Jonathan Dean
Adviser on International Security Issues

Union of Concerned Scientists
1707 H Street, NW, 6th Floor
Washington, DC 20006

Telephone: 202-223-6133
FAX: 202-223-6162

United Nations Working Group
on Global Action to Prevent War





April 9, 2003


The Non-Proliferation Regime After Iraq


Today I want to make a few comments on the situation of the non-proliferation regime after the end of the conflict in Iraq. By the term, non-proliferation regime, I have in mind the ensemble of treaties, implementing rules and organizations concerned with controlling nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

What has happened in Iraq, what is now going on in North Korea and Iran, and what has happened in recent years in India and Pakistan on nuclear weapons, as well as the problems of the Biological Weapons Convention, lead me to the conclusion that the global non-proliferation regime may be on the verge of total collapse.

In my view, the United States was right to insist on compulsory resumption of inspections in Iraq. The non-proliferation regime cannot be allowed to bleed to death. It is also true that the pressure generated by deployment of U.S. and UK armed forces to the Near East was a central factor in gaining some Iraqi compliance with Security Council resolutions on renewed inspections.

But it should have stopped there. The final military remedy undertaken by the United States and the UK in Iraq is not only of questionable legality, it is likely to be too costly in human lives, money, and political damage to be repeated elsewhere as a remedy for proliferation emergencies. Although with the example of the military defeat of Iraq the U.S. may appear to cast a long deterrent shadow on other proliferators, a second look confirms that, for a long time to come, the U.S. may not be in a position to intervene on its own against proliferation elsewhere even if it wants to.

As a result, as conflict winds down in Iraq, it is quite possible that international action against proliferation will also have reached a dead end. The United States itself may be stalled as concerns further military action against proliferation. The multilateral non-proliferation regime has already been seriously damaged by the dispute over Iraq, including U.S. attacks on the UN and the inspection process and the withdrawal of U.S. confidence in the capability of the Security Council to fulfill its key function of enforcing compliance with disarmament agreements.

One reason why I believe the U.S. will not be able easily to launch another Iraq campaign is the credibility gap which is built into the U.S. strategy of preventive attack that underlay the action against Iraq. This gap resulted in a U.S.-UK failure to get more than two additional votes in the Security Council and forced the U.S. and UK to engage in a largely unilateral military effort in Iraq. I think this problem will reemerge in future cases.

What I mean by the term "credibility gap" is that the U.S. case against Iraq was based on a chain of conjectures, surmises and hypotheses that failed to hold together and to convince because of the weakness of many of its links.

Let me illustrate a few of these conjectures. The administration claim is that U.S. security is directly threatened by WMD in the hands of the rogue regimes or their terrorist allies. As concerns the so-called rogue regimes, none of the three countries composing the "axis of evil" – Iraq, Iran, North Korea -- has or had delivery systems that could strike the continental United States directly, although North Korea is working on a long-range ballistic missile. Again, the administration claimed that the axis states were "undeterrable." But historical evidence indicates that all three axis of evil governments have on one occasion or another been deterred from directly attacking their regional enemies – Iraq and Iran from attacking Israel, and North Korea from attacking South Korea. Up to now, even under extreme pressure to act in self-defense, Iraqi officials have fortunately been deterred by the threat of retaliation from using WMD against attacking coalition forces.

Another administration claim is that Iraq, Iran or North Korea might transfer these weapons to terrorist groups who would bring them into the U.S. But it is very doubtful that axis governments would transfer these highly valued weapons to terrorist groups operating beyond their control. North Korea has carried out several terrorist attacks against South Korea, but has used its own trusted intelligence personnel to do so. Shia Iran has financed regional terrorist groups, but is very unlikely to trust Sunni extremists like al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein was the prototype of secular Arab political leaders whom Osama bin Laden believes should be executed for leading the Arab people astray. Moreover, up to now, al Qaeda is the only terrorist group with genuinely global reach. Other terrorist groups are regional in scope, although some like Hezbollah have carried out serious operations against U.S. servicemen. The state of al Qaeda lies outside my scope, but it is pertinent to this description of elements of the prevention doctrine that raise doubts and skepticism to note that the organization has been weakened by the U.S. attack on the Taliban, dispersal of its leadership, police action around the world, and concerted action to control its finances.

These assessments, widely shared throughout the world, have created a credibility gap as to whether the seriousness of the threat from Iraq or the other so-called rogue states justifies preventive military attack.

The second problem of preventive attack is that many of these possibilities lie in the future and may not take place at all. Estimates that a government hostile to the U.S. may develop weapons of mass destruction, that this state may in the future decide to use these weapons against the U.S., that it may decide to give them to terrorists for use against the United States, are all hypothetical future assessments that may not take place: The hostile government may not succeed in developing or obtaining WMD; its top leader may become sick or die or be displaced through a coup by people with other ideas. The government itself may have other priorities and other enemies than the U.S.; it may for a range of other reasons decide not to attack the U.S. even if it has possession of WMD. It may decide not to transfer these weapons to terrorist groups because it distrusts them. We just don’t know, these are all imponderables. Should we kill people now because their leaders may kill us in five years? What is so inevitable about our estimates of the future? Why can’t we fill this space of time with measures designed to deflect the feared outcome. What senior American official has had serious discussion with Saddam Hussein?

This brings us to a further built-in credibility problem of prevention policy, which intensifies these uncertainties. Of necessity, the prevention policy is based on information that is usually held in extreme secrecy by the suspect government. The resulting intelligence estimates are often fragmentary, inaccurate, and misleading, as, for example, was the U.S.-UK claim that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium ore from Niger.

The cumulative result of all these uncertainties is a credibility gap that is extremely difficult to close and a very shaky basis for using armed force against another state and killing its citizens. In early 2003, even with best efforts on their part to convince others, U.S. and UK claims about the dangers from Iraq were not fully credible to other Security Council members except for Spain and Bulgaria. You may remember the Munich incident between Secretary Rumsfeld and Joschka Fischer, when Fischer could not contain his disbelief and undiplomatically burst out, "I don’t believe you" and said he refused to try to sell these theories to the German public. This difficulty will apply to possible future U.S. efforts to apply preventive strategy and, I believe, will make it hard to get these efforts off the ground.

My own conclusion from all of this is that blocking proliferation and the possible use of weapons of mass destruction is so essential to world peace that it does justify the use of armed force as a last resort in extreme situations. Second, however, genuinely preventive action at an early stage is far preferable to the anticipatory use of force we have seen in Iraq. Third, a decision to undertake preventive attack designed in order to preclude negative WMD developments that may or may not take place in future is unavoidably based on so many uncertainties – the credibility gap -- that the decision to use armed force should not rest on the judgment of a single government, no matter how powerful, but must rest on the judgment of several governments whose combined assessments can reduce the chance of error.

The obvious organ for reaching this judgment is the UN Security Council. If the Council cannot achieve agreed judgment in a given case because of dispute over the actual situation in the suspect state, which is what took place with Iraq, then the circumstances of the case must be further examined until clarity is finally reached.

This is the process that the U.S. and the UK broke off through their military action against Iraq. It should have been continued, if necessary through introduction of a large United Nations peacekeeping force to complete the inspection process throughout Iraq to the full satisfaction of all members of the Security Council.

It may not happen soon, but I believe that the U.S. attack on Iraq will ultimately bring a large post-victory hangover to the United States as the lesson that the non-proliferation regime is in deep trouble seeps in. It appears to me that, to the extent that the administration is interested in acting against proliferation – and I believe its interest is genuine – it is either going to have to accept inaction or to go back to using the Security Council.

So, in my view, once governments have somewhat recovered from their post-Iraq shock, have taken stock of this situation, and have seen how dangerous it is for everyone, they will have to conclude that they must tackle the problem of proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons seriously.


As you know, the UN Security Council is the instance of last resort for all arms control and disarmament treaties, including the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the treaties on biological and chemical weapons. It is the only mechanism for this purpose. It must be made to work effectively. This can be done only if the United States does its job and convinces China, Russia, France and also the UK of the dangers of the situation and that they have to cooperate in making the Security Council work.

This process has to start with post-Iraq realization by the United States that it can’t do the anti-proliferation job alone, that, in its own interest, it must move to repair the international relationships damaged in the struggle over Iraq, and must seek to win the other permanent members of the Security Council to cooperation. The process must also start with the clear realization by the other permanent members of the Security Council and elected Council members that proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons is a potentially catastrophic peril facing us all and that they must learn to work together to deal with it.

If they reach this point, what should they do? The positive result should be unwavering emphasis by a unified Security Council on early cooperative steps, far preferable to enforcing compliance through military forces. These preventive steps should include universal application of the IAEA’s additional safeguards protocol to all NPT states (so far, only 29 have signed and ratified). They should include agreement on a verification system and scientists’ code of conduct for the Biological Weapons Convention, plus a program of criminalizing possession and use through domestic legislation and an international treaty.

These steps should include the bitter pill of U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. They should include rapid agreement on a treaty to end the production of fissile material for weapons and, in order to secure China’s acceptance of this necessary agreement, on a five-year moratorium on weaponization of space while the spacefaring states cooperate to see whether they can develop effective verification for a more durable agreement.

The steps should include verified limits on the nuclear arsenals of the six states with nuclear weapons that do not now have any limits and decisive movement toward the elimination of their arsenals by all of the states with nuclear weapons. This is the NPT obligation of all the permanent members of the Security Council and a political necessity if they are to gain the cooperation of countries without nuclear weapons for essential moves to tighten the non-proliferation regime.

The steps should include Chinese, Russian, American, Japanese, and South Korean cooperation, starting with U.S.-North Korean bilateral dialogue, in making North Korea a disarmed but also an economically viable state – none of these other governments today wants the collapse of North Korea. And the steps should include dealing with Iran’s security needs in a way which will make nuclear weapons appear unnecessary for the Iranian leadership, through a regional security agreement and limits on the nuclear capabilities of all states in the area, including Israel.

None of this may happen until there is a nuclear weapon catastrophe creating the political will to act. The administration may try to drag the American public into further unilateral action. But sooner or later, the unavoidable choice will be between nuclear anarchy and making the UN system work.

I would like to end with a final comment, which I know will have the support of Saul Mendlovitz and others of you here.

The U.S.-Iraq war is a catastrophe in many ways. But, in spite of all discouragements and setbacks, I am optimistic about the future. I believe the nationalistic revival, which underlies the U.S. attack on Iraq, is profoundly out of step with the times and that it will have to adjust and change. I continue to believe that human society is progressing in the direction of constructing peace, drawing on the four* great revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries – ending slavery, universal suffrage, gender equality, and constraining war by agreed international rules. The last of these revolutions started in 1899 with the Hague Peace Conference and is continuing today in many ways, including the Global Action to Prevent War project on which many of us are working.


* Saul Mendlovitz tells me that there were really five revolutions and that I left out ending colonialism. He is right.


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