19 April 2003

Africa: US Nuclear Agency Still Has Suspicions On Iraq-Niger Nuclear Link

interview

Washington, DC — The thought of nuclear weaponry getting into the hands of terrorists or "rogue states" is a worry that has intensified in recent years. It's the same concern that fuels the official explanation for the U.S.' current war with Iraq. But you can't have nuclear weaponry without nuclear materials. And Africa has a lot of the basic material of nuclear weaponry: uranium.

Earlier this year, U.S. officials accused Niger of signing a secret deal with Iraq to ship uranium ore for its weapons program. This charge was first made by, the British government in a report in September 2002 when it accused Baghdad of trying to obtain what it called "significant quantities of uranium from Africa" for its covert nuclear weapons program. The West African nation of Niger, is the third largest producer of mined uranium, which is used for nuclear fission reactions in both weapons and power generating reactors. With GNP per capita of US$190, Niger is one of the world's poorest nations.

Although the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna now says the charges against Niger are false, and were based on counterfeit documents, worry persists, inside and outside of government, that African uranium could make its way surreptitiously into a weapons program somewhere.

At the same time, it is in Africa that what is widely considered the best example of nuclear disarmament can be found - South Africa. In 1989, Pretoria voluntarily decided to end nuclear weapons production and in 1990 unilaterally began to dismantle all of its weapons. It was the first nation in the world to engage in such unilateral nuclear disarmament. By 1994, South Africa had provided verifiable evidence that its nuclear inventory had been completely dismantled.

AllAfrica.com's Charles Cobb Jr. spoke with the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation, John Wolf, about Africa and nuclear nonproliferation. Wolf arrives in South Africa Wednesday for a two-day visit. In preparatory talks scheduled for Vienna later this month that will lead to another round of nuclear disarmament talks, South Africa is expected to play an influential role. Excerpts:

In the run-up to the war with Iraq, the charge was made - now proved false, I think, that Niger and Iraq were working out a uranium sales deal as part of Iraq's nuclear weapons program. The International Atomic Energy Agency finally said their investigation showed that the accusation was based on forged documents. Still, I understand that the U.S. isn't quite persuaded. What do you say? Is this charge true or false? And how concerned are you about some of this uranium ore making its way into weapons programs?

Several countries in Africa have uranium. But I think everybody in Africa is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). We think almost everybody - but not everybody - is fully in compliance with its obligations. We have some concerns about the direction of Libya's nuclear program and some questions that still have to be resolved. But no details there.

Many countries in Africa, but not all African countries, have signed IAEA (International Agency for Atomic Energy) safeguard programs. Many countries do not have any nuclear facilities at all but many would have used radioactive materials in medicine or for industrial purposes or whatnot. Every country that is part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty needs to have a safeguards agreement; it's part of your NPT obligations. So we would encourage everybody to move in that direction. Everybody who has programs of one sort or another, including mining, milling, we think should also be signatories to additional protocols. Eleven years ago the IAEA came forward with the idea of an additional layer of safeguards and confidence building measures in the wake of the North Korea and Iraq discoveries. I think that very few countries in Africa have actually signed additional protocols.

So, we would say the risk is there, especially in a couple of classes of countries: Countries that have mining and milling need to have additional safeguards that would provide the international community with confidence that those who are out there seeking to acquire nuclear materials aren't able to get them clandestinely. The protocol provides a level of transparency and adds an element of confidence at a time when things like the nuclear nonproliferation treaty are under attack by a variety of countries that are pursuing clandestine programs.

Now with regard to Niger: The IAEA has put forth its view. we don't have any reason to question its view about those particular documents, but we believe that Iraq was continuing to maintain clandestine nuclear-related opportunistic programs and we will have an opportunity in the weeks ahead - as the security situation settles and we have a chance to talk to people who were in the nuclear program or people who may want to volunteer info - we will have a chance to find out from the Iraqis who we hope will now be prepared to cooperate, exactly what was happening inside Iraq and what international connections they had that supported their clandestine weapons of mass destruction program.

And you're including in that belief, Niger and perhaps other African nations?

Let the chips fall where they may. I'm not saying anybody in particular. I'm not saying Niger versus the Congo versus anybody else. I'm just saying that now we will have an opportunity to talk to Iraqi scientists, engineers and others and we will have a chance to find out what was actually happening in the clandestine programs and would hope that would include information about procurement and suppliers.

Will you respond to the charge of "double standard"? There is what might be called the North Korean stance which holds that given Iraq the best defense is nuclear capability. You can hear something like this in Africa, that the U.S. is not so much worried about nuclear weapons as it is with who has nuclear weapons. Do you think that within this political framework, efforts by "third world" nations, developing nations, African nations, to develop nuclear weapons capacity is a concern for the U.S.?

We think that everybody should be concerned by that phenomenon. People tend to stand aside and say, 'Well maybe the United States should be worried because maybe a weapon could be clandestinely launched against the United States. But I'd take you back to September 11, 2001 and tell you that the terrorist attack in New York and Washington didn't just strike the United States. The economic wreckage is far more profound all around the world. Everybody in Africa, everybody in southeast Asia, south Asia, in western Europe - we're all suffering the loss of trillions of dollars that came from the loss of confidence. So don't ever think that just because a terrorist may use a weapon of mass destruction against an American target that somehow the rest of the world doesn't have to worry about it.

Why do we worry about programs in Iran or Libya or North Korea, for instance? It's because these states have close ties to international terrorists. It's clear. It's as clear as the nose on our face. North Korea is a weapons of mass destruction serial proliferator; it's kind of 'Weapons-R-Us.' They sell missiles to anybody who will buy them and I guess the worry is that if they had nuclear weapons, given their economic desperation a sort of survival level at which they have forced their economy to operate, that the one thing they do with the rest of the world is sell weapons and a weapon is worth a lot to a terrorist state and the only reason to have those weapons for a terrorists to use them somewhere. That to us is a huge risk and it is not a risk we are prepared to face. It is a threat that the president has made very clear that we will go to some great lengths to stop.

I was asking you whether that kind of attitude, North Korea's, is spreading to other nations?

I am concerned by the sort of blase nonchalance by the rest of the world in the face of the growth of weapons of mass destruction. Frankly, we can't understand why there isn't more emotion [about this] among others. Why don't others see the threat? If weapons of mass destruction are used anywhere in the world, in the United States or anywhere, it's going to cause havoc. We have to work together. We have to work with our own national export controls. We have to tighten up the regimes meant to stop proliferation. And we have to use diplomatic pressure, exerted by everybody, against those who would violate the norms.

For Africa, the importance of a world where there is not a continuing growth in nuclear armed countries is very important for the economic and political reasons that I said earlier. For the most part, Africa has chosen to go nuclear weapons-free. It has the Treaty of Pelindaba [South Africa, June 2001] which says that Africa will not go in that direction; that's important! But it is also important for countries that have nuclear materials not to close their eyes and sell to whoever has money. Because if you do that you become the weak link in the international chain that guards against nuclear weapons proliferation. You've got to know who the buyer is. You've got to know that the purpose is only in support of civil nuclear programs.

For everybody in Africa it's equally important that they take measures to strengthen their own domestic protections for radiological sources. Many countries around the world have these radioactive isotopes that they use in medicine, in plant genetics, for industrial purposes. And those in the hands of a terrorist can create a "dirty bomb". a dirty bomb is only useful as some sort of economic terrorism weapon. It doesn't kill people, it just kills economic activity.

Countries need to know that these dangerous materials are well-protected. They need to know who has them; who has access to them, and there needs to be some sort of licensing process for them to move in domestic trade and certainly in international trade. So, in that respect, it would be fair to say that we do worry about Africa, but we worry about south-eastern Asia, South Asia. We certainly worry about some parts of Europe.

Any particular countries?

None that I would single out. In terms of clandestine programs I'm a little less worried about Africa than I am about people who have things that are overt [and] a source of temptation to terrorist rogues who might seek to acquire them. And I worry about the attitude that says, "Well, it's not my business how they use it; I just need the money, so I'm going to sell."

You're off to South Africa. Do you consider it a model, the model of nuclear disarmament?

South Africa is in a way the poster for nuclear disarmament. South Africa, better than anybody else, should understand that simply because one operates without an apparent safeguards violation it doesn't mean that a country's nuclear program is purely civil in the nature. South Africa hid from the world a nuclear weapons program for some period of time even though the safeguards program appeared to be fully in order. So South Africa should understand the threat and the sort of moral dilemma; you're in compliance with your safeguards, but underneath there's a weapons program.

South Africa has been a voice in favor of the non-proliferation treaty. It is necessary for all of us, developed and developing countries, to stand up and say the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is under attack and we're prepared to fight for it and we're prepared to see it be the cornerstone of international non-proliferation efforts that it has been for years.

We want people to underscore their concerns about programs like North Korea's or like Iran's which are in direct contravention to the principles of the non-proliferation treaty. We want people to speak out for improved and strengthened safeguards. And we think that needs to be the central message in Geneva this spring.

Will you be asking the South African government to play a particular role at non-proliferation "prepcom" talks later this month? Do you have a special role in mind?

I think there is a special role because South Africa has consistently played a leadership role both in the nonaligned movement and in the NPT context. For me, this is my first time south of northern Africa so I look forward to going not to preach a message but to be hearing and learning from South Africa.

There were also three South African missions to Iraq. I wish that Iraq had actually listened and paid attention to the advice that South Africa put forward. I used to regularly hear Dr. [Hans] Blix talk about South Africa as 'the model." Once they made the political decision to cooperate then began a process of cooperation which was, in Dr. Blix's words, "proactive," [in which] South Africa answered questions before they were asked, in juxtaposition to Iraq which lied to questions asked and answered nothing more. It was very clear that everybody was instructed to volunteer no information and when they provided information, to lie. Unfortunately they didn't internalize the South African model, and the consequences are now visible for all to see.

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