November 26, 1997
CONTACT: Paul Leventhal
COULD IRAQ BUILD AN ATOMIC BOMB TODAY
IF IT WERE ABLE TO ACQUIRE FISSILE MATERIAL?
Transcript of Q & A with Ambassador Rolf Ekeus,
then-Executive Chairman of UN Special Commission on Iraq,
Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Washington D.C.
June 10, 1997
[NOTE TO EDITORS: Last June, then-UN Special Commission Director Rolf Ekeus responded to a question from Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) concerning Iraq's continuing nuclear capabilities. His answer has particular relevance to the ongoing crisis over UN inspections in Iraq. Ekeus expressed concern that the nuclear-weapon components manufactured by Iraq before the Gulf War have never been found. "We doubt they have been destroyed. But we are searching," he said. And--- in what he flagged as a "difference" with the IAEA---he said UNSCOM experts believe Iraq capable today of making a "viable weapon" if Iraq managed to buy a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Food for thought at a time when conventional wisdom holds that the Iraqi nuclear threat is history and that the current threat is confined to chemical, biological and missile capabilities. The transcript of the Q&A with Ekeus on this subject appears below. Also available from NCI are a report, "Iraq: How Close to a Nuclear Weapon?," by NCI Scientific Director Edwin Lyman, and a related op-ed article, "Who Says Iraq Isn't Making a Bomb?" They can be downloaded from NCI's website, www.nci.org/i/ib113095.htm, www.nci.org/a/a11295.htm, respectively.]
Q. (Paul Leventhal, Nuclear Control Institute): Ambassador Ekeus, you gave us a good update on the chemical, biological and missile programs of Iraq. Could you give us a similar update on the nuclear program? And I'd like to ask specifically, given the fact that the human infrastructure of that program remains in place, how would you calculate how quickly they could reconstitute their weapons program if they came into possession of weapons-usable fissile material?
Ambassador Ekeus: As you know, the IAEA and its Action Team are in the driver's seat on the matter of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq. But you also know that the Special Commission has been tasked to---given certain responsibilities. First of all, to support and assist and help the IAEA with some of the tasks according to the (U.N. ceasefire) resolution and the major task here is linked to the construction in the ceasefire resolution which states that the IAEA should decide which declared facilities it would like to investigate and inspect, but non-declared facilities are decided upon by the Commission. That means, one can say that the Security Council, when it put this construct together, arranged so that declared, and I will say cooperative aspects, should be covered by IAEA following its standard responsibilities. But in the case of, I would say, political confrontation, which is linked to going to non-declared (facilities), I would say the more negative, less profitable aspects of the work, it was better to let a political organ like the Special Commission do the work.
We have, of course, excellent cooperation with the IAEA and their team. We had some problems, more in the beginning, but that was also a certain culture problem with our more, say, aggressive approach, and the IAEA has a more cooperative approach---very natural things. But we don't differ from the Agency's assessment in broad terms. I think the Agency and the Action Team have a good and complete---I would say logical--- understanding of Iraq's---of the acquisition and especially of fissionable material---of the work Iraq has done with regard to special highly enriched uranium, and developing, acquiring such capabilities.
However, there are areas where there may be differences in assessment. We feel that the Agency has a very good hand on Iraq's capabilities with regard to acquisition, also for the future, of fissionable material. The system of inspection, the U-2 operations, the gamma detection system, water sampling and so on---all very very effective and well functioning tools in this respect.
The problem is maybe in that we by nature are suspicious concerning the weapon design. It is clear that the Iraqi specialists managed to acquire a considerable understanding of weapons design, warhead design. And there are those of our specialists inside the Commission who insist that there we have a major problem--- namely that if Iraq would one way or the other manage to buy somewhere outside especially HEU in enough quantities it would be possible for Iraq to work to create a viable weapon. I'm now talking implosion technology.
What has been striking is that Iraq's very ambitious missile program---I talked of before- --a program which was aiming at getting a longer range 600 km range type of missile--- 300 to 600 even longer of course---that program was---is a fundamentally nuclear program. It's fundamentally nuclear. That one must remember. It is definitely not for conventional explosives, it is so expensive to start, with a little puff you get. It's not worth the enormous costs for one missile. What Iraq has tried [to do] to compensate partly is that they built biological warheads for this SCUD type prolonged Al Hussein missile and also warheads for chemical weapons delivery. But even that I think is secondary.
The key is, the big prize is, nuclear design. And the whole missile work is to get a nuclear-capable missile. So, of course, we have to be very alert on this issue.
Also finally---Sandy (Spector, moderator), you mentioned earlier the matter of destruction. Iraq says they destroyed missiles, they destroyed this and that, when they don't want to show us what they have done. But we have fundamentally managed to cover most of these so-called secret destruction programs. With one exception: again the pieces or components of the nuclear---what was done because Iraq produced components, so to say, elements for the nuclear warhead. Where are the remnants of that? They can't evaporate. And there Iraq's explanation is that it melted away. And we are still very skeptical about that. We feel that Iraq is still trying to protect them. And that is part of our concealment efforts that I talked about before, to find these remnants. They may not exist. We know that they have existed. But we doubt they have been destroyed. But we are searching.
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