Testimony: Weaknesses in the International Atomic Energy Agency

Testimony of Gary Milhollin

Professor, University of Wisconsin Law School and
Director, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control

Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East
Subcommittee on Economic Policy, Trade and the Environment,
and Subcommittee on International Security, International Organizations and Human Rights

June 29, 1993

Good morning. I am pleased to have this opportunity to address these three distinguished Subcommittees of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Subcommittees have asked me to address the question of the inspections in Iraq and the effectiveness of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In roughly one month, we will pass the third anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. If Iraq had notinvaded Kuwait, it is very likely that Saddam Hussein would be passing a different milestone about now: he would be assembling his first atomic bomb. Two former U.N. inspectors, David Kay and Jay Davis, have estimated that at the time of the invasion, Iraq was 18 to 30 months away from producing its first critical mass of nuclear weapon material. We have now passed the 30-month mark.

One of the most frightening things about this possibility is that the International Atomic Energy Agency did not, and never would have, detected it. The Agency’s inspections were not set up to do so. Before the invasion, the Agency consistently rated Iraq’s compliance with its inspections as “exemplary.” In fact, Iraq’s cooperation was exemplary at the locations the Agency was inspecting. The problem was that the Agency was not inspecting the locations where Iraq was making the bomb. The Agency only inspects locations declared by the country being inspected, and so far, no country has made a bomb at a declared site. All A-bomb programs have been carried on at secret, undeclared sites.

Iraq is a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which means that Iraq promised not to make nuclear weapons and also promised to declare all of its work with plutonium and enriched uranium to the Agency. (Plutonium fueled the Nagasaki bomb; enriched uranium the Hiroshima bomb). But Iraq secretly broke both of these promises at the very time that the Agency was rating its Treaty compliance as exemplary.

To make matters worse, Iraq broke its promise by diverting equipment that the Agency’s current chief inspector in Iraq had helped sell–over U.S. objections–to the Iraqis in the late 1970s. Thus, the very equipment that the chief inspector helped supply was used to break the promise he is now supposed to be enforcing. Worse still, the Agency was later told about the violation by an Iraqi official who was himself a former Agency inspector. The former inspector had used his experience at the Agency to help outwit the current inspectors.

It is now clear what Iraq’s strategy was. Iraq joined the Nonproliferation Treaty, enjoyed the diplomatic and trade benefits that come from membership, but still tried to make the bomb by outwitting the inspectors. If Saddam had not been foolish enough to invade Kuwait, the strategy would have worked. Iran is now following this same strategy, and so are Libya and North Korea. These countries cannot be expected to invade their neighbors on the eve of nuclear capability.

It is unfair, however, to criticize the Agency for not doing a job that it was not set up to do. The Agency’s primary duty is to promote the spread of nuclear energy, especially to developing countries. It does a good job of that by running training programs, by sending out exports of its own, and–most of all–by agreeing to inspect exports made by the more advanced nuclear countries to the less advanced ones.

When a nuclear supplier wants to sell a reactor to a country like Pakistan or India, the Agency provides a “guarantee” that the reactor’s plutonium won’t be used to make atomic bombs. Without such a guarantee to make the export palatable, such transfers would be politically impossible. The result has been to encourage the proliferation of nuclear technology around the world. India and Pakistan both got reactors under Agency guarantees, and both have since made atomic bombs.

The Agency’s conflict of interest is obvious. If the Agency catches somebody making bombs, it means that the nuclear exports were too dangerous to have been sold in the first place and should not have been promoted. Thus, the institutional incentive is always to find that nothing is wrong.

In the United States, the old Atomic Energy Commission had the job of both promoting and regulating nuclear energy until 1974, when Congress wisely split the functions. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission now regulates; the Department of Energy promotes. The U.S. regulatory process gained great credibility from this separation.

The situation in Iran illustrates the Agency’s dilemma. The Chinese are now planning to sell Iran at least one 300MW power reactor. The reactor will make enough plutonium for at least ten atomic bombs per year. The world will be relying only on a piece of paper, signed by Iran, promising that the plutonium will never be diverted.

The United States opposes the deal because it will be a giant nuclear technology transfer, moving Iran a long way down the road toward a bomb. James Woolsey, Director of Central Intelligence, told Congress in February that Iran intends to make nuclear weapons. The IAEA, however, stands ready to facilitate this export by promising to inspect it–providing the necessary political cover. I hope the Subcommittees will ask the IAEA witnesses here this morning why the IAEA is willing to cooperate with this deal.

The Subcommittees have asked specifically about Iraq–about the progress in destroying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction since the Gulf War. According to the U.N. Special Commission in New York, which is in charge of the chemical and missile inspections, there has been good progress in destroying chemical agents, munitions and precursors. More than one thousand tons of chemical weapon precursors have been destroyed so far, but a large amount remains. The Commission expects to have destroyed all of the identified nerve gas, mustard gas and precursors by the end of this year.

With respect to missiles, the U.N. inspectors report that they have narrowed the uncertainty as to how many Soviet-supplied Scud missiles remain in Iraq. The uncertainty is in the number launched from 1980 to 1982. The Iraqis have not provided the documents necessary to verify their claims.

Both the missile and chemical inspectors are now being defied, however. The U.N. Security Council has just condemned Iraq for refusing to move chemical equipment to a site for destruction, and for refusing to allow surveillance cameras to be installed at rocket test sites. The Special Commission believes that these refusals threaten the core of its inspection effort, so the question is what action to take if Iraq does not back down. The matter is now under consideration.

With respect to the nuclear program, there is less progress and more uncertainty. I have described the nuclear inspections in an article that I wrote for the New Yorker in February. Also, in April the New York Times published a list of the main nuclear-related items that still appear to be missing in Iraq. The list is an estimate, compiled by the Wisconsin Project from Agency reports and other sources. It gives a general picture of what the Agency is still looking for. I would like to submit both articles for inclusion in the record.

The Subcommittees have asked me to comment on the adequacy of the Agency’s inspection effort in Iraq. The Agency is in charge of the nuclear inspections. I think that the inspectors themselves deserve our deepest gratitude and admiration. They have carried out a difficult, dangerous job that is both physically and mentally exhausting. The inspectors are entitled to the greatest possible support from the Agency’s management, but they have not always received it.

One of the main problems has been the chief inspector’s statements to the press. As early as February 1992, he said that “practically the largest part of Iraq’s nuclear program has now been identified–probably what is missing is just details.” And in September, he told Reuters that Iraq’s nuclear program “is at zero now,” and “they [the Iraqis] have stated many times to us that they have decided at the higher political level to stop these activities.” He even made the improbable statement that “this we have verified.”

The U.N. Special Commission flatly rejects these statements. The Commission believes that Iraq has not given up on any of its mass-destruction weapon programs, including the nuclear one. Because of his press statements, the chief inspector has undermined the other inspectors’ credibility. How can they plausibly search for things that their leader says don’t exist?

The Special Commission still wants to find the following:

  • parts of the giant machines the Iraqis used to purify uranium to nuclear weapon grade, to find out how much of this uranium the Iraqis made
  • a suspected experimental array of centrifuges, also used to purify uranium to weapon grade
  • a suspected underground reactor that could secretly make plutonium for bombs
  • the identities of Iraqi nuclear personnel, to find out what these persons are doing
  • records of explosive tests, to find out whether the Iraqi bomb design succeeded
  • other records of the nuclear weapon program, to find out whether all of its components have been discovered
  • Iraq’s foreign sources of technical advice, to cut them off
  • Iraq’s network of foreign equipment suppliers, to make sure that it does not revive as soon as the embargo is lifted.

Finally, the Subcommittees ask how the Agency can be strengthened. I believe that the United Nations should follow the lead of the Congress and separate the Agency’s promotion function from its inspection function. This would increase its credibility by removing its conflict of interest. The inspections in Iraq, for example, would be carried out better by the Special Commission, which has no promotion function and acts directly under the United Nations Security Council.

In other countries, the Agency could continue to inspect declared locations, but inspections of undeclared locations should be done by a new entity whose sole job would be verification; no promotion function would interfere. This new entity could concentrate its resources on inspecting countries where the threat of proliferation is greatest, rather than dissipate its inspection resources as the Agency presently does. The Agency currently spends most of its scarce inspection funds looking at Germany, Japan and Canada, hardly the most acute proliferation risks today. This leaves fewer resources for countries like Iran.

This new entity should report to the U.N. Security Council, rather than to the Agency’s Board of Governors. The Board typically includes countries like Algeria, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Syria. This amounts to letting a committee of arsonists decide where to send the fire truck.

This new entity should also be able to receive, use and protect intelligence information. The Agency has never had that ability, which is why it has never been able to do anything more than inspect declared locations. Even in the case of Iraq, where the Agency has been provided intelligence information, the Agency’s secrecy rules have kept the providers from finding out what their intelligence produced. U.S. intelligence officials say that the Agency has been a one-way street: information goes in, but nothing comes out.

I would like to end with an important reminder, which is that the Agency’s inspections play only a minor role in the effort to stop the spread of the bomb. In countries like Israel, India, Pakistan and South Africa–countries that have successfully proliferated–the Agency’s inspections have been virtually irrelevant. These countries made the bomb at places where the Agency never had any right to look. To stop the bomb from spreading further, more powerful tools are needed. They include tougher diplomacy, trade sanctions, aid cut-offs, and denials of technology through export controls. It is important to make the Agency’s inspections as strong as possible, and it is certainly possible to improve them, but it would be a mistake to think that by tinkering with them we are going to seriously affect proliferation.