Pride, science, fear yield WMDMahdi Obeidi, the mastermind of Iraq's uranium-enrichment program at the heart of its nuclear ambitions and author of The Bomb in My Garden, discussed his book, nuclear proliferation, and more with Asia Times Online's Gary LaMoshi.
Asia Times Online: You worked to create a nuclear option for Saddam Hussein, even though you say his regime terrorized you, your family, and your country. How did you reconcile your feelings of national pride and scientific inquiry in the research with the horrors of that regime and what it might do with nuclear weapons? What did you think Saddam Hussein would do with nuclear weapons?
Mahdi Obeidi: I believe you have put your finger on a crucial point to understand nuclear proliferation. The pursuit of nuclear weapons may start with feelings of national pride and scientific pursuit. Scientists are then caught in an irreversible process whereby they become recruited [due to] their knowledge. They are placed in situations over which they have little control. Tyranny can put a man in an untenable position if he is to protect himself or his family.
The three factors of national pride, scientific pursuit, and fear enabled Saddam to be on the verge of having a bomb. Thank God, the world will never know what Saddam might have done with one.
ATol: You say that the real secrets of nuclear proliferation - and thus the greatest dangers - are buried in the minds of scientists in Iraq, the former Soviet Union, and other nuclear states and aspirants. But the struggles of your program, and the convergence of ingenuity (you are obviously a brilliant engineer, sir), overseas contacts and outright criminality, plus Iraq's oil wealth and benign neglect by the West, instrumental in your success, underscore how difficult it is to make a bomb. So it seems unlikely that a handful of scientists could succeed with nothing more than their knowledge, particularly with the toughened global non-proliferation regime now in place. Why do you think nuclear scientists' minds alone are so dangerous?
Obeidi: The toughened global non-proliferation regime now in place came as a consequence of the Iraqi experience: how a small, underdeveloped nation can make great scientific strides in about three years to be on the verge of making a bomb from scratch.
The lack of world awareness about proliferation in the last century allowed many countries to become nuclear, and some [others] were well on their way. It is hoped that in this century, eyes will be wide open to deter would-be proliferators. The nuclear scientists' minds could make the necessary start towards proliferation when world situation allows.
ATol: Your book doesn't mention any contacts with other 1980s nuclear aspirants such as Libya, North Korea, and especially Pakistan. Did you ever speak to the scientists in these countries or exchange information with them? You also don't mention the Soviet Union: was there ever any contact with its scientists?
Obeidi: I didn't make any contact with any of the scientists in the countries you have mentioned.
ATol: During the years after the Gulf War, under weapons inspections and sanctions, did you believe it was conceivable that Iraq could have continued developing weapons of mass destruction? Why did the world - the United States and Britain invaded, but there was consensus among global intelligence agencies that Iraq was still doing something under the table - get it so wrong?
Obeidi: Iraq could not have restarted his program during the nineties for the following reasons:
How could the world have made a mistaken assessment of the Iraqi nuclear program before the invasion? There was Saddam Hussein's history. He had demonstrated his desire for nuclear weapons since the late '70s, beginning with the reactor program and ending with the enrichment programs up to 1991, which led to an accelerated bomb program. After 1991, Saddam tried to hide the program from UN inspection teams until the escape of Hussein Kamel. It would have been hard not to suspect Saddam of trying to develop weapons again.
ATol: Tell me your thoughts about what's happening in Iraq today. Do you think that the price paid, by foreigners and Iraqis, is worth the results to date, specifically the end of Saddam Hussein's regime and the beginnings of a more legitimate government? To put it in more personal terms, you have a teenage son: how would you feel if he wanted to volunteer to fight in Iraq, for the US forces, the Iraq National Guard, or the insurgency?
Obeidi: Tyranny is man's greatest enemy. It deprives him of his self-worth, and drains his mental and material resources. Any blood spilled to rid a nation of tyranny is worth every drop.
ATol: We all talk about being "chained to our desks" sometimes, but you actually were. You were confined to a plant producing black carbon for tire production in 1994 when the project failed to finish on schedule. Tell me more about that experience. How many of you were confined? What were the conditions like? Could you contact your families? How did you, to quote from your account in the book, try to "lighten spirits"?
Obeidi: For Iraq, the '90s was a period of retreat. The survival game was prevalent. Threats became more explicit and less veiled. I was confined for six months in the black-carbon factory along with 20 of my employees. I could only talk with my family on the phone. I feared that the morale of my employees would break, and I cultivated my mutual respect and love for them to spirit them through those trying days.
ATol: You've been educated at institutions in the Arab world, the US and the UK. Tell me about the differences between those educational systems. What can each system learn from the others? How do differences in those education systems impact graduates and those societies at large?
Obeidi: Iraq has a solid education base. I utilized my basic education with the American education system, which is known for its diversity and theoretical base. This was further improved by the British system, which is noted for its fine research base.
Gary LaMoshi has worked as a broadcast producer and print writer and editor in the US and Asia. Longtime editor of investor rights advocate eRaider.com, he is also a contributor to Slate and Salon.com.