Prepared Testimony by Dr. Andrew Cordesman Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing: Iran and Iraq - Future of Nonproliferation Policy

March 28, 2000
Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee:

I have been asked to address a simple set of questions: What is the current level of proliferation in Iran and Iraq? What are the strengths and weaknesses in US policy? And, What can be done to improve US policy?

These are all good questions. In fact, the answers are vital to our security interests in a region with two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves, and well over one-third of its gas reserves. In spite of all our power today, the threat of proliferation in Iran and Iraq represents a form of asymmetric warfare to which we have no easy counter. Nuclear and biological weapons can threaten the very existence of most of our allies in the region - whose political system is dependent on the survival of a single city. It inevitably threatens the low of energy exports and the stability of a global economy that will remain dependent on imported energy as far into the future as we can hope to see.

The problem is not with the questions; it is with the answers. I have prepared two unclassified background papers on proliferation in Iran and Iraq that illustrate both the breadth and depth of Iran and Iraq's efforts to proliferate, and the massive gaps in our knowledge of these efforts. I realize that they are long and complex, but I hope that this very complexity illustrates the dangers of over-simplistic warnings or denials about what is going on in these two states, and suggesting equally simplistic policies.

Is Proliferation Inevitable?

To be frank, I do not believe that we have a serious hope of putting an end to proliferation in Iran and Iraq, the Gulf, or the Middle East. Creating a "weapons of mass destruction free zone" in the region is a noble goal, and we should not give up our efforts to achieve it. At the same time, we must face the fact that time, politics, and technology, make it far more likely that we will have to learn to live with proliferation as an established fact of life.

There are seven key forces that shape the process of proliferation in Iran, Iraq, and the region:

There is a covert arms race between Iran and Iraq that reflects a history of bloody warfare. Iran and Iraq fought on open war for eight years in the 1980s, and used chemical weapons. They fought a proxy war using the Kurds in the 1970s, and they have a proxy war using the People's Mujahideen and Iraqi Shi'ite resistance groups today.

Neither Iran nor Iraq can afford to trust each other or any local or international arms control regime. For them, proliferation is the only current answer to proliferation, and the fact that both nations have a long history of covert programs and denials makes trust impossible.

Neither Iran nor Iraq trust their neighbors, accept our role in the region, or will give up their ambitions in terms of regional power and status. We and our Southern Gulf allies fought a "tanker war" against Iran in 1987-1988, and the Gulf War against Iraq in 1990-1991. We have worked together to contain them, limit their power, and deny them arms.

Iran and Iraq both know they cannot hope to challenge our conventional power in the region, much less challenge a combination of US and British power projection capabilities and Southern Gulf coalition forces. Their only answer to our strength is asymmetric warfare, and the only form of asymmetric warfare lethal enough to change the strategic map of the region is the threat or-use of weapons of mass destruction.

There are deep tensions that cut across normal regional bounds. Proliferation has become an interactive system. Iran and Iraq in the Gulf look at the threat of proliferation in South Asia, and the status proliferation has given India and Pakistan. They see the global power of the US as underpinned by US nuclear power and by the near- immunity of the US homeland to attack.

They see proliferation in Israel and Syria, and to a lesser extent in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and the Sudan. China and North Korea are both suppliers of weapons and technology, and - for Iran and Iraq - partial counterbalances to US power. Russia is both a supplier of weapons and technology to Iran and a nuclear-armed player in the new great game to the north of the region.

We may want a world of arms control, but Iran and Iraq live in a world of proliferation. Power, status, and security appear to come with proliferation, and even far more moderate regimes would find it difficult to put their trust in arms control and restraint.

There are no international norms or laws based on equity, or that work to the advantage of those in Iran and Iraq with broader ambitions in terms of regional power. Arms control and UN resolutions favor other states and power blocs. The terms of key agreements like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Chemical Weapons Convention, and Biological Weapons convention- and the practical impact of most supplier regimes create a discriminatory barrier.

For Iran and Iraq, the only way out is a "liar's contest" in which they trade claims to have not proliferated for access to the dual-use technology they need to proliferate. Yes, they lie, cheat, and steal. So might we in their place. So did our ally Israel during its efforts to obtain its missiles and nuclear weapons. In this region, diplomacy and arms control are an extension of war by other means.

The pace and scale of technology proliferation. We have been fortunate that there have been no major breakthroughs in the technology for producing fissile material, and that the vast output of the Former Soviet Union seems to remain under control.using a combination of political pressure, supplier regimes, controls on technology transfer, and arms control to limit the pace of proliferation in every area.

If we have failed to prevent nations like Iran and Iraq from getting what they need to manufacture, weaponize, and develop chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological weapons; the failure is only by an artificial standard of perfection. In practice, the world's proliferators have advanced far more slowly than generations of US intelligence estimates have predicted.

But, Iran and Iraq now have the technology base they need to build chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological weapons, and long- range delivery systems. We can and must continue to slow them down, but it is ludicrous to talk about prevention, and no one can prevent a steady growth in the technological and manufacturing sophistication in both nations.

Furthermore, Iranian and Iraqi success in proliferating is relative. It is not measured in the ability to destroy neighbors, strike the US, or body counts. Limited capabilities threaten and intimidate; moderate capabilities to strike a single city with high lethality can threaten the current national power structure of every Southern Gulf nation and Israel.

New, critical technologies are escaping our control One of the problems I have noticed in US government efforts to analyze proliferation is that they focus on past and current threats. As result, our studies tend to give primary weight to ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Advances in genetic engineering, biotechnology, medicine, pharmaceuticals, and food processing, however, are making it progressively easier to manufacture biological weapons with nuclear lethalities, to do so under breakout conditions, and do so with little or no warning of the precise nature of the threat.

The engines and guidance systems needed for cruise missiles are becoming industrial devices like GPS, sensor-triggered fuses, cluster munitions, drones, crop sprayers, cellular phones interaction with the steady growth in global commerce, shipping, and labor migration to make covert and proxy attacks steadily more effective. Ironically, controlling ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons alone tends to simply push proliferation into other weapons systems and modes of delivery.

Proliferation breeds counterproliferation. I have watched some of the recent US government efforts to warn our allies in the region about proliferation with some bemusement. Many are counterproductive. Our senior officials rush into the region and issue dramatic warnings about the threat by waving bags of sugar, speaking loudly and in generalizations, showing a few satellite photos, and rushing out. The end result is so unconvincing that each visit produces a new set of conspiracy theories about why we exaggerate the threat.

Our military are far more convincing in briefing the seriousness of the threat- when they are allowed to be. At the same time their guidance is to talk about theater missile defenses we do not have and cannot sell, and where we have no clear delivery schedule.

More broadly, we talk about the threat to American forces in the region, the vulnerability of the ports and bases they occupy, and the value of the passive civil defense measures. We call for arms control and then brief in depth on the weaknesses in every agreement. We have no clear offensive or retaliatory doctrine, and we have made no promises of extended deterrence of the kind we once did to NATO.

What would you do in their place? Rely on hope? Saudi Arabia has already bought long-range Chinese missiles, Israel (wisely) refuses to do anything to compromise its nuclear capabilities, and Egypt keeps a covert missile and chemical-biological program alive. Allied proliferation is already a reality and there are many reasons it should intensify with time.I fully realize in making these points, that the situation I have outlined appears to be bleak. However, analysts in my line of work are used to being called pessimists. In fact, in the Middle East, a "pessimist" is simply an "optimist" with practical experience. I would also note that those who believe that there is some simple or easy way to overcome the forces I have just outlined, have not just forgotten history, they have chosen to ignore it. Human nature and the game of nations do change quickly or easily. Progress is achieved through practical action and not through eschatological hopes.

What Can and Cannot Be Done

Having said this, these we can do much to contain proliferation, even if we cannot prevent it or roll it back. We are not dealing with strong powers. Iran has not yet demonstrated that it can produce significant amounts of fissile material in the near to midterm or obtain it from other sources. Its missile program so far is more ambitious than successful, and Iran is deeply divided politically. There is at least chance that Iran will improve its relations with the US, as it has already done with its Southern Gulf neighbors and Europe, and that a combination of incentives and disincentives can persuade Iran to accept tight limits on what it builds and deploys.

Iraq is a more difficult case, and I believe it is absurd to assume that Saddam Hussein and his coterie are going to give up proliferation after holding on for seven lean years during the beginning of what appear to be seven fat ones. We may be able to deal constructively with the changing regime in Iran; there is no practical chance that we can deal with the present regime in Iraq. What we can do is (a) keep up pressure and try to make the new UN inspection regime effective, Co) force Iraq to keep its efforts limited and covert, (c) keep Iraq so militarily weak that a threat to use its limited chemical and biological capabilities will not be credible and intimidating, and (d) contain Iraq until a new and somewhat better ruling regime emerges.

In both cases, however, I should stress that the measures I am about to recommend will contain and limit proliferation, but not put an end to it. Barring a virtually political revolution in the region, I see no chance that we can prevent Iran and Iraq from steadily improving their chemical and biological capabilities, developing a break out capability to build dry storable biological agents with nuclear lethalities, and improving their overt and covert delivery capabilities.

I would equally stress that the US cannot rely solely on arms control, deterrence, and defensive measures. The credibility of US offensive power projection capabilities, and the retaliatory threat of American conventional strike power and nuclear retaliation, will be key components of both an effective containment strategy and counterproliferation policy.

Now, let me turn to tangible suggestions. Make the existing system work. We already have a powerful mix of laws, institutions, export controls, sanctions, and diplomatic and military capabilities. We have allies, we have arms control treaties, and we have strong military forces. It is always tempting to reinvent the wheel, add more laws and sanctions, and reorganize the US government's efforts in counterproliferation.

In practice, however, such efforts are almost always a waste of time. The key problem is not how things are organized. It is how much tangible effort goes into making the system work, the priority proliferation is given over other policy problems, and the extent to which a given Administration and Congress force the entire US government to use its existing tools and demand measures of effectiveness. Unless there is a from commitment to act, nothing makes much of a difference.

Much as I hate to say it, it is also almost axiomatic that if no bureaucratic "blood" is shed in the interagency process, there is no firm commitment to action. For example, it the administration of the export control process is not angry and deeply troubled, it simply isn't working.

- Treat arms control, supplier agreements, and sanctions as weapons in a continuing struggle, and not as solutions or any exercise in international law. All arms control and supplier agreements are deeply flawed, but then all human institutions are. The issue is whether to be paralyzed by the flaws or effectively exploit the strengths. Arms control, supplier agreements, and sanctions are highly useful tools in applying political pressure, exposing proliferators to international criticism, and creating a climate where constant enforcement greatly slows down the process of technology transfer and open deployment or violation of international agreements.

In practice, everything depends on how ruthless and dedicated we are in exploiting these tools. We have already seen, for example, that UNSCOM worked only to the extent and duration of our commitment to make it work. The same will be true of the new CWC and NNPT inspection arrangements. We have often had remarkable cooperation from groups like the IAEA, and we have had periods when we slacked off and so did the IAEA. Arms control is not a matter for gentlemen or ideologues seeking to forge swords into plowshares. When it matters, it is a dirty, messy, and dishonest business. Go for the jugular in trying to block meaningful technology transfer, arms exports, etc. but keep the effort tightly focused on what matters. One of our problems is that we trivialize many aspects of export controls, supplier regimes, and the list of dual-use items but then do not deliberately embarrass or prosecute for serious violations.

Far too many uncontrollable or marginal items have become suspect. No one is going to enforce such lists, and people in the non- proliferation community often discredit enforcement efforts by confusing the trivial with the important.

Similarly, we have partially discredited our effort to limit technology transfer in Iraq by combining bombast with legalistic overkill in controlling "oil for food."

At the same time, we know that the controls on transfers to nations like Iran and Iraq that do matter will only work to the extent that they are aggressively enforced. They work when everyone knows that Department of Commerce is an advocate for non-proliferation before commerce, and Americans who violate the law are prosecuted. In the case of foreign countries, enforcement slacks off the moment American diplomats do not constantly act to make it clear that we are serious, that we have identified violators and purchasing efforts, and we will embarrass or sanction the countries, entities, and companies involved. China and Russia are long-standing cases in point, but so are some of our European allies.

The system fails whenever we do not go public in dealing with both US firms and those foreign cases where diplomatic dialogue fails. We need to use assets like USIA to publicly embarrass our own companies by name when they commit a true violation, and do the same with foreign countries and companies. Foreign and domestic media and public opinion are key weapons, and they must be used constantly and ruthlessly to be effective. Stay focused on what matters. Do not alienate partners in the non- proliferation effort over non-issues or non-enforceable legislation History has shown that we can win the support of our allies and many other nations in controlling the transfer of dual-use items and selected arms. This is only true, however, if we focus on proliferation and do not try to push them simultaneously into supporting policies they do not accept.

Legislation like the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act is a case in point. If anything, it pushes a nation like Iran to put its resources into the cheapest route to military power, which is proliferation. It alienates our allies and makes it difficult to concentrate on proliferation issues. It forces us to tacitly ignore the spirit of our own laws by granting waivers. It strengthens our enemies in Iran by making us seem the broad enemy of Iran, and blocks us from trading with secular elements in the regime and strengthening the argument for a dialogue with the US.Similarly, blocking every aspect of sales to Iran's light water power reactor program risks losing focus on the imports that are truly threatening.

We have a similar lack of focus in enforcing the terms of the oil for food deal with Iraq. We have applied broad, legalistic restrictions, rather than focusing tightly on sensitive items. The end result is that we appear to be the cause of the hardships of the Iraqi people, and give Saddam Hussein aid in undercutting sanctions.

Understand that counterproliferation is a battle of perceptions in which credibility is critical. The world reacts to our counterproliferation efforts in proportion to its belief that the threat is serious and real. Far too often we make sweeping indictments, but do not provide the follow up by providing the detail to make them credible, We issue occasional reports, but do not make the constant day-to-day efforts to rebut Iranian and Iraqi denials. Many of these reports get only a passing mention in the press, if they. They are not translated into Arabic and Farsi, and they are not used in aggressive information campaigns in the region.

Even many American experts on the region have trouble believing in some of the warnings issued by the US government. Many of our closest allies in the region now react to the briefings we do give by politely listening and nodding. In the case of Iran, I find myself at meeting after meeting where it is clear that that we are not convincing that we have not surface enough of the evidence, and that no one knows what to believe.

In the case Iraq and "oil for food," we have largely lost the propaganda war against Iraq because we have failed to: replace UNSCOM with convincing US documentation that Iraq continues to proliferate,make a sustained and convincing case that Saddam has been a key problem in blocking the flow of aid, convince the world we really care about the Iraqi people, make a convincing case that much of the problem with the flow of aid was the fault of the Iraqi government, and spent most of our time focusing on complex Iraqi compliance issues and not on the future threat posed by Iraqi proliferation.

We have a good case to make in warning the world about Iranian and Iraqi proliferation, but we do not make it well and with conviction and persistence. In contrast, Iran and Iraq deny and obfuscate with immense conviction and persistence. Use diplomacy cautiously, but wisely. There is a crucial difference between Iran and Iraq. We may be able create a friendly or at least constructive relationship with Iran's emerging "moderates." We have no such hope in dealing with Saddam Hussein.

It is far too soon to be optimistic about creating a relationship with Iran that would lead it to cut back or delay its efforts to proliferate. At the same time, only a Iranian government that is far more confident about its relationship with the US is ever likely to do so. At a minimum, this means creating a dialogue based as much on carrots as sticks. It means willingness to compromise where vital security interests are not involved. The cautious beginning we have already made in dealing with the Khatami faction of the Iranian government must remain cautious, but success will be critical to whether we can or cannot reduce the Iranian incentives to proliferate.

In contrast, we can only live with Saddam if we can contain him. Containment, however, means the kind of diplomacy that ensures we can keep our forces in the region, keep the trust of our regional allies, reduced the impact of "sanctions fatigue" and replace UNSCOM with tightly focused export controls. The primary target of our diplomatic efforts in dealing with Iraq is not Iraq, but our Gulf allies, the UN, and the world. Don 't play games in trying to change regimes and with "roll back." There is no conceivable purpose in US efforts to try to change the regime in Iran. Nothing we can say or do matters relative to the internal shifts already taking place. The only thing that US efforts can do is provide anti-US forces with a reason to charge the US is plotting coups and repeating the efforts it carried out under the Shah. Ideas like publicly appropriating money to change the Iranian government, and Radio Free Iran, play directly into the hands of our enemies. Changing Iranian attitudes toward proliferation means creating a relationship with the positive forces that already exist in Iran.

The situation is radically different in the case of Iraq. We need to encourage the overthrow of the current regime if we are to limit proliferation in that country. At the same tune, we need back away from the public circus we have created over trying to overthrow the regime, and either support a professional covert action program or wait for history to take its course. Trying to publicly unite the weak and divided Iraqi opposition outside Iraq into a useful tool, and do so with minimal or no Arab support, is like trying to forge Jell-O into a sword. Openly funding a Radio Free Iraq is like hanging a sign saying "traitor" around the neck of those who use it. A real-world roll back effort cannot be based on public bluster and a belief in miracles. It requires a patient, and above all covert, effort.

At the same time, we have been far too slow to mobile broad incentives for the overthrow of the regime and tie them to tangible compliance in ending proliferation, as distinguish from vain calls for an Iraq that will magically unite into a US-style democracy. Debt forgiveness, reparations forgiveness, a quick lifting of constraints on investment in Iraq's oilfields and economic development are a few cases in point although such offers will now come so late that most Iraqis may believe they will come just as easily with Saddam as without him. Restructure US forces to attack; defeat, and retaliate. At the beginning of the Clinton Administration, its Bottom Up Review gave counterproliferation the highest possible military priority. Today, there are many useful research and development programs, but few deployed capabilities.

Nothing we do can perform sudden miracles in our offensive capability to destroy the WMD threat, and there still are massive problems in targeting Iranian and Iraqi WMD and missile facilities and forces. Correcting these problems and showing Iran and Iraq that the offensive threat against these facilities and forces has high priority.

At the same time, we can already do more to make it clear that we have the power to rapidly cripple the economy and infrastructure of both countries and will use it. We can make it clear we can do devastating damage if Iran and Iraq make any use of weapons of mass destruction. We can make the tacit threat that any use of highly lethal biological and nuclear weapons against US forces, a Gulf ally, or any other US ally, will lead the US to retaliate with nuclear weapons.

This should be done quietly and indirectly. It is better to "speak softly and carry a big stick." The best threats are based on visible improvement in US capabilities, and not bluster. At the same time, the ongoing reality of proliferation, and the threat of a sudden break out in Iranian and Iraqi capabilities, cannot be dealt with by "speaking stickly and carrying a big soft." We need to have a clear doctrine for offensive action and we need to give USCENTCOM and our global engagement forces the capabilities they need. Create defensive capabilities, but don't exaggerate their importance. It is brutally apparent that unless things change in the Gulf, Iran and Iraq eventually emerge with ballistic missiles that require the equivalent of wide a defense capabilities like those we now plan to provide through Aegis and THAAD. It is equally clear that there is case for improved passive defenses in terms of civil defense, detection systems, and response measures.

No one in the Gulf, however, will be willing to rely on defense alone. No one will see missile defenses alone an adequate answer in a region where covert and proxy attacks present an equal risk. No one is going to trust in a missile defense system that does not yet exist to defend against a threat that does, and which can be totally bypassed by the use of other methods of attack.

I hope it will not come as a shock to any member of this Committee to realize that some senior US military officers now feel that the US is overemphasizing missile defense at a time it must plan to rely primarily on deterrence, offense, and the threat of retaliation, and feel that the US will then still have to give offense equal weight with defense.

Finally, our Gulf and regional allies will never trust in defense alone. If they do not believe in our offensive capability and will to retaliate in their defense, they will either proliferate themselves or accommodate Iran and Iraq to the extent they feel this is necessary.

Make homeland defense a key issue. Iran does not currently seem a major risk taker and even Saddam Hussein has shown considerable restraint in any effort to attack US territory. We do, however, need to consider the threats that an Iranian or Iraqi attack could pose, and the possible use of covert attacks, proxies, and independent terrorist groups. It is also again the case that the credible threat of retaliation is likely to be more effective than even the best defense. Improve our intelligence and use it as both a political and military weapon. The success of virtually every step I have outlined depends on the quality of our intelligence effort, and our willingness to use it for quiet diplomacy, to support goes against the grain of the intelligence community, the military, and many diplomats. We learned during the Cold War, however, that it is the key to credibility.

At the same time, effective counterproliferation against nations like Iran and Iraq requires massive resources of a kind the intelligence community does not yet have, and the problems lie more in processing and analysis than collection. We do not need new organizations or interagency groups. We do need to provide more people and money.

Banning the Crossbow

Let me close with a caution. At one point in the history of the Western world, both church and state made a serious effort to ban the crossbow. By the standards of the time, it was a noble goal, and most secular and religious authorities shared a common interest in such a course of action. We all know that effort failed. It was not arms control that "banned" the crossbow, but rather competition from the matchlock, the wheellock, and finally the flintlock. These systems have, in turn, were "banned" by percussion artillery, the automatic weapon, the cruise missile, and the nuclear weapons.

Only massive political change and regional peace can truly halt proliferation in Iran and Iraq. Even then they will retain major technological breakout capabilities, and the pace of technology will inexorably improve these breakout capabilities with time.

This is the future we have to live with and any mix of policies that fails to recognize this fact, and react accordingly, will fail. On the other hand, if we act decisively and persistently to deal with these realities in the Gulf we have the capability to succeed. The problem is not our ability to act; it is our will to act in the fight areas with the skill and objectivity with which we choose to do so.