Prepared Statement by Seth Carus Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing: The Arming of Iran

May 6, 1997

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Chemical
  • Biological

Related Country: 

  • Russia

It is an honor to testify before this subcommittee. There are few issues of greater national security interest to the United States than Iran's acquisition of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons. For that reason, I am grateful for this opportunity to present my views to the subcommittee.

Before continuing, let me note that my testimony does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Defense University, where I am a visiting fellow, or the Center for Naval Analyses, my home organization, or the Department of Defense.

My comments today summarize a presentation prepared earlier this year for the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom. With your permission, I will submit a copy of the paper I prepared on that occasion for the record and will discuss only the key issues here.

I would like to focus on four main issues in my presentation today.

Giving Priority to Iran's NBC Programs

First, we must continue to assign a high priority to countering Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear, biological, and chemical armaments and the means to deliver such weapons. The available evidence convincingly suggests that Iran wants to acquire such weapons. Moreover, it appears that they are attempting to expand both the size and the sophistication of their activities. As a result, we must accord a high priority to our efforts to constrain Iranian activities.The United States has taken an appropriately hard line against Iran's activities. Despite a general weakening of export control policies by the United States, the imposition of sanctions against Iran ensures that we maintain tighter controls on that country.

Fortunately, there is little controversy about the need to take such steps. This policy has bipartisan support in this country that dates back to the early 1980s when we first saw evidence of Iranian interest in resuming efforts to develop NBC capabilities. Our allies, who generally do not support U.S. policies towards Iran, agree in principle on the need to constrain Iran's NBC programs. Even Russia, which has been willing to supply sensitive technology to Iran, accepts that we do not want to help Iran acquire NBC capabilities. The only real exceptions to the international consensus on constraining Iran are North Korea and China.

Foreign Assistance

Second, the most serious problem we face in constraining Iran's weapons programs is the support they receive from foreign individuals, organizations, and governments. Without such support, Iran will be limited in the size and sophistication of its NBC programs. With such support, they could potentially develop highly capable NBC weapons and pose a serious threat to the interests of the United States and its friends and allies in the region. As a result, we must be willing to devote considerable political capital in our efforts to persuade other countries to limit support for Iranian NBC activities.

The importance of external assistance to the success of the NBC and missile programs reflects the difficulties that Iran appears to face in developing indigenous weapons capabilities. Many of the most talented Iranian scientists and engineers left Iran at the time of the revolution. Efforts to convince such people to return to Iran have had limited success. Those remaining in Iran appear to lack the range of skills needed to support large-scale efforts to develop NBC weapons and missile delivery systems.

In addition, the Iranians have shown limited ability to manage large weapons development programs. In this regard, I believe that it is significant that Iran had to turn to North Korea for missile production technology. The Scud-type missiles that Iran is producing are relatively unsophisticated, and Iran should be able to produce them on its own. The fact that the Iranians had to turn a country as technologically backward as North Korea is a significant signal of the management problems that the Islamic Republic appears to face. In addition, covert assistance might make it difficult to ascertain the true capabilities of Iran's weapons programs. This is especially troubling with regard to Iran's nuclear weapons program if Iran acquires fissile material through covert purchases from existing stocks in a third country. Under such circumstances, Iran could hide its weapons capabilities, since fissile material itself does not necessarily present the kind of obvious signature of fissile material production facilities. As a result, we might have to treat Iran as a nuclear-capable state if we discover that it has covertly acquired even a small quantity of fissile material, since we may not be able to ascertain the true quantity involved.

It is for these reasons that we should worry about foreign assistance to Iran's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs and to their missile program. Unfortunately, Iran has been able to receive extensive assistance in these areas from several suppliers, including Russia (especially for nuclear technology, but also in other areas as well), China, and Noah Korea. Moreover, Iran has considerable experience in developing overseas networks for the illicit acquisition of technologies and supplies. In the past, the Iranians have been able to acquire equipment even out of U. S. military stockpiles, so we know they can evade even the tightest security in their acquisition efforts.

At the same time, we should worry about the possibility that we may not know the full extent of Iranian successes in technology acquisition. Recent experience with Iraq has demonstrated the potential weaknesses of our proliferation intelligence. Accordingly, the intelligence community needs continue to treat Iran's weapons acquisition programs as one of our highest intelligence priorities.

Keeping the Problem in Perspective

Third, we should not exaggerate the extent of lran's accomplishments. While Iran has significantly enhanced its NBC capabilities since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, these capabilities do not yet pose a strategic threat to U.S. interests in the region. According to public statements, Iran is years away from acquiring nuclear weapons. While Iran may possess a substantial chemical weapons inventory, we are also told that it includes agents like hydrogen cyanide, which are virtually ineffective. Indeed, the fact that Iran has acquired agents like hydrogen cyanide suggests that lack of manufacturing infrastructure has forced them to rely on agents that are normal by- products of commercial chemical manufacturing.

Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the Iranian military has the expertise to effectively employ its chemical weapons. Given the limited employment of chemical agents attributed to the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war, there is no reason to believe that the Iranians gained the operational experience needed to teach them how to effectively use their chemical weapons. For example, we have been told that Iran deployed chemical artillery rounds on the island of Abu Musa in the Persian Gulf If true, it is puzzling. Abu Musa is so small that it would be difficult to use artillery rounds against hostile military forces. While the artillery could be used against ships, it is so difficult to hit moving ships that most rounds would fall harmlessly into the water.

These comments are not offered to minimize our concerns about Iran's NBC capabilities. Clearly, we should be worried about Iranian activities.

But we do not want to impute to Iran capabilities that they do not possess. Indeed, to the extent that such weapons are used to fulfill political objectives, actual possession is less important than the appearance of possession. By imputing capabilities to Iran that they do not possess, we actually provide Tehran with a tool that it can use in its efforts to coerce other countries in the region. Accordingly, it is critical that we neither ignore nor exaggerate Iran's real capabilities.

Playing for the Long Term

Fourth, eliminating Iranian NBC capabilities will take a long time. Iran's NBC programs will not disappear when the Islamic Republic finally disappears. While we may abhor and fear Islamic Iran, the NBC programs originated before the revolution. Certainly, Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear capabilities appear to date to the 1970s when the Shah ruled the country.

Moreover, many of the concerns that probably motivate Iranian acquisition of NBC weapons are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Specifically, any Iranian regime is likely to desire NBC capabilities out of fear of Iraq, a country responsible for killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers and civilians. In addition, insofar as Iranian's view possession of such weapons as a key indicator of Iran's status as an important regional power, the motivation to pursue such capabilities will remain.

There are two implications of this perspective on the problem. On the one hand, we cannot eliminate Iran's NBC and missile programs solely through the application of military force. We should not initiate military strikes against Iran with the primary objective of destroying Iran's NBC infrastructure. It is critical to remember that the massive bombing of Iraq did not destroy Baghdad's NBC programs, although it inflicted considerable damage on those programs. Rather, the military attacks during the 1991 Gulf War only began a process of disarming Iraq that has continued for more than six years under the auspices of the UN Special Commission.

I believe that this experience emphasizes the limits of military solutions. At the same time, we cannot allow the Iranians to believe that by possessing NBC weapons they can deter the United States. We do not want Iran's leaders to believe that their NBC capabilities can deter the United States from using military force against them, whatever the provocation. If we let them believe that, then we ensure that Iran will remain committed to possession of NBC weapons. Only by convincing the Iranians that their NBC weapons ultimately do not contribute to their national security will we be able to achieve the elimination of these capabilities.

Policy Options

What policy steps should the United States take to enhance our security and that of our friends and allies in the region? First, we should continue with multilateral and unilateral efforts to constrain Iran's acquisition programs. Even if such steps create friction with our countries, they are an essential first element of any effort to curtail Iran's ambitions. Second, we must strengthen our military responses. If the United States intends to operate in the Persian Gulf, we need to provide our military forces with the full range of counterproliferation tools being developed by the Department of Defense. This means developing missile defenses to counter Iran's ballistic missiles. It means improved chemical and biological defenses. It means improved counter force capabilities to destroy NBC capabilities before they are used, even if weapons are hidden in heavily protected bunkers. And, it means strengthening our ability to detect NBC assets even if Iran tries to hide them.

Finally, we must understand the extent to which Iran's NBC programs present a potential threat to our friends and allies in the region, especially the potentially vulnerable countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The United States needs to develop an integrated policy of deterrence and reassurance. This means convincing the GCC that we will take whatever steps are necessary to protect them from Iran's NBC weapons. It also means convincing them that we will take no actions that will unnecessarily expose them to Iranian retaliatory attacks. If we take actions that frighten our allies to such an extent that they feel a need to distance themselves from the U. S., we will have allowed the Iranians to win. Ultimately, our success in the region depends on the extent to which our allies continue to rely upon us to enhance their security.