US Foreign Policy

Are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’s future?

in Program

This commentary appeared in the Daily Star on August 6, 2004.

The most substantial outcome of the American invasion of Iraq has been the removal of a potential Iraqi WMD threat. Despite pre-war claims by the Bush administration, it’s clear that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq no longer possessed stocks of weapons of mass destruction. The US is now dismantling any remaining military-related research facilities, and the Department of Energy recently removed 1.7 tons of radioactive materials. Other US government programs aim to retrain Iraqi scientists and technicians with WMD expertise.

Stripped of these technical capabilities, the new Iraq appears incapable of embarking on a fresh quest for WMDs. Yet, the question of intent deserves to be examined: Would Iraq seek WMDs in the future? The answer is often taken for granted, but a careful examination of threat perceptions and other incentives calls for more nuance. Iraq will most likely not seek WMDs because it cannot and also because of US-inspired limitations. But left to itself, it would probably consider resuming WMD-related research.

For now, the US has unique leverage over Iraqi security decision-making and is reshaping Iraqi conventional forces. Washington will certainly encourage the building of strong defense capabilities. However, it will also restrict the development of offensive capabilities as it did in post-World War II West Germany, which needed a strong military to counter a potential Soviet invasion. After waging war on the grounds that Iraq possessed WMDs, the US will surely oppose any project to resurrect these capabilities. US credibility is at stake.

Interestingly, Iraq’s interim constitution adopted in March 2004 does not specifically address WMDs. Whether the final constitution will tackle the issue remains to be seen, but there are no relevant constitutional precedents to inspire Iraqi leaders. For example, Japan’s constitution forbids offensive weapons – but in the larger context of Japan permanently renouncing war. It is improbable that Iraq will adopt the same approach. A pacifist Iraq in the volatile Middle East is hardly conceivable, nor is it compatible with Iraqi pride and history. Any Iraqi government will want to preserve all its options, including the resort to force.

A central element of the US strategy in the Gulf will consist of offering external security guarantees to Iraq, probably in the form of a defense agreement that requires Iraq to renounce any WMD ambition. Although the US will not replicate the strategy of neutralization that it used in Japan and Germany in 1945, it will certainly put constraints on what Iraq can do in the defense realm. Iraqi decision-makers will be faced with difficult choices, but will likely prefer the US security umbrella to confronting their powerful patron and stirring tensions over their intentions. Iraq has much to gain from a US security umbrella at a time when it is drafting a constitution, organizing elections and rebuilding.

Undoubtedly, some Iraqis do value pride and status over renouncing what they see as a useful deterrent tool. While most scientists forcefully opposed Saddam Hussein’s projects, many in Iraqi society took pride in his indigenous weapons programs that gave Iraq an edge over others in the region. Some generals and officials at the Defense Ministry might very well consider that external threats to Iraq require revisiting the WMD option. Even former exiles might harbor ambivalent views on this issue. Should a small group of committed scientists find allies in the military and policy community, Iraq could resume WMD research. But whether this group carries enough clout is doubtful. Iraq will certainly be a central part of the new US-imposed regional order. Washington might fail to transform Iraq into a democracy, but ultimately security issues will matter more.

Currently, Iraq is a diminished power suffering from Saddam’s aggressiveness and aspiration to Middle Eastern hegemony. For the moment at least it has relinquished, its regional ambitions. Yet, it will remain suspicious that its neighbors might use this opportunity to assert their power in the region.

This sentiment should not be underestimated. As anywhere else, status and prestige matter in the Middle East. In this respect, Iran presents a unique challenge to the new Iraq. The two countries fought a bloody war to dominate the Gulf region, and for all the talk about Shiite brotherhood, one suspects that even a Shiite-dominated Iraq will try to restore the regional balance of power should Iran go nuclear.

Syria constitutes a lesser menace. Nevertheless, a weakened Iraq might resent a more confident, WMD-capable Syria. For many years, the animosity between the two countries was the product of competition for pan-Arab leadership. On the Arab-Israeli front, the strategic equation has changed. Israel is no longer a full-blown enemy of Iraq. The current Iraqi leadership shows little interest in or even sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s statement that Iraqi normalization with Israel had to wait until a comprehensive peace agreement was more a gesture to gain legitimacy in the Arab world than a threat to Israel.

Ultimately, what will count most on regional matters are Iraq’s own aspirations. Iraq needs to determine what regional order it will promote. This will determine whether it decides to pursue WMDs.

Saddam-style hegemony, though hardly conceivable at the moment, would require WMDs to counter a soon-to-be nuclear Iran. WMDs would be both the ultimate deterrent and the symbol of Iraq’s power, and the country’s historical and political baggage could feed this drive.

If, on the other hand, Iraq favors a regional balance of power strategy, it would most likely resort to alliances with like-minded allies who might resent Iraqi WMD ambitions. However, it is also true that counter-balancing a WMD-capable state could necessitate developing unconventional means.

Finally, Iraq could opt for building a security community to reduce uncertainty by fostering dialogue and creating transparency on security issues. This is what the US wants to see happen, but the nature and scope of the American project are still unclear. A security structure that excludes Iran would actually increase tensions and undermine its very purpose. Iraq might well prefer to reassure Iran that it has no desire to repeat Saddam Hussein’s mistakes. This precludes developing WMDs, since sending conflicting messages would be confusing and strain prospects for durable cooperation. Whichever model Iraq chooses, reconstruction requires stability on its borders and acceptance by Arab countries.

A security community could be the best guarantee against a new regional arms race motivated by the pursuit of power or a quest for survival. Only a regional structure can appease tensions and allow countries to focus on internal reforms.

Building a security community is a difficult task, though, and the diversity of players and grievances makes it hard to create a Middle Eastern version of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But if durable regional stability is the goal, Iran and Iraq must work toward a genuine security agreement. Gulf stability requires their cooperation and dialogue. Iran remains Iraq’s overriding concern, as demonstrated by the Iraqi defense minister’s recent remark that Iran remained “the first enemy of Iraq.” Should both countries clash over power and status, Iraq will have every reason to renege on its nonproliferation commitments.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices