IRAQ'S SILENT ALLIES IN ITS QUEST FOR THE BOMB
On a rainy afternoon in November, 1989, a group of engineers and scientists from Interatom, a nuclear technology unit of Siemens, met with a handful of Iraqi officials in a small conference room at Frankfurt airport. On the agenda: discussions of a pipe mill that Interatom was building in Iraq. The pipes could be used for handling uranium gases, but they had other possible uses. So the Germans felt comfortable in proceeding.
Suddenly, a senior Iraqi engineer asked if Interatom could provide Iraq with autoclaves. The room went silent, German participants recall. Autoclaves are large, sophisticated devices for converting a mixture of uranium and fluorine into uranium hexafluoride gas and later converting it back into metal powder, uranium oxide. Their design is highly classified, and the request was a clear signal that the Iraqis were working on nuclear weapons.
MANY CHANNELS. Interatom later informed Iraq it would not provide the autoclaves. "We were not that stupid," says one executive. But Interatom went ahead with the mill plant. "As long as we had government blessing, we went ahead," says Hartmut Mayer, an Interatom spokesman. Only when intelligence agencies alerted the government to the dangers did Bonn tell the company last June to stop the mill project.
Interatom is but one of the channels that Iraq has pursued to develop its nuclear weapons capability. It has gotten help from at least 16 nations. Sometimes, Saddam Hussein's men have brazenly made requests for technology and expertise and Western governments and companies have eagerly competed for the deals. In other cases, the Iraqis have resorted to deception and subterfuge, using unknowing intermediaries and partially owned front companies. They've also used dummy dual-use certificates for desalinization or dairy projects as well as fake destination documents. Many companies lured into helping the Iraqis did so either legally or unwittingly. These activities occurred prior to Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait and the U. N. embargo.
But many analysts now believe that Iraq could build one crude atomic bomb from highly enriched weapons-grade uranium obtained from France and the Soviet Union. Saddam has been photographed holding detonators, devices based on U. S. technology and probably acquired in Britain, needed for an implosion bomb of the type exploded over Nagasaki. His missiles are still not up to delivering a nuclear weapon, but Iraq recently tested a Soviet-made Scud B missile that traveled 500 miles, well above the normal range of 175 miles.
Saddam's ultimate goal, however, is a full-fledged program capable of large production of sophisticated nuclear weapons. Although he faces several important hurdles, the evidence is that he has made greater strides than Western governments have been prepared to acknowledge (table). One German engineer, Bruno Stemmler, who consulted with Iraq on its nuclear program, confirmed that Baghdad possesses ultrasecret blueprints for German centrifuge machines, possibly purloined through Brazil or Pakistan.
That would give Iraq the potential to produce its own weapons-grade uranium, and several hundred Iraqi scientists, trained in the West, are working on achieving just that. "They have the technology," says Tor Larsson, director of the Swedish National Defense Research Institute.
The apparent ease with which Saddam acquired, both legally and illegally, nuclear components and know-how shows that the West's system for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons doesn't work when challenged by a determined outlaw state. Saddam has made a mockery of Iraq's signature of the toothless Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
TIGHTER ENFORCEMENT. Now, as the U. S. edges toward a Jan. 15 war deadline, the West will have to deal with Saddam's nuclear drive even if fighting doesn't break out. That's because Iraq's efforts to flesh out its nuclear weapons program will surge ahead after the Gulf crisis is resolved unless the Baghdad regime is checked. Although the U. N. embargo and tighter enforcement efforts in Europe have slowed Iraq's pace, the nation still has feelers out in a variety of countries such as Pakistan, China, and North Korea, says Stemmler, the engineer, who formerly worked for MAN Technologie.
Whatever happens later, Saddam owes much of the progress he has made so far to German companies. German prosecutors are now probing some 50 companies that they suspect of selling Iraq military hardware. And about a dozen other German companies exported dual-use goods, with both civilian and military applications, that may have aid-ed the Iraqi nuclear weapons program.What the Iraqis wanted most from the Germans were gas centrifuges. The Iraqis needed at least 1,000 of these devices, all working in computer-controlled concert, to spin the low-grade uranium they already had obtained into weapons-grade material. On a visit to Iraq in December, 1988, Stemmler says he was shown blueprints and a test model of a gas centrifuge similar to one his company developed in the early 1970s. German companies such as H&H Metalform, Inwako, and others played important roles in supplying precision parts and machines to make them, according to German prosecutors. Inwako says it is cooperating with the investigation. Metalform says everything it sold was permitted by the export control authorities.
German authorities now admit that their export controls were a sieve for determined operators. The 80 overworked bureaucrats at the Federal Export Office have generally sided with German companies in granting export permits. The unwritten rule uas: "When in doubt, decide in favor of the company," says outgoing German Economics Minister Helmut Haussmann.
The troubled state of the German nuclear industry also played a role. Overcapacity at German electrical utilities and mounting political pressure from the Greens have made nuclear engineers in Germany an endangered species. The Iraqis found rich pickings in Julich, a small town in northern Germany, where fog and thick woods conceal an immense government-supported facility called the Research Center.
The sharp falloff in nuclear work forced the institute to shed dozens of experts. But many of them kept their security clearances and set up their own consulting firms either in town or in cottages on the grounds of the facility. One Julich physicist remembers how Iraqi scientists and businessmen suddenly showed up, searching out independent contractors. "Some simply knocked on people's doors and started talking," remembers the physicist, who asked that his name not be used. Dozens of tiny companies were created to do business with the Iraqis.
BLIND EYE. The Germans also helped soup up Iraq's missile delivery systems. Inwako, a Bonn-based arms dealer, is under investigation for selling Iraq technology for upgrading Soviet-made Scud-B missiles as well as centrifuge parts. Its owner, Friedrich-Simon Heiner, was arrested and is now out on bail while prosecutors continue to investigate Inwako for breaking export control laws. He declines to comment on the allegations but says ruefully: "Dealing with Arabs is complicated."
The Germans were not the only European power to help Iraq's nuclear program along. Britain allowed itself to be turned into a key link in Iraq's network. The British buying effort was controlled through a network of small Iraqi-dominated companies, the most public of which was Technology & Development Group Ltd. In late 1987, TDG bought 60% of Matrix Churchill Ltd., a Coventry-based maker of precision machine tools. The money-losing company suddenly hit the black with three big orders for $36 million worth of high-tech lathes that could be used for cutting high-quality steel used in nuclear centrifuges. British Customs officials have questioned three former directors of Matrix, but no arrests have been made.
The Iraqis also controlled a British-based shell company called European Manufacturing Center (EUROMAC), which served as a conduit for buying U. S.-made capacitors for triggering nuclear devices. Two EUROMAC officials were arrested at Heathrow airport last March attempting to ship the capacitors to Iraq, and Omar Latif, a high-level Iraqi Airways official, was deported. "The Iraqis are very clever," says one British official. "They operate from Baghdad by fax and telephone and use U. K. nationals to operate for them."
The British connection occasionally led to Iraq's German intermediaries. One such channel involved Peter J. Phillips, who operated a one-man export company called Endshire Export Marketing in a country house near Chipping Norton in the famous rolling hills of the Cotswolds. Phillips was asked by Iraq's German supplier, Inwako, to search out suppliers for a stream of orders.
In one such case in 1988, Phillips obtained 400 tons of high-grade stainless steel from Avesta Stainless Ltd., the British subsidiary of Sweden's Avesta. Avesta was told that the $1.5 million order was for Inwako, which was said to be supplying an Iraqi desalinization project. There's no evidence the steel was actually used in Iraq's weapons program, but it's an example of how the Iraqis obtained materials through elaborate procurement processes. Phillips says he believed everything he was shipping was legal, and he later reported his deals to British intelligence. "I'm not an aggressive businessman," he says. "I'm just Joe Normal. I never wanted to be Adnan Khashoggi."
A BREAKTHROUGH? France was Iraq's chief nuclear supplier until the Israelis bombed the French-built Osirak reactor in 1981. The French say that put a stop to their supplying nuclear technology. But it was too late: France had supplied the Osirak reactor with 27 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, still intact in storage. Even though it was inspected in December by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, it would require only "several weeks" for Hussein to use this uranium to build a crude device, says Leonard Spector, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Moreover, France's Aerospatiale has helped with guidance systems for Iraq's Scud missiles, industrial sources say. Aerospatiale denies any such involvement. But if true, it would represent a major breakthrough for Saddam.
Can Saddam's nuclear ambitions be halted? The Germans appear to be making a genuine effort to prevent their technology and materials from reaching Iraq. Lists of goods needing permits have been expanded, jail sentences for evading export laws have been hiked to five years, and the staff of the Federal Export Office has been tripled. Collectively, these efforts have resulted in at least six shipments being stopped. Britain also has quietly put several Iraqi front companies out of business.
But governments have not made much progress toward either a regional or global cooperation scheme that could stop Saddam. A Middle East security pact among Iraq, Israel, and Egypt to open their nuclear programs up for international inspections would be one response, but it is considered extremely unlikely. The U. S. is also trying to put Iraq on the list of nations monitored by the Paris-based Coordinating Committee on Export Controls (COCOM). But that would still leave Iraq with access to dual-use technology.
Any effort to crack down on export of nuclear technology, however, would likely require several years to implement. In a sense, the big nuclear powers are now paying the price for ignoring nuclear proliferation for decades. "We created a monster," says Vladimir Isayev, who follows Arab affairs at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. "We all can share the blame: the U. S. S. R., France, Germany, even the U. S." And while the world dithers, Saddam Hussein draws closer to his nuclear dream.
SADDAM HUSSEIN'S DRIVE FOR NUCLEAR WEAPONS
Iraq already has 40 pounds of weapons-grade uranium from France and the Soviet Union. Iraq apparently also has crude detonators. As a result, Saddam could explode a primitive, untested device, but he still faces hurdles in building a full-fledged nuclear weapons program:
1 RAW MATERIAL
Iraq has more than 350 tons of yellowcake--uranium ore milled into powder and pressed into briquets--from Portugal and Nigeria. About 0.7% of that is uranium isotope 235. That would be enough for 100 bombs. Other uranium supplied by Argentina, Brazil, and Italy.
2 ENRICHING THE URANIUM
But there's a hitch: This low-grade uranium has to be concentrated to 90% bomb-grade material. To do so, Iraq needs a uranium enrichment plant, which would mix yellowcake with fluorine and send the gaseous mixture through hundreds of sophisticated gas centrifuges arranged in cascades. This extremely corrosive mixture then has to be converted into a metal powder, uranium oxide, that can be shaped into a nuclear bomb charge.
-- Specialty metals for centrifuges supplied by Saarstahl and exported by Export-Union, both German companies. Another German company, Vereinigte Aluminium Werke, was stopped from exporting large-size aluminum pipes. The British subsidiary of Sweden's
--Avesta sold stainless steel via Britain's Endshire Export Marketing to Iraq.
--Numerically controlled lathes to cut specialty steels came from H&H Metalform in Germany, partly owned by Iraq, and from Matrix Churchill in Britain, 60% owned by Iraq.
--Ring magnets to stabilize centrifuge rotors were supplied by Inwako (Germany). A shipment of centrifuge end-caps made by Schmiedemeccanica (Switzerland) was stopped at Frankfurt airport. Also, Britain's Swift-Levick sold magnets through Inwako.
--Vacuum pumps for the conversion plant, made by Veeco, a Plainview (N.Y.) company. But Veeco denies shipping to Iraq. Another shipment of pumps from CVC Products in Rochester, N.Y., intended for civilian use, was stopped.
--Highly classified design of a centrifuge similar to one developed by MAN Technologie, a German company.
HURDLE: Iraq needs at least 1,000 centrifuges working for one year to produce enough bomb-grade uranium for one bomb. It has only two dozen centrifuges, and it would need at least five years to build enough.
3 DETONATING TECHNIQUES
The Hiroshima bomb was triggered by two spheres of uranium being slammed together. Modern weapons are of the implosion type and require chemical explosives, sophisticated detonators, and reflector shields made with beryllium to concentrate the energy.
--Intelligence reports say Iraq has a plant producing chemical explosives needed as a trigger. Foreign supplier unknown.
HURDLE: Iraq apparently lacks beryllium. That is one reason it is having problems making its warheads small enough to fit into missiles.
The Soviet Union has supplied Scud-B medium-range missiles, and Iraq has modernized them with help from Brazil and North Korea.
--Iraq has recently tested a Scud-B, extending its range up to 500 miles, and the French have sold technology that may allow Iraq to increase the range to 700 miles and improve its accuracy.
--Iraq is also working with Argentina on the Condor II, a new medium-range missile. Former employees of Snia-BPD, a unit of Italy's Fiat group, helped perfect solid-fuel propellants for the Condor II.
HURDLE: None of these missiles is yet capable of carrying nuclear warheads because the Iraqis cannot make the warheads light enough. The Iraqis also can't make the warheads separate from their missiles above the target.
DATA: LEONARD SPECTOR, SENIOR ASSOCIATE AT THE CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE; FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTISTS; NUCLEONICS WEEK, STOCKHOLM INTERNATIONAL PEACE RESEARCH INSTITUTE, BWIgor Reichlin in Julich and Mark Maremont in London, with Jonathan Kapstein in Brussels, Jonathan Levine in Paris, and bureau reports