unclear-physics-why-iraq-and-libya-failed-to-build-nuclear-weaponsAuthor: Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer
Publisher: Cornell University Press – 276 pages
Book Review by: Venkat Subramaniam

Why are the words “unclear physics” part of the title of this book, instead of “nuclear physics”?

Because Iraqi scientists working on the development of nuclear weapons were unclear about the exact and specific objectives of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and his senior advisers, writes the author Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer. So the scientists jokingly coined the term “unclear physics.”

The basis of this book is extensive and substantial material gathered by the author from primary sources such as personal observations and interviews with decision-makers and scientists.

With that stated, it puts this book on a higher level of reliability than others on the subject written by authors after reading other books and materials, and writing down their thoughts based on secondary sources: others’ writings.

Other important starting points – on the sourcing, analysis of information, and development of perspectives for this book – by the author Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer are the following:

  • Essentially, the two dictators – Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya – failed to get nuclear weapons, and the reasons for their failures as given by other scholars on this subject, have no basis in fact and evidence, just simple assumptions.
  • This book is different from others in that it does not look at these two authoritarian regimes though the ’high politics’ lens of its leaders.
  • Both Hussein and Gaddafi “did not pay close attention to their (nuclear) programs; rather, their scientists did not have a clear sense of what their objectives were supposed to be.” So, what happened was that many decisions were made by scientists and engineers.
  • Both leaders made their countries’ institutions weaker in many ways, and tried to strengthen their own hold on power by acquiring the resources to develop nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, “they lacked the capability to play close attention to the performance of these programs…” or to get trustworthy people to take care of the details involved in developing weapons of mass destruction.

The author traces the histories of nuclear-weapons development of the various leaders and regimes in these two countries over a period of about five decades. The material used in this work is organized around eight chapters sandwiched between an Introduction and a Conclusion:


  1. Part I. Iraq
  2. Iraq Explores the Atom, 1956-1973
  3. Ambiguity and Ambition, 1973-1981
  4. Saddam’s Nuclear-Weapons Program, 1981-1987
  5. Crises and a Crash Program, 1988-1991
  6. Part II. Libya
  7. Searching for Uranium in Libya, 1951-1973
  8. Cultural Revolution and Nuclear Program, 1973=1981
  9. Nuclear Weapons Remain Elusive, 1982-1989
  10. Sanctions, Centrifuges, and Exit, 1989-2003


The author writes that she has tried to accomplish three tasks with this book:

  1. To explain why Iraq and Libya failed to acquire nuclear weapons, and to provide a richer account of both programs than is available elsewhere.
  2. To explore how state capacity worked as an intervening variable shaping the performance and governance of nuclear weapons programs in two weak states with personalist regimes.
  3. The findings challenge long-standing assumptions about personalist regimes, notably the notion that they are inevitably prone to nepotism and micromanagement.

In my view, the author has ably accomplished the tasks set forth, and it provides a fresh and unique look on how and why Iraq and Libya failed to develop nuclear weapons. This is a valuable contribution to a highly important subject in a vital need of mankind today: security and peace.



Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo in Norway.