Iran has chemical and biological weapons arsenal
State department reports consistently list Iran as one of the states expected to be developing an offensive biological weapons program. During the 8-year long Iran-Iraq war, Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and it is expected that Iran has developed both chemical and biological weapons to be able to respond in kind to future attacks.
On Iran, which is a BWC member state, the State Department said: "Available information indicates Iran has remained engaged in dual-use BW-related activities. The United States notes that Iran may not have ended activities prohibited by the BWC, although available information does not conclusively indicate that Iran is currently conducting activities prohibited by the convention."
A 2001 State Department report found that "based on available evidence, Iran has an offensive biological weapons program" and that the nation was "capable of producing at least rudimentary biological warheads for a variety of delivery systems, including missiles." The department's 2005 document bolstered that conclusion.
Nuclear weapons aren’t the only concern. Iran is capable of producing chemical weapons of mass destruction, and also of weaponizing them via delivery systems, according to a report from the U.S. deputy director of national intelligence for analysis. Also according to the report, “Iran probably has the capability to produce some biological warfare (BW) agents for offensive purposes. . . . Iran continues to seek dual-use technologies that could be used for BW.” A 2005 report by the U.S. State Department concluded that “Iran is in violation of its CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention] obligations because Iran is acting to retain and modernize key elements of its CW [chemical weapon] infrastructure to include an offensive CW R&D capability and dispersed mobilization facilities”; it also found that “Iran has an offensive biological weapons program in violation of the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention].” Even the Obama administration, typically eager to promote and praise multilateral arms-control agreements, does not conclude that Iran is in compliance with either of these treaties.
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The United States and many of its allies consider a nuclear-armed Iran an intolerable threat to stability in a volatile region and to security around the world. Failure to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, they argue, could have a range of negative consequences, including sparking a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and threatening the existence of Israel. Yet in their struggle to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions, the United States, its allies, and like-minded members of the international community should not focus only on the dire consequences of failure in this mission. They should also consider the implications of success. Smothering Iran's prized nuclear program could well provoke dangerous reactions, including, perhaps, Iran's pursuit of other types of unconventional weapons systems. In one possible scenario, an Iran deprived of nuclear weapons is driven to develop a capability already within its technical grasp: biological weaponry. Whether manifested as the initiation of a new biological warfare program or the intensification of an existing (but so far unconfirmed) biological weapons effort, the Iranian threat is grave enough to warrant serious consideration of a rigorous biological nonproliferation strategy that could be implemented in parallel with nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
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Of course, some argue that Iran has already demonstrated biological weapons ambitions. Indeed, Iran was suspected of initiating offensive biological work in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War (Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2011a), and media sources in the late 1990s documented efforts by Tehran to recruit former Soviet bioweaponeers (Miller and Broad, 1998). Accounts of an Iranian biological weapons program in the past or present, however, have not been proved. This uncertainty should come as no surprise given the many factors that can shroud external knowledge of foreign biological weapons programs, which can readily be disguised or hidden within a country's peaceful biological research networkÑas occurred infamously in the Soviet Union, where, in the early 1990s, it was discovered that behind the Iron Curtain a massive offensive biological weapons enterprise had employed some 65,000 scientists working in dozens of facilities throughout the country (Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2011b).
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While Iran's strategic thinking and intent with regard to biological weapons are difficult to assess from the outside, its technological capabilities are more vulnerable to external assessment and provide important information on Iran's threat potential.1 Iran possesses the scientific infrastructure and knowledge base necessary for a biological weapons program. Specifically, Iran's advanced pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries present what is known as a dual-use risk: The same materials, equipment, and expertise used for the development and production of legitimate biological products can also be employed for illicit weapons activities (US Department of State, 2005). Indeed, with its longstanding ventures in vaccine development and production and its growing expertise in cutting-edge biotechnologies, including genetic engineering, Iran boasts one of the developing world's most advanced life science industries (Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2011a; Westerdahl et al., 2003).
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Beyond these enabling conditions, US government agencies have assessed that Iran also possesses the more specific know-how critical for mature weapons development -- namely, the capability to produce and weaponize biological agents, as well as technologies for their delivery. For example, a 2005 report by the US Department of State concluded, "Iran is technically capable of producing at least rudimentary, bulk-fill biological warheads for a variety of delivery systems, including missiles" (US Department of State, 2005: 20). In 2006, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reported to Congress that Iran "probably has the capability to produce large-quantities of some Biological Warfare agents for offensive purposes, if it made the decision to do so" (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2008: 4). The 2009 ODNI report reiterated this concern but omitted the descriptor "large quantities" from its assessment (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2009: 5).
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Even if Iran has not actively pursued biological weapons in recent years, it can reasonably be argued that the country has engaged in "hedging behavior" by conducting advanced dual-use research and developing dual-use infrastructure to bolster breakout capacities in the areas of chemical and biological warfare (International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2011). According to a US State Department report (US Department of State, 2005: 21), Iran's expanding biotechnology industry could "easily hide pilot to industrial-scale production capabilities for a potential [biological weapons] program, and could mask procurement of [biological weapons-]related process equipment." Also, dual-use activities in Iran have included "conducting research involving [biological weapons]-related pathogens and genetic engineering, and developing mechanisms that could be used to deliver biological agents" (US Department of State, 2010: 16). In 2003, the CIA assessed that Iran's ability to weaponize biological agents was limited, but as Iran's dual-use research and technology base continues to advance, so does its ability to perform weapons relevant processes (Central Intelligence Agency, 2003).
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Nonproliferation and Middle East expert Avner Cohen has explained that one of the difficulties in assessing the possibilities of biological armament in the Middle East is understanding the "linkages that strategically and politically tie [biological weapons] to the two other categories on the WMD spectrum, chemical and nuclear weapons" (Cohen, 2002). It has been argued that the "state-security motive for biological armament is strong" in the Middle East, a region that has seen chemical weapons fail to serve as a reliable deterrent against nuclear-armed adversaries and where nuclear armament "is technologically and economically unfeasible for most" (Drake, 2002: 151).
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There are three main factors hindering a thorough, objective estimate of present and evolving Iranian military CBW capabilities:
- The efficient Iranian counter-intelligence system constitutes a powerful apparatus with the mission of concealing the WMD activity, overseen by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC);
- Analytical mixing of unrelated issues, allowing an intelligence issue (how close is Iran to a nuclear bomb?) to affect a methodical inquiry into the substance of Iranian CBW capabilities, undermining the independence of two inquiries;
- The mistaken 2003 American intelligence on Iraqi CBW, a lasting precedent bringing about excessive cautiousness, beyond pure intelligence considerations, to avoid future overestimations. The profound impact of the 2003 pre-war intelli- gence estimate regarding the Iraqi military CBW capabilities affects, presumably, the current judgment on Iranian capabilities.
In spite of those difficulties, the general picture is fairly coherent. To start with, and considering that Iraq already in 1990 had an operational arsenal of both chemical- and biological-capable ballistic missiles, it would be unreasonable – even if inferentially – to discount the existence of an analogue arsenal in Iran today, almost 20 years later. Already towards the year 2000 Iran became an acknowledged regional power in terms of CBW capabilities.3 At about that time Iran probably could deploy BW, which it could deliver via terrorist saboteurs, aerosol tanks mounted on aircraft or ships, or missiles,4 while parts of Iran’s biological inventory likely took operational shape.5
Since then Iran systematically upgraded those capabilities. It was the same Iranian opposition group that had uncovered the crucial nuclear facility of Natanz, who once again contributed information about Iran’s BW programme layout and expansion. A very extensive Iranian BW-oriented infrastructure was revealed. Biological warfare agents, reportedly including anthrax, smallpox, plague, botulinum toxin and ricin toxin, have been serially manufactured and weaponized by Iran.6 Further, as of 2006, the German Customs and the Federal Criminal Investigations Office pointed out that front companies for Iranian intelligence are acquiring equipment for biologi- cal production.7 All this evidence supports the conclusion that Iran has reached oper- ational ability to deliver biological warheads, including missile-delivered ones.
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Reports indicate that Iran has established its competence with a variety of technol- ogies related to development, testing and serial production of chemical and biological warfare agents, plus tactical and strategic delivery systems. Further, Tehran consist- ently follows the ballistic plus WMD course paved by North Korea, which for more than a decade has possessed operational, ballistic missiles tipped with CB warheads. Strong incentives for cooperation between the two countries in terms of WMD have been observed to underlie their interrelations,12 and whatever new ballistic designs North Korea makes migrate to Iran.13 In 2006, this cooperation reached the transfer of at least 18 BM25 ballistic missiles (range 2,500–3,500 km) from North Korea to Iran.14 Close collaboration between the two countries persists in the ballistic domain, and it most probably includes the component of varitype WMD warheads. This is an expedient property marking Tehran–Pyongyang strategic interface. Technologically, Iran is the grand beneficiary. Russia, China and Pakistan are secondary – yet certainly significant – contributors to Iran, in that connection.