Managing networks of risk: A tailored approach to Iran’s biological warfare threat potential
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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).