How Western greed created Hussein’s Iraq

How the West Armed Iraq. By Kenneth Timmerman.
Houghton Mifflin. 443 pp. Illustrated. $21.95.

Saddam Hussein may have done the world a favor. By invading Kuwait when he did, he triggered the destruction of his atomic bomb program, which was only a few years short of producing deployable weapons. Iraq is a textbook example of how the existing system for stopping nuclear arms proliferation doesn’t work. It remains to be seen whether this spectacular lesson, provided at so much cost to the Iraqi people, will cause the world to learn anything.

Like every other developing country that has tried to make the bomb, Iraq was using imports. Saddam bought all the vital ingredients from willing sellers, most of whom were in the Western countries arrayed against him.

Kenneth Timmerman’s “The Death Lobby” tracks the stream of these sordid deals, beginning with the first French reactor contract in 1975 which resulted in an A-bomb factory that the Israelis bombed in 1981 to the purchase in the 1980s of the “supergun” a long-range, nuclear-capable cannon that resulted in the murder of its Canadian creator outside his Belgian apartment in 1990.

Timmerman’s account of these complex deals is clear, well-written and interesting. Most of what he describes has already been reported in one place or another, but drawing it together is a great achievement. The book’s only shortcoming may be its lack of a broader context into which the Iraqi experience can be fit, and from which prescriptions for cure can be derived. That, however, would take another volume.

Timmerman catalogs the people, the companies and the governments who sold Saddam his arsenal. We meet the unscrupulous French prime minister, Jacques Chirac, and his trusty nuclear aides, Andre Giraud and Bernard Goldschmidt. They sold Saddam a reactor in full knowledge that he wanted it for making bombs. This led to additional lucre for the French, whose Thompson CSF later sold Saddam high-tech radar and other military electronics.

France, however, could not keep up with the Germans when it came to the really dangerous stuff. German firms sold an entire poison-gas industry, complete with chemical ingredients and the machinery to make them. The famous Messerschmidt firm, still in business under the name MBB, became Saddam Hussein’s main missile technology supplier. What MBB learned from the Pentagon about the US Pershing 2 missile it could pass along to Saddam for his new Condor 2 missile, which had the same range and configuration. Other German firms gave Saddam vital help in the difficult process of making nuclear weapons material.

The United States also contributed. Timmerman singles out Marshall Wiley, former US ambassador to Oman. After leaving Foggy Bottom, Wiley set up the US-Iraq Business Forum, a group of big US firms that wanted to do more business in Iraq. Aided by assistant secretary of state Richard Murphy, who later went to work himself as a lobbyist for the chairman of the Forum, Wiley used the political clout of the Forum’s members to push export licenses for Iraq through the federal bureaucracy.

Success was not difficult, The man in charge of licensing at the Commerce Department was Dennis Kloske, who, to speed up approvals for Iraq, cut the Pentagon out of the review process. Kloske simply did not want to deal with the Pentagon’s pesky objections. In full knowledge that Iraq was developing missiles at a giant complex known as Saad-16, Commerce under Kloske approved millions of dollars worth of sensitive US electronics clearly marked for Saad-16. These products directly aided the Iraqi missile design and production effort.

The deals that Timmerman recounts are now history, but the exporters who supplied Saddam are still there. They await their next customer, who could be Saddam himself if he ever gets access to money again. When the United Nations inspection team visited the secret site where the Iraqi bomb was being designed, an Iraqi designer told an inspector: “We are just waiting for you to leave so we can get on with our work.”

There is no hope of stopping nuclear arms proliferation without closing down the network that supplied Iraq, and there is no hope of closing down the network without exposing and condemning it. This the United Nations can do – it has complied a list of companies that supplied Saddam’s nuclear, chemical and missile complexes. The United Nations has also seized documents that discuss contracts and reveal whether laws were broken.

The United States is reported to be in favor of making the information public, but Germany and France are lobbying to keep it secret. They want to protect their companies. If the names don’t come out, the suppliers will never face the punishment and opprobrium they deserve. And if the documents are not released, there will be no pressure on Western governments to improve their leaky export-control systems. North Korea, Iran and Libya are next in line at the A-bomb bazaar. They will buy the same equipment from the same firms that Iraq did unless something is done to choke off the supply.

Although “The Death Lobby” catalogs the cupidity of high-tech arms merchants and the governments that protect them, it is only the first step toward correcting what went wrong in Iraq. The next step is for government – including our own – to pass and enforce tough export laws. Only then will we have a chance to stop the spread of the bomb.