s weapons is unknown, but it seems likely that the shelf-life was limited. In balance, it seems probable that any agents Iraq retained after the Gulf war now have very limited lethality, if any.” Even if Iraq did retain growth media for biological weapons, that growth media would long since have passed its expiry date by 1999, and would thus have a markedly reduced efficiency in producing biological agents.

Absence of Evidence

Other known aspects of the US-British case for Iraqi non-compliance are similarly flawed. Allegations by Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair about rebuilt facilities at former nuclear sites have been effectively quashed through IAEA inspections. The US claimed that Iraq was importing aluminium tubes to use in enrichment centrifuges. The IAEA has provisionally concluded that these were used to produce short-range rockets. US and British claims that Iraq had attempted to import uranium from Africa have not been substantiated by the two governments, despite numerous requests from the IAEA. It seems most likely that the reference was to an attempt in 1981-82 to import uranium from Niger.

Claims about Iraq’s retention of stocks of VX nerve agent—invoked by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in her January 23 op-ed in the New York Times—seem dubious. From 1997, UNSCOM repeatedly confirmed Iraq’s claim that it had dumped its stock of VX by taking samples from the dump site. Despite the evidence of destruction, it was not able to verify the quantity of material dumped. Sites that the US and Britain alleged were involved in the production of biological or chemical weapons have been repeatedly inspected by UNMOVIC. These include Falluja II, at which inspectors found the chlorine plant at the focus of concern not even in operation, and al-Dawra Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine Facility, which appeared to journalists as having not been reconstructed since its destruction in the mid-1990s. The inspectors have not reported any evidence of the production of proscribed agents at any of these sites.

In the face of the declining credibility of US claims about particular weapons programs, the Bush team has reverted to claiming that the Iraqi government is inherently untrustworthy, exhibit A being Iraq’s failure to unconditionally fulfill all the obligations mandated by UNSC 1441. Clearly, the Iraqis government was highly secretive about its weapons programs since the inception of the inspections process. From the 1980s, the Iraqi economy was built around the military and its ambitious development. Exposing all past activities to inspections runs up against entrenched hostility. But the habits of secrecy are not the same as continuing programs of illicit armament.

US reliance on claims about full and unconditional compliance with UNSC 1441 rather than about disarmament per se demonstrates that the claim of Iraq’s threat is becoming increasingly hard to justify. Throughout the period in which inspections made substantial progress from 1992 to 1997, the Clinton administration labeled extensive though incomplete compliance as non-compliance. This strategy was taken a step further by the White House spokesman on the morning of Blix’s update, who reaffirmed that compliance must be absolute. “If the answer is only partially yes, then the answer is no,” he said.

Survival Strategy

The British government has claimed that the Iraqi government structures its identity around non-conventional weapons. There is no evidence for this, and it seems highly unlikely. The Iraqi government has long had a survivalist strategy, by projecting an image of strength exercised to the patrimonial benefit of its support base. This strategy has served the government well, with only the briefest of hiatuses, as when Iran retook Abadan in September 1981 and made the government’s terrible miscalculation to launch war against Iran apparent.

It is not at all apparent how the retention of proscribed weapons could serve this survivalist strategy. If inspectors uncover non-conventional programs, then this would lead to the government’s ouster. From 1999-2002, Iraq pushed at boundaries only indirectly related to the proscribed weapons. Iraqi weapons program personnel extended the al-Samoud missile range and imported missile engines and raw material to produce solid missile fuel. The Iraqi government acknowledged these transgressions in its December 7 declaration, and since this date has agreed to halt these programs.

Instead, the Iraqi government has sought to reinforce its image by rewarding the citizenry. Examples include the prison releases of October 2002, the doubling of the food ration, extensive resource distribution through tribal networks and the prospect of political reforms. This tactic of purported munificence has been used previously by the Iraqi government, most notably in 1991 in the wake of the Iraqi uprisings. Then, the benefits were withdrawn as soon as the hold of the loyalist military was secured over south and central Iraq. The May 1991 program of political liberalization was reversed and forgotten by September.

The survivalist approach of the Iraqi government has been most manifest in its cooperation with inspectors. The relative luxury enjoyed by the regime in the 1990s—hindering inspectors while fearing no more than further justification for the continuation of economic sanctions—no longer exists. The regime’s cooperation may be insincere, or “given grudgingly” in Blix’s words. The key question is not whether this grudging cooperation fits the formal requirement of unconditional compliance with UNSC 1441, but whether it will lead to the effective disarmament of Iraq.

How to cite this article:

Nathaniel Hurd, Alistair Millar, Glen Rangwala "A Case for Concern, Not a Case for War," Middle East Report Online, January 28, 2003.

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