The world’s attention was focussed on the UN Security Council today like no time in recent history, as UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix, and his counterpart from the IAEA, Muhammad ElBaradei, gave their reports on inspections in Iraq so far. But the sense of suspense was created less by any real mystery about what the two UN officials would say, and more by uncertainty about how the United States on the one hand, and the rest of the world, on the other would react.
Before Blix and ElBaradei spoke, it was clear that they would neither exonerate Iraq, but nor would they provide any hard evidence that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction — the kind of evidence that international opinion, including even public opinion in the United States, insists is the minimum necessary condition to justify any military action against Iraq.
Neither Blix, nor ElBaradei in their lengthy reports could incriminate Iraq in any meaningful manner, although in the absence of evidence Blix seemed to go out of his way to draw inferences that could be used by the Americans to justify war. ElBaradei made it clear that Iraq, as was the case in the mid-1990s, has no nuclear weapons program. He also stated that there was clear evidence confirming Iraq’s claim that aluminium tubes purchased by Iraq were for a permitted conventional artillery program and not as the UK and US had claimed, components for nuclear centrifuges. ElBaradei asserted that even if they were not for proscribed weapons, importation of the tubes violated UN Security Council resolution 687. He failed to note, however, that it takes two countries to violate these restrictions, the importing country, Iraq, and whichever unnamed country exported the tubes.
It must now be clear that as far as the nuclear file is concerned, Iraq is almost as far today from having a bomb as it is from putting a man on the moon. The present inspections, which confirmed the work of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) in the 1990s, lead only to the conclusion that the nuclear file should be closed. By keeping it open, ElBaradei fed the hopes of warmongers that however unlikely, something incriminating might yet be found, although he insisted several times that inspections can and should be part of a peaceful resolution.
While ElBaradei strayed into the political realm by calling for peace, Blix’s political statements seem to push in the direction of war. ElBaradei pointedly asked for more time for inspections, while Blix did not. Although acknowledging that his inspectors had been given prompt access to all sites, and good cooperation from the Iraqis, it seemed as though Blix was reading straight from Condoleeza Rice’s briefing book when he unfavorably compared Iraq’s alleged “passive” cooperation, with South Africa’s active cooperation with the IAEA which verified its voluntary dismantling of its own nuclear weapons program.
Blix compared two completely different situations. Apartheid South Africa, which had jointly developed its nuclear weapons with Israel, decided to get rid of them in part for fear that the weapons would one day fall into the hands of a Black-led government, and partly in order to boost the crumbling international legitimacy of the failing racist regime. Mr. Blix, if he wanted to extend his political comparisons in the other direction, might have pointed out that Israel, which does not deny that it possesses hundreds of thermonuclear warheads, has refused to join the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, has refused to place its nuclear programs under IAEA surveillance, built its nuclear weapons program in defiance of an agreement with the United States, and has recently hinted that it might even use nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict with Iraq, even though Iraq has no nuclear weapons. According to UN resolutions, Blix’s mission is to look for weapons of mass destruction, or to verify that none exist. But making assessments about the state of mind of the Iraqi leadership, or that of Apartheid-era South Africa goes well beyond his mandate.
Blix also made unfair assumptions when he declared that three thousand pages allegedly about enriching uranium — the equivalent of a few books — that were found in the home of an Iraqi scientist, could be part of an effort by the Iraqi government to hide incriminating documents in private homes. But Mr. ElBaradei declared only a short while later that Iraq had provided effectively full disclosure about its nuclear program and remaining questions about this program were not related to “disarmament issues.”
It should therefore have been relatively simple for Mr. Blix to tell the world if the documents were incriminating, or not simply, as the scientist asserted, professional and academic papers, that he, like his colleagues all over the world, kept at home. According to what Mr. ElBaradei told the world, there is no reason to believe that there was anything suspicious in these papers. Yet, US Ambassador John Negroponte, commenting immediately after the Security Council session, quickly seized on the documents, as further evidence of Iraqi perfidy.
On the question of interviewing Iraqi scientists, there have been conflicting stories. We heard that the Iraqi government provided names of hundreds of scientists, and encouraged them to meet individually with inspectors. We heard also that scientists refused to be interviewed by the inspectors without the presence of Iraqi government witnesses, to protect themselves against possible distortion of their words.
On the one hand, Mr. Blix says correctly that Iraq must earn the trust of UNMOVIC, but why should that not also be true the other way round? It is a fact that UNSCOM, UNMOVIC’s predecessor was riddled with spies from countries whose declared goal is the overthrow of Iraq’s government, not fulfillment of UN resolutions.
While the Iraqi government may have no choice but to comply with Security Council demands, no matter how it feels about them, the same is not true for individual Iraqi citizens. All they have to go on is Mr. Blix’s assurances that all of his staff are completely professional and trustworthy, and a long record of deception by previous UN inspectors.
Yet if the Iraqi government were to try to force scientists to speak, Iraq would probably be accused of violating their rights. As it is, there is no way of refuting or proving the colorful American charges that Iraq has threatened the scientists with death if they speak. Nor can we refute or prove claims by an Iraqi scientist that an American inspector tried to bribe him into leaving the country by offering medical treatment for his sick wife. The solution here would be for a neutral third party to verify, record and possibly host these interviews. Switzerland, which recently offered to be a mediator in the Iraqi crisis, would be an obvious choice.
Despite the circus surrounding the Security Council session, little has changed: neither those working for war — the United States and the United Kingdom — nor those working for peace — the rest of the planet — got a trump card out of the affair.
It seems clear, however, that efforts to appease the United States by passing Resolution 1441 and putting Iraq back at the center of a dangerous and unnecessary global crisis, while the conflict in Palestine and the situation in Afghanistan are forgotten, have done little to dampen Washington’s war fever.
The United States has a dangerous predilection to unilaterally invade countries without the slightest provocation. We should recall that in December 1989, before Iraq invaded Kuwait, the first President Bush, invaded and occupied Panama, on the flimsiest pretext, in order to remove from power Manuel Noriega, who even more than Saddam Hussein, was supported, backed and created by the United States. We should also recall that the U.S. invasion of Panama, which resulted in thousands of innocent deaths, was far more bloody than Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, although that does not in any way justify or mitigate the latter.
At this time there is no evidence before the world that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, despite months of unfettered inspections. If, ignoring this inescapable bottom line, the United States continues to pull the world towards war, the international community must make a clear choice. Either it must choose to allow the United States to continue to make mockery of the entire UN system and international law, or America’s friends must insist that the verdict of the inspections should be accepted and any action should be based on that and that alone. No state, no matter how powerful, should be allowed to take the law into its own hands.
Ali Abunimah is one of the founders of the Electronic Intifada. Hasan Abu Nimah is a former ambassador and permanent representative of Jordan to the UN.