Imagine if Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi had nuclear weapons in 2003. The invasion of Iraq may not have been possible, and states would have been much more reluctant to bomb Libya in 2011. The Middle East would be a very different place today. As it happens, both leaders had sought nuclear weapons for decades, but neither got the bomb. Why?
In fact, Iraq came close to the nuclear weapons threshold. If Saddam hadn’t invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Iraq would most likely have acquired nuclear weapons during the mid-1990s. In contrast, Libya’s program failed, over and over again, for three decades before the Gaddafi regime ultimately abandoned the program in late 2003.
In my new book, Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Get Nuclear Weapons, I present a history of the nuclear programs in both states. Armed with new evidence, collected in archives and fieldwork over the past decade, I tell the story of these nuclear programs from the contemporary perspectives of decision-makers, scientists and managers. By exploring these programs from the bottom up, as well as from the perspectives of regime elites, I shed new light on why these programs failed, and how much Saddam and Gaddafi actually knew about how these programs were doing at different stages. My findings also challenge important aspects of the conventional wisdom about how these regimes worked: They were not efficient machines, as they appeared from the outside. Seen from the inside, these regimes were frequently chaotic and inefficient.
While dictators with weak states can easily decide that they want nuclear weapons, they will find it difficult to produce them. Why? Personalist dictators like Saddam and Gaddafi weaken formal state institutions in order to concentrate power in their own hands. This helps them remain in power for longer, but makes their states inefficient. Weak states have fewer instruments to set up and manage complex technical programs. They lack the basic institutional capability to plan, execute, and review complicated technical projects. As a result, their leaders can be led to believe that the nuclear weapons program is doing great while, in fact, nothing is working out. In Libya, for example, scientists worked throughout the 1980s to produce centrifuges, with zero results.
Many believe that leaders such as Saddam and Gaddafi are strong, and their states and nuclear programs operate like machines, led from the very top. But, neither Saddam nor Gaddafi had a clear picture of how their nuclear scientists were performing. Neither leader knew anything about nuclear science, and their scientists only passed on selective information. Both Gaddafi and Saddam came to realize this, and tried to find ways to solve their information problem, with mixed results. At the same time, their scientists did not always know what they were supposed to do. Most of the time, these programs were managed by nuclear scientists without interference from the regime principal. This is why Iraqi nuclear scientists once joked that their program was one of “unclear physics.”
As my book shows, these programs were afflicted with capacity problems at every stage, from initial planning to their final dismantlement. These problems were worse in Libya than in Iraq, because Gaddafi dismantled most state institutions as part of his Cultural Revolution during the 1970s. Saddam created a bloated state that was difficult to navigate for his officials, with competing agencies and programs blaming each other for various problems as these emerged. This made oversight difficult, from Saddam’s point of view, and caused endless infighting and backstabbing inside the Iraqi nuclear program. As a result, scientists spent days in endless meetings, blaming each other for delays, rather than working together as a team to solve problems they were facing.
Even when Saddam tried to put more pressure on his scientists to deliver results, he failed. After Israel destroyed a research reactor complex in Iraq in June 1981, Saddam became more determined to get nuclear weapons. But the program made little progress. In 1985, his leading scientists promised Saddam that they would achieve a major breakthrough by 1990 – without specifying what exactly they would achieve by that time. By 1987, it was clear that they would not be able to make a significant breakthrough by the deadline. This created plenty of shouting and conflict inside the program, and led to an in-house restructuring, but even at this stage no one was willing to tell Saddam the bad news. When the delays could no longer be denied, the scientists blamed another agency. This was a strategic blunder – because this agency was led by Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamil. Saddam put Kamil in charge of the nuclear weapons program. Even Kamil, who was notoriously brutal against his employees, became so frustrated with the nuclear program that he threatened to imprison anyone found to intentionally cause delays. Tellingly, this threat was never implemented.
In contrast, Libyan scientists often did not show up for work. The regime couldn’t just fire them, partly because there were too few scientists in Libya to begin with. The regime was unable to educate enough scientists and engineers, and had to hire foreigners (including many Egyptians). Some of the Egyptian scientists went on strike during a 1977 conflict between the two states – and, apparently, managed to negotiate better conditions. Not quite what we would expect from a brutal dictator, is it? But, as the history of Libya’s nuclear program demonstrates, the regime invested enormous sums in buying equipment without getting significantly closer to the nuclear weapons threshold. In fact, nothing worked – including phones, photo-copiers and expensive laboratory equipment. Some of the equipment broke, and no-one knew how to fix them, whereas other stuff was left unopened because the technical staff was concerned that fluctuating voltage in their electrical system could break the equipment. The Soviet research reactor also faced problems, because the Libyans were unable to filter the water cooling the reactor system, which meant the pipes became clogged with sand.
The Iraqi and Libyan programs failed for different reasons. The Iraqi program was beginning to make some progress after the internal restructuring. Kamil decided to ignore Saddam’s rule to not seek help from abroad, and bought equipment for the nuclear weapons program from Germany and other countries in the late 1980s. But then, Saddam miscalculated badly and decided to invade Kuwait in the summer of 1990. After the invasion, the Iraqis launched a crash nuclear program. Kamil told Saddam that they were on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons in the fall of 1990, which wasn’t true. But, if Saddam hadn’t invaded Kuwait, which led to the 1991 Gulf War, he would most likely have acquired nuclear weapons. The Libyan program never even got close.
So, whereas some states are likely to seek nuclear weapons over the next few years, not all are likely to get them. A strong state like Iran, that already has an advanced nuclear infrastructure, is much more likely to get nuclear weapons than Saudi Arabia. Personalist dictators in weak states are less likely to succeed, because they lack the institutional capabilities to manage a nuclear weapons program, even one that relies heavily on foreign assistance. If Assad tries to revive Syria’s troubled nuclear program, this is unlikely to be successful. This is good news – because an unconstrained dictator with nuclear weapons can create many problems for the United States.
A useful lesson from Iraq and Libya is that some personalist dictators are more incompetent than others, when it comes to nuclear weapons. It is possible to misjudge these risks, and remain unaware of an intensifying proliferation threat, as the case of Iraq shows.
Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo. She is the author of Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Get Nuclear Weapons (Cornell University Press, 2016). She has published on Iraq and Libya in numerous outlets including International Security, The Middle East Journal, The Nonproliferation Review, Foreign Affairs, The International Herald Tribune, The Huffington Post, and The Monkey Cage.
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt