Giving Up on the Bomb: Revisiting Libya’s Decision to Dismantle its Nuclear Program

Bush with aluminum tubes

Revisiting Libya’s decision to dismantle its nuclear weapons program

In my recent book, Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya failed to build nuclear weapons, I explore why Libya and Iraq did not acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq’s program was interrupted by the 1991 Gulf War as it stood on the threshold of a breakthrough, whereas Libya dismantled its failing program in late 2003 after reaching an agreement with the U.S. and the U.K.

Lessons from the Iraqi and Libyan programs and their outcomes are hotly disputed. Recently, North Korean officials pointed to these cases to justify the rapid advances of their own nuclear weapons program, arguing that the fates of Saddam and Gaddafi demonstrate that abandoning a nuclear weapons program can lead to disaster. Iranian officials have made similar statements.

While the Libyan decision to dismantle the nuclear weapons program was initially lauded as a new model for negotiated counter-proliferation, it was clear even before 2011—when a popular uprising backed by Western powers toppled the Gaddafi regime—that other states would be reluctant to follow Libya’s example. As I discovered in interviews with Libyan officials less than two years after the deal was announced, many had come to regret their decision.

The officials I interviewed in Libya during 2005 and 2006 felt cheated and humiliated. Many expressed frustration with the limited economic benefits from the deal, which did not spark the broader economic revitalization many officials had hoped for. They chafed at being treated as second-class participants in international fora despite having voluntarily abandoned the program to reintegrate back into the international community.

This begs the question: what did Libyan officials think they would get from the 2003 deal? Why did they abandon the nuclear weapons program and what were their reactions to the outcome of the deal prior to the 2011 uprising?

A deal long in the making

While surrendering the nuclear weapons program was a decision long in the making—Libya had offered to discuss the nuclear program with the US during the 1990s—taking the final plunge in 2003 was difficult. Libya had pursued nuclear weapons since 1970 and abandoning the program marked a crucial shift in Libyan foreign and security policy.

First, several actors in the Gaddafi regime had a stake in the nuclear weapons program. It was supported by the more radical regime faction (who wanted nuclear weapons to enable radical measures to promote the Libyan regime’s revolutionary policies abroad), groups inside the military, and officials with a personal stake in the program (including alleged personal financial gains from the black market deals to purchase nuclear technology). Still, these actors had to compete with the influential group that favored abandoning the program as the culmination of an effort to bring Libya back from years of international isolation and sanctions

Proponents of abandoning the nuclear weapons program persuaded Gaddafi with several arguments, including the expected economic upturn that would follow the lifting of sanctions targeting the petroleum industry, as well as what they perceived to be promises that the United States and the United Kingdom would provide additional support.

While the Libyans sought a security guarantee—which they did not receive—US and UK negotiators signaled that they would sell military equipment. It remains unclear what precisely was promised during these talks and how each side interpreted these promises, but it seems clear that Libya wanted a strong commitment to guarantee the regime’s survival if they abandoned the nuclear weapons program.

According to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who played a central role in the talks leading to the decision to abandon the program, one of the most difficult considerations for his father was the risk that abandoning the nuclear weapons program could facilitate future support by Western powers of a popular uprising against the regime. As it turned out, this is perhaps the main lesson cited by North Korea: abandoning a nuclear weapons program can leave an isolated regime vulnerable to regime change backed by the United States.

Yet, as my book demonstrates, the Libyan nuclear weapons program faced profound challenges that made the likelihood of actually succeeding with this program very low. In fact, the program could be described as a series of initiatives that collapsed, one after the other, largely due to the weaknesses of the Libyan state apparatus. This begs the obvious question: didn’t Libyan officials realize that the program was a failure? Or did they realize this and pretended that the program fared better than it actually did?

When I interviewed Libyan officials, including members of the team negotiating the 2003 deal and other individuals that were closely involved with deliberations over the nuclear weapons program, they offered two sharply different narratives of the state of the nuclear weapons program. On one hand, some officials argued that it was not much of a program and that Libya got a lot out of the deal.

On the other hand, senior officials—including Saif al-Islam Gaddafi—argued that the program was a serious effort. Both Saif al-Islam and Matuq, the leader of the Libyan nuclear weapons program during its final years, estimated that the program was five years away from the nuclear weapons threshold when it was abandoned in late 2003. This assessment is clearly unrealistic, given what we now know about the program, but it does suggest that this may have been the understanding of senior regime officials at the time. In other words, if they believed this estimate, then they also believed that they gave up a near-term nuclear weapons option.

The Libyans were also dissatisfied with the way in which their decision was announced. They sought to avoid the impression that they made this decision out of fear of ending up like the Iraqi regime and Saddam Hussein. After all, they had entered into talks with the US and the UK before the invasion of Iraq. But they relented, accepting that the US and the UK wanted to demonstrate a WMD victory given the failure to find WMD in Iraq. In retrospect, they felt humiliated when speculations suggesting they were scared of sharing Saddam’s fate soon emerged.

Looking back, there are many lessons to be learned from the Libyan nuclear turnaround. For example, the perceived slights and humiliations cited by Libyan officials show that it is sometimes necessary to reward states for giving up pursuit of nuclear weapons—both in financial and symbolic terms. Denying the leaders of such states a seat at the table can be politically satisfying, particularly when these leaders are brutal autocrats, but will be costly in the longer term. Unfortunately, a key lesson from the Libyan experience is that trusting the United States’ long-term commitment to stand by its deals can be a fatal mistake. 

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo.
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