British intelligence knew about a nuclear smuggling network long before it became public knowledge at the start of this year, but did little to intervene, the BBC has been told.
Following his defeat in the Gulf War, the United Nations authorised inspections of Iraq's military facilities because of concerns Saddam Hussein was trying to build the bomb.
It was a slow process, but according to one former weapons inspector, eventually documents were recovered from Iraqi intelligence outlining an extraordinary offer to sell nuclear equipment and expertise to Saddam Hussein in the months leading up to the Gulf War - an offer which could have made all the difference.
David Albright, a physicist, says an approach was made from the network run by the Pakistani scientist AQ Khan.
'They had trouble building nuclear weapons and this design, that we now know Khan could have offered Iraq, would have been ideal,' Mr Albright said.
In the event, the Iraqis hesitated, fearing dirty tricks by the CIA. Mr Albright says British and American intelligence knew all about the documents and should have done more about Mr Khan.
'When I saw the document I was really stunned by it. This was like a smoking gun document of some really horrific thing taking place and I was surprised by the lack of follow-up. It didn't seem to be taken that seriously'.
Creating a successful nuclear weapons programme is highly complex and technically demanding. Until now it has been thought to be beyond the reach of nations trying to do so secretly.
But the Khan network changed all that. It offered off-the-shelf solutions for regimes which until recently were thought incapable of mounting a credible nuclear threat."