Interview with Rolf Ekéus: Dismantling Saddam's Arsenal
by Patrick Clawson and Daniel Pipes
Rolf Ekéus has headed the United Nations Special Commission since it was established by the Security Council in April 1991 and tasked with dismantling the Iraqi arsenal of long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Born in 1935, Ambassador Ekéus joined the Swedish foreign service in 1962 and served during a distinguished career in such cities as Bonn, Nairobi, and the Hague. During the period 1983-89, he represented Sweden in various capacities at the United Nations, most of them having to do with security and disarmament issues; and in 1989-93, he served as leader of the delegation of Sweden to the conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Patrick Clawson and Daniel Pipes interviewed Ambassador Ekéus in his office at the United Nations Secretariat on January 4, 1996.
THE IRAQI ARSENAL
Middle East Quarterly: What was the state of Iraq's arsenal in August 1990?
Rolf Ekéus: I'd like to rephrase the question slightly, to what was the state of the arsenal in January 1991, because Iraq conducted a variety of crash programs after August 1990 and made some remarkable progress in its arms programs.
In January 1991, Iraq was just months away from having one nuclear weapon. Because Iraq only would have had that one device, it had to have a completely reliable means of delivery. It could not rely on dropping the bomb from an airplane, not being certain that a plane would get through. Iraq, in other words, had to count on a missile for delivery. This situation confronted the Iraqi authorities with the twin problems of developing a powerful enough missile to carry a substantial payload the desired range with accuracy, and reducing the size and weight of the nuclear warhead to be carried by that missile. They were working on these problems and had made considerable progress by the time the fighting began.
The Iraqi forces had a considerable biological-weapon inventory in January 1991. They had twenty-five long-range missile warheads in their arsenal and hundreds of bombs designed to be dropped from airplanes. [PC: do you mean that they had 25 bombs on missiles that were operational?]
And, of course, Iraq had large quantities of chemical weapons, which they had used during the war with Iran.
MEQ: Why did Iraq not use these weapons during the Kuwait War?
Ekéus: The answer given to us is that the weapons were not used because [U.S. secretary of state] James Baker told [Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister] Tariq 'Aziz, during their meeting in Geneva a week before the war started, that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons against Iraq if Iraq used weapons of mass destruction. I do not know if that was the only reason; there may also have been operational reasons.
MEQ: In August 1995, Tariq 'Aziz assured you that all prohibited weapons have been destroyed. Is that correct?
Ekéus: He has used different words at different times. I cannot be sure that he is wrong on this point, but it's clear that prohibited components, as opposed to complete weapons, still exist. Further, Iraq does not have a weapons capability (except perhaps in some areas where we remain uncertain), but it retains a weapons option. That is, the issue is not so much what Baghdad now possesses but what it could produce quickly were the decision made to do so.
In the nuclear area, Iraq appears to have the potential for assembling a weapon were it to acquire the fissile material needed. Work continues on ways to reduce the size and weight of a nuclear warhead so that it could be used on a missile. We are conscious that calculations and computer simulations may continue to be performed.
As for biological weapons, the anthrax stocks have not been accounted for. The Iraqis claim that they destroyed these stocks, but we do not yet have solid evidence of that. Some of the biological agents dating to before March 1991 are no longer militarily useful, for the active agents would be dead by now. But this is not the only issue; Iraq could reconstitute its biological-weapons program quickly, thanks to the prior research and a capacity to grow large amounts of the active elements. Iraq retains facilities that could be used for large-scale rapid production of biological-weapons materials. We are currently discussing with the Iraqis how much capacity it is appropriate for them to retain.
On the chemical-weapon front, much of the weapons stock has been destroyed, but we do not have conclusive evidence from the Iraqis about some chemical agents, which they say they destroyed secretly in 1991 after UNSCOM started its operations. A troubling issue is the possible existence in Iraq of the precursors [PC: what are precursors? the components that go into making chemical weapons?]which would allow the resumption of the production of chemical weapons. We are concerned about reports of precursors which Jordan intercepted in December 1995 en route to Iraq.
MEQ: In a dramatic gesture last month, you displayed to the Security Council a muddied gyroscope that Iraqis divers under UNSCOM control had retrieved from the Tigris Canal near Baghdad. Please tell us about it. What does it imply about Iraq's still having an active missile-building program?
Ekéus: Iraq is permitted to have missiles with a range of under 150 kilometers (90 miles). For missiles with a range of over 150 kilometers, gyroscopes are a bottleneck for the Iraqi military industries, something they cannot produce on their own.
In 1995, Iraq imported gyroscopes in two shipments. The Jordanians recently intercepted one shipment before it reached Iraq; the Iraqi government says that it had nothing to do with placing that order, which was done by a private businessman. UNSCOM also found out that a shipment of gyroscopes (from the same source) had reached the country before August 1995. The Iraqi government says that it had nothing to do with that shipment either and that when it found out about it, it ordered that the gyroscopes be returned or disposed of. The businessman refused to take them out, so the authorities had them dumped into the Tigris. We located some of these gyroscopes and I displayed one to the Security Council last month.
MEQ: As you mentioned, the Jordanian government intercepted two shipments of prohibited material in late 1995. Do you think there were earlier shipments through Jordan?
Ekéus: We know that there were earlier shipments because we found those gyroscopes in the Tigris and know they were imported via Jordan in 1995.
MEQ: Has the Jordanian attitude toward prohibited shipments changed since King Husayn broke with Saddam Husayn after the defection of Husayn Kamil?
Ekéus: The cooperation we get from the Jordanian government is good.
MEQ: Why is Saddam going to such lengths to retain his potential to produce weapons of mass destruction?
Ekéus: Iraq wants to be able to project power in the region. Iraq wants to be acknowledged and respected as the most powerful state in the area. It would like to be able to affect decisions about oil production and pricing by the other Persian Gulf states. It wants to influence the Arab-Israeli dialogue. Iraq sees itself as the eastern gate of the Arab world, defending the Arab states against the Persians. It is argued that that was why chemical weapons were used in the course of the Iraq-Iran War in 1980-88 and had a real impact on the outcome of that conflict.
The weapons of mass destruction are partly for defense, but not just for deterrence -- also for actual war-fighting. They have another use as well: to enable Iraq to project power in the region.
MEQ: Do the Iraqis have a strategy for using such weapons?
Ekéus: We found a document dating from 1990 that the Iraqis like to call to our attention. It explains the procedures for authorizing the use of biological weapons: if Baghdad had been destroyed by weapons of mass destruction, then the decision to use biological weapons was delegated to the local commanders. In other words, the document envisages biological weapons' being used in retaliation, and not as a first strike.
But that document refers only to circumstances in which local commanders can use weapons. We know there was also an option for a "thunder strike," a surprise attack which seems to mean a first use of the weapons. I assume that a "thunder strike" would have had to be authorized by the top political officials.
IRAQ UNDER SANCTIONS
MEQ: What is the mood in Baghdad?
Ekéus: The people we deal with seem mainly preoccupied with the economic situation, which is very difficult indeed. They are struggling to keep going. The mood is not particularly bright.
The Iraqis have done a miraculous job of recovering from the war damage. I am not in complete agreement with the assessment made by a U.N. mission right after the war,1 which held that Iraq had been bombed back to a pre-industrial stage. At least Iraq has repaired most of its infrastructure. For example, roads and bridges are well taken care of. I wish that New York City's roads were as smooth as those in Baghdad.
MEQ: What was the significance of Husayn Kamil's defection?
Ekéus: I have been studying Husayn Kamil for years. He strikes me as a doer more than a policymaker. He does not seem to have been central to deciding what policies to adopt; his job was to make sure that the decisions taken were carried out. And he was remarkably effective at making things work.
As a builder, Husayn Kamil wanted to get the economy back on track. He wanted to get on with plans for an industrial city and for other sizeable projects. That means he appeared to have wanted cooperation with the U.N. so that sanctions could be lifted. Even before he fled Iraq in August 1995, I thought him opposed to the threats against Kuwait and the troop movements that took place in October 1994.
RELATIONS WITH THE IRAQIS
MEQ: Iraqi officials have at various times threatened to stop cooperating with your agency, the Iraqi press has threatened your agency's personnel, several explosions in Northern Iraq took place that have been linked to Baghdad's attacks on other U.N. personnel or on nongovernmental organizations. Why doesn't UNSCOM have guards of its own?
Ekéus: We did have problems until mid-1993 -- a lot of harassment, with episodes like the standoff in a parking lot that lasted for days. The international community's firm stand, and the unity in the Security Council, were instrumental in getting the Iraqi government to change its behavior.
These problems came to a virtual end when Tariq 'Aziz took over full responsibility for dealing with UNSCOM in mid-1993. He appears to understand that Iraq needs to fulfill the Security Council demands. We meet almost every month -- that is, we have monthly meetings scheduled, though we don't actually manage to get together every month.
MEQ: Would you say the Iraqis are cooperating with you now?
Ekéus: Yes, since mid-1993, on the operational level, but still not on the substantive level. Operational cooperation means that we are able to function without many problems.
Improved operational cooperation does not translate, however, into cooperation on substance. Officials regularly make misleading statements to us. We are told one thing by a manager at a factory, then we find documents showing that this was not the truth; when we return, the manager looks us in the eye and tells us what he said last month is no longer operative, now he is telling us the truth. In practice, there are no penalties for withholding information for us, even though the Iraqi government claims that it has ordered everyone to provide us with what we need on pain of being punished.
MEQ: No one gets punished for giving away too little information?
Ekéus: Exactly. At the same time, the Iraqis proudly point out that they have rewarded individuals who have come forward with information. But this has been quite limited. Baghdad has been trying to convince us that in 1991, it destroyed on its own a lot of prohibited material, and it has been encouraging Iraqi personnel to come forward with documents from that summer to show that in fact the material was destroyed. One man was rewarded for bringing out a personal diary recounting his involvement in such weapons destruction.
MEQ: Do you perceive differences in attitude between the military and civilian officials with whom you deal?
Ekéus: Not much. My dealings are almost entirely with the civilians, such as the Ministry of Military Industries. The military I see are mostly the top command.
MEQ: Why have you never met with Saddam Husayn? Have you ever tried to?
Ekéus: I once asked for a meeting, in 1993 when we were having a lot of problems. The response was favorable in principle, but the Iraqis said he was not available on the dates we wanted. When the newspapers reported that he had instead been swimming in the Tigris, I decided better of my request.
THE BIG PICTURE
MEQ: UNSCOM now has been in business nearly five years, long enough to assess its record. Could you assess its main successes and failings?
Ekéus: The united will of the international community has been a major success. Frankly, I have been surprised at how long that has lasted. The Security Council has always supported UNSCOM fully, and with votes of 15-0. Several members are impatient to bring the matter to an end; so are we at UNSCOM, but all agree that we are not there yet.
MEQ: Does UNSCOM represent a model that can be used for control of other rogue states?
Ekéus: Here were some unusual circumstances. It was luck that the problems with Iraq -- its intentions and its possession of prohibited weapons -- became evident to the international community before it used its prohibited weapons. That is not likely to happen in many other cases. However, I think important lessons can be drawn from the UNSCOM experience.
MEQ: In retrospect, what is your opinion of the 1981 Israeli destruction of Iraq's nuclear facility, which prompted the General Assembly at the time to state that it "strongly condemns Israel for its premeditated and unprecedented act of aggression"?2
Ekéus: The destruction was a unilateral act by one state not approved by the international community, which makes it entirely different from what UNSCOM is doing. A strong international response is needed to any state that is developing banned weapons, but that response should be from the international community. UNSCOM's experience shows a way to go about resolving such a problem.
MEQ: Did the Israel raid make a difference?
Ekéus: It had no substantive impact on the Iraqi program.
MEQ: You then agree with Israel's Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who recently said, "I still believe it was a mistake for Israel to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor"?3
Ekéus: For the most part, yes. It prompted the Iraqis to respond by making their program more clandestine, making it harder for the international community to recognize the danger. Also, the Iraqis launched their most vigorous programs only after the Israeli raid. And look at how much they were able to accomplish even after August 1990, when the crash program made much progress; had it continued for several months more, Iraq could well have had a nuclear weapon.
1 Led by Undersecretary General Ahtasseri, now president of Finland.
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