Iraq Inspections Have a 50-50 Chance of Averting War, Says Council’s Middle East Fellow Richard Murphy

Iraq Inspections Have a 50-50 Chance of Averting War, Says Council’s Middle East Fellow Richard Murphy

November 27, 2002 11:33 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Richard Murphy, the Council’s Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow in Middle East studies, puts the chances that Saddam Hussein will comply with renewed U.N. weapons inspections— and thereby avoid a war— at 50-50. “His absolute priority is to assure his own survival and achieve his vision of making Iraq the dominant regional power,” Murphy argues. Still, for Saddam to surrender his doomsday arsenal and survive, he will have to seem as if he is acting from a position of strength, notes the veteran former U.S. diplomat. Elsewhere in the turbulent Persian Gulf, Murphy attributes Saudi lapses in cutting of terrorist financing to carelessness and urges the kingdom to do better.

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Murphy, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during the Reagan administration, made these comments in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for the Council’s website,, on November 26, 2002.

Other Interviews

Q. The U.N. arms inspectors began their work this week. What do you think are the chances of the inspections going ahead and obviating the need for a U.S.-led war against Iraq?

A. I predict Saddam will try hard to satisfy the inspectors’ demands, and I currently put the odds on his doing so at 50-50. His absolute priority is to assure his own survival and achieve his vision of making Iraq the dominant regional power. If there is a U.S.-led war, he will be destroyed, along with the Special Republican Guard and the other instruments he has created to protect his regime. His only way to survive is through compliance with the Security Council resolution.

For our part, we will make sure the inspectors get the best intelligence on Iraqi stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and production sites, which we have assembled from defector reports, overhead photography, and all the other collection devices that we have dedicated to this task over the last several years. This will be supplemented by intelligence from British and other international sources. We will not tolerate the game-playing of 1991-98.

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Saddam may assume that he can keep hidden a cache of WMD against a future contingency, or he may have decided gradually to hand over everything he possesses. Despite having denied possessing WMD for so long, he will find a way to explain any contradiction.

Q. Publicly, the Iraqis keep saying they have no weapons of mass destruction. Do you believe that? The administration obviously does not. How do you reconcile that?

A. The first test comes with the declaration Saddam must make by December 8. The Iraqis may assert that their “dual-use” equipment— in factories such as those producing plastics, pesticides, and fertilizer— no longer produces WMD. Saddam will be running a big risk if he categorically denies by December 8 having WMD stocks and insists he has absolutely no manufacturing capability. We will soon see how skillful the Iraqis are at eliminating any traces of WMD in these facilities. I suspect they will have done a pretty good job at hiding those traces.

Q. Do you assume that the other Security Council members will go along with whatever the U.S. recommends after the inspections are over? Or is it even clear the U.S. will even wait for any Security Council action?

A. I believe the U.S. will wait for the end of the initial 60 days of inspection and not ask for a special Security Council session unless the inspectors unexpectedly make a major discovery.

Q. Can Saddam come clean and survive?

A. If he is going to give up WMD, he must act as if he is doing so from a position of strength. A tyrant cannot afford any sign of weakness. Today his power appears limitless, and he is accountable to no one. After all, he still asserts that he won the "mother of all battles" in 1991. He might choose to pose as the initiator of regional disarmament, calling on Israel to follow his example. Some argue he has already signaled his weakness by the October prisoner release, which has been hailed as the beginning of his end. I don’t think we yet have enough evidence to make that judgment.

Q. Next to Iraq, the Middle Eastern country getting the most criticism in the U.S. these days is Saudi Arabia, where you served as U.S. ambassador. Saudi Arabia is such a major supplier of oil to the U.S. and the world economy, and yet so many of the terrorists involved in 9/11 were Saudis and so much money emanating from Saudi sources seemingly ended up in terrorist hands. Can you discuss the current dilemma faced by the Bush administration and the Saudi government?

A. Saudi production is crucial to the global economy, not to that of the United States. We import about half of our daily consumption of 20 million barrels of oil per day. Saudi exports to the U.S. are about 16 percent of the oil we import but only 5 percent of our total daily consumption. We can substitute other sources for Saudi oil, and the Saudis increasingly find their market in Asia. That does not diminish Saudi importance as an oil power. Today, they can produce an additional two million barrels per day over their current production. They have used this capacity to steady the oil markets, most recently during the period of global uncertainty following 9/11.

Some in Washington have been fantasizing about the oil market. In order to reinforce their case for an immediate attack on Iraq, they have described Saddam’s fall as the first step in a process of regional democratization. They predict his elimination will be followed by a quick end to the Iranian regime, then by the withering away of Hezbollah and the mounting of effective pressures on Syria for changes in its regime. With a friendly Iraq controlling the world’s second-largest oil reserves and with major investments in Russian and Caspian oil production, they argue that Saudi Arabia will lose its importance and itself be set for further democratization.

The facts are that just to rehabilitate the Iraqi oil fields and restore production to its pre-Desert Storm level will take at least three years and billions of dollars. It is worth noting the difficulties that foreign oil companies have experienced in developing business relationships in Russia and the climatic and geographic difficulties facing Caspian oil development. I am willing to bet that ten years from now, the world will need all the oil that can be produced from all the above sources— and that the Saudis will maintain their role as a major producer with an unparalleled ability to cushion shocks in the world oil market.

Q. What about the Saudi links to terrorism?

A. There is no question that the Saudi investigations into 9/11 have been inadequate. They have found cooperation with our FBI difficult, to put it mildly. American criticisms of their cooperation dates back to the Riyadh and Khobar bombings of the 1990s. The Saudis did not welcome a planeload of FBI agents flying in to Riyadh and wanting immediate access to those who had been arrested in connection with the earlier bombings. The perpetrators of the Riyadh bombing were executed before they could be interviewed by the Americans. A senior FBI official commented to me at the time that, of course, had the situation been reversed, we would not have given the Saudis as much access to our investigation as we were seeking for ourselves in Saudi Arabia.

After 9/11, the Saudis went into deep denial. First they doubted that Arabs were involved. Certainly they could not have been Saudi Arabs, they said. For months thereafter, a key Saudi official, Minister of Interior Prince Nayef, repeated that view and asserted that his government had received no proof of the American claims that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The Saudi government must find its way to being more cooperative.

Still, I am struck by the fact that 15 hijackers were Saudis. That suggests that in recruiting them, somebody had in mind Osama bin Laden’s political goal of driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the United States. He seeks the exit of American forces from the Arabian Peninsula and the overthrow of the House of Saud, which he has attacked as impious for having invited in "infidel forces" in 1990 during Operation Desert Shield. The hijackers could have been recruited from al-Qaeda supporters from Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan, or the United Arab Emirates.

Q. Is there some explanation for the funding of terrorism?

A. Saudi Arabia has been largely careless about monitoring the charitable foundations established in the kingdom or by Saudis abroad. The Saudis are also dedicated to propagating the faith of Islam and its strict practice known as Wahhabism. A Muslim should pay a (voluntary) tax, zakat, to charitable uses annually. With Saudi Arabia having the largest number of wealthy individuals in the Arab world, major charitable gifts go through foundations rather than as direct gifts from the donor to individual recipients. Some percentage of that money has funded al-Qaeda and other organizations which we have identified as having engaged in acts of terrorism. Some of that money has been given wittingly for those purposes, and some has been diverted to those purposes. The Saudi government has reportedly imposed new reporting requirements through the banking system which aim at closer monitoring of the charitable foundations. We need to learn more about the effectiveness of these new controls. Much work remains to be done.



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