Iraqi Nuclear History

Nikhil Basutkar
February 26, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016

Iraq's nuclear program began in the 1960s with the construction of a 2-megawatt Soviet nuclear reactor called the IRT-5000. [1] In 1968, Iraq signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in 1969, Iraq ratified the treaty. This gave Iraq the right to develop nuclear energy but prohibited Iraq from attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. The nuclear program expanded in the 1970s with the acquisition of an Osiris-class research reactor from the French government, subsequently named Osirak. This deal was finalized in November 1975, and construction of the new reactor began in 1979. [2]

Clandestine Nuclear Weapons Program

Under the cover of this civilian nuclear program, Iraq attempted to covertly acquire a nuclear weapon. Because reports differ as to the details of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program, little information actually exists that describes the extent of its activities. However, we do know that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gave final approval for the funding of a secretive nuclear weapons program. Following the 1991 Gulf War, the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducted an unprecedented inspection of Iraqi nuclear facilities and found evidence in the Iraqi archives that revealed that Iraq had been enriching uranium for the development of a nuclear weapon for a number of years. Iraq had invested heavily in this program, but never quite came up with an effective weapon design and never had enough highly enriched uranium (HEU). Experts disagree on whether Iraq could have eventually obtained a nuclear weapon, but the general consensus is that they at least had enough material to make one bomb.

Operation Opera

In June 1981, fearing the presence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program, Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in Operation Opera. Numerous foreign nations, including the United States, condemned the attack, but the Israeli government stood by its actions, saying that they were the precedent for future Israeli governments, calling it the Begin Doctrine, after Israeli Prime Minster Menachem Begin. While the overall success of the mission in terms of diplomatic relations and effects on nuclear disarmament are debatable, Iraq's nuclear program never recovered, such that they still did not have a nuclear bomb in 1991, when the UN and IAEA conducted disarmament of its WMDs as a condition for ending the Persian Gulf War. Iraq was also required to submit to regular inspections of its facilities by the IAEA. [3,4]

2003 Iraqi Disarmament Crisis

During the subsequent decade and a half, the Iraqi government decreased its commitment to inspections, eventually denying inspections of its facilities completely. This led President George W. Bush to call for regime change in Iraq and the readmission of inspectors from the IAEA. When Saddam Hussein was unresponsive, the Bush administration began asserting its military presence in the region, and eventually began the Iraq War. Inspectors went to sites where intelligence sources suspected WMDs were, but no evidence of such weapons was ever found.

Implications for the Future

The Iraqi nuclear program does not seem likely to be restarted in the near future. Now that the Islamic State has overrun much of Iraq's territory, the future of the state of Iraq itself is in jeopardy. Islamic State has recovered low-grade uranium that was once used by Iraq's nuclear program, but this material is not high quality enough for even a dirty bomb, which uses explosives to disperse radioactive material across a wide area. Therefore, Iraqi nuclear weapons are no longer an important priority in international affairs.

© Nikhil Basutkar. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] F. Barnaby, How Nuclear Weapons Spread (Routledge, 1994).

[2] J. Miller, "U.S. Officials Say Iraq Had Ability To Make Nuclear Weapon In 1981," New York Times, 9 Jun 81.

[3] D. Albright and M. Hibbs, "Iraq's Bomb: Blueprints and Artifacts," B. Atom. Sci. 48, 30 (1992).

[4] J.Kirschenbaum, "Operation Opera: An Ambiguous Success," Journal of Strategic Security 3, No. 4, 49 (2010).