A Mideast Dilemma: What Is Saddam’s Nuclear Timetable?

The Washington Post, Outlook
November 25, 1990, p. C5

On Thanksgiving Day President Bush told our troops in the Persian Gulf that the Iraqi nuclear-weapon program may be more advanced than previously thought He warned against “underestimating the reality of the situation.”

What he did not discuss are the U.S. intelligence reports that Iraq has taken another step forward in the complex process of producing a nuclear weapon and can proceed toward its goal despite the current trade embargo.

By the time the world ceased commerce with Iraq in retaliation for the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein’s scientists had apparently already imported enough technical know-how, exotic material and specialized equipment for an independent nuclear-weapon effort. Still more disturbing are reports reaching US agencies that Iraqi scientists can now make the complex gas centrifuges that are crucial for raising natural uranium to nuclear-weapon grade, substantially freeing Iraqi nuclear-material production from outside sources.

President Bush and CIA Director William Webster have made clear that Iraq’s weapons program is at the forefront of their thinking about regional security in the Persian Gulf Bush has said that even if Iraq withdrew from Kuwait tomorrow, Iraq’s chemical and other weapon potential “would be a problem [that] . . . would have to be resolved.” Webster has been even blunter. He said the Gulf “will never be secure again” until Saddam “has been disassociated with his instruments of mass destruction in one form or another.”

The Iraqi nuclear threat is not immediate. Even if the intelligence reports are accurate about Iraq’s nuclear know-how, it will take years before enough centrifuges could be built and running well enough to make bomb quantities of warhead-strength uranium. Even the earliest estimates are that Iraq probably cannot produce a critical mass of fissionable material in less than four or five years — but the threat is no less real for being just over the horizon.

Iraq already possesses more than 200 tons of natural uranium, enough for at least 50 bombs if its fledgling weapons-production industry ever reaches the technical sophistication of other nations in the nuclear club, such as Pakistan. Intelligence reports indicate that Saddam’s scientists have the technology and expertise to chemically convert the uranium to a gas and will soon begin building the centrifuges needed to enrich the gas to nuclear-weapon grade. By spinning uranium gas at high speed, the centrifuge separates the heavier isotope of uranium, which is inert, from the lighter isotope, which is unstable and produces the chain reaction needed for a bomb.

If those steps are achieved, it is within Iraq’s grasp to turn the enriched gas back into the metal needed for the core of a bomb. Sources familiar with the reports say that Iraq already has a handful of centrifuges operating and the blueprints for producing more.

But it takes about a thousand centrifuges to produce a bomb’s worth of enriched uranium annually. And there is a huge technological chasm between possessing blueprints and actually producing and operating that many complex machines, which would fill a space roughly the size of a football field. It can be presumed that an Iraqi weapons program would make every effort to have the rest of the bomb, (the “detonation package”) ready whenever the first critical mass can be produced. According to knowledgeable scientists, designing a bomb is less difficult than producing the material to fuel it.

Iraq also has a small amount of bomb-grade reactor fuel that it imported from France over a decade ago. But this is not thought to be a major threat. The amount is not enough to make a bomb with a simple design; Iraq would have to master the more complex implosion design in order to use so small an amount of material for a bomb.

Iraq also would have to divert this fuel from international inspection, risking a sharp new dispute with the West. An inspection conducted last week by the International Atomic Energy Agency of Iraq’s cache of French reactor fuel seems to have proceeded normally with no evidence that any diversion has occurred. Of course, Saddam could divert the fuel immediately after the inspectors leave. But that would leave him with only one untested bomb. Saddam is more likely to leave the French fuel intact and count on his centrifuges to provide nuclear weapons material secretly within a few years.

Should Iraq begin producing critical masses of nuclear-weapon material, there is no way to know where it might go. Saddam’s allies include Libya, which has long wanted nuclear weapons, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which has been connected to terrorist acts. The possibility of a secret trade in nuclear weaponry is one of the gravest risks that an Iraqi bomb would pose. These developments raise a nightmarish question: Should Bush use the US forces of Operation Desert Shield to strike at Iraq’s nuclear effort just a few hundred miles away? There could be high military casualties, and among those at risk would be the Western “guests” now used as human shields at Iraqi arms factories. The West could wind up bombing its own citizens to destroy its own exports.

Therein lies a moral issue that is not being discussed. The problem of Iraq’s nuclear program is that of exports. Iraq imported its stockpile of natural uranium from several countries around the world and bought key nuclear-processing equipment from firms in Germany and Switzerland. These were the machines needed to make the centrifuges that enrich uranium. Iraq brought in engineers from Germany to install and run the centrifuge-making machines and imported from German firms the special steel needed to make centrifuge parts. The German government has also investigated charges that the engineers supplied the centrifuge blueprints from which Iraq has been ordering parts.

The German government does not dispute the widely reported fact that it licensed all of the material and equipment for export, despite the fact that it was on international control lists. To see German-style centrifuges in action, Iraqi engineers even visited a secret site in Brazil where Brazil was running centrifuges made with machines that the same German firms had sold to Brazil a few years earlier. Brazil could have taught Iraq what it needed to know about centrifuge operation. According to a US official the Iraqis have also received technical help from Pakistani nuclear experts who, in turn, got help from Germany and China.

The United States also allowed reckless exports to Iraq, in particular sensitive oscilloscopes that are now being used to develop ballistic missiles at Iraq’s largest military research site, Saad-16. These instruments were on the international control list, but the Commerce Department licensed them for export anyway. This site is undoubtedly on the target lists of US pilots, who may have to risk their lives to attack it.

America’s main fault, however, was its failure to stop Germany. US diplomats complained about German exports throughout the 1980s, but Germany ignored hundreds of secret US cables. A senior adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, confronted with Germany’s chemical exports to Iraq m 1984, told The New York Times: “you can probably deliver a lipstick factory and it will turn into something else.”

The German magazine Der Spiegel has called its country’s deals with Iraq “the saddest chapter in the evil history of FRG arms exports.” If US troops go to war in the gulf, they will have to fight their way through Germany’s chemical exports to destroy Germany’s nuclear exports.

By the time Kohl began to reform German export laws, it was too late. Iraq had already built a chemical arsenal and was aiming for nuclear autonomy, despite the 1981 Israeli bombing of Saddam’s French-supplied Osirak reactor.

Similarly reckless Western export policies have given Israel, South Africa, India and Pakistan the means to make nuclear weapons and may soon do the same for Argentina and Brazil. Well-heeled buyers are always looking for dangerous goods. Indeed, if Saddam had not misbehaved by taking Kuwait, the West would still be feeding his mass-destruction war machine. Only because of the invasion has the West roused itself, rubbed its eyes, and begun to focus on the risk of an Iraqi bomb.

If Saddam is allowed to continue his nuclear-weapon program, Israel may decide to attack the facilities as it did in 1981. Israel has the military power to launch a devastating nuclear strike against multiple targets in Iraq. But any Israeli attack would vaporize the new U.S.-Arab coalition along with its Iraqi targets.

The lesson from the Gulf is that the prevention of nuclear proliferation is cheaper than its cure. If nations do not stop the spread of the bomb while they can still do it peacefully, they may be forced to do it with blood. If the current embargo or something like it had been in effect during the latter half of the 1980s, the Iraqi nuclear question would not be posed today. Use of military force to stop Iraq’s nuclear program bomb would risk America’s blood to counter reckless exports. It is not moral to ask people to die because exporters were greedy and government officials did not do their jobs.

The world must learn from this mistake and turn the consensus that produced the embargo into a permanent system for stopping the spread of the bomb. Virtually every country in the world has agreed to sanctions against Iraq. These same countries should now agree to sanctions against the secret nuclear-bomb programs of other developing countries. Unless the world wants to face more Iraqs, it must raise the economic and political costs of the bomb so high the renegades cannot afford it. This is already being tried in a mild way with Brazil and seems to be working.

If American lives are lost to stop the spread of the bomb to Iraq, the world must insure that such a sacrifice is never required again.