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Early Western Assessments
What Did We Know and When Did We Know It?

Although Iraq ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1969, there were indications that it had been striving to possess nuclear weapons for a long time. As of 1989 there was a presumption by the US intelligence community and others that the Iraqi Government was interested in acquiring a nuclear explosives capability, based on evidence that Iraq was acquiring nuclear-related equipment and materials without regard for immediate need. There were indications of at least some use of fronts for nuclear-related procurement. As of early 1990, however, it was believed that Iraq was in possession neither of weapons-grade fission material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium) nor of installations for its production (uranium-enrichment installations, plutonium producing reactors, reprocessing equipment).

During the Iran-Iraq war, the US imposed a de facto embargo on the export of nuclear-related commodities to nuclear end-users in those countries. With the exception of China and Argentina, other nuclear suppliers had similar policies. The cease-fire prompted the US to urge a number of nuclear suppliersthat they not resume their pre-war practice of permitting export of nuclear commodities to Iraq and Iran.

Since 1987, increased Iraqi efforts were observed to acquire modern technology for the construction of its own armaments industry from the industrialized nations through a network of organizations in Iraq and cover companies and subsidiaries abroad. Apart from projectile and chemical-weapons technology, one of the main obstacles in the way of Iraqi efforts was nuclear technology.

Prior to the Gulf War there was little evidence of an Iraqi military nuclear program or information concerning the transfer of nuclear weapon-related technology or equipment to Iraq. However, Iraqi activities in the area of uranium enrichment were viewed as mounting evidence that such a program, or preparations for, one exists.

It was certain that Iraq intended to build a secret uranium enrichment plant that uses the gas-centrifuge process. Since there is no recognizable civil need for a uranium-enrichment plant -- Iraq does not have any nuclear energy plants either in operation or under construction -- it was concluded that Iraq is attempting to produce weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium. However, Iraq was viewed as still in the early stages of developing gas centrifuges.

Since no later than the middle of 1988 Iraq had been trying to acquire the components and technology for uranium enrichment by means of the gas-centrifuge process in Great Britain, the Federal Republic of Germany, Holland, and France. These efforts had been only partially successful. From the information gathered in connection with these procurement efforts in the countries names it became apparent that technical data and construction documents classified as confidential pertaining to German centrifuges types had already made their way to Iraq. To what extent and in what ways this occurred was not known with any certainty.

In 1988-89 Iraq moreover endeavored within the Federal Republic of Germany to obtain experts on the development and construction of gas centrifuges for a cooperative effort in Iraq. The extent to which these efforts were successful could not be definitely ascertained as of early 1990.

There were indications that the Iraqi armaments firm AL Qaqa State Establishment, which had experience with modern high explosives and high-velocity measurement techniques, was involved in the development of the non-nuclear components of a nuclear weapon. The armaments firm Nassr State Enterprise for Mechanical Industries in Taji near Baghdad was viewed as probably involved in the development and production of gas centrifuges.

At the time of the Gulf War, most Western analysts -- with the notable exception of the French -- believed that the chemical enrichment facility at Tuwaitha "Building 90" was not yet operable. Subsequent inspections by the IAEA, under auspices of the UN Security Council Resolution 687, found lab-scale experiments in chemical enrichment, but no evidence of success or any plans for a production plant. Since the French technology is both proprietary and subject to export controls, the Iraqis reportedly resorted to clever negotiation tactics to garner considerable amounts of design information on the process, ostensibly with the goal of licensing the technology at some point in the future. Their techniques reportedly included pressing for more and more technical details during a contract negotiation and then breaking off discussions just before closing a deal.

In light of the state of affairs in Iraqi nuclear technology, the implementation of a possible nuclear-weapons development program was believed to be unlikely to succeed prior to 1995 without significant support from abroad. As of early 1990 there was no evidence of direct support of Iraq in its development of nuclear weapons.

The Iraqi nuclear program was massive, for most practical purposes it was fiscally unconstrained, was closer to fielding a nuclear weapon, and was less vulnerable to destruction by precision bombing than coalition air commanders and planners or US intelligence specialists realized before DESERT STORM. The target list on 16 January 1991 contained two nuclear targets; but after the war, inspectors operating under the United Nations Special Commission eventually uncovered more than twenty sites involved in the Iraqi nuclear program; sixteen of the sites were described as “main facilities.” Overall, the United States did not fully understand the target arrays comprising Iraqi nuclear, biological, chemical, and ballistic missile capabilities before DESERT STORM.

Sources and Resources

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