Proliferation: Threat and Response, the Middle East and North Africa (Excerpts)

November 1, 1997


U.S. goals in the Middle East and North Africa include securing a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace between Israel and all Arab parties; maintaining a steadfast commitment to Israel's security and well-being; building and maintaining security arrangements that assure the stability of the Gulf region and unimpeded commercial access to its petroleum reserves; combating terrorism; ensuring fair access for American business to commercial opportunities in the region; and promoting more open political and economic systems and respect for human rights and the rule of law. In this volatile region, the proliferation of NBC weapons and the means to deliver them poses a significant challenge to the ability of the United States to achieve these goals. Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, which are aggressively seeking NBC weapons and increased missile capabilities, constitute the most pressing threats to regional stability.

Iran is actively attempting to acquire or produce a full range of NBC weapons and missiles. The United States believes Iran is committed to acquiring nuclear weapons, either through indigenous development or by covertly acquiring enough fissile material to produce them. During its eight-year war with Iraq, Tehran initiated biological and chemical warfare programs, the latter in direct response to Iraq's use of chemical weapons. In addition, Iran is expanding its ballistic missile programs.

Iraq has long had NBC weapons and missile efforts. The challenges these weapons pose in time of conflict became clear during the Gulf War, when U.S. and allied forces had to deal with real and potential complications posed by Iraq's arsenal of NBC weapons and missiles. Iraq entered the Gulf War with a known chemical warfare capability and a demonstrated willingness to use it (Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and its Kurdish population during the 1980s); a known biological warfare capability; and a developing, complex nuclear weapons program despite intense nonproliferation and export control efforts by the United States and the international community (for example, the IAEA). During the Gulf War, Iraq attempted to weaken the cohesion and resolve of the U.S.-led coalition by using its ballistic missiles as weapons of terror against Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iraq did not use its SCUDs with chemical or biological warheads, even though it had the capability to do so.

Iran and Iraq have each demonstrated their intent to dominate the Gulf and to control access to critical oil supplies. In their pursuit of regional hegemony, Iran and Iraq probably regard NBC weapons and missiles as necessary to support their political and military objectives. Possession of nuclear weapons would likely lead to increased intimidation of their Gulf neighbors, as well as increased willingness to confront the United States.

Libya remains a significant proliferation concern. Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi has shown that he is willing and capable of using chemical weapons and missiles against his enemies. Libya sees the United States as its primary external threat, owing especially to U.S. support for United Nations sanctions against Tripoli for its refusal to turn over suspects in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103. Although Libya's capabilities to use chemical agents and missiles are limited, Qadhafi could provide these weapons to states or terrorist groups he supports and that support him in return.

Syria possesses a substantial force of ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets throughout Israel and has an active chemical weapons program. Syria views Israel as its primary external threat and sees its chemical weapons and ballistic missiles as means to counter Israel's conventional superiority.

The U.S. defense commitment, military presence, and demonstrated ability to defend U.S. and allied interests against such threats are vital to achieving U.S. goals in the region.



The Middle East and North Africa have the highest concentration of emerging NBC weapons and missile programs of any region in the world. This region also has a long history of conflict based on territorial disputes as well as ethnic, cultural, and religious rivalries. While intense negotiating efforts over the past two decades have resulted in a number of positive steps toward a comprehensive peace settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, at the present time virtually every major power in the region retains at least one of these dangerous programs. NBC weapons or missiles have been acquired through direct purchase, domestic development, or a combination of the two.

There are several dangerous trends in the Middle East and North Africa regarding NBC weapons and missiles. Several states, including Iran, Iraq, and Libya, have employed chemical weapons, ballistic, or anti-ship cruise missiles within the last 10 years. Several states have developed, or are attempting to develop, NBC warheads for their missiles. Iraq is a case in point, having admitted, after the Gulf War, to possession of operational chemical and biological missile warheads.

Further, many states are seeking some measure of production self-sufficiency for one or more types of NBC weapons and their means of delivery. This trend is dangerous because as states become self-sufficient, they become less susceptible to outside pressure. In addition, they become potential suppliers themselves and could provide weapons to other proliferant states.



Iran's national objectives and strategies are shaped by its regional political aspirations, threat perceptions, and the need to preserve its Islamic government. Tehran strives to be a leader in the Islamic world and seeks to be the dominant power in the Gulf. The latter goal brings it into conflict with the United States. Tehran would like to diminish Washington's political and military influence in the region. Iran also remains hostile to the ongoing Middle East peace process and supports the use of terrorism as an element of policy. Within the framework of its national goals, Iran continues to give high priority to expanding its NBC weapons and missile programs. In addition, Iran's emphasis on pursuing independent production capabilities for NBC weapons and missiles is driven by its experience during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, during which it was unable to respond adequately to Iraqi chemical and missile attacks and suffered the effects of an international arms embargo.

Iran perceives that it is located in a volatile and dangerous region, virtually surrounded by potential military threats or unstable neighbors. These include the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, Israel, U.S. security agreements with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and accompanying U.S. military presence in the Gulf, and instability in Afghanistan and the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union.

Iran still views Baghdad as the primary regional threat to the Islamic Republic, even though Iraq suffered extensive damage during the Gulf War. Further, Iran is not convinced that Iraq's NBC programs will be adequately restrained or eliminated through continued UN sanctions or monitoring. Instead, the Iranians believe that they will face yet another challenge from their historical rival.

Tehran is concerned about strong U.S. ties with the GCC states because these states have received substantial amounts of modern Western conventional arms, which Tehran seeks but cannot acquire, and because U.S. security guarantees make these states less susceptible to Iranian pressure. While Tehran probably does not believe GCC nations have offensive designs against the Islamic Republic, it may be concerned that the United States will increase mistrust between Iran and the Arab states. It also likely fears that the sizable U.S. military presence in the region could lead to an attack against Iran. Iran may also be concerned by Israel's strategic projection capabilities and its potential to strike Iran in a variety of ways. For all these reasons, Tehran probably views NBC weapons and the ability to deliver them with missiles as decisive weapons for battlefield use, as deterrents, and as effective means for political intimidation of less powerful neighboring states.

In recent years, Iran's weak economy has limited the development of its NBC weapons and missile programs, although oil price increases in 1996 may have relieved the pressure at least temporarily. Tehran's international debt exceeds $30 billion, although Iran is meeting its debt repayment obligations. Iran also is facing a rapidly growing population which will exact greater future demands from its limited economy. Despite these internal problems, Iran assigns a high priority to attaining production self-sufficiency for NBC weapons and missiles. Therefore, funding for these efforts is likely to be a high priority for the next several years.

Tehran has attempted to portray U.S. containment efforts as unjust, in an attempt to convince European or Asian suppliers to relax export restrictions on key technologies. At the same time, foreign suppliers must consider the risk of sanctions or political embarrassment because of U.S.-led containment efforts.


Iran's nuclear program, focusing on electric power production, began during the 1970s under the Shah. Research and development efforts also were conducted on fissile material production, although these efforts were halted during the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. However, the program has been restarted, possibly in reaction to the revelations about the scope of Iraq's nuclear weapons program.


Nuclear Attempting to acquire fissile material for weapons development.

Chinese and Russian supply policies are key to Iran's success; Russia has agreed to build power reactor.

Ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Chemical Employed chemical agents on limited scale during Iran-Iraq war.

Produces chemical agents and is capable of use on limited scale.

Seeking future independent production capability; Chinese assistance will be critical to Iran's success.

Ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Biological Possesses expertise and infrastructure to support biological warfare program.

May have small quantities of agent available; seeking larger capability.

Ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

Ballistic Missiles Maintains and is capable of using SCUD B/Cs and CSS-8s.

Produces SCUDs with North Korean help.

Seeks to produce longer range missiles (1,000 kilometers or more).

Not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Other Means Of Delivery Available Land-, sea, and air-launched anti-ship cruise missiles; air-launched tactical missiles; none have NBC warheads.

Aircraft (fighters).

Ground systems (artillery, rocket launchers).

Iran is trying to acquire fissile material to support development of nuclear weapons and has set up an elaborate system of military and civilian organizations to support its effort. Barring outright acquisition of a nuclear weapon from a foreign source, Iran could pursue several other avenues for weapon development. The shortest route, depending on weapon design, could be to purchase or steal fissile material. Also, Iran could attempt to produce highly enriched uranium if it acquired the appropriate facilities for the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. Finally, Iran could pursue development of an entire fuel cycle, which would allow for long-term production of plutonium, similar to the route North Korea followed.

Iran does not yet have the necessary infrastructure to support a nuclear weapons program, although is actively negotiating for purchase of technologies and whole facilities to support all of the above strategies. Iran claims it is trying to establish a complete nuclear fuel cycle to support a civilian energy program, but this same fuel cycle would be applicable to a nuclear weapons development program. Iran is seeking foreign sources for many elements of the nuclear fuel cycle. Chinese and Russian supply policies are key to whether Iran will successfully acquire the needed technology, expertise, and infrastructure to manufacture the fissile material for a weapon and the ability to fashion a usable device. Russian or Chinese supply of nuclear power reactors, allowed by the NPT, could enhance Iran's limited nuclear infrastructure and advance its nuclear weapons program.


Iran has had a chemical weapons production program since early in the Iran-Iraq war. It used chemical agents to respond to Iraqi chemical attacks on several occasions during that war. Since the early 1990s, it has put a high priority on its chemical weapons program because of its inability to respond in kind to Iraq's chemical attacks and the discovery of substantial Iraqi efforts with advanced agents, such as the highly persistent nerve agent VX. Iran ratified the CWC, under which it will be obligated to eliminate its chemical program over a period of years. Nevertheless, it continues to upgrade and expand its chemical warfare production infrastructure and munitions arsenal.

Iran manufactures weapons for blister, blood, and choking agents; it is also believed to be conducting research on nerve agents. Iran has a stockpile of these weapons, including artillery shells and bombs, which could be used in another conflict in the region.

Although Iran is making a concerted effort to attain an independent production capability for all aspects of its chemical weapons program, it remains dependent on foreign sources for chemical warfare-related technologies. China is an important supplier of technologies and equipment for Iran's chemical warfare program. Therefore, Chinese supply policies will be key to whether Tehran attains its long-term goal of independent production for these weapons.


Iran's biological warfare program began during the Iran-Iraq war. The pace of the program probably has increased because of the 1995 revelations about the scale of Iraqi efforts prior to the Gulf War. The relative low cost of developing these weapons may be another motivating factor. Although this program is in the research and development stage, the Iranians have considerable expertise with pharmaceuticals, as well as the commercial and military infrastructure needed to produce basic biological warfare agents. Iran also can make some of the hardware needed to manufacture agents. Therefore, while only small quantities of usable agent may exist now, within 10 years, Iran's military forces may be able to deliver biological agents effectively. Iran has ratified the BWC.


Iran has an ambitious missile program, with SCUD B, SCUD C, and CSS-8 (a Chinese surface-to-surface missile derived from a surface-to-air missile) missiles in its inventory. Having first acquired SCUD missiles from Libya and North Korea for use during the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians are now able to produce the missile themselves. This has been accomplished with considerable equipment and technical help from North Korea. Iran has made significant progress in the last few years toward its goal of becoming self-sufficient in ballistic missile production.

Iran produces the solid-propellant 150 kilometer range Nazeat 10 and 200 kilometer range Zelzal unguided rockets. Iran also is trying to produce a relatively short-range solid-propellant missile. For the longer term, Iran's goal is to establish the capability to produce medium range ballistic missiles to expand its regional influence. It is attempting to acquire production infrastructure to enable it to produce the missiles itself. Like many of Iran's other efforts, success with future missile capabilities will depend on key equipment and technologies from China, North Korea, and Russia.

Iran's missiles allow it to strike a wide variety of key economic and military targets in several neighboring countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf states. Possible targets include oil installations, airfields, and ports, as well as U.S. military deployment areas in the region. All of Iran's missiles are on mobile launchers, which enhance their survivability. Should Iran succeed in acquiring or developing a longer range missile like the North Korean No Dong, it could threaten an even broader area, including much of Israel.


Iran has purchased land-, sea, and air-launched short range cruise missiles from China; it also has a variety of foreign-made air-launched short range tactical missiles. Many of these systems are deployed as anti-ship weapons in or near the Gulf. Iran also has a variety of Western and Soviet-made fighter aircraft, artillery, and rockets available as potential means of delivery for NBC weapons.


In the future, as Iran becomes more self-sufficient at producing chemical or biological agents and ballistic missiles, there is a potential that it will become a supplier. For example, Iran might supply related equipment and technologies to other states trying to develop capabilities, such as Libya or Syria. There is precedent for such action; Iran supplied Libya with chemical agents in 1987.

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As the states of the Middle East and North Africa continue to make progress toward an independent production capability for NBC weapons and missiles, they will become less susceptible to efforts to stem proliferation. Further, as their capabilities to employ the weapons improve, some countries may be more willing to use them in a conflict, especially since the threshold for chemical weapons and ballistic missile use has been crossed in recent years. Should conflict again occur in this region, particularly in the Gulf area, use of some form of NBC weapons or missiles seems likely.