The Story behind the Iraqi Nuclear Weapon Program

A retrospective look at the activities initiated by Iraq in its quest for nuclear weapons, following the destruction of the Osirak reactor in 1981 by Israeli aircraft


Iraqi palace in Bagdad (Photo: AP)

The objective of Operation Opera (June 7, 1981) – to destroy the Tamuz-1 reactor built as part of the al-Tuwaitha nuclear center near Baghdad by French companies, was fully accomplished with no casualties or losses sustained by the Israeli Air Force and only a few casualties among the French technicians and Iraqi military personnel who were present at the site during the attack. However, the Israeli attack was condemned by various governments worldwide, including Washington, who claimed that the attack had an adverse effect on the chances for peace in the Middle East. The criticism against that operation continues to reverberate to this day, with various sources alleging that the reactor was not intended to produce military-grade plutonium and that IAEA supervision would have prevented its utilization for that purpose. Conversely, a nuclear weapon capability in Iraqi hands in 1990 could have radically changed the map of the Arabian Peninsula, with whatever implications that would have entailed.

Without addressing the criticism as a whole, it is nevertheless necessary to address the allegation according to which pursuant to the operation, Saddam Hussein's motivation to develop a military nuclear capability increased, and for that reason he opted for uranium enrichment as the process for producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. This allegation is based on the statements of Iraqi nuclear scientists, including Dr. Jafar Dhia Jafar, the "father of Iraq's uranium enrichment program", who told IAEA inspectors pursuant to Operation Desert Storm that the destruction of the Iraqi reactor was a catalyst for the enrichment program. This allegation is unsubstantiated. According to Iraqi scientist Dr. Khaidir Hamza, Iraq had initiated a study of the process of enriching uranium using lasers as far back as 1975, and had started examining the electromagnetic technology for enriching uranium (EMIS = Electromagnetic Isotope Separation process), developed in the USA during World War II, prior to 1979. According to Swiss physicist André Gsponer, who worked for CERN, a European institute for the study of particles near Geneva, Iraqi engineer Dr. Salman Rashid al-Lami had come to the institute in 1979 to study electromagnets, supposedly for energy storing purposes.

Al-Lami was sent by Jafar, who had worked at CERN in the past and was appointed as deputy director of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission in 1979. After a while, Salman Rashid was accepted as a research associate at the institute – an appropriate cover for his frequent trips to Geneva. Soon enough, however, every nuclear researcher at CERN learned about his obsessive interest in calutron magnets – the enrichment devices used according to the EMIS method. To Jafar's chagrin, in June 1981 Salman Rashid passed away in Geneva owing to a mysterious illness. In those years, Iraqi chemist Dr. Hikmat al-Jalu was also showing interest in chemical uranium enrichment technologies in Europe. However, according to a feasibility study of the various enrichment processes, which had been launched in Iraq prior to Operation Opera and ended in the second half of 1981, the EMIS technology was regarded as the most appropriate method for implementation.

In 1995, a breakthrough was achieved in the operations of the UN inspectors who had been sent to Iraq in 1991 in the wake of the Iraqi defeat, to locate and destroy weapons of mass destruction developed by that country. This followed the defection of General Hussein Kamel al-Majid (Saddam Hussein's second cousin and son-in-law, who had served as Minister of Industries & Minerals and as Head of the Military Industrialization Commission) to Jordan on August 7, 1995, and the discovery of the documents at the "Chicken Farm" he owned. These documents enabled the unveiling of the Iraqi unconventional weapon program. Based on the information obtained and the memoirs of senior Iraqi nuclear scientists Jafar, Hamza, Dr. Imad Khadduri and Dr. Mahdi al-Obaidi that were publicized later on, it is currently possible to properly evaluate the picture of the nuclear threat which had evolved in Iraq uninterruptedly until late 1990. If it were not for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, it is doubtful whether this threat would have been checked in time.

Uncovering the Unconventional Weapons

The resolution reached by the UN Security Council in April 1991, to place Iraq under supervision and destroy the unconventional weapons it possessed, was implemented by IAEA, assigned to supervise the nuclear weapons and by UNSCOM, assigned to supervise the chemical and biological weapons and missiles. The head of UNSCOM, Rolf Ekéus, an experienced Swedish disarmament specialist, conducted himself boldly opposite the deceptive tactics of the Iraqi authorities, despite the fact that the Iraqis continuously disturbed the activities of the UN inspectors and resorted to various tricks and deception tactics in their attempts to conceal their efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqis had their cards reshuffled, however, owing to their fears that Hussein Kamel may have leaked, during his brief stay in Jordan, critical information to the Western intelligence services. For this reason, they decided to blame Kamel for concealing the information from the UN agencies, so they unveiled the "Chicken Farm" at their own initiative.

On August 20, 1995, when Ekéus was on his way to Baghdad airport in order to meet with a senior Iraqi defector (probably Hussein Kamel) overseas, he was approached unexpectedly by an Iraqi official who suggested that Ekéus visit Hussein Kamel's "Chicken Farm" in Haidar, a suburb of Baghdad. "It will be interesting," hinted the Iraqi official, who was sent to meet Ekéus by General Amer al-Obaidi, Hussein Kamel's deputy. Their skepticism notwithstanding, Ekéus and eight other UN inspectors traveled to the farm and even wallowed in the heaps of chicken feed. At some point, they were stunned by the sight of crates made of metal and wood that started sticking out of the soil. These crates contained the treasure the inspectors had been seeking for years and whose existence was repeatedly denied by Iraq. The 143 crates contained about one million document pages, photocopies and computer disks that stored the Iraqi unconventional weapon program, including the nuclear weapons. An Arabic-speaking inspector who had joined Ekéus spoke to the caretaker of the farm, who told him that members of the Iraqi Special Forces had cached the crates at the farm on August 10. This testimony refuted Baghdad's 'official party line' that attributed the personal responsibility for caching the crates to Kamel.

Hussein Kamel proved to be a gold mine of information regarding the unconventional weapon arsenal of his country. In addition to his excellent memory, he carried with him to Jordan a massive amount of documents. His meeting with Ekéus, held in Amman on August 22, was also attended by Professor Maurizio Zifferero of Italy, IAEA's chief inspector for Iraq. The icing on the cake, as far as the nuclear aspect was concerned, was Hussein Kamel's confession about the nuclear "Emergency Plan" of which IAEA had not been aware up to that point. However, Hussein Kamel and his brother, Colonel Saddam Kamel, who defected to Jordan with him, were lured into believing the Iraqi regime's statement according to which their defection was forgiven. On February 23, 1996, three days after their return to Baghdad, they were murdered, allegedly by enraged relatives and in effect – by members of Saddam Hussein's security apparatus.

The Uranium Enrichment Effort

Iraqis' efforts, following the destruction of Osirak, to acquire a replacement reactor from France or secretly build their own plutonium-producing reactor – failed. Consequently, the enriched uranium option was chosen as an alternative to the production of nuclear fissile material. The question that still remained unanswered was which enrichment technology could be implemented in Iraq – and as soon as possible. The primary options were the EMIS method and gas diffusion, which were developed in the USA during World War II. Other options included centrifuge technology, laser methods and chemical enrichment.

The program started taking shape in 1987, in the context of a project whose cover designation was PC3 (Petrochemical 3), headed by Jafar. Jafar opted for the EMIS technology, owing to the knowledge he had acquired at CERN. Khadduri, the manager of the research library of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, was enlisted to the task of obtaining information about that technology, and took advantage of the database of the Manhattan Project. That information included specifications for calutrons (the design for which was obtained deceptively from CERN).

EMIS feasibility studies began in 1982 at al-Tuwaitha. The first trial calutron was activated in 1986 and larger calutrons were subsequently developed for studying the feasibility of the process on an applied scale. Additionally, the Iraqis built an identical facility in al-Sharqat, about 100 km south of Mosul, the construction of which was nearly completed.

The diffusion effort was launched at al-Tuwaitha in late 1981, under Mahdi al-Obaidi, with Hamza serving as the head of the theoretical team of the group. The project was called off in 1989 and the project team was reassigned to the development of centrifuges.

Unlike the EMIS and diffusion processes, Iraq had to enlist the assistance of foreign experts in order to develop the centrifuge technology. The development effort was launched in 1987. In mid-1989 this effort was called off, not just because of the inherent difficulties of the specific centrifuge model, owing to which its development had been abandoned, but also because of the Iraqi industry's lack of experience in the manufacture of precision components and its poor quality control standards. The program gained momentum following the adoption of the superior Zippe centrifuge, fitted with magnetic bearings. This followed the arrival in Iraq, in August 1988, of Walter Busse (a leading expert in the manufacture of centrifuge rotors from maraging steel) and Bruno Stemmler, former employees of the MAN Company of Germany, manufacturers of centrifuges for the German plant of URENCO, the European uranium enrichment corporation.

In view of the knowledge they obtained and their massive efforts to acquire materials, components and instruments all over Western Europe, the Iraqis decided, in late 1988, to install a trial cascade of 50 centrifuges. The Iraqis expected to produce about 15 kg of uranium enriched to a military grade per year, for the manufacture of one weapon per year. The actual operation of the maraging steel rotor centrifuges encountered difficulties, however, so in April 1989, Stemmler recruited Carl Heinz Schaab, an expert in centrifuges fitted with carbon fiber rotors. In the spring of 1990, the Iraqis managed to assemble a single carbon fiber rotor centrifuge and operate it continuously over several months at a speed of 60,000 rounds per minute. Indeed, the assistance provided by Busse, Stemmler and Schaab considerably shortened the timetables of the Iraqi centrifuge program. In any case, the inspections by the IAEA inspectors in Iraq failed to produce any evidence regarding Iraq's progress in the implementation of the 50 centrifuge trial cascade.

"The Weapons Group" and the "Emergency Plan"

The Iraqis admitted to IAEA in 1995 that they had examined designs for a nuclear weapon using the implosion method – like the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in World War II. Development had begun in 1988 with the objective of producing the first bomb by 1991. Al-Atheer, the primary facility of the project, located about 70 km south-west of Baghdad, was only uncovered after Operation Desert Storm, and its importance was only determined after Hussein Kamel's defection. The activity focused on trials associated with the preparation of the uranium core for the bomb: casting, metallurgy and machining. Al-Atheer was also the testing site for hydrodynamic explosives and a non-fissile natural uranium core, in a bunker suitable for nuclear explosion simulation trials. In 1990, the explosives development effort was reassigned to a special unit at the al-Qa'qaa explosives plant, located about 50 km south of Baghdad. The designs for the bomb were processed by the computers of the al-Tuwaitha center, using computer codes and while relying on studies made accessible through open source scientific publications. According to the findings of the IAEA inspectors, the initial design for the nuclear device was heavy and cumbersome – impossible to fit into the Iraqi ballistic missiles. Subsequently, however, the design for the device was improved and its weight and dimensions were reduced.

Owing to the concerns that Iraq might be attacked pursuant to the invasion of Kuwait, Hussein Kamel initiated, in 1990, a nuclear "Emergency Plan" of converting the inventory of high-percentage enriched uranium, originally intended to be used as fuel for the Iraqi research reactors, to the manufacture of the bomb. An inspection by IAEA inspectors after Operation Desert Storm revealed that Iraq possessed a nuclear fuel inventory that included about 40 kg of uranium enriched to an average level of 84%. The phases of the program were: extraction of the enriched uranium from the nuclear fuel inventory while removing the radioactive elements; enriching the uranium to a military weapon grade (more than 90%); and finally – converting the uranium compounds obtained from the extraction and enrichment processes to metallic uranium. The process of extracting the uranium from the nuclear fuel was intended to take place at the LAMA laboratory in al-Tuwaitha, purchased from France in the context of the Osirak project. It was estimated that the amount of uranium produced would be sufficient for the manufacture of between one and two bombs. This plan was called off, however, owing to the coalition air strikes, which destroyed most of the facilities at al-Tuwaitha, including the LAMA laboratory. According to Charles Duelfer, who served as deputy director and subsequently as acting director of UNSCOM between 1993 and 2000, "Iraq came close to the implementation (of a nuclear bomb) in 1990".

The Israeli Angle

The success of Operation Opera notwithstanding, Israel continued to monitor potential developments associated with the Iraqi nuclear program: Iraq approaching France to rebuild the Tamuz-1 reactor or to provide a replacement reactor, as well as Iraq's plan to independently develop a heavy water reactor after France had declined. Determining the fate of the nuclear fuel France had supplied to Iraq for the Osirak project became another necessity.  But until 1988, Israeli intelligence had not identified any clear indicators of an Iraqi effort to relaunch their military nuclear program. There were rumors that Dr. Jafar had been seen in Iraq here and there; information received indicated massive construction of facilities for Iraqi military industry whose functions could not be determined; additionally, various indications suggested that Iraq was showing interest in activities that could be linked to the enrichment of uranium, particularly in the diffusion method. Only during the second half of 1988 did the evidence of an intensive Iraqi effort to enrich uranium start to amass, but there was no way to determine whether the preferred option was the diffusion method or the centrifuge technology. Against this background, Col. Pesach Malovani, head of the Technological Analysis Branch at the IDF Intelligence Directorate, and 'Monty', the head of the Iraqi Nuclear Program Section at that branch, travelled to the USA to attend an intelligence meeting. They had been invited by their American counterparts to renew the cooperation between the two intelligence communities regarding the issues of unconventional weapons that the Americans had suspended pursuant to Operation Opera. Regrettably, the information presented by the Israelis at that meeting must have fallen on deaf ears – the Americans expressed their doubts regarding the credibility of the information.

An intelligence breakthrough was achieved in February 1990, when significant, highly focused information was obtained regarding the extensive Iraqi procurement activity in Western Europe, which unequivocally indicated the advancement of the centrifuge program. Following a careful and detailed analysis, the head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate (and subsequently IDF Chief of Staff), the late Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak departed for the USA on July 17, to discuss the significance of the information with the Americans. He was accompanied by Uri, a young officer from the Iraqi Nuclear Program Section at the Technological Analysis Branch (who subsequently advanced to the rank of colonel). Lipkin-Shahak and Uri travelled with Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Arens and Deputy Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, and according to some reports – the Chief of Mossad, Shabtai Shavit, was another member of that delegation. According to Uri, the officials of the American intelligence community were stunned by the information the Israelis presented.

An acknowledgement of that account appeared in the memoirs of Dick Cheney, then US Secretary of Defense and subsequently the Vice President. According to Cheney, Arens and Barak came to his office on July 20 and pulled out of their briefcases documents and maps that reflected the advanced stage of the centrifuge-related activity the Iraqi military nuclear program had reached as a result of the assistance provided by Western-European companies. According to the estimates of Arens and Barak, only a limited timeframe remained available for stopping that program. Cheney treated the information very seriously. He was particularly impressed by the depiction of the Iraqi effort as highly advanced compared to the picture drawn by US intelligence. He added that after the war in Iraq, it turned out that the Israeli estimate was much more realistic compared to the American one. As an anecdote, a meeting with US intelligence officials was held in Israel in August 1990. The Americans wanted to determine the authenticity of the information Israeli intelligence possessed. A senior member of the American delegation had this to say about his profound impression of the Israeli information: "An intelligence professional may see such highly valuable, comprehensive information possibly once in a lifetime."

Apparently, UNSCOM and IAEA maintained close working relations with Israeli intelligence and kept the Israelis informed of their findings with regard to the Iraqi unconventional weapon program. According to Scott Ritter, a senior American inspector at UNSCOM: "I maintained working relations with them for years. We used Israeli information regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to search and investigate what was actually happening on the ground." Certain parties in the USA accused Ritter of spying for Israel, but according to him: "All my trips to Israel… were fully coordinated and reported. The problem was that one branch of the (US) administration was supportive and the other was against it, and I fell between the cracks." Ritter said further: "Until 1988 we succeeded in locating and destroying 90% to 95% of the weapons of mass destruction and in dismantling the medium-range missiles." The proof was provided by the fact that no unconventional weapons were employed during the Second Gulf War in 2003, contrary to the situation during Operation Desert Storm, when, prior to the war, Saddam Hussein had threatened to attack Israel with chemical weapons, and when during the war he launched 39 missiles at Israel. However, the departure of the US-led coalition to Operation Desert Storm had not stemmed from Saddam Hussein's threatening of Israel, but from his invasion of Kuwait and the concerns that he might adversely affect the supply of oil to the West. But despite the missiles, Israel did not respond so as not to undermine the integrity of the US-led coalition.

As far as the history of the Iraqi military nuclear program is concerned, it may be stated that Iraq aspired to advance that program with regard to each possible element of the technological spectrum, but at a pace dictated by the availability of the relevant technologies. Even though during the second half of the 1970s, the plutonium option was dominant through the Osirak project, the Iraqis were also showing interest in uranium enrichment. Additionally, the fact that the Osirak project was destroyed notwithstanding, the Iraqis never ceased to explore other options in the field of plutonium, albeit unsuccessfully. Iraq also examined most of the uranium enrichment processes developed in the world, but only managed to make some progress with its centrifuge program in 1989, owing to the knowledge and assistance provided by the German experts it enlisted. Accordingly, the allegation according to which Operation Opera led Saddam Hussein to advance and accelerate the uranium enrichment program is totally groundless. 


Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Rafael (Rafi) Ofek is an expert in the physics and technology of nuclear power. He had served in the Israeli intelligence community as a senior researcher and analyst


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