The Iraq War's Impact on Nonproliferation

April 14, 2004

Publication Type: 

  • Roundtables

Related Country: 

  • Iraq


W. Seth Carus
Nicholas Eberstadt
Robert J. Einhorn
Micheal Eisenstadt

Moderated by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control



The present war in Iraq is the first ever fought-at least ostensibly-to counter mass destruction weapons. Although no such weapons have been found inside Iraq's borders, it is still essential to ask whether the war is having a positive or negative impact on the worldwide spread of these arms. Has the war produced a "demonstration effect" that will deter additional states from pursuing illicit weaponry? Or has it spurred countries to get the bomb as protection against America's redoubtable armed forces? And what of Europe, Russia and China? Has the war made them more willing-or less-to participate in arms control efforts? And finally, to what degree has the failure to find suspected weapons in Iraq wounded the credibility of U.S. intelligence information, an essential tool for convincing other countries that such weapons exist, and are a threat?

To look into these questions, the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control hosted a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 2004. The four panelists were chosen for their expertise in weapons proliferation, particularly with respect to Iran, Libya and North Korea. They were W. Seth Carus, Deputy Director of the Center for Counterproliferation Research at the National Defense University, Nicholas Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, Robert J. Einhorn, Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former assistant secretary for nonproliferation at the U.S. Department of State, and Michael Eisenstadt, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The panelists weighed the war's impact on proliferant states, its impact on the ability of the United States to deal with such states, and its impact on the rest of the world. The panelists found that the war had its greatest positive effect in spurring foreign countries to be more active in nonproliferation efforts; whereas the war's most significant negative effect, according to the panelists, has been on U.S. credibility. The failure to find unconventional weapons in Iraq is likely to undermine the credibility of U.S. intelligence assessments and hamper U.S. efforts both to thwart nuclear smuggling and to gain support for nonproliferation steps in the United Nations.

The panelists also judged that though the war may have had a tactical influence on the unconventional weapon efforts of rogue states like Iran, Libya and North Korea, it did not cause these states to fundamentally reevaluate their policies: Neither Iran nor North Korea reconsidered its long-standing strategic decision to pursue nuclear weapons; nor did Libya decide to renounce its unconventional weapon programs exclusively or even primarily because of the Iraq war.

At the same time, the panelists found that the war did not substantially alter U.S. behavior towards proliferant states. The war did not distract the Bush administration from proliferation challenges beyond Iraq, nor did it change existing policies. Rather, the administration was unable to deal more effectively with either Iran or North Korea because of other factors, such as a lack of internal consensus. And the administration continued down a path of reconciliation with Libya that was motivated by events unrelated to the Iraq war.

Finally, the panelists found that it is too early to draw a final conclusion on whether the Iraq war is a net plus or a net minus for arms control. The participants did draw narrow conclusions on a range of issues that, taken together, suggest that the war in Iraq may prove more of a liability than a benefit in the campaign against the proliferation of mass destruction weaponry.


The war in Iraq had little strategic influence on the nuclear weapon programs of North Korea and Iran, and only a limited effect on Libya's; it did, however, affect these countries' tactics.

Countries already committed to developing nuclear weapons, such as North Korea, Iran and Libya, did not materially alter their nuclear ambitions because of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Still, the war had a tactical effect on these states. It probably accelerated Libya's decision to disarm, while encouraging Iran and North Korea, the more threatening cases, to persevere in their nuclear ambitions.

The panelists expressed doubts that North Korea would ever be willing to give up its nuclear weapon program. North Korea sees its nuclear might as a strategic asset, one that confers both negotiating leverage and deterrence against U.S. forces. Thus, North Korea's nuclear program cannot be seen as being "for sale." This is particularly true in light of the fact that any deal for disarmament would have to be verified. North Korea, however, is thought to have thousands of underground facilities, and has declared that intrusive inspections would violate its sovereignty. If anything, the U.N. inspections that preceded the Iraq war made North Korea less likely to invite inspectors into its nuclear facilities: The Iraq case reinforced North Korea's belief that inspections are merely a prelude to war.

At the same time, preemptive war with North Korea is considered out of the question. Seoul remains entirely vulnerable to North Korean artillery strikes. North Korea's conventional forces already provide it with a powerful deterrent, even without nuclear weapons. These forces are protecting its nuclear forces because any preemptive strike at the latter would risk an unacceptable response from the former. The result is that there have been no good options for dealing with North Korea.

On a tactical level, the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq confirmed North Korea's fears that a U.S. military response to its nuclear weapon efforts was nevertheless possible. What North Korea saw happen to a non-nuclear armed Iraq may have encouraged North Korea to speed up the production of plutonium. However, the toppling of Saddam Hussein also coincided with North Korea's willingness to engage in multilateral talks in April 2003-a clear concession. Nevertheless, the overall effect of the war on North Korea's attitude appears to be negative.

The Iraq war did not alter Iran's long-standing calculation that a nuclear weapon option remained important for both regime survival and national prestige. In Iran, the panelists found, decision-making on nuclear issues has a very long time-line. Therefore, despite the overthrow of hostile regimes in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran remains concerned about its neighbors. In light of Israel's thinly veiled nuclear arsenal, and the U.S. presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran continues to reside in what it perceives to be a dangerous neighborhood.

However, the panelists did find that the Iraq war had a tactical impact on Iran's nuclear decision-making and that this impact was stronger than in North Korea. The Iraq war had two mutually off-setting effects: The first reinforced Iran's feeling of insecurity and its pre-existing motivation to acquire nuclear weapons; the second showed Iran that a nuclear weapon program has costs.

The fact that the United States has a large invasion force stationed in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf reinforces a fear among Iran's leaders that the United States could, in theory, choose either to invade Iran, or to launch limited air strikes. However unlikely these possibilities are in terms of logistics and planning on the U.S. side, they are nonetheless felt in Iran to be a result of the Iraq war. This increased perception of a threat from the United States may have reinforced Iran's desire to develop a nuclear deterrent.

On the other hand, the panelists agreed that unlike North Korea, Iran would be less willing to accept the costs of international pariah status. The Iraq war led Iran to consider invasion, limited air strikes, or an international embargo aimed at stymieing its nuclear program as possible eventualities. These external actions would bring high costs to the Iranian regime in the form of domestic unrest or upheaval-costs it would be unwilling and possibly unable to bear.

This dual and contradictory influence of the Iraq war on Iran may explain the periodic shifts in Iran's behavior with regard to its nuclear program. Specifically, the panelists saw Iran's cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and with Britain, France and Germany as waxing and waning depending on the situation in Iraq. Before, during and just after the war, there was an apparent fear among Iranian officials that the United States could "turn right" and march across Iran's border, which may have induced more cooperative gestures by Iran, including the enrichment "freeze" negotiated with Britain, France and Germany in October 2003. However, as the post-war situation in Iraq soured, Iran's cooperation became increasingly intermittent. U.S. difficulties in Iraq since early 2004 have led an emboldened Iran to delay IAEA inspections, inaugurate its uranium conversion facility, announce plans to break ground on a heavy water reactor, and call on the IAEA to promptly clear Iran of all nuclear suspicion.

Concerning Libya, the panelists agreed that it and the United States had embarked on the road toward reconciliation well before the Iraq war. In 1999, the two sides began secret mid-level talks that lasted until early 2000. U.S. goals were to get Libya to stop supporting terrorism, to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and to compensate the victims' families. The talks resumed in 2001, and again in 2003, and finally led to Libya's decision to meet all the U.S. demands, which included surrender of its mass destruction weapon programs.

Thus, Libya has been the only country to renounce its weapon programs since the Iraq war. The panelists agreed that the war had a positive demonstration effect on Libya and probably accelerated its decision to disarm. The war may have even convinced Libya, in March 2003, to take up secret negotiations with Britain and the United States on its weapon programs. One panelist believes that the war was the proximate cause of Libya's decision to reengage. The influence of the war, however, cannot be isolated from other factors that also worked to force Libya's hand.

The driving incentive behind Libya's cooperation with the West has been its desire to revitalize its oil economy. After agreeing to denounce terrorism, accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and compensate the victims' families, Libya secured the lifting of U.N. sanctions in September 2003. Once these conditions were met, the United States was ready to negotiate Libya's disarmament and the removal of the U.S. trade embargo. Thus, in trying to reestablish economic relations with the West, particularly the United States, Libya was headed in the direction of disarmament well before the war.

Moreover, shortly after the war, Libya was forced to acknowledge that its nuclear program was not succeeding. In October 2003, the program was dealt a mortal blow by the interdiction of a Libya-bound German ship carrying vital centrifuge parts. The seizure exposed Libya's supply network, making it less likely that the program would ever be able to buy what it needed. At the same time, the lethal potential of the smuggled parts convinced the United States that the question of Libya's illicit weaponry had to be resolved.


The Iraq War had little impact on U.S. behavior toward proliferant countries; U.S. actions toward North Korea and Iran would have been essentially the same without the war.

The panelists agreed that the Iraq war did not greatly distract the Bush administration from other proliferation challenges. Although the relatively small cadre of administration officials responsible for national security spent many hours preparing for the invasion of Iraq, there is little evidence that they would have dealt differently with North Korea or Iran if more time had been available. The fact that U.S. troops were heavily committed to Iraq-and not available for use elsewhere-was not a factor because military coercion was never seriously considered as a way to deal with either North Korea or Iran. Rather, existing U.S. policies were simply allowed to run their course.

The Bush administration decided soon after taking office that engagement with North Korea would lead only to appeasement. Thus, the administration exhibited little interest in a policy of continued negotiation. This position was reinforced by the discovery that North Korea was secretly attempting to enrich uranium, which the administration considered a breach of a 1994 agreement with the United States. Under the agreement, North Korea froze some 8,000 spent fuel rods in exchange for shipments of fuel oil. The discovery of North Korea's enrichment program prompted the administration to stop the oil shipments in late 2002. North Korea retaliated by beginning to extract plutonium from the fuel rods. Thus, it was not the war in Iraq, but the administration's tough negotiating posture coupled with North Korea's behavior that triggered the production of plutonium in 2003.

Although it is true that the United States was deeply occupied with Iraq at the time when North Korea decided to extract the plutonium, and although it is also true that it might have been possible to strike a deal causing North Korea to refrain from this unfortunate action, there is no evidence that such a step would have been possible without a total reversal in the administration's North Korea policy, which remains unchanged to this day. Thus, it was the administration's unwillingness to negotiate, not its preoccupation with Iraq, which was decisive. Until the administration adopts a new policy (which will require it to overcome its internal divisions), the present stalemate with North Korea is likely to continue.

Before the Iraq war, U.S. and Iranian officials had been meeting in Geneva for limited discussions over mutual interests in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Iran's nuclear program, however, the Bush administration failed to arrive at a consensus position on what to do: whether to bargain with Iran or to maintain its absolutist position that no nuclear program should be tolerated. This lack of consensus, rather than preoccupation with Iraq, is one explanation for why the United States failed to react vigorously when an Iranian resistance group revealed a series of secret Iranian nuclear sites in August 2002.

A second reason for U.S. inaction was the administration's decision to wait for the International Atomic Energy Agency to pursue its investigation of the newly discovered sites, which included a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water production plant at Arak. These sites were first publicized by an exiled Iranian opposition group in August 2002, and it took time for the IAEA to organize its visit to Iran in order to verify the new information. Meanwhile, the administration concluded that dealing with Iran multilaterally was the best approach, irrespective of events in Iraq. By spring 2003, the IAEA's investigation had revealed a number of inconsistencies in Iran's nuclear declarations to the Agency, which amounted to violations of Iran's international obligations. These revelations allowed the United States to adopt a more aggressive posture towards Iran and to push for the IAEA to take a tougher line.

The U.S. wait-and-see strategy also sprang from the hope that the volatile political landscape in Iran might bring about a change in regime and an ensuing change in Iran's nuclear policy. In particular, the Bush administration hoped that the anniversary of the 1999 student riots, in June 2003, might provoke a domestic upheaval. There was also a hope that the Iraq war itself would embolden those in Iran pushing for change.

Thus, a preoccupation with Iraq was not the primary reason for the administration's delay in reacting to Iran's nuclear program. More important were the administration's lack of consensus on policy, and its willingness to allow the IAEA to take the lead in unveiling Iran's nuclear violations.


The failure to find illicit weapons in Iraq has opened a large credibility gap for the Bush administration and the United States; future efforts to stop arms smuggling and to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons could suffer as a result.

The panelists agreed that the prime premise for the war in Iraq-disarming Saddam Hussein of mass destruction weapons-is now seen to be invalid. The United States called for an invasion on the strength of intelligence information that proved false. America "cried wolf" over mass destruction weapons that apparently did not exist. Thus, U.S. allies are likely to question the premise for other, similar actions that the United States might request in the future. In some cases, allies might also prove unwilling to commit troops and resources to such actions.

One effect could be on arms smuggling. For many years, the United States has asked countries around the world to help stop illicit arms shipments. Recently, parts for missiles and for centrifuge have been interdicted. But for other countries to keep cooperating in these endeavors, they must believe the United States knows what it is doing-that its intelligence information is reliable. After the intelligence fiasco in Iraq, it may take a long time for the United States to reestablish that belief. Meanwhile, smugglers may benefit from a reluctance of U.S. allies to act.

A second effect could be on the world's dealings with Iran. It seems inevitable that the International Atomic Energy Agency will eventually exhaust its store of information about Iran's nuclear programs and intentions. At that point, the United States will have to step in with intelligence information and argue to keep the investigation on Iran active. Given the nature of such information, it is unlikely to answer every question about Iran's nuclear status. It is bound to have gaps. To demonstrate that Iran is trying to build the bomb-which grows more certain daily-the United States will have to ask its allies for the benefit of the doubt. The allies will be far less likely to give it after seeing what happened in Iraq. The resulting ambiguity could allow Iran to reach nuclear weapon-hood by wriggling through gaps in U.S. intelligence information.

Indeed, current and future proliferation challenges-whether with states like Iran and North Korea or with non-state entities, like the A. Q. Khan network-are more likely to resemble Iraq than Libya. In such tough cases, good intelligence will be crucial to uncovering secret activities. But continued problems with U.S. intelligence gathering and analysis, exposed in the aftermath of the war, could cripple the U.S. ability to meet these challenges.

A third effect could be on the intelligence information itself. Before the first Gulf War, U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated the risk from Saddam Hussein's weapon programs. U.S. agencies failed to detect a large component of Iraq's nuclear complex, and missed entirely its biological weapon program. After this failure, the agencies then made a mistake in the other direction. They overestimated the weapon risk before the second Iraq war. Now, there is the possibility that in reaction to their last mistake they will err once again. They may, in an abundance of caution, underestimate the threat that mass destruction weapons continue to pose.

Finding four: By showing that the United States was willing to act unilaterally, the Iraq war encouraged other countries to become more active in nonproliferation; it led Britain, France and Germany to negotiate a deal with Iran, and it pushed China to sponsor negotiations with North Korea.

The panelists found that the Iraq war undoubtedly encouraged foreign leadership as an alternative to U.S. leadership in nonproliferation efforts. U.S. military action in Iraq, which had very limited support in Europe, spurred Europeans to show that there could be alternatives to force. As a result, Britain, France and Germany undertook negotiations with Iran over its nuclear crisis. In October 2003, foreign ministers from the three European countries convinced Iran to "freeze" its uranium enrichment program and to sign the IAEA's additional protocol. Since then, these countries have continued to pressure Iran to honor its commitments.

The Iraq war also convinced the Chinese that unless they took an active and assertive role in negotiating with North Korea, there might be a military confrontation on the Korean peninsula. The possibility of war on its borders led China to set in motion the "six party process," a series of talks that also include Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

Further, the panelists found that U.S. action in Iraq, combined with the Bush administration's vigorous national security strategy, reminded the world of the seriousness of proliferation and of the need for appropriately muscular policies to combat it. As a result, the European Union developed a strong nonproliferation doctrine in the spring of 2003. This document would probably have been weaker had it not been for the Bush administration's aggressive security policy, of which the Iraq war was one piece. The unanimous approval of a U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution in April 2004, aimed at denying all national territories to illicit bomb makers, was also a result of the world taking proliferation more seriously.

The panelists also found that greater participation in the Bush administration's Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), while not a direct outcome of the Iraq war, was still influenced by the administration's security policy and by the recognition that existing nonproliferation mechanisms were proving insufficient. A number of countries that opposed U.S. action in Iraq nevertheless seized the opportunity to participate in PSI, which was perceived as an effective way, short of war, to stop the spread of unconventional weapons.


The Iraq war had unexpected consequences that may make stopping proliferation more difficult.

The presence of American troops in Iraq has created a "mutual hostage" situation with Iran. Through its influence over Iraqi Shiites just across its border, Iran can now incite attacks on U.S. and coalition soldiers-a powerful lever against the United States that did not exist before the war. At the same time, the fact that Iran's ports and oil fields are located on the Persian Gulf means that the United States, with little military effort, could close or destroy them. The result would be to devastate Iran's economy, which depends on oil for roughly 80% of its income. Regardless of whether the United States would ever be willing to pay the political price for taking that kind of action, it seems fair to conclude that Iran's new power to stir up opposition in Iraq makes any U.S. threat to do so less credible.

The panelists also found that the difficulties of the Iraq occupation may have discredited violent regime change as a tool for disarmament. The U.S. experience in Iraq has shown that regime change can be both costly and chaotic, and that it may fail to improve the overall security environment. The example of Libya, in fact, shows that disarmament can be achieved without regime change. This lesson could have implications for the U.S. government's dealings with both North Korea and Iran.

The panelists concluded that the Bush administration, after getting its fingers burned in Iraq, will be more likely in the future to rely on multilateral efforts to stop arms proliferation. The President's February 2004 speech at the National Defense University, for example, emphasized the traditional non-military components of nonproliferation rather than counterproliferation. Indeed, one of the main lessons of the Iraq war is that the use of military force is an insufficient tool in the overall campaign against mass destruction weapons. That being said, the panelists also agreed that it was too early to measure the effect of the war on the administration's policies. The impact will only be clear if the administration is returned to office after the November elections.

The overall political outcome in Iraq will also affect future non-proliferation efforts. A stable government in Iraq would improve the security environment in the region and the reputation of the United States. On the other hand, the very success of such a government could frighten the governments of Iran and Syria into seeking additional arms. And a political mess in Iraq would be a huge blow to the image and influence of the United States as a force for stability. It could also allow Iraq to dust off its weapon expertise, and to again become a proliferation threat. Thus, a proliferation-free environment in Iraq will require both internal and regional political stability, a goal that may be difficult to achieve.

Finally, the failure to secure international support for the Iraq war has engendered high diplomatic costs that will make it difficult for the United States to muster international support for future actions. Traditional allies will be more reluctant to support U.S. efforts if they believe the United States is predisposed to disregard dissenting opinions and to act unilaterally.


* These findings are a composite of the panelists' individual views; no particular finding should be attributed to any single panelist, nor should the findings be thought to represent the views of any organization with which a panelist is affiliated.