Keeping 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. 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.”

Despite this uncertainty, it turned out that the inspections were highly informative. After the second Gulf war and revelations in 2003 that Iraq no longer possessed WMD, Mohammed El Baradei, director of the IAEA from 1997-2009, concluded that, “I think the sanctions worked, and more importantly, the inspections worked… A combination of sanctions and inspections managed to disarm Iraq.” Iraq’s uncooperative approach toward inspections contributed to skepticism that Iraq’s WMD programs had been removed, even though it was later revealed that Iraq had in fact eliminated them.

With Iraq and North Korea, the need for caution in interpreting inspections was relatively clear. The international community may be more relaxed and see inspections as more effective when the inspected state appears to cooperate with inspectors. However, a state can feign cooperation to deceive, or alternatively, may lack the capacity to fully reveal all stockpiles, even if it intends to do so.

In practice, deception or incompetence have been difficult to differentiate, but either can undermine the effectiveness of inspections. The cases of South Africa and Libya demonstrate that cooperation during inspections can lead to optimistic perceptions of compliance, while in reality violations may exist.

The international community hailed South Africa for voluntarily giving up its nuclear weapons and praised the state for its cooperation during the disarmament process. After President De Kerk’s revelation that South Africa possessed nuclear weapons but had decided to destroy them, the IAEA engaged South Africa in 1992 to verify their dismantlement. Even though South Africa voluntarily renounced its nuclear weapons program, the government did not show full transparency during IAEA inspections.

For example, South Africa did not declare a site where it had planned to test a nuclear weapon. Additionally, South Africa did not disclose several key buildings essential to nuclear weapon development and assembly. Moreover, apparent discrepancies in declarations of fissile material required extensive IAEA investigation to ensure that South Africa was in full compliance with its commitment to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. Nonetheless, Peter Rickwood, an IAEA spokesman, stated that “I don’t think in any way at all there were obstacles put in our way.” Given South Africa’s overall cooperative relations with inspectors, these lapses in full disclosure did not impact the overall assessment of the inspections.

In 2003 Muammar Gaddafi surprised the international community with his decision to give up his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. Libya was astonishingly transparent and cooperative, allowing the IAEA and the OPCW to access key personnel and facilities. As a result, weapons inspectors diverged from the stringent approach used by UNSCOM in Iraq, and instead sought to verify disarmament in a “trust and verify” approach. Libyan cooperation led Western policy-makers to believe that Libya had completely disarmed. President George W. Bush announced, “Libya was a threat. Libya is now peacefully dismantling its weapons programs…the world is better for it.”

Despite the sentiment that “Libya is done,” in 2011, Libya’s transitional government announced that it had found a small stockpile of chemical weapons that had not been previously declared. It is unclear whether the Gaddafi regime intentionally hid the cache from inspections, or if the failure to disclose was simply an oversight. The international community had accepted Libya’s cooperation as a sign of effective inspections, but the inspectors had missed a violation of Gaddafi’s commitment to eliminate his WMD.

In the cases of South Africa and Libya, the political leaderships cooperated with inspectors. However, the positive cooperation obscured what was actually a more mixed inspections outcome. These cases also suggest that a state’s perceived cooperation during inspections can influence the degree of stringency that is demanded by the international community, possibly further increasing chances that inspectors overlook violations.

Syria should receive credit for what the OPCW has considered “quite constructive” and “cooperative” behavior on weapons inspections. As the differences between the cases above suggest, however, perception plays a role in evaluating the effectiveness of weapons inspections. Quickly judging inspections in Syria as effective could have negative consequences later if the international community is not sufficiently demanding in the inspections process. Alternatively, problems that may arise, such as difficulties in inspector access, are an important indicator of possible noncompliance, but the international community should not interpret lack of full cooperation as an intention not to comply and should not underestimate the ability of inspectors to be effective even under difficult conditions. These lessons will apply as well as the international community observes Iran’s implementation of its commitments under the interim agreement and of any permanent settlement regarding its nuclear program.