Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005

Compliance with Nuclear Arms Control and Nonproliferation Norms Is Eroding, New Study Finds



All nuclear weapons possessor states failed to make progress to reduce their nuclear arsenals; Key states’ records in nine of 10 nonproliferation & disarmament categories have deteriorated.

For Immediate Release: July 10, 2019

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, DC)—A new, 80-page study published by the Arms Control Association evaluates the recent records of all the world’s nuclear-armed states, as well as several states of proliferation concern and finds that respect for key nuclear nonproliferation norms and internationally-recognized obligations and commitments is eroding.

The report, "Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 2016-2019," is the fourth in a series that assesses the extent to which 11 key states are fulfilling, promoting, or undermining 10 standards identified as critical elements of the nonproliferation and disarmament regime.

Collectively, states fared worse on the majority of criteria when compared with the prior edition of the Arms Control Association’s Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament Report Card covering the 2013–2016 period.

The study comprehensively evaluates the records of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea—each of which possesses nuclear weapons—as well as Iran and Syria, which are states of proliferation concern, from 2016 through March 2019.

“Each of the states that possess nuclear weapons is taking steps to invest in new delivery systems and several are expanding the role of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines," noted Alicia Sanders-Zakre, a co-author of the report. "These trends increase the risk of nuclear weapons use,” she warned.

“Our review of actions—and inactions—by these 11 states suggest a worrisome trend away from long-standing, effective arms control and nonproliferation efforts," warned Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association and co-author of the report. "By documenting the policies of these states over the last decade, we hope this report will demonstrate that support for critical nonproliferation and disarmament norms is eroding.”  

Several of the key findings include:

  • The United States and Russia: The overall grades for both the United States (C+) and Russia (C+) dropped, due partly to Russia’s violation of a key bilateral arms control treaty and the U.S. decision to withdraw from that treaty in response. Both states also expanded the circumstances under which they would use nuclear weapons and are investing in new, destabilizing delivery systems.
  • France and the United Kingdom: These two states received the highest overall grades (B) of the 11 states assessed, but neither country has taken steps during the period covered in this report to make additional nuclear force reductions.
  • China, India, and Pakistan: All three of these states are increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals and are investing in new nuclear-capable delivery systems. New missiles being developed and fielded by all three suggest that these countries are now storing warheads mated with certain missiles or moving toward that step, which increases the risk of use. China’s overall grade was a C+; India and Pakistan both scored C.
  • North Korea: North Korea scored the worst of the states assessed in this report with an overall grade of F. Pyongyang continues to expand the country’s nuclear arsenal and is the only state to have tested a nuclear weapon during the timeframe covered. However, North Korea continues to abide by a voluntary nuclear and missile testing moratorium declared in April 2018 and appears willing to negotiate with the United States over its nuclear weapons program.
  • Iran: Through the period covered by this report and until June 2019, Tehran continued to adhere to the restrictions on its nuclear activities put in place by the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal over the course of this report, despite the United States’ withdrawal from the agreement last year and its decision to reimpose sanctions in violation of U.S. commitments. Iran, however, has transferred ballistic missile components in violation of international norms and Security Council restrictions, causing its overall grade to drop to C-.
  • Israel: Israeli actions over the past several years in support of ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty earned it a higher grade on the nuclear testing criteria, but its inaction on the Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone and backsliding on negative security assurances caused its overall grade to drop to a C-.

The report reviews implementation and compliance with existing internationally-recognized obligations and commitments.

“The standards and benchmarks in our report do not necessarily represent our ideal strategy for addressing the nuclear weapons threat,” noted Davenport. “New and more ambitious multilateral nonproliferation and disarmament strategies will be needed to meet to future nuclear challenges,” she remarked.

Last week, the U.S. State Department convened a meeting involving more than three-dozen countries, including the five original nuclear weapon states, to discuss steps to improve the environment for nuclear disarmament.

“We hope this report card can serve as a tool to help hold states accountable to their existing commitments and encourage effective action needed to strengthen efforts to prevent the spread and use of the world’s most dangerous weapons,” noted Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. 

“We encourage all states who are serious about strengthening the global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament enterprise to commit themselves to meet and exceed the existing goals and objectives to reduce and eliminate the nuclear danger,” he urged.

The full report can be accessed at www.armscontrol.org/reports


A new report details the extent to which 11 key states are fulfilling, promoting, or undermining 10 standards identified as critical elements of the nonproliferation and disarmament regime. 

UN Security Council Resolution 1540 At a Glance

August 2017

Contact: Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, (202) 463-8270 x102

On April 28, 2004 the UN Security Council unanimously voted to adopt Resolution 1540, a measure aimed at preventing non-state actors from acquiring nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, their means of delivery, and related materials. The resolution filled a gap in international law by addressing the risk that terrorists might obtain, proliferate, or use weapons of mass destruction.

Adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, UNSCR 1540 formally establishes the proliferation and possession of WMD by non-state actors as “a threat to international peace and security.” The resolution mirrors the approach taken under UNSCR 1373 in 2001, which required all countries to adopt national counter-terrorism laws, and imposes legally binding obligations on all states to adopt "appropriate effective" measures to prevent the proliferation of WMD to non-state actors.

The resolution includes three primary obligations:

  1. All States are prohibited from providing any form of support to non-state actors seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, related materials, or their means of delivery.
  2. All States must adopt and enforce laws criminalizing the possession and acquisition of such items by non-state actors, as well as efforts to assist or finance their acquisition.
  3. All States must adopt and enforce domestic controls over nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, their means of delivery, and related materials, in order to prevent their proliferation.

UNSCR 1540 also emphasizes the importance of maintaining and promoting existing non-proliferation multilateral agreements, and acknowledges that the resolution does not interfere with state obligations under such treaties.

It further recognizes that some countries may require assistance to meet the national implementation obligations of the resolution. As such, the resolution calls on states to make assistance available to countries in need if they are in a position to do so.

The council established a committee to oversee the implementation of the resolution, initially for a period of two years. Comprised of the council’s 15 members and assisted by a panel of experts, the 1540 Committee is tasked with providing awareness of the resolution and its requirements, matching assistance requests with offers, and assessing the status of implementation. States were required to report to the Committee on the actions they have taken or plan to take in order to implement the resolution within 6 months of UNSCR 1540’s adoption, and the council has encouraged subsequent reports to provide additional information.

Despite its aim of preventing nuclear, chemical, and biological terrorism, resolution 1540 initially met with some resistance within the UN Security Council, with critics stressing that the resolution focused solely on nonproliferation without adequate emphasis on disarmament.  There was additional concern that the UN might use UNSCR 1540 to justify sanctions and other forms of coercion for countries that did not adequately comply with the resolution.

These worries were generally alleviated, as evidenced by the UN Security Council unanimous vote to extend UNSCR 1540’s mandate, first for two years in 2006 under resolution 1673, then for another three years in 2008 under resolution 1810. In April 2011, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1977, extending the mandate a third time, for a period of ten years. UNSCR 1977 reaffirmed the Security Council’s commitment to resolution 1540, and further emphasized cooperation with international, regional, and sub-regional organizations. It also addressed existing concerns among Council members regarding equal regional representation within the 1540 Committee. In December 2016, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2325 encouraging states to strengthen their implementation of Resolution 1540. 

 In addition to annual reviews, the 1540 committee conducts comprehensive reviews every five years on the implementation of Resolution 1540. So far, two comprehensive reviews have been completed, one in 2009 and another in 2016. The 2016 comprehensive final review found that while the number of implementation measures states have taken since 2011 has increased, for many states, gaps in the securing of relevant materials remain. The report also noted that the risk of proliferation to non-state actors is increasing due to rapid advances in science, technology and international commerce. 

Research assistance by Kathleen E. Masterson


Strategic Arms Control and Policy

Country Resources:

Iraqi Forces Take Chemical Weapons Site

March 2017

Iraqi pharmaceutics student Abdesatar al-Hamdany, 21, carries his books in front of the destroyed buildings of Mosul University on January 22, a week after Iraqi government forces retook the campus from the Islamic State fighters. (Photo credit: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi forces retook the University of Mosul, where the Islamic State group reportedly produced chemical weapons. The terrorist organization produced sulfur mustard agent at the university, which also served as the group’s Mosul headquarters, a Pentagon official said Feb 7. The intended use of so-called mustard gas by the group was “primarily as [a skin] irritant and something to scare people,” not as a lethal weapon, according to U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Since 2014, the group has used chemical weapons, including chlorine and sulfur mustard agents, at least 52 times in Iraq and Syria, the IHS Conflict Monitor said in November 2016. Many of those attacks were in and around Mosul. In August 2016, a joint investigative panel of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found that the Islamic State group used sulfur mustard in an August 2015 attack in the northern Syrian town of Marea. The Syrian regime used chlorine gas in multiple attacks in 2014 and 2015. (See ACT, November 2016.)

Iraqi forces retook the University of Mosul, where the Islamic State group reportedly produced chemical weapons. 

Iridium in Iraq: Wake Up Call on Radioactive Source Security

Luckily, radioactive material that went missing near Basra, Iraq in November was found intact on Sunday ten miles from the city at a gas station in Zubair, allaying fears that it was intended for an explosive device designed to disperse radioactive material, a so-called dirty bomb. It is important not to over-hype the threat posed by a dirty bomb: weaponizing radioactive materials is difficult and dangerous. But given the prevalence of radioactive sources, the international community can and must do more to ensure that these materials are securely stored, because detonation of a dirty bomb...

Syria, the Iraq-Iran War, and the CW Taboo

By Greg Thielmann BAGHDAD, IRAQ - (VIDEO STILL) U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein shake hands December 20, 1983 in Baghdad. Rumsfeld met with Hussein during the war between Iran and Iraq as an envoy for former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Rumsfeld made no reference to Iraq's use of chemical weapons, according to detailed official notes on the meeting. (Photo by Getty Images) As the international community seeks to craft an appropriate response to the Syrian government's August 21 use of chemical weapons (CW), ghosts from the Iran-Iraq War haunt the...

Lessons for Handling Iran From the Sad Saga of Iraq


By Greg Thielmann and Alexandra Schmitt
March 2013

Download PDF

Ten years ago today, President George W. Bush said in a radio address to the nation: "It is clear that Saddam Hussein is still violating the demands of the United Nations by refusing to disarm." Eleven days later, he announced the invasion of Iraq to remove the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) allegedly possessed by Hussein's brutal regime and to prevent their use by or transfer to terrorist networks such as al Qaeda. That no such weapons existed was less a symptom of flawed intelligence than the U.S. leaders' obsession with achieving regime change in Baghdad and their consequent willingness to distort evidence on WMD toward that end.

This distortion, along with failures by the press and Congress to exercise due diligence in evaluating the assertions of the executive branch, blinded the public to contravening information on Iraqi WMD that was readily available during the six weeks preceding the attack.

Ironically, the most important sources of this ignored information were the very inspectors that the international community had forced Iraq to readmit the previous fall. There are lessons here for current efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.


Ten years ago today, President George W. Bush said in a radio address to the nation: "It is clear that Saddam Hussein is still violating the demands of the United Nations by refusing to disarm." Eleven days later, he announced the invasion of Iraq to remove the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) allegedly possessed by Hussein's brutal regime and to prevent their use by or transfer to terrorist networks such as al Qaeda. That no such weapons existed was less a symptom of flawed intelligence than the U.S. leaders' obsession with achieving regime change in Baghdad and their consequent willingness to distort evidence on WMD toward that end.

Country Resources:

The Cost of Ignoring UN Inspectors: An Unnecessary War with Iraq

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei (L) and UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Hans Blix (R) brief the UN Security Council on Iraq inspections March 7, 2003 By Greg Thielmann On March 7, ten years ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNMOVIC) reported to the UN Security Council on the latest results of their inspections in Iraq, monitoring enforcement of the Council's demand that Saddam Hussein eliminate his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related programs. The IAEA's Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, and UNMOVIC's Executive Chairman,...

Looking Back: Iraq: Disarmament Without Resolution

Paul Kerr

Ten years ago, the world was confronted by a country whose suspected nuclear weapons program was causing acute concern. The international community expended considerable time and effort on inducing Iraq to comply with UN-mandated measures designed to provide assurance that Baghdad was not developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

During the summer of 2002, Iraq and the United Nations discussed possible terms for resuming inspections and monitoring of Iraqi weapons programs. On September 16, Iraq agreed to re-admit UN inspectors into the country and subsequently began discussions with the UN on practical inspection details. The United States and United Kingdom, however, pushed the UN Security Council to adopt a new resolution governing Iraq’s disarmament, arguing that the existing resolutions did not provide the inspectors with adequate authority. On November 8, the council adopted Resolution 1441, which required the Iraqi government to complete a series of disarmament requirements contained in previous council resolutions, the first of which was adopted in 1991 following the Persian Gulf War.

These events took place against a backdrop of indications from U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, that Washington might use military force against Iraq to end what they portrayed as the threat posed by Baghdad’s nonconventional weapons.

Despite Baghdad’s subsequent cooperation with UN weapons inspectors, who found no evidence of ongoing prohibited weapons programs, the United States led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 without council approval. The world subsequently learned that Baghdad had destroyed its nonconventional weapons and related programs following the 1991 war.

Thus, the UN disarmed Iraq, but did not prevent a war. A partial explanation for that result lies in three elements of the Security Council process: the erosion of international support for sanctions, the mismatch between the resolutions’ goals and mandates, and the circumvention of the council process by the United States and the United Kingdom. These factors warrant consideration by the international community as it continues to debate the proper course of action regarding nuclear programs of concern.


Following the 1991 war, the Security Council adopted a series of resolutions, beginning with Resolution 687, that required Iraq to declare its programs for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as missiles with ranges exceeding 150 kilometers, and to destroy the weapons and related materials under UN monitoring (see box, page 46). The resolutions also required Baghdad to accept an ongoing UN monitoring regime to prevent Iraqi reconstitution of its prohibited weapons programs.

The story of Iraq’s interference with the inspectors during the 1990s has been told in detail elsewhere.[1] In brief, Iraq interfered with the inspections by, for example, lying to UN inspectors about its WMD programs and destroying weapons and related materials without proper UN supervision. Baghdad decided to cooperate with inspectors in 1995, but never fulfilled all the requirements of the Security Council resolutions.

Iraq continued to exhibit inconsistent cooperation with the inspectors, whom the UN withdrew in December 1998 shortly before the United States and the United Kingdom conducted air strikes on suspected Iraqi weapons facilities. For several years afterward, the council struggled unsuccessfully to induce Baghdad to accept renewed weapons inspections. Iraq finally agreed to admit inspectors in response to Resolution 1441.

The November 2002 resolution gave Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations” under relevant council resolutions. The resolution required Baghdad to give the inspectors, whom the resolution provided with enhanced authority, a “currently accurate, full, and complete declaration of all aspects” of the country’s WMD programs and to grant the inspectors “immediate, unimpeded, unconditional, and unrestricted access to any and all” locations and personnel.[2]

By mid-March 2003, the inspectors had not yet completed their task, and Iraq had not fully complied with the requirements of Resolution 1441. Yet, Baghdad had admitted UN inspectors and allowed them to operate freely, albeit after some initial resistance; provided them with information on its past WMD programs; and begun destroying its al Samoud-2 missiles. Moreover, the inspection leaders told the Security Council shortly before the invasion that they needed only a short time to complete their tasks. Nevertheless, on March 19, 2003, the United States led an invasion of Iraq.

Sanctions Fatigue

A September 2004 report from the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the U.S.-led task force charged with coordinating the search for Iraqi nonconventional weapons, as well as a 2006 CIA report, makes clear that the combination of sanctions and inspections imposed by the Security Council beginning in 1990 and 1991, respectively, prevented Iraq from reconstituting its programs to develop such weapons.[3] “The compounding economic, military, and infrastructure damage caused by sanctions—not to mention their effect on internal opinion in Iraq—focused Saddam [Hussein] by the mid-90s on the need to lift sanctions before any thought of resuming WMD development could be entertained,” the ISG report said.

Until the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, however, Security Council and worldwide public support for the sanctions was eroding, partly because of concerns about the sanctions’ impact on Iraqi civilians. Moreover, some governments were circumventing council-imposed prohibitions on the sale of Iraqi oil, and Baghdad was importing weapons-related materials. Iraq was pursuing what the ISG report described as a strategy to “outlast the containment policy of the United States imposed through the UN sanctions.”[4]

Indeed, the Bush administration was sufficiently concerned that it, along with the United Kingdom, began a campaign in the spring of 2001 to persuade the Security Council to expand the range of goods that Iraq could import.[5] The erosion of sanctions contributed to some observers’ claims that the international community could not contain Hussein’s suspected weapons ambitions.

Ends-Means Mismatch

Iraq initially defied the disarmament requirements of Resolution 687. Shortly after the inspections began in 1991, Hussein chose to withhold information about the country’s WMD programs. Later that year, Iraq destroyed illicit weapons and related materials outside the inspectors’ presence in an effort to maintain the capacity to develop chemical and nuclear weapons in the future.[6] These unilateral destruction efforts were inconsistent with Resolution 687 and greatly complicated the council’s ability to determine that Iraq had actually destroyed the weapons.

In 1995, Iraq decided to “cease efforts” to retain nonconventional weapons and comply with the inspections, according to the 2006 CIA report.[7] After these 1995 efforts were met with “added UN scrutiny and mistrust,” however, Hussein’s regime believed that “inspections were politically motivated and would not lead to the end of sanctions,” said the CIA report, which added that Iraq viewed concerns about nonconventional weapons as a “pretense to bring about regime change.” Consequently, Baghdad turned to “illicit economic efforts to end its isolation, eliminate sanctions,” and protect civilian infrastructure that also could be used in illicit weapons production. These actions “increased suspicions that Iraq continued to hide” nonconventional weapons, according to the report.

These suspicions, coupled with Iraq’s failure to allow the inspectors to verify the destruction of its nonconventional weapons, Baghdad’s subsequent ejection of the inspectors, and its approximately four-year refusal to re-admit them, created an information vacuum that understandably was filled by suspicion. In some quarters, this suspicion evolved into firm convictions that Iraq still had active WMD programs in 2002.

The failure of the UN-formulated incentive structure—the end of sanctions in return for verified disarmament and follow-on monitoring—contributed to this outcome because Iraqi disarmament did not equate with Iraqi compliance and because the Security Council did not effectively adapt to Iraq’s partial compliance and the changed status of the country’s illicit weapons programs.[8]

Security Council Resolutions on Iraq

The following list summarizes the relevant UN Security Council resolutions adopted following the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Demanded that Iraq “unconditionally accept the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless” of its chemical and biological weapons, ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers, and related components, research programs, and facilities. Required Iraq to refrain from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons or weapons-grade nuclear material.

Established the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to verify that Iraq complied with these requirements and called for placing all weapons-grade nuclear material under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) control “for custody and removal” with UNSCOM assistance.

Required the UN secretary-general, with the cooperation of UNSCOM and the IAEA, to develop plans for the “future ongoing monitoring and verification of Iraq’s compliance” with the ban on nonconventional weapons and certain missiles.

Maintained the economic embargo against Iraq established by Resolution 661 in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Specified that the Security Council would lift the embargo when the council agreed that Iraq had met all its disarmament obligations.

Approved the plans for ongoing monitoring and verification developed by UNSCOM and the IAEA and submitted by the UN secretary-general to the Security Council, as required by Resolution 687.

Created a program allowing Iraq to sell up to $2 billion of oil every 180 days, a limit that the Security Council later removed. Authorized the United Nations to hold proceeds from these sales in an escrow account. Specified that the funds were reserved for buying supplies “essential” for civilian needs.

Authorized the creation of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) to replace UNSCOM and verify that Iraq had fulfilled its disarmament obligations under Resolution 687.

Allowed Iraq to import most civilian goods through a streamlined review process, although sanctions on military items remained in effect. Tasked UNMOVIC and the IAEA with reviewing proposed contracts with Iraq and sending any items on a new “goods review list,” which included items with potential military applications, to a UN committee for additional scrutiny. Items not on the list were to be approved promptly.


Circumventing the Security Council

The adoption of Resolution 1441 and Iraq’s subsequent decision to admit UN inspectors provided an opportunity to resolve reasonable concerns about Iraq’s suspected WMD programs. It now is known that Hussein ordered his military to comply with the inspections.[9] Indeed, as noted above, Iraq had mostly complied with the resolution’s provisions by the time of the U.S.-led invasion. Moreover, the inspection leaders reported to the Security Council in March 2003 that their teams had found no biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons in Iraq and that resolving the “remaining disarmament tasks” would take only “months.”[10] That month, some Security Council members, such as France, proposed measures for improving the inspections process in lieu of military action.

It has long been clear that the Bush administration planned to invade Iraq regardless of whether Baghdad complied with Resolution 1441’s disarmament requirements.[11] Indeed, Washington’s disdain for the Security Council process was evident before UN inspectors even entered Iraq.[12] For example, a White House spokesman claimed on November 18, 2002, that Iraq had violated the resolution by shooting at U.S. planes that were enforcing no-fly zones over Iraq.[13] Although the resolution prohibited Baghdad from taking “hostile acts” against any UN member state “taking action to uphold any [Security] Council resolution,” the zones had never been authorized by the council. Even the British government said the zones were not supported by the resolutions.[14]

Moreover, U.S. officials claimed, inaccurately, that U.S. intelligence contradicted the inspectors’ findings. For example, Secretary of State Colin Powell, citing unnamed intelligence sources, stated on March 5, 2003, before the invasion, that Iraq was evading UN inspections by moving banned chemical and biological materials. He dismissed Iraq’s destruction of its al Samoud missiles, asserting that Baghdad had ordered “the continued [covert] production” of such missiles. Notably, the United States withheld intelligence from the inspectors.[15]

Lastly, at least some Bush administration officials wished to overthrow Iraq’s government. The administration had a “menu of arguments” for invading Iraq, such as removing the regime in order to end the government’s human rights violations and to “score a geopolitical victory,” Richard Haass, the Department of State’s policy planning director at the time of the invasion, said during a television interview on September 5, 2003.[16] Iraqi compliance with Resolution 1441 presumably would not have satisfied these goals because Hussein would have remained in power.

Concluding Observations

The Security Council failed in its mission to eliminate Iraq’s illicit weapons programs peacefully. The resolutions did not convince Hussein’s government that it would be rewarded for compliance, and the sanctions were losing their ability to compel such compliance. In addition, the council did not adapt its compliance mechanism to the uncertainty created by Baghdad’s unilateral weapons destruction, which, although ill considered and illegal, did eliminate Iraq’s illicit weapons. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to believe that the Security Council could have devised a method for resolving this situation, had the United States and United Kingdom allowed the process to continue.

One lesson that can be drawn from the Iraq experience is that UN-mandated sanctions and inspections can effectively manage international concerns about illicit nonconventional weapons programs, but the durability and effectiveness of these tools depend on a variety of factors, including the support of council members, cooperation by the target country, and an incentive structure that properly aligns means and ends.

The Iraq experience also suggests that Security Council resolutions may have a better chance of succeeding if they can adapt to changed circumstances. Maintaining flexibility may be necessary in order to resolve satisfactorily whatever WMD issues may be of concern, especially if the target government has satisfied some or all of the resolution’s goals, even while failing to follow the mandated procedures.

As the international community continues to employ and refine sanctions and inspections to help address the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, it is worth noting that Iraq is the only other case in which the Security Council has placed sanctions on a country for reasons relating to proliferation of nonconventional weapons. One also could consider the major powers’ relationships with India and Pakistan following those governments’ 1998 nuclear tests. The Security Council responded to those tests by adopting Resolution 1172, which imposed no sanctions but required India and Pakistan to end their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Although both governments have continued those programs, the United States and other governments have not imposed sanctions for more than a relatively brief period and overall have maintained and increased ties with them. Governments, such as those of Iran and North Korea, have surely considered all three of these cases. Perhaps they have learned that noncompliance, rather than its opposite, may yield favorable results.



Paul Kerr has been a nonproliferation analyst at the Congressional Research Service since 2007. He previously was a research analyst for five years at the Arms Control Association.




1. See, for example, “Iraq: A Chronology of UN Inspections,” Arms Control Today, October 2002.

2. UN Security Council, S/RES/1441, November 8, 2002.

3. Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, “Misreading Intentions: Iraq’s Reaction to Inspections Created Picture of Deception,” Iraq WMD Retrospective Series, January 5, 2006, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20120905/CIA-Iraq.pdf; Charles Duelfer “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD,” September 30, 2004, https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/index.html.

4. For an explanation of these events, see ibid. See also Alex Wagner, “UN Security Council Overhauls Iraqi Sanctions Regime,” Arms Control Today, June 2002.

5. These changes were codified in Security Council Resolution 1382, adopted in November 2001.

6. Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI”; CIA, “Misreading Intentions.”

7. CIA, “Misreading Intentions.”

8. Security Council Resolution 1284, adopted in late 1999, may have further obscured the process. The resolution stated that, following Iraq’s compliance with “key remaining disarmament tasks,” the council would “suspend” sanctions for 120-day periods, renewable by the council. UN Security Council, S/RES/1284, December 17, 1999.

9. Iraqi military leaders “were instructed at a meeting in December 2002 to ‘cooperate completely’ with the inspectors, believing full cooperation was Iraq’s best hope for sanctions relief in the face of U.S. provocation.” Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI.”

10. Hans Blix, “Oral Introduction of the 12th Quarterly Report of UNMOVIC,” March 7, 2003, http://www.un.org/Depts/unmovic/SC7asdelivered.htm; Mohamed ElBaradei, “The Status of Nuclear Inspections in Iraq: An Update,” March 7, 2003, http://www.un.org/News/dh/iraq/elbaradei-7mar03.pdf

11. For example, the British Secret Intelligence Service chief noted in July 2002 after meeting with U.S. officials in Washington that the Bush administration intended to overthrow Hussein based on the justification that the regime had illicit weapons programs and had supported terrorism. See Memorandum to David Manning from Matthew Rycroft, Iraq: Prime Minister’s Meeting, 23 July, July 23, 2002, http://downingstreetmemo.com/memotext.html

12. The inspectors arrived in Iraq on November 25, 2002.

13. Along with France and the United Kingdom, the United States established the no-fly zones over the northern and southern thirds of Iraq after the 1991 war.

14. Memorandum to Prime Minister Tony Blair from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Iraq: Legal Background,” March 8, 2002. http://downingstreetmemo.com/iraqlegalbacktext.html

15. The CIA acknowledged this in a letter to Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Letter from Stanley M. Moskowitz to Senator Carl Levin, January 20, 2004, http://www.fas.org/irp/congress/2004_cr/cia012004.pdf

16. See http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/1820.

Ten years ago, the world was confronted by a country whose suspected nuclear weapons program was causing acute concern. The international community expended considerable time and effort on inducing Iraq to comply with UN-mandated measures designed to provide assurance that Baghdad was not developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Closing the Loop: Iraq and the Additional Protocol

Iraq's Ambassador to the IAEA, Surood Rashid Hajib, submits to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano a letter announcing Iraq's ratification and entry into force of the Additional Protocol in Vienna, Austria on October 23, 2012. By Greg Thielmann It was encouraging, and more than a little ironic, when the government of Iraq recently ratified the Additional Protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iraqi deception was the principal impetus for creating the Additional Protocol in 1997 . The absence of Additional Protocol powers for the...

Osirak and Its Lessons for Iran Policy

By Bennett Ramberg

As the international community seeks to stave off an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, policymakers would do well to draw lessons from the first attack to destroy a nuclear facility, Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981. At the time, the attack drew near-universal condemnation, but it soon came to be seen as a milestone in nonproliferation, demonstrating that force could be a practical option to halt a suspected nuclear weapons program without harmful repercussions for the attacker.

More recently, however, the pendulum has begun to swing back, as postmortems coupled with recent reporting of Iraqi archival material captured by the United States during the occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion tell a different story.[1] They reveal the Osirak reactor did not provide the foundation for a nuclear weapon but rather for an illusion that misled Iraq and Israel. The illusion prevailed because of the peculiar personalities of each country’s leader and because of misperceptions about Osirak’s bomb-making capacity.

Unwilling to gamble that deterrence could cope with a nuclear Iraq, Israel applied a multipronged strategy to halt the reactor’s construction—diplomacy, a media campaign, sabotage, and assassination. The failure of all these left two approaches—watchful waiting, preferred by some who did not see Osirak as an imminent threat, and military action, promoted by Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In the end, the force of Begin’s personality drove the cabinet’s decision to bomb Osirak. However, rather than putting a stake into the ambitions of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Israel’s strike stimulated Iraq to pursue a secret uranium-enrichment program dedicated to producing a nuclear weapon.

But for Hussein’s megalomania, Iraq might have had a nuclear weapon by the mid-1990s. Not satisfied with the eight-year war with Iran, which ended in 1988, Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and thus saved Israel from the challenge of destroying his weapons program. Iraq’s defeat at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition destroyed much of Hussein’s military establishment, but the bombing campaign, which was undertaken with incomplete knowledge of his hidden enrichment program, missed significant portions, leaving it to international inspectors to destroy the remainder and prevent rebuilding.[2]

The Osirak saga and legacy have much to teach present-day decision-makers about the need for solid intelligence and the limitations of diplomacy, public relations, sabotage, and assassination. If Israel and others resort to the use of force against Iran, they will find that unless Tehran agrees to the transparent elimination of its remaining suspect activities and eschews rebuilding, international inspectors must do the job. Failing that, concerned countries must prepare themselves to repeat their military action, perhaps multiple times, once they have chosen this course.

The Iraqi Nuclear Program

In 1976, Iraq signed a contract with France for the Osirak reactor, also known as Tammuz 1, a 70-megawatt “swimming pool” light-water reactor to be fueled with a 12-kilogram loading of uranium enriched to 93 percent uranium-235, and for the 500-kilowatt Tammuz 2 training reactor. A party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) when it entered into force in 1970, Baghdad bowed to Paris’ insistence that it accept Osirak in lieu of a heavy-water plant better suited to maximizing plutonium production. By placing the reactors under safeguards, Iraq agreed to regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), management of the reactor by French personnel through 1989, automatic cameras to record activity around the reactor core, and lead seals on fuel rods. France pledged to halt reactor operations by withholding new fuel if evidence pointed to reactor misuse.[3]

Yet in private meetings with aides in 1978-1981 and later, Hussein repeatedly declared the need to acquire nuclear weapons to confront Israel.[4] Osirak, however, was unlikely to produce the necessary feedstock. Thus, Hussein’s hopes of getting a nuclear weapon by the mid-1980s were either misinformed or delusional.

The reasons were simple. Diversion of spent fuel from the plant would have required a reactor shutdown appropriately timed to maximize plutonium-239 harvesting, then rearrangement of the core to mask fuel rod removal, reduction of reactor performance, and falsification of the operating records, all under the noses of French monitors and international inspectors.

An alternative, lifting the reactor’s reflector to insert uranium elements into the core or placing a uranium blanket around it to secretly breed weapons-grade plutonium in between IAEA inspections, was impractical. In a 1983 postattack analysis, the CIA concluded, “We strongly believe that building a blanket…would be difficult for Iraq to do without being detected by the IAEA or the French.”[5] Alternatively, Iraq could have pilfered its IAEA-monitored cache of highly enriched uranium fuel provided by France to make a nuclear weapon. As it turned out, Iraq tried that in the period prior to the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but failed.[6]

Hussein’s 1979 and 1980 arrests of two senior scientists, Hussain al Shahristani for his alleged connection with the outlawed Dawa party and then Jafar Dhia Jafar for complaining about the arrest, further complicated matters. Then Iraq’s war with Iran, prompting a September 1980 Iranian air strike on the nuclear complex where Osirak sat, drained Baghdad’s resources, threatening the Baathist regime’s survival.

Both acts exacerbated the problems of an already dysfunctional program. On the eve of the Israeli Osirak strike, Iraq’s nuclear program was in a state of “drift,” according to a Norwegian scholar who interviewed Jafar and other scientists after the 2003 U.S. occupation. The undertaking required larger facilities “not subject to external oversight and safeguards,” more consistent political direction, and basic organizational resources. “As a result, Iraq’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was both directionless and disorganized.” [7]

Run-Up to the Strike

When Israel contemplated striking Iraq in 1980-1981, much of the information above remained opaque, was not understood, or was dismissed. Rather than a program adrift, Israel saw an emerging existential threat. Feeding that view were Iraq’s decades-long calls and actions to eliminate Israel. Just three years before Baghdad and Paris finalized the Osirak deal, Hussein had marshaled hundreds of tanks on Israel’s Syrian doorstep in the Yom Kippur War. After the war, Iraq supported and harbored Palestinian guerrillas. Next to Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Begin saw Iraq as “the most irresponsible” adversary Israel confronted.[8]

Israel knew the tricks of nuclear dissimulation, having relied on the tactic in building the Dimona weapons reactor. Begin and his colleagues plotted a series of steps to halt Osirak. Their first move was a genuine attempt at diplomacy, but they were prepared to abandon that approach if it proved to be a dead end. That turned out to be the case, as France was not swayed by repeated Israeli arguments to terminate the Osirak export.

The next step was to embarrass France publicly. Israel leaked information to the media that characterized Osirak as a nuclear weapons Pandora’s box. In time, Israel ominously warned, failed diplomacy could bring “other actions.”

As diplomacy stalled, Israel turned to sabotage and assassination. On April 6, 1979, in the French Mediterranean town of La Seyne-sur-Mer, explosions rocked the warehouse that housed the reactor core awaiting shipment to Iraq. Threats followed by bombings directed at offices of Italian and French companies providing laboratory equipment for the nuclear program also failed to hold back exports. The assassination of three scientists working on Osirak likewise did not stop the project.

By the fall of 1980, Begin had had enough. To avoid the possibility of a radiological release, he decided to attack Osirak before operations commenced. Yet, he still had to convince senior Israeli colleagues.

On October 14, he convened his security cabinet. In the intense debate that followed, Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, military intelligence chief General Yehoshua Saguy, and others questioned Iraq’s ability to build a nuclear weapon and the feasibility of a successful strike while forecasting serious negative political consequences of an attack in and outside the Arab world. However, the decision ultimately was Begin’s. Author Rodger Claire captured the moment:

After the hours of debate and squabbling, Begin stood and looked down the table, his dark eyes flickering from the face of one cabinet member to the next. Some of these men he had known for four decades, had fought next to against the British in ’47. He put both hands on the edge of the table and leaned in toward the general and minister…and announced, “There will be no other Holocaust in this century! Never. Never again!” The ministers remained silent. No one dared oppose him—at least to his face.[9]

On June 7, 1981, eight F-16As carrying 16 bombs destroyed Osirak.

The raid on Osirak did not work out as Begin anticipated. Rather than stopping Iraq’s nuclear program, the raid stimulated it. For Hussein, what at first blush seemed to be a disaster turned out to be a liberation of sorts. Ridding the country of French government oversight, contractors, managers, and monitors while feigning NPT fidelity, he embarked on what became a decade-long secret quest to build a uranium bomb. He settled on electromagnetic isotope separation and centrifuge technologies and, by the time the Gulf War started, was within a few years of fulfilling his ambition.[10]

Echoes in Iran

The Osirak story, before and after the attack, has much to teach today’s leaders as they attempt to fashion policies against Iran. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge distinctions.

Iran has in place a program that is far more advanced and sophisticated than Iraq’s was, even at its 1991 peak. It is better hardened and has generated significant quantities of uranium enriched up to 20 percent. Unlike Hussein, however, who called for an Arab nuclear weapon, Iranian leaders repeatedly declare their opposition to nuclear weapons.

Yet, some of the similarities are uncanny. Like Hussein’s Iraq, Iran frequently calls for Israel’s elimination. Iran funds and arms surrogates. Iran has failed to provide the IAEA with full nuclear transparency. Many Israeli decision-makers believe that Iran, like Iraq, poses an existential nuclear threat, although, as before, there is no unanimity.[11]

Osirak suggests the following cautionary points and strategies that bear on Iran.

•   Do not allow emotion and fear to trump objective intelligence assessment. Iran’s bombast and its documented progress in generating enriched uranium naturally make Israel nervous. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose public remarks currently sound much like Begin’s, should be careful to ensure that his decisions are based on fact rather than emotion.

•   Intelligence must be vetted over and over again. Israel’s intelligence clearly failed to assess the Osirak risk adequately, and the same was true of U.S. and Israeli intelligence on Iraq’s enrichment program.

•   Assassination of nuclear scientists will not retard nuclear progress. Israel’s presumed use of assassination in Iraq had no material impact on the Iraqi program. It does not appear to have had a material impact on Iran.

•   Public diplomacy to halt Osirak had no consequence. Its effect on Iran remains murky.

•   Sabotage may slow nuclear development, but it must be critically significant as well as successful. Israel’s effort to destroy the Osirak reactor core as it awaited shipment failed. Had it succeeded, it would have delayed commencement of reactor operations by years. By contrast, cyberattacks on computer systems managing Iran’s centrifuges seem to have had only months-long impacts. Clearly, the longer the interruption of normal operations, the better the opportunity for other events to intervene that could reduce the proliferator’s intention or capability to build a nuclear weapon.

•   Air power can retard nuclear development. Israel’s successful bombing of Osirak did that in part because Osirak was a solitary, soft target, but it also stimulated Iraq to mount an even more intense effort to get nuclear weapons. Likewise, when the United States bombed elements of Iraq’s nuclear program, it again retarded the enterprise, but bad intelligence allowed portions of the infrastructure to survive. Only the insertion of inspectors with authority to dismantle and destroy the enterprise eliminated the risk. Israel’s 2007 bombing of Syria’s North Korean-engineered Al Kibar reactor offers a caveat: military action can halt nuclear ambitions if the target country does not have the scientific capacity to rebuild. Clearly, Iran has that capacity.

In sum, Iraq provides many lessons for dealing with Iran today, but some distinctions remain. The international community never subjected Baghdad to the sanctions or IAEA cajoling Iran has faced. That is understandable because the community believed Iraq was complying with its NPT obligations.

Although the Osirak episode tested other modes to constrain proliferation, its legacy lies in the use of force. The lesson is that air power alone will not stop a country determined to get nuclear weapons. Repeated attacks may retard progress, but without an epiphany that leads the attacked country to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, it takes personnel on the ground to finish the job.

Bennett Ramberg is a foreign policy writer and consultant based in Los Angeles. He served in the Department of State in the administration of George H.W. Bush.


1. Dan Reiter, “Preventive Attacks Against Nuclear Programs and the ‘Success’ at Osiraq,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (July 2005): 355-371; Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, “Revisiting Osirak,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Summer 2011): 201-132; Hal Brands and David Palkki, “Saddam, Israel and the Bomb,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Summer 2011): 133-166.

2. For conflicting official accounts of the damage, see Eliot Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey, Vol. 2, 1993, pp. 316-317; Charles Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD,” Vol. 2, “Nuclear,” September 30, 2004, p. 4, www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/index.html.

3. Shlomo Nakdimon, First Strike (New York: Summit Books, 1987), pp. 149, 295.

4. Brands and Palkki, “Saddam, Israel and the Bomb,” p. 134.

5. Directorate of Intelligence, CIA, “The Iraqi Nuclear Program: Progress Despite Setbacks,” June 1983, p. 13, www.gwu.edu/%7Ensarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/iraq19.pdf.

6. Duelfer, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD.” See Reiter, “Preventive Attacks Against Nuclear Programs and the ‘Success’ at Osiraq”; Richard Wilson, “Incomplete or Inaccurate Information Can Lead to Tragically Incorrect Decisions to Preempt: The Example of Osirak,” February 9, 2008, www.physics.harvard.edu/~wilson/publications/pp896.html.

7. Braut-Hegghammer, “Revisiting Osirak,” pp. 109-110.

8. Nakdimon, First Strike, p. 132. For the Mossad’s psychological assessment of Hussein, see “Begin on the Eve of the Osirak Raid,” Jerusalem Post, June 1, 2006, www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=23541.

9. Rodger W. Claire, Raid on the Sun (New York: Broadway Books, 2004), p. 100.

10. Dhafir Selbi, Zuhair Al-Chalabi, and Imad Khadduri, Unrevealed Milestones in the Iraqi National Nuclear Program 1981-1991 (self-published, 2011), p. 116.

11. For a review of Israel’s existential concerns, see Jim Zanotti et al., “Israel: Possible Military Strike Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities,” CRS Report for Congress, R42443 (March 27, 2012), pp. 9-11.

As the international community seeks to stave off an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program, policymakers would do well to draw lessons from the first attack to destroy a nuclear facility, Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981. At the time, the attack drew near-universal condemnation, but it soon came to be seen as a milestone in nonproliferation, demonstrating that force could be a practical option to halt a suspected nuclear weapons program without harmful repercussions for the attacker.


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