Keeping Nuclear and Chemical Weapons Inspections in Perspective

The joint United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission successfully met its November 1 deadline for dismantling Syria’s declared chemical weapon production facilities.

October 2015 | by David Delaney

The work is far from over, however. As the process enters the next round — the removal or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks — effective inspections will be needed to assure the international community that Syria has met its commitments. Inspections will likewise play a critical role in assuring the international community that Iran meets its commitments in the interim deal struck on November 24 and in any long-term settlement regarding its nuclear program.

Given the importance of inspections for international confidence that commitments are being met, we should be careful how we perceive their effectiveness. In some cases, the inspected state may not cooperate in a meaningful way. But that may not always mean an inspections failure. In other cases, when a state appears to cooperate and treats inspectors well, the inspection process can be misleading in assessing whether the inspections are effective. A state’s apparent cooperation during inspections does not always translate into successful inspections.

This article addresses three situations that have occurred with prior inspections experience. In North Korea, the DPRK regime’s perceived opposition to inspections was an accurate indicator of serious noncompliance. In Iraq, the poor treatment of inspectors and the Saddam regime’s combative attitude led observers to question the effectiveness of inspections, but later evidence revealed that nuclear materials had in fact been eliminated. Finally, in Libya and South Africa, the international community saw signs of good cooperation, but inspectors still missed some weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials or facilities.

As inspections continue in Syria, and proceed in Iran, the international community should take care not to rely too heavily on perceptions of cooperation in judging the effectiveness of the inspections.

Observed difficulties with inspections and actual violations can go together. North Korea exhibited uncooperative behavior during inspections of its nuclear-related facilities, which led to low degrees of confidence on the part of the international community. After signing a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1992, North Korea provided the IAEA with an initial declaration of its nuclear materials, including a small amount of plutonium that North Korea claimed was reprocessed from damaged fuel rods. This declaration was followed by a series of inspections in 1992 and 1993.

From these inspections, the IAEA gathered that North Korea possessed more reprocessed plutonium than it declared. Additionally, it became apparent that North Korea hid certain facilities, including a nuclear waste facility and high-explosive test sites, from weapons inspectors. Responding to these actions, the IAEA board proposed that North Korea’s violations be referred to the U.N. Security Council, and later called for cuts in IAEA assistance to North Korea’s medical and agricultural nuclear technology programs. North Korea subsequently limited inspections and threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Iraq presents a case where the international community perceived inspections to be highly troubled and the government as uncooperative. These hurdles, however, ultimately did not mean that inspections failed to identify and dismantle Iraq’s capabilities. In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, the IAEA and the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) entered Iraq to verify the dismantlement of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs.

Iraq did not cooperate at many stages during seven years of inspections. Iraq failed to fully declare numbers or locations of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons material, and was often flagrantly uncooperative with inspections. Inspections ended in 1998 with the beginning of Operation Desert Fox, a U.S. military operation aimed at destroying the remaining WMD stocks, a clear signal that Washington had serious doubts about the effectiveness of the weapons inspections process.

Others also questioned the effectiveness of the inspections. As noted by former IAEA director Hans Blix during Congressional testimony in 1992, “In Iraq… we have had the most extensive rights to move around anywhere…and even after a year of this effort, we cannot say a hundred percent sure that there is nothing hidden yet.”


Executive Editor

Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan