India’s Nuclear Tests: Will They Open New Possibilities for Iraq to Exploit?

May 28, 1998

ISIS Issue Brief

For additional information contact: David Albright, President at (202) 547-3633

According to an Associated Press report on May 17, 1998, Iraq supports India’s nuclear tests. The Ba’ath Party’s newspaper, Al-Thawra, said: “We cannot see how anyone can ask India not to develop nuclear weapons and its long-range missiles at a time it is like any other big state with its human and scientific potential.”

This statement is reminiscent of the old defiant Iraq. Prior to the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein said that Iraq had the right to nuclear weapons to defend itself against Israel.

Simultaneously, the Sunday issue of a Baghdad weekly, owned by Saddam Hussein’s eldest son Odai, announced that India has agreed to enroll several groups of Iraqi engineers “in advanced technological courses” scheduled for mid-July. The field of training was left unstated, but one worries that Iraq could acquire illicit assistance in the nuclear or ballistic missile areas.


Nuclear relations between Iraq and India date back to 1974. Saddam Hussein flew to India specifically to sign a nuclear cooperation treaty with Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister. The little known treaty involved the exchange of scientists, training, and technology.

Reportedly, Iraqi scientists were working in India’s plutonium separation labs, often referred to as fuel reprocessing laboratories, at the time India separated the plutonium for its first nuclear explosive device. Those same Iraqi scientists later were in charge of the nuclear fuel reprocessing unit supplied to Iraq by the Italian company CNEN. A year or two later, an Indian scientist spent a year at the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission’s computer center training Iraqis on the use of nuclear computer codes.

However, following the destruction of the Iraqi (French-supplied) Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, the Iraqi program went underground to develop indigenous nuclear weapon production facilities. Iraq no longer welcomed the exchange of scientists for fear of revealing its clandestine program. Nuclear cooperation was placed on hold. Nonetheless, India taught Iraq many tricks, including how to acquire nuclear technology under the guise of peaceful nuclear energy. Iraq also learned how easy it was to hide a nuclear weapons program under the cover of peaceful use.

Implications of the Indian Test

With Pakistan likely to test its own nuclear bombs and several major powers, including Russia and Britain, refusing to impose sanctions on India, Iraq could find it easier to undermine inspections or violate sanctions in the future.

The UN Security Council is considering whether to “close the nuclear file” of Iraq and move to only the ongoing monitoring and verification (OMV) program. The current crisis could further erode the ability of the Security Council to enforce inspections in Iraq. In general, the international community could find it harder to enforce its norms. The result could be a more permissive international climate especially among developing states.

Iraq is well-positioned to exploit this situation. Iraq’s nuclear establishment is still fully staffed. A recently revealed Iraqi intelligence agency document could be indicative of future offers from nuclear weapons scientists seeking to make a fortune by assisting Iraq. This document states that Pakistan’s chief nuclear scientist, Dr. Abdul-Qadeer Khan, offered via an intermediary in October 1990 to provide Iraq key nuclear weapons assistance strictly for financial gain.

If Iraqi-Indian cooperation is rejuvenated through training in advanced technical courses, Iraq could solve some of its technological bottlenecks, possibly in the nuclear area. The Indian government is unlikely to provide Iraq with important nuclear know-how and technology on an official basis. However, with a friendlier and more relaxed climate between the two nations, Iraq may be able to arrange for information transfer through bribes and favors to politicians or scientists. Indian nuclear scientists who are low paid or disaffected are especially vulnerable.

Iraq’s position could be strengthened further if Iran decides to seek nuclear weapons more aggressively. Iran’s recent nuclear and missile cooperation with Russia has been viewed with suspicion by Arab states. Because of the historic hostility between the Gulf States and Iran, the United States may find it increasingly difficult to punish Iraq without alienating regional allies if Iraq defies the OMV program or sanctions, particularly if the Iranian nuclear threat increases and the peace process remains stalemated.

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