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Sep. 12: The Iraq Action Team: a model for monitoring and verification of WMD non-proliferation

The United Nations Special Commission and the Iraq Action Team

The UN Security Council first took the initiative to create its own verification disarmament unit under the provisions of Resolution 687, adopted after the Kuwait war in 1991. At that time, the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) became the first subsidiary organ of the Security Council, and was tasked with supervising the removal and destruction of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—including its chemical, biological and missile capabilities—and relevant delivery systems, and with measures to prevent their reconstitution.

The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (DGIAEA)—as opposed to the IAEA secretariat itself, with its institutional structures and decision-making bodies—had been given responsibility for the nuclear-related tasks. In order to fulfil his obligations, the Director General set up the Iraq Action Team, which was also independent of the IAEA’s formal structures, including the Department of Safeguards.

The Iraq Action Team had a two-fold mandate in Iraq: to remove and destroy nuclear-related material and equipment; and to manage an ongoing monitoring and verification programme. It reported the results of its technical analyses to the DGIAEA, who in turn reported the findings to the UN Security Council.

The Action Team’s inspections disclosed a wide range of undeclared nuclear activities in Iraq including different approaches to uranium enrichment and attempts at plutonium reprocessing. None of these activities had been detected by the previous IAEA safeguards inspections. Indeed, the Action Team’s discovery of Iraq’s numerous violations of its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA led to a strengthening of the safeguards system to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities in a state party.


Limits to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s legal authority in Iraq

It is significant to note that the Security Council did not consider it appropriate to give the IAEA, a specialized agency within the UN family, the highly intrusive and coercive task of verifications inspections in Iraq. The agency’s institutional set-up and decision-making structures (involving the General Conference and the Board of Governors) could not be adapted to the kinds of systematic operational activities that were expected for the disarmament and verification tasks ahead.

Another problem in this context was that the verification mission was not limited to the IAEA’s specialized field of nuclear fuel cycle matters but could be expected to relate to nuclear weapons technology and weapons design, with potential proliferation risks.

Further, the fact that the UN Security Council did not authorize the DGIAEA to act with regard to non-declared nuclear facilities and activities, in the absence of a UNSCOM designation, was an expression of a principle established in the preamble to Resolution 687, namely the commitment to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of Iraq.

The UN Security Council was thus not ready to give the IAEA or its Director General rights that could challenge the territorial integrity of Iraq. Instead, the Council’s own subsidiary organ, UNSCOM, under the Council’s supervision, was made politically responsible for handling and judging such sensitive issues, including the consequences of designating non-declared locations for investigation.


The United Nations Special Commission’s monitoring and inspection activities in Iraq

The creation of UNSCOM and the related institutional construction is virtually unique in contemporary history, although an earlier historical example is the Control Commission tasked with disarming Germany after World War I. In contrast to that commission, the UNSCOM/DGIAEA (later referred to as the UNSCOM/IAEA) operation turned out to be a remarkable success.

The UNSCOM/IAEA inspections combined a ‘search and destroy’ mission with an ongoing monitoring verification (OMV) system constructed by UNSCOM and the Action Team, and approved by UN Security Council Resolution 715. In addition to site inspections, the terms of the resolution encompassed document searches, interviews, air sampling, overhead photography using U2 flight surveillance, sampling equipment, satellite imagery, ground-penetrating radar and intelligence provided by governments.

The monitoring team carried out no-notice inspections at locations where suspected activities involving the development, production or storage of prohibited items could take place. The special strength of the system was that seasoned experts from outside the IAEA safeguards system with experience in the nuclear, chemical and biological fields led the inspections.

The inspectors faced stiff resistance from the Iraqi authorities, especially with regard to weapons declarations and the provision of access to sites. However, a united UN Security Council gave constant and continuous political support through strong statements and sometimes threatening language.

With this solid political backing the Iraq Action Team’s operations continued effectively until 1998, when US airstrikes in Iraq made continued work impossible. The team was then forced to terminate its inspection and verification activities in the country.


Evaluating the work of the Iraq Action Team

The definitive evaluation of the quality and efficiency of its verification and inspection work in Iraq between 1991 and 1998 could not be accomplished until an invading US-led coalition had taken control in the country in late 2003.

The evaluation carried out by the Iraq Survey Group concluded that by 1997 the UNSCOM/IAEA team had accomplished its task, fully in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 687 and the subsequent Resolutions, 707 and 715. In other words all prohibited items, facilities and capabilities had been identified and destroyed, and a fully operational monitoring system was in place up until the end of 1998.

The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) inspection system that replaced UNSCOM—which was dissolved after the UN Security Council’s unified support for its activities crumbled—was set up in 1999, although its operations in Iraq immediately before the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2003 were limited to four months. However, as was later proved, UNMOVIC had no prohibited items to look for, because the alleged stockpiles did not in fact exist.


A permanent subsidiary body responsible for verification

A number of proposals have been made as a result of the indisputable success and accomplishments of the control and verification systems set up by the UN Security Council in Iraq. All of these proposals call for the establishment on a permanent basis of a subsidiary body responsible for verification of the absence of illicit WMD programmes.

The focus of this body should be on weapons, weaponization and weapons production. In other words, it should not replicate the IAEA’s traditional safeguards activities with respect to nuclear materials and facilities. Like the UNSCOM/IAEA operation, the subsidiary body could address the questions of inspections or site visits by IAEA inspection teams to non-declared facilities.

Such decisions should take into account the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The subsidiary body should base its authority upon decisions by the UN Security Council. At the same time it should have competence to alert the Security Council to possible threats of proliferation and related events.

This body would also be responsible for investigating the possible use, production and acquisition of chemical or biological weapons. It should closely follow developments in nuclear weapon proliferation by carrying out analysis, assembling information from governments and following and evaluating trade patterns and tendencies.

The nuclear weapons competence of a new body would need to be carefully protected, both when selecting staff and when handling incoming sensitive data. The staffing of the unit should follow the UNSCOM model of recruiting both seasoned scientific experts and personnel with operational experience and training for the inspection activities.

Weapons analysts should be placed at headquarters so that the Security Council can reach them. Finally, a roster of weapons inspectors should be maintained, regularly trained and updated, so that they can be summoned within a short timeframe.



The proliferation of nuclear weapons remains a fundamental international security challenge. Given the UN Security Council’s unique responsibility for global security, it must take the lead in verifying and monitoring nuclear non-proliferation. The creation of a dedicated verification and monitoring body is an important and crucial step in meeting the proliferation challenge.




Ambassador Rolf Ekéus is a Distinguished Associate Fellow within the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme.