An Iraqi Nuclear Weapon

December 16, 2010 Topic: Nuclear ProliferationWMD Region: IranIraq Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

An Iraqi Nuclear Weapon

The ironies, inconsistencies and hypocrisies of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy.

At the urging of the United States, the United Nations Security Council passed on Wednesday a resolution permitting Iraq to have a civilian nuclear program. The resolution, which also lifted prohibitions on exports to Iraq of certain materials that could be used to develop nuclear and other unconventional weapons, was one of several U.S.-backed measures to end restrictions that dated from before the invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power. The Council's action represented a retreat from its earlier position that it would not lift the nuclear restrictions unless Baghdad accepted an additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that provides for more intrusive international inspections. The Council's action in affirming Iraq's right to a peaceful nuclear program is ironic in view of the obsessive campaign to deny the country on its eastern border the same right.

This is one more demonstration of the hypocrisy and inconsistency that characterize much nonproliferation policy, especially as it relates to the Middle East. What ostensibly is a concern about a certain category of weapons is actually much more a concern about the coloration and even the rhetoric of certain regimes that might get those weapons. It isn't even chiefly a concern about nuclear-armed regimes throwing their weight around and handling neighbors roughly; if it were, then we ought to be paying far more attention than we do to the elephant in the room: Israel's sizable nuclear arsenal. The Security Council's action demonstrates how the inconsistency and hypocrisy apply not only to nuclear weapons but also to nuclear programs short of weapons.

A further irony is that one of the most commonly voiced worries about Iran possibly acquiring a nuclear weapon is that it might touch off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Arab countries trying to acquire their own nuclear weapons. In any inventory of candidates to wage an arms race with Iran, Iraq—which fought a highly destructive war with Iran in the 1980s—should be at or near the top of the list. Even if one continues to turn a blind eye toward the Israeli elephant, it is a fallacy to think of Iran as the originator of all proliferation evil, or potential evil, in the Middle East. The security dilemma does not operate only one way. Others may stimulate Iranian responses as easily as Iran may stimulate responses from others. (A reminder: it was Iraq, not Iran, that started the Iran-Iraq War.)  But in focusing on the ways in which Iran could be a threat we too infrequently consider the threats that Iranians see from elsewhere.

The main thing that would ease Iranian concerns about Iraq is something that should increase ours: the increased Iranian influence in post-Saddam Iraq. There are other reasons we ought not to get very relaxed about Iraq possibly developing a nuclear weapon in the future, however remote a possibility that may seem now. Iraq is a very unstable country, to the point of substantial and seemingly unending violence. Basic issues of the shape of the Iraqi political order and apportionment of power remain unresolved. Prime Minister Maliki increasingly shows authoritarian tendencies. Emergence of a strongman—if not Maliki then someone else—may actually be Iraq's best hope for establishing order and quelling violence. The internal political dynamics continue to place a premium on extreme measures to gain and maintain power. Most of the external rivalries and conflicts that existed at the time of the Baathist dictatorship persist. The line of conflict between Shia and Sunni is even sharper and hotter than before, thanks mostly to the intensification of sectarian conflict within Iraq itself. And then there is that Iranian influence.

Much of this worrisome Iraqi reality has been downplayed in discussion in the United States, because of a tendency to divide the region into the good and the bad, along with motivations to count post-Saddam Iraq among the good. The previous U.S. administration of course had a strong interest in portraying a positive result of its woebegone war. The current administration has an interest in showing that Iraq is not failing on its watch and that it will be safe for U.S. troops to complete their withdrawal by the end of 2011. Amplifying these tendencies is the further American tendency to personalize perceptions of foreign threats and to equate them with individual leaders, in this case the now-dead Saddam Hussein. But the sorts of political dynamics and strategic calculations that underlay Iraq's past efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, and Iraqi interest in developing one that continued through the end of Saddam's rule, were not all a function of one man's proclivities and ambitions.

These observations do not constitute a prediction that Iraq will indeed develop a nuclear weapon. Nor do they mean that what the Security Council did this week is necessarily a mistake. But they do at least provide some perspective about the obsession over Iran's nuclear program.

The observations also recall judgments of the U.S. intelligence community before the Iraq War about the principal challenges that would be faced in post-Saddam Iraq. The judgments were ignored at the time by the Bush administration and Congress, but most of them, especially regarding strife and instability in Iraq, turned out to be prescient. The same assessment that offered those judgments also had this to say about what would be Iraq's continued view of living in a dangerous neighborhood and how this view would affect Iraqi thinking about unconventional weapons:

These threat perceptions, along with a prideful sense of Iraq's place as a regional power, probably would sustain Iraq's interest in rebuilding its military. Unless guaranteed a security umbrella against its strategic rivals, Iraq's interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction would eventually revive.