Maybe Saddam Did the World a Favor

International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, August 14, 1991, p. 4

WASHINGTON — For the fourth time since the Gulf war, a pack of sleuthhounds from the United Nations is in Iraq trying to sniff out Saddam Hussein’s cache of nuclear treasure. Previous UN teams discovered that Iraq was only a few years from building a nuclear arsenal and had managed to hide bomb factories from international inspectors before the war. Unless atomic detection improves, America’s next conflict with a regional power could be nuclear.

As a UN official put it, “Inspecting Iraq has been like peeling an onion.” The first layer, weapons-grade fuel, has been removed from Iraq’s control or is trapped under rubble. The next layer, equipment needed to make the fuel, has been largely destroyed or buried by the Iraqi army, which wanted to erase clues to a deeper layer: machines and factories needed to make the fuel-making equipment.

The United Nations now has a chance to destroy this in Iraq, but is unable to destroy it in any other country that is quietly making the bomb. Therein lies the problem.

By signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Saddam Hussein was obligated not to make nuclear weapons and to open his sites to inspectors. But inspections were limited to what Iraq itself declared.

More aggressive inspections would have found Iraq’s calutrons, machines that concentrate the uranium isotope that produces nuclear fission. Iraq had prepared sites to run hundreds of calutrons, enough to fuel a small nuclear arsenal in less than five years. It even ran six experimental calutrons at a site near Baghdad where inspectors had gone for more than a decade and issued clean bills of health. Iraq would be running the calutrons today if it had not invaded Kuwait.

Since the Gulf war, UN inspectors armed with U.S. intelligence reports and backed by military threats have gamed admission to any suspected site in Iraq. This has paralyzed Iraq’s nuclear manufacturing base. More of the same will be needed to keep Iraq in check and to monitor other countries trying to make nuclear weapons.

The United States should now advocate Iraq-type inspections everywhere, an idea that the International Atomic Energy Agency favors. A good starting point would be South Africa, which has just signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and is suspected of hiding nuclear weapons.

America should improve its intelligence on developing countries. In the post-Cold War era, a dollar spent for intelligence on the Third World will buy more security than a dollar spent on “star wars” or the B-2 bomber.

At long last, Saddam Hussein maybe doing the world a favor. His country is now a giant laboratory for nuclear sleuthing experiments. Early results show that the old formula for stopping proliferation did not work. But a new one might.