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Thinking about Nuclear Power in Post-Saddam Iraq

Authored by Dr. Norman Cigar. | April 2010

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This monograph provides an overview and analysis of thinking in Iraq on the issue of nuclear power. Nuc­lear power has long held a special fascination for Iraq, and despite past controversies, this issue continues to draw the attention of numerous influential Iraqis in the post-Saddam era. Informed public opinion in Iraq today is clearly a more important factor for understanding the background of decisionmaking than it was during the Saddam era, so that this monograph ad­dresses the views of all the sectors of Iraqi society likely to have an input into decisionmaking in this arena.

There is an emerging Iraqi consensus on the desir- ability of a peaceful nuclear program, with arguments supported by the expected benefits for electric power generation, agriculture, and medicine, as well as an eventual transition from oil. National pride is also a motivating factor, as nuclear power is viewed as an indicator of modernity and as proof of being able to keep up with regional neighbors. As for a military application of nuclear power, those expressing a positive view—all outside the current government— see nuclear weapons as an effective political and military instrument and as necessary to balance Israel's nuclear arsenal, although their support is voiced on behalf of “the Arabs” in general rather than using the more sensitive term, Iraq. The belief in the effectiveness of a balance of terror in ensuring security and stability is widespread. Perceptions about a prospective Iranian nuclear weapon, however, most often break down along confessional lines, with most Shi'a welcoming the prospect as a boost to the Shi'a community's security, while Sunnis continue earlier views of a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat. There is little concern over potential environmental implications or potential accidents, or attention to ethical issues.

One should expect in Iraq the same movement toward nuclear power as in the rest of the Middle East, at least in the civilian sector. However, daunting obstacles remain to rebuilding the country's eviscerated nuclear infrastructure, which resulted from the dismantling of many facilities, the removal of fissionable material, and the emigration or death of former nuclear scientists. However, Baghdad has taken steps to reintegrate the country into the nuclear research structure of the Arab world and to end exis­ting restrictive international controls. For example, it has requested that France build a new reactor, and has made an effort to regenerate its domestic scientific community. There is no indication of any intention to reestablish a military program; any decision to do so in the future would be impossible to predict, given Iraq's evolving domestic political dynamics.

It will be difficult for the United States or the international community to ignore or reject outright Iraq's expectations for a nuclear program, given the deeply-felt entitlement throughout Iraq's informed public and in light of the almost universal regional trends. But the United States can help to manage the process of an orderly, safe, and peaceful nuclear reintegration of Iraq in the civilian sector. At the same time, the United States and the international community should ensure that any return to a nuclear program be accompanied by Iraq's acceptance of strict international monitoring and controls to prevent any diversion to the military field or terrorist use. U.S. policymakers and military leaders should also focus on ensuring that any peaceful nuclear program in Iraq be as secure from accidents as possible through train­ing and assistance.

Once stability increases in Iraq, U.S. military and civilian government agencies should launch an effort to educate the Iraqi military, government officials, and the general population on the benefits and risks of nuclear power. Intelligence analysts should continue to monitor Iraqi public opinion on the nuclear issue, as well as any Iraqi actions which could lead to undesired results, including support from other countries. More broadly, U.S. and international leaders can work to modify the overall Middle East regional threat environment so as to alleviate the domestic pressures for nuclear proliferation both in the civilian and in the military sphere, especially by encouraging genuine progress in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Finally, U.S. policymakers can support and reassure the Iraqi government and public, with regard to an incipient Iranian nuclear threat, although the inclu- sion of an "umbrella" for Israel or requests for a permanent U.S. military presence in the region would likely derail such an initiative. Awareness of and sensitivity to Iraqi thinking on the nuclear issue, in general, will facilitate the crafting of more effective U.S. policies which can in turn contribute to the security of the Middle East region and beyond.