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16 Words, 500 Tons and 28 Kilograms: the Iraqi Nuclear Program Revisited

Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007

With the advent of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and the unfolding of the Lewis Libby perjury trial, the famous "16 words" are back and, in the most literal possible sense, with a vengeance. It is not only on MSNBC or in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly -- which had a cover story on Presidential lying -- that "Bush lied!" is again the order of the day. In Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Iraq last month, one Senator after another seized the opportunity to assail the administration's credibility. "I have not been told the truth again and again," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) complained. Meanwhile, even Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has accused the President of "misleading this country and this Congress."
The Senator did not say about what. But one can presume she meant about Iraqi WMD, and in the popular narrative, the "16 words" are, of course, supposed to provide the conclusive "proof" that this is the case and hence that the ostensible reasons the administration gave for going to war against Iraq were not its "real" reasons. Incidentally, while many of our esteemed senators appear to endorse this conclusion, they do not venture to speculate on what the "real" reasons were. This they leave to the more inquiring minds of 9/11 "Truthers" and the anti-American (and often anti-Semitic) conspiracy theorists from Europe and the Middle East who provide their inspiration.

The starting point of what might be called the "16 words proof" is, of course, the assumption that the "16 words" -- George Bush's claim in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had recently sought to acquire uranium in Africa -- were false. By way of an obvious logical leap, this premise then becomes "Bush lied," i.e. that the President knew the words were false in uttering them. The real key to the use of the "16 words" to discredit the entirety of the administration's pre-war claims is, however, the further inference that if Iraq had not sought to acquire uranium in Africa, it must, then, have had no access to uranium at all. The President had clearly argued that the Iraqi nuclear program in particular represented a looming threat to American security and a nuclear program without fissile material can hardly be regarded as such. Thus, the President had at least "exaggerated," if not indeed outright "invented," the Iraqi nuclear threat.

Joe Wilson's famous trip to Niamey notwithstanding, intelligence analysts generally accept that Iraq made overtures to Niger about purchasing "yellow cake" uranium in 1999. This conclusion has been endorsed by both the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on Iraq War intelligence and by the British Butler Report. To the best of our knowledge, then, the "16 words" were in fact true. It is not known, on the other hand, whether any deal was actually concluded. As so happens, however, whether or not Iraq obtained uranium from Niger in or after 1999, the inference that the Iraqi nuclear program could not have posed a threat without its having done so is not only obviously problematic on logical grounds -- it is also demonstrably false.

It is well known and well documented that Iraq already possessed some 500 hundred or so tons of "yellow cake" uranium, most of it imported from Portugal and Niger in the early 1980s. (See here, for example, under "yellow cake inventory," from a 1991 IAEA report.) It is, above all, this fact that has been made to disappear from public view by the theatrics surrounding the "16 words." It is worth noting in this connection that the forged documents that were used, along with the Wilson trip, to discredit the administration's arguments reportedly referred to a purchase of some 500 tons of yellow cake: i.e. around the size of Iraq's actual yellow cake stocks. This curious detail suggests that the obfuscation was not accidental. In any case, if Iraq was interested in enriching uranium for weapons use -- which would have been the purpose of importing unenriched "yellow cake" -- it already had ample stocks on hand for doing so.

Restored to their original context, the "16 words" were clearly never meant to serve as the crucial "smoking gun" revelation into which they have been stylized by opponents of the war. The significance of the "16 words" was rather as evidence of the intention of Saddam Hussein to reactivate his nuclear weapons program and, more specifically, his program of uranium enrichment. Thus the British government's 2002 assessment of Iraqi WMD programs notes:

Iraq's known holdings of processed uranium are under IAEA supervision. But there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Iraq has no active civil nuclear power programme or nuclear power plants and therefore has no legitimate reason to acquire uranium.

It appears that British authorities remained agnostic about whether Iraq also possessed already enriched uranium that was not under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Hence, the prudent allusion to Iraq's "known holdings."

As a matter of fact, however, there is some reason to believe that Iraq indeed possessed enriched uranium that had escaped IAEA control. Thus, the French physicist Georges Amsel has called attention to a 1980 shipment of 93-percent-enriched, weapons-grade uranium from France. The uranium was originally destined for use in connection with the French-designed nuclear reactor Osirak, which was destroyed by an Israeli air raid in 1981.

Amsel, an emeritus director of research at France's National Center for Scientific Research, is also the co-author of a report on "Osirak and Atomic Weapons Proliferation" that was submitted to then French President François Mitterrand the same year as the Israeli air raid. In an article published on Oct. 15, 2002, in the French daily Le Monde, he recounted the history of the French uranium shipment as follows:

. . . Osirak was designed to function using uranium enriched to 93% in the isotope U-235 with a reactor core fuel load of 13.9 kg of enriched uranium. This uranium is said to be "weapons grade," because it is the constituent material of atomic bombs. . . . .

Secretly negotiated in 1976 by Jacques Chirac, at the time Prime Minister, and approved by [then French President Valéry] Giscard d'Estaing, the contract stipulated that six fuel loads would be delivered in a single shipment. Inasmuch as it is a simple matter chemically to separate uranium and aluminum and inasmuch as 16 kg of highly-enriched uranium are required to make a bomb, this amounted to offering Iraq on a platter enough material for five atomic bombs.

Faced with sharp protests by Israel and the United States after the contract became known, as well as the protests of personalities such as the atomic scientist Francis Perrin, Giscard d'Estaing was led to modify the contract, limiting the deliveries to two fuel loads per shipment.

. . . It would be crucial to know if this uranium was repatriated after the Gulf War. If not, Iraq already has more than enough material for a bomb.

Some six months later, immediately after the start of the invasion of Iraq, Amsel returned to the question of the French uranium shipment in an editorial in the daily Le Figaro. He noted that in a key October 1997 summary report on the Iraqi nuclear program, the IAEA claimed to have successfully removed from Iraq all materials suitable for a nuclear weapon. "Nonetheless," Amsel commented,

significant doubt remains on this point: in the detailed tables appended to the report, the only fissile materials listed are those furnished by the Russians for a small and thoroughly innocuous reactor that they built long ago. No mention is made in these tables of the 28 kg of 93% enriched uranium furnished by France for the Osirak reactor and that survived the reactor's destruction.

Researchers wishing to consult this article should note that as of this writing -- and curiously enough -- it is not to be found in Le Figaro's Web-based electronic archives, nor is it included in the archived Le Figaro content in the Factiva or Lexis-Nexis electronic databases. For the electronic archives, and indeed the Web, it is as if the article never existed. The only way to find it is the old-fashioned way: on paper. (See "Inspections: les leçons occultées du passé", Le Figaro, March 22-23, 2003, p. 13.) (Asked by the present author for comment on the issues raised by the Amsel article, an IAEA spokesperson responded "The highly enriched uranium you refer to was removed from Iraq and down-blended in Russia." The remark apparently refers to just under 12 kg of 93-percent-enriched uranium listed in the 1997 IAEA report.)

It should be noted in this connection that French press reports from 1980 generally put the amount of uranium delivered to Iraq at between 12 and 13 kg, i.e. apparently just a single fuel load. It is this estimate that seems to have passed into both the specialist and popular literature on Osirak. These reports, although not officially confirmed at the time, presumably originated with French government sources.

There is one obvious reason, however, to doubt their veracity. The nuclear installation sold by France to Iraq in fact comprised two reactors: Osirak and a low power copy of Osirak, dubbed "Isis" by the French. As discussed by Prof. Amsel and his colleagues in their 1981 report, the two reactors were designed to work in tandem, in order to maximize the "up-time" of the principal reactor, and both required fuel loads of 13.9 kg. It would hardly have made sense to invest in the construction of such a complex and then deliver only half the fuel required to run it at full capacity. Of course, it might be assumed that French authorities would not have fulfilled the contract, once the dangers inherent in delivering two fuel loads simultaneously were brought to their attention.

This reassuring assumption, however, is massively belied by the contents of a 1987 letter from none other than current French President Jacques Chirac to Saddam Hussein. By 1987, Chirac was again French Prime Minister. His letter was leaked to the French press and widely interpreted at the time as a thinly veiled offer to rebuild Osirak. Waxing nearly rhapsodic in his praise of French-Iraqi relations, Chirac refers in the letter to "the cooperation begun over 12 years ago on our joint personal initiative in a domain that is essential for the sovereignty, independence and security of your country" (my emphasis - JR). (The full letter from Chirac to Saddam Hussein, dated June 24, 1987, is reproduced in Claude Angeli and Stéphanie Mesnier, "Notre Allié Saddam" [Oliver Orban, 1992], annexe VII.) The allusion to Iraqi security concerns is especially notable, since it suggests that Chirac was fully aware of the military significance of the Osirak project.

Apart from the reserve expressed in the 2002 British assessment, the British and American governments seem in general to have accepted the IAEA assurances on Iraq's enriched uranium. If, however, France indeed delivered 28 kg of weapon grade uranium to Iraq, and not the 12-13 kg that has been typically assumed, then far from having over-estimated or "exaggerated" -- much less "invented" -- the threat represented by the Iraqi nuclear program, they may well have under-estimated it.

Despite three and a half years of the sound and fury of the "Bush Lied!" zealots, the "shocking" truth is that the Bush administration appears to have been entirely frank with the American people and to have taken the nation to war against Iraq for precisely the reasons that it gave for taking the nation to war. Those reasons were highly plausible at the time and they remain highly plausible in retrospect. (I have said nothing here about Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs, but Bush critics who profess such a great interest in the "16 words" in the 2003 State of the Union address might also be interested in having a look at the 286 words that precede them. They will note that those words have exclusively to do with Iraq's capacity to produce chemical and biological weapons and not with its possession of stocks of such weapons, which, as former chief weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus has made clear, it did not have the technical capacity to preserve in a lethal state.)

It is not irrelevant to try to recapture the banal facts of the run-up to the Iraq War from behind all the smoke and mirrors that have been thrown up to obscure and distort our perception of them in the intervening years. The debates raging on the Iraq War today -- as reflected, above all, in their obsessive focus on the question of how most expeditiously to remove American forces from Iraq -- are clearly predicated on the assumption that the war was a mistake: that all the undeniable sacrifice and suffering that has ensued has not been worth it. But this calculation can only be meaningful if what might have been had the U.S. and its allies not intervened is likewise taken into account. In light of the dangers that a nuclear-armed Baathist Iraq could have presented it is by no means obvious that such a calculation would not continue to support the President's decision.

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations. His work has appeared in English, French and German in publications such as Policy Review, The Claremont Review of Books, The New York Sun, Les Temps Modernes, Le Figaro and Merkur.

Photo: Jacques Chirac (far right) inspecting a nuclear facility with Saddam Hussein.