"Help us help you."
The man on the other side of the table smiled, but it was not happiness that I read in his expression. His eyes softened, and the corners of his mouth drooped. Was it sadness? Fatigue? I wasn't sure.
It was February 9, 2003. It had been more than a dozen years since the UN Security Council had first issued sanctions on Iraq. In a little more than a month there would be yet another U.S.-led invasion. Saddam Hussein had recently readmitted UN weapons inspectors to Iraq, and Hans Blix and I, the leaders of the international teams, were making our third visit to Baghdad. This was our last evening. The Iraqi foreign minister, Naji Sabri, had invited us to dinner, along with our principal experts and an assortment of Iraqi counterparts.
The restaurant was the finest the city could still offer. Baghdad's infrastructure was worn at the seams, showing the effects of the sanctions. But the dinner service was elegant, the waitstaff gracious, the dark red linen tablecloths spotless. There was plenty of grilled fish, fresh from the Tigris River. The skewers of lamb kebab were spiced to perfection. And the table bore another treat: wine. That was a surprise. Alcohol was forbidden in public in Iraq, under an edict passed in 1994. But for this evening, for their out-of-town guests, the Iraqis had made an exception.
The man across the table was General Amir Hamudi Hasan al-Sa'adi, chief scientific adviser to Saddam Hussein. The title of "general" was essentially honorific. An urbane, charismatic negotiator with a PhD in physical chemistry, al-Sa'adi was equally eloquent in English and Arabic and preferred tailored suits to military uniforms. Although not a member of the Ba'ath Party, he served as the scientific front man for the Iraqi government.
Blix and I had steered the dinner conversation toward a critical theme: the need for more cooperation, more documentation. You insist you have no weapons of mass destruction, we said. You tell us you have not revived any of your prior WMD programs. But we cannot simply close the file where your records are incomplete. We need more evidence. The more transparency you show, the more documentation and physical proof you can produce, the better it will be for Iraq on the world stage. What else can you provide to resolve the gaps in your information? Help us help you.
Sitting beside al-Sa'adi was Husam Amin, the head of Iraq's UN interface group. He leaned forward to answer. "Let us be frank," he said. "First, we cannot give you anything more because there is nothing more to give." His glance shifted to Blix, then back to me. "But, second, you cannot help us, because this war is going to happen, and nothing you or we can do will stop it. We both know that. Whatever we do, it is a done deal."
He sat back. Al-Sa'adi nodded but said nothing. The sadness remained in his smile.
Despite Amin's view, I refused to believe that war was inevitable. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN agency responsible for the nuclear weapon inspections, which I headed, had been making solid progress. This included following up on every intelligence lead we were given—and finding nothing. In my report to the UN Security Council on January 27, I had stated, "We have to date found no evidence that Iraq has revived its nuclear weapons programme." This statement had garnered strong criticism from Western officials and media pundits who had convinced themselves otherwise—but these critics were pointing to circumstantial what-ifs and characterizing them as proof. What I had said was the truth.
The IAEA was not yet in a position to issue Iraq a clean bill of health. But I had urged the council to allow the inspections to run their course. A few more months, I had proposed, would constitute "a valuable investment in peace." If the justification for a preemptive invasion of Iraq rested on Saddam Hussein's reconstituted WMD programs, then where was the evidence? Where was the imminent threat? If Amin was telling the truth, and Iraq had "nothing more to give," then the implications were significant: there was no threat.
A war without justification was certain to drive a divisive wedge into the already fractured relationship between the nuclear "haves" and "have-nots." Both the United States and the United Kingdom had nuclear weapons and showed no signs of giving them up; yet they were threatening Iraq for allegedly seeking to acquire such weapons. For many in the developing world, and particularly in Arab and Muslim societies, this was both ironic and grossly unfair. Saddam Hussein enjoyed relative popularity among the Arab public for his stance against Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and his defiant attitude toward the West. He was not a favorite among the mostly pro-Western Arab rulers, particularly after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait; but still it rankled to watch Iraq being treated with such disregard for its sovereignty. If a war were actually to occur, and particularly one hinging on trumped-up WMD charges, the sense of outrage across the Arab and Muslim world would escalate sharply.
Still, as the weeks wore on, with all my faith in the inspection process, I had a growing sense of unease. The rhetoric emanating from the United States and the United Kingdom was increasingly strident. Just four days before the dinner in Baghdad, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell had made his case to the Security Council: he had played audio tapes of intercepted telephone conversations and had shown satellite photos of Iraqi facilities. These records, he declared, demonstrated "disturbing patterns of behavior" on the part of Saddam Hussein and his regime, "a policy of evasion and deception." To the inspection community, his presentation was primarily an accumulation of conjecture, an alignment of unverified data interpreted according to a worst-case scenario. Nowhere was there a smoking gun. But to many listeners, and particularly to nonspecialists, Powell's argument was compelling.
During the six weeks that followed, no amount of inspection progress or diplomatic intervention would prove sufficient to avert the impending crisis. The IAEA revealed that key intelligence documents, purportedly linking Saddam Hussein to attempts to purchase uranium from Niger, had been forged. But the discovery made little impact. An emergency summit of Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh, instead of developing a solution or even a unified position, ended in disarray. A last-ditch proposal by the British to avoid military action fell flat.
Early on the morning of March 17, I received the call from the U.S. mission in Vienna advising us to move our inspectors out of Baghdad. The invasion was about to begin.
"If a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally . . . if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all." These were the words of U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, in the "Atoms for Peace" speech that, four years later, gave birth to the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was an extraordinary message, delivered in the midst of an expanding nuclear arms race, to an international community that had not forgotten the devastation of the Second World War.
Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace concept—the notion that both the benefits and insecurities of nuclear science must be addressed cooperatively by the international community—is the core principle of nuclear diplomacy. It would become a near-universal commitment to foster technological cooperation in peaceful uses of atomic energy and to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons—a dual commitment enshrined in the IAEA Statute and the landmark 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
As a young Egyptian lawyer and professor of international law in New York in the early 1980s, I felt a resonance with the Atoms for Peace ideal. I joined the IAEA in 1984 and became its legal adviser three years later. By the time of the 2003 Iraq War, I had been the IAEA Director General for more than five years and part of the Agency for almost two decades. I had immersed myself in the Agency's nuclear diplomacy mission. For a war to be fought over unsubstantiated WMD charges—and for the IAEA's nuclear diplomacy role to be pushed to the side, serving as merely a fig leaf of due process—was for me a grotesque distortion of everything we stood for. It went against nearly half a century of painstaking labor by committed scientists, lawyers, inspectors, and public servants from every continent. I was aghast at what I was witnessing. The thought that would not leave my head was the certainty that nothing Blix or I had seen could possibly justify going to war.
General Amir al-Sa'adi, my melancholy dinner partner, turned himself in to coalition forces on April 12, 2003, after he learned that he was number thirty-two on the list of the most-wanted Iraqis and the seven of diamonds in the infamous deck of playing cards. He asked the German television station ZDF to film his surrender. Speaking into the camera, he announced, "We have no weapons of mass destruction, and time will bear me out." It was clear to me then that our provisional conclusion regarding nuclear weapons was correct, because by that time al-Sa'adi had no reason to lie.
In the years since, multiple sources have confirmed that the premise for the March 2003 invasion—the charge by the United States and the United Kingdom that Saddam Hussein's WMD programs represented an imminent threat—was groundless. The U.S.-appointed Iraq Survey Group would later spend billions of dollars to verify that the international inspectors were correct: Iraq had not revived its WMD programs. Nor, apparently, was the alleged WMD threat the real motivation for the U.S. and U.K. aggression. The famously leaked "Downing Street" memo from July 2002 was one of several sources indicating that the decision to go to war had been taken well before the inspections ever began.
To this day, I cannot read such accounts without reflecting on the thousands of soldiers who have died, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, the millions maimed or displaced, the families disrupted, the lives ruined—and I am astonished that there has not been more self-examination, more introspection on the part of the principal players. The shame of this needless war obliges us all to consider what went wrong in the case of Iraq and to reflect on how the lessons of this tragedy might be applied to future crises.
The tensions over nuclear developments that are now agitating the world, particularly in relation to Iran, suggest that we could yet repeat the Iraq catastrophe, with even worse ramifications for global security. When I consider the challenges still confronting us, I often come back to the scene of our February 2003 dinner in Baghdad, because it so epitomizes the core aspects of the dilemma we face as a global community in search of an enduring and collective security: the increasing distrust between different cultures; the corrosive effects of a long-standing system of nuclear haves and have-nots; the folly of nuclear brinksmanship; and the certainty of doom if we are unable to learn from our past mistakes. That dinner scene is also important for what it is missing: the principal players—in this case the United States and the United Kingdom—whose decisions would actually determine the result. Their absence would become a recurrent motif in the years to come, particularly in Iran: the United States overshadowing negotiations from a distance, shaping the outcome while refusing direct participation. Nuclear diplomacy is a hands-on discipline requiring direct engagement, restraint, and long-term commitment. It cannot be performed by remote control. If dialogue is to be used as a tool to resolve nuclear proliferation tensions, it cannot be limited to a conversation between the inspectors and the accused country. The United States and its allies must be genuinely engaged in the discussions, speaking with their perceived adversaries, demonstrating by more than lip service their commitment to a peaceful resolution of the underlying insecurities. All parties must come to the negotiating table.
The dinner in Baghdad—which some of my colleagues have wryly dubbed "The Last Supper"—was only one of multiple crises unfolding in early 2003. North Korea had just expelled the IAEA inspectors monitoring the "freeze" on its nuclear facilities, and declared its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. We were just beginning to probe the extent of the Iranian nuclear program and, with several IAEA colleagues, I was about to make my first visit to a nuclear enrichment facility under construction in Natanz. Libya soon would begin making overtures to the United States and the United Kingdom about dismantling its WMD programs. And the first vague outlines of an illicit and shadowy nuclear supply network were just starting to appear; eventually, we would find traces of its activity in more than thirty countries.
We now know more, a great deal more, about each of these cases of real or potential nuclear weapons proliferation. The circumstances in Iran and North Korea, in particular, remain fluid and unpredictable. What we still do not have is a practical, responsive approach for dealing with these or future cases. What we need is a commitment to nuclear diplomacy.
The First Nuclear Age was a race for the A-bomb, a competition among relatively few countries who either possessed the necessary technological sophistication or were able to obtain clandestinely the science needed to make a nuclear weapon. The climax of that race, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, marked the United States as the winner. But the other contestants did not give up. Within a few years, four other countries had managed to acquire the bomb.
What we remember as the cold war was the Second Nuclear Age. While several countries possessed nuclear weapons, and others continued to work on the technology, this was really the era of two giants: the United States and the Soviet Union, each amassing tens of thousands of warheads, in a philosophy known as MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, masquerading as "nuclear deterrence."
The Third Nuclear Age, the current era, dawned after the Soviet Union fell apart. In the vacuum of power that followed, the political community failed to capitalize on the opportunities for nuclear disarmament. As a result, more and more countries began to consider if not a clandestine weapons program, then at least a full nuclear fuel cycle that would render them capable of rapidly producing a nuclear weapon if their security situation so warranted.
The primary danger at this moment is not the MAD scenario, massive, silo-emptying exchanges of nuclear arsenals wiping out the major metropolises that house capitalism and communism, but the threat of asymmetrical atomic warfare: the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons by extremist groups or a "rogue" country headed by an aggressive dictator, or the use of a nuclear weapon by a major power against a non-nuclear-weapon state.
This situation is inherently unstable, and the developments of recent years have only exacerbated this instability. We have witnessed aggression where there was no imminent threat (in Iraq); inaction and vacillation while a real threat emerged (in North Korea); and a protracted stalemate fueled by insult and public posturing instead of meaningful dialogue (in the case of Iran). Along the way, we have uncovered an illicit and thriving nuclear network ready to supply clandestine nuclear programs. Meanwhile, the continued reliance on nuclear weapons by a few countries is a constant incentive for others to acquire them.
This growing instability means that we are at the twilight of the Third Nuclear Age. One way or another we are on the cusp of significant change. If we do nothing, attempting to maintain the status quo of nuclear haves and have-nots, the change will likely take the form of a veritable cascade of proliferation, or worse still, a series of nuclear exchanges. The signs are already apparent, most revealingly in the reactions of neighboring countries as real or perceived nuclear weapons threats emerge. The recent surge in the number of countries across the Middle East talking about or beginning to acquire nuclear technology and expertise is but one example. The suggestions by senior Japanese officials to open discussions about a Japanese nuclear weapons program in response to North Korea's first nuclear weapons test is yet another.
There is also an alternative. We could change course and embrace a different approach: a resolution of the asymmetry through genuine progress toward global nuclear disarmament. A new weapons reduction treaty between the global nuclear giants, to be followed by a forum in which the nuclear-weapon states begin to take responsibility for their need to disarm—these are the pathways that could lead us toward a more secure future. If we can heed the lessons of the recent past and confront the real threat that is just ahead, we might yet avert mutual annihilation and ensure that the dawn of the Fourth Nuclear Age will be marked by the resolution of nuclear tensions, the laying down of nuclear arms, and an enduring peace.
Excerpted from The Age Of Deception by Mohamed ElBaradei
Copyright 2011 by Mohamed ElBaradei
Published in 2011 by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.