A week before the US Congressional elections The New York Times published a front-page story which all but admitted that Iraq's nuclear program had been active until March 2003, when the US-led coalition deposed Saddam Hussein. The Times report relayed concerns of officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding captured Iraqi documents which the administration had posted on the Internet.
The documents in question contained Iraqi nuclear bomb designs that could be useful to rogue states like Iran which are currently working to build a nuclear arsenal. The Times article also reported that, in the past, the same Web site had published Iraqi documents relating to nerve agents tabun and sarin. They were removed after their content elicited similar concerns from UN arms control officials.
In response to the Times story an international security Web site run by Ray Robinson published a translation of a story that ran on the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassah's Web site on September 25.
Citing European intelligence sources, the Al-Seyyassah report claims that in late 2004 Syria began developing a nuclear program near its border with Turkey. According to the report, Syria's program, which is being run by President Bashar Assad's brother Maher and defended by a Revolutionary Guards brigade, "has reached the stage of medium activity."
The Kuwaiti report maintains that the Syrian nuclear program relies "on equipment and materials that the sons of the deposed Iraqi leader, Uday and Qusai… transfer[red] to Syria by using dozens of civilian trucks and trains, before and after the US-British invasion in March 2003." The report also asserts that the Syrian nuclear program is supported by the Iranians who are running the program, together with Iraqi nuclear scientists and Muslim nuclear specialists from Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union.
The program "was originally built on the remains of the Iraqi program after it was wholly transferred to Syria."
This report echoes warnings expressed by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in the months leading up to the US-led invasion of Iraq that suspicious convoys of trucks were traveling from Iraq to Syria. Sharon's warnings were later supported by statements from former IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, who said last year that Iraq had moved its unconventional arsenals to Syria in the lead-up to the invasion.
ACCORDING TO the US Senate's Prewar Intelligence Review Phase II, which studied the prewar intelligence on Iraq's nuclear weapons program, in 2002, the US had learned from the Iraqi foreign minister that while Iraq had not yet acquired a nuclear arsenal, "Iraq was aggressively and covertly developing" nuclear weapons. The Senate report concluded that Saddam was told by his own weapons specialists that Iraq would achieve nuclear weapons capabilities "within 18-24 months of acquiring fissile material."
In the weeks and months after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, President George W. Bush repeatedly stated that America's primary security challenge was to prevent the world's most dangerous regimes from acquiring nonconventional, and particularly nuclear weapons. When Bush's statements are assessed against the backdrop of the apparently advanced Iraqi nuclear bomb designs that were placed on the Web in recent weeks, it becomes clear that the US-led invasion successfully prevented Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons.
In his State of the Union Address in 2002, Bush placed Iraq in the same category of threat to US national security as Iran and North Korea. The three rogues states, Bush argued constituted an "axis of evil" that must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The post-Saddam insurgency in Iraq – an insurgency largely facilitated and sponsored by Iran – has caused the US and its coalition partners no end of grief. Some 3,000 coalition servicemen have been killed since the invasion; the overwhelming majority of casualties have been American. Frustration with the continued bloodletting in Iraq was undoubtedly the most significant factor that caused the Republican Party to lose control of both houses of Congress in last Tuesday's elections.
And yet, for all the difficulties, pain and frustration the post-Saddam insurgency has caused the US, the toppling of Saddam's regime successfully prevented Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Iraq is a war zone today. But it does not have, and likely will not acquire nuclear weapons – nor chemical or biological weapons, for that matter. To that degree, Bush was neither wrong nor premature when he made it known in the months following the invasion that the US had accomplished its mission in Iraq.
IN THE summer of 2003, assessing future trends on the basis of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Libya's dictator Mu'ammar Gaddafi decided to forgo his nuclear weapons program. Libya's decision to give up its nuclear weapons program was a direct consequence of Gaddafi's analysis of US intentions after the invasion. Quite simply, he believed that the best way to ensure the survival of his regime was to relinquish his aspirations to become a nuclear power.
But as the months and years have progressed it has become clear that far from being a warning to other would-be nuclear armed dictatorships, the US-led invasion of Iraq was a one-shot deal. As Saddam was captured in his hole, Teheran and Pyongyang marched forward, unchallenged in their campaign to become nuclear powers.
The ascent of the most dangerous regimes in the world to the status of nuclear powers reached a new climax last month. First was North Korea's nuclear bomb test on Columbus Day. Two weeks later Iran announced it was doubling its uranium enrichment by utilizing a second network of centrifuges.
For their part, most of the nations of the world have looked on with indifference to these developments. South Korean Foreign Minister and incoming UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appears far more concerned with the Japanese debate over whether North Korea's nuclear test should or should not cause Japan to develop its own nuclear arsenal than with the fact that Pyongyang now has nuclear bombs.
Ban's apparent moral and strategic dementia is of a piece with the international community's apathy. Europe has responded to Iran's sprint toward nuclear arms by offering its usual mix of toothless sanctions, emotional appeals and diplomatic pageantry, all aimed at marking time until Iran announces its entre into the nuclear club.
Russia and China have responded to both Pyongyang and Teheran's nuclear machinations by increasing their collaboration with both regimes.
AS FOR the US, Iran, North Korea and al-Qaida have all been quick to interpret the Democratic victory in last Tuesday's Congressional elections as a sign that the US has chosen to turn its back on the threat they pose to America. By firing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and replacing him with Robert Gates, who supports appeasing the mullahs in Teheran and finding a fig-leaf excuse to vacate Iraq, Bush has done everything to prove America's enemies right. Moreover, Bush administration officials' statements ahead of the president's trip to Asia this week indicate that Bush will seek to contend with North Korea by ratcheting up US engagement with Pyongyang in the six-party talks.
Reasonably, the world is now assessing the US through the prism of its non-action against Iran and North Korea rather than through the prism of Iraq. And the consequence of the view that Iraq was a deviation from a norm of US passivity is nothing less than the complete breakdown of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty.
Last week the London's Sunday T
imes reported that Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UAE have all announced their intention to build civilian nuclear reactors. Last Tuesday, in an official visit to China, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reportedly signed an agreement with Chinese leader Hu Jintao for China to build nuclear reactors in Egypt.
It is not hard to see the lesson of these developments. As the Iraq campaign shows clearly, while the price of taking action to prevent rogue regimes from acquiring nuclear weapons is high, the price of not acting is far higher.
Relating this wisdom to Iran earlier this year, Senator John McCain said, "There is only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option [to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons], and that is a nuclear-armed Iran."
The US and its allies are paying a high price for having successfully prevented Saddam from getting nuclear bombs. The price that Israel or the US, or both, will pay to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear bombs is liable to be even higher. Yet the alternative to paying that price will be suffering, destruction and death on an unimaginable scale.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.