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

January 1, 1996


U.S. goals in the Middle East and North Africa include securing a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace between Israel and all Arab parties with which it is not yet at peace; maintaining our 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, which are vital to our economic prosperity; ensuring fair access for American business to commercial opportunities in the region; combating terrorism; 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 our ability to achieve these goals. Iran, Iraq, and Libya are aggressively seeking NBC weapons and missile capabilities, constituting the most pressing threats to regional stability. Iran and Iraq have demonstrated their intent to dominate the Persian Gulf and to control access to critical oil supplies.

Iran is actively attempting to acquire 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 dedicated to expanding its ballistic missile programs.

Iraq has long had NBC warfare and missile efforts. The challenges these weapons pose in time of conflict became clear during the Persian 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 own 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; however, Iraq did not use its SCUDs with chemical or biological warheads.

In their quests to establish regional hegemony, Iran and Iraq probably regard NBC weapons and missiles as necessary to guarantee their territorial integrity and national security. Possession of nuclear weapons would likely lead to increased intimidation of their Gulf neighbors, as well as increased willingness to confront the United States. The U.S. defense commitment, military presence, and demonstrated ability to defend U.S. and allied interests against such threats are vital to achieving our goals in the region.

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 UN 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 he supports and that support him in return.


Iran poses the greatest threat to the stability of the region and to U.S. interests; this will remain the case as long as UN Security Commission on Iraq is able to maintain its intrusive inspection regime in neighboring Iraq. In the past, Iran has demonstrated both the will and the ability to use NBC to advance and defend national goals. Tehran used chemical weapons and ballistic missiles with conventional warheads during the Iran-Iraq war and has fired conventionally-armed cruise missiles at U.S.-flagged oil tankers.

In August 1995, Iraq admitted to a far more extensive NBC weapons and missile program than had been previously revealed. The Iraqis divulged to UN inspectors that prior to the Gulf War they had produced large quantities of biological warfare agents, had loaded them into missiles and bombs, had begun a crash program to build a nuclear weapon, and had produced engines for SCUD missiles.

In the future, the quality, scope, and staying power of the UN inspectors and on-site monitoring and verification processes will be central in determining whether the Iraqi weapon programs are dismantled, kept in check, or eventually succeed. However, Iraq's military production capabilities (not affected by UN sanctions and monitoring), past use of chemicals and missiles, and consistent efforts to deceive UN inspectors are strong indicators that Iraq will attempt to produce NBC weapons and missiles when outside constraints are absent.

In October 1994, the Iraqis repeated their oft-demonstrated willingness to threaten military action to attain their goals when they deployed Republican Guard forces to southern Iraq, thereby threatening Kuwait and its oil fields. With reconstructed conventional forces and NBC weapons and missile capabilities, Iraq could again threaten states in the region, oil fields and facilities, U.S. forces, and key logistics facilities.



Iran's primary national objectives are threefold: ensuring the survival of its Islamic government, limiting foreign influence in the Middle East, and spreading Islamic fundamentalism abroad. Tehran seeks to strengthen its political, economic, and military positions as a regional power and to reduce the influence of the West, especially the United States, in the Persian Gulf, and in the greater Middle East. In addition, Iran champions Muslim causes worldwide, supporting Islamic activism in other areas in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Iran's efforts to add to its military power and acquire NBC weapons and missiles support these national objectives.

Since becoming president in 1989, Hashemi Rafsanjani has sought to win international political acceptance for Iran in order to gain European and Japanese financial assistance to rebuild Iran's economy and military forces. Although some of Iran's public rhetoric has moderated, Iran's covert actions indicate its leadership is pursuing a policy of sponsoring terrorism and assassinations of exiled Iranian dissidents, opposing Middle East peace efforts, and working to acquire and improve its NBC weapons and means of delivery.

Iran has placed a high priority on possessing NBC weapons and missiles since Tehran's defeat in the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Iran has an adequate technological base to support chemical agent and missile production activities and a biotechnical structure capable of supporting the production of biological agents. Nevertheless, Iran is attempting to expand its current technological base to achieve self-sufficient production in all phases of NBC weapons and delivery systems. In the nuclear weapons arena, Iran is attempting to acquire an indigenous capability to produce weapons-grade fissile material. Financial constraints, supplier reluctance, and limited indigenous capabilities in certain NBC programs have slowed Iran's progress in achieving these goals.


Iran continues to suffer the negative economic effects of revolution, war, and mismanagement. Foreign debt has reached about $30 billion, and Iran can afford only about $1 billion annually for military-related imports. These financial constraints affect the pace of Iran's programs for NBC weapons and missiles, even though these programs continue to have high priority.

Iran makes many of its efforts to purchase NBC weapons and missile-related technologies on the open market, and there are indications that Iranian officials stationed abroad provide clandestine support, obtaining information on foreign companies and on employees susceptible to recruitment and looking for ways to avoid relevant laws and customs procedures. In addition, Iran employs some students studying abroad to acquire technical information and identify scientific researchers who might cooperate with Iran.


Expanding its NBC programs, improving means of delivery, and improving conventional military capabilities all strongly support Iranian national objectives. Iran has emphasized the acquisition of power projection capabilities -- ballistic missiles, combat aircraft, and submarines -- to oppose intervention by foreign forces during some future conflict. In order to attain self-sufficiency for its military industry, Iran purchases complete weapons and components for assembly to facilitate the flow of technology necessary for indigenous production.


Iran's nuclear energy program began under the Shah and included power plant development and a small research reactor purchased from the United States. The Shah also sponsored research aimed at producing fissile material for weapons development. In 1979, the country's Islamic revolution essentially halted the nuclear program, both weapons-related work and civilian nuclear activities (such as the construction of foreign-supplied power reactors). Since the end of the war with Iraq, the Islamic government has initiated civilian and weapons-related nuclear efforts, despite having signed the NPT. Of greatest concern, however, are Iran's efforts to acquire fissile material and key nuclear technology to support nuclear weapons development.

Iran has sought heavy water research reactors even though such technology has no use or value in its light water reactor-based civil nuclear power program. Iran's interest in uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, activities with no economic justification in Iran's civil nuclear energy plans, indicates Iran's desire for the capability to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

China is a principal supplier of nuclear technology to Iran, and Russia may soon become another key supplier. The Iranians have purchased an electro-magnetic isotope separation unit from China. (This was one of the enrichment technologies pursued by Iraq.) China has also sold Iran a research reactor that could be used as a training model for a plutonium-producing reactor. Iran's procurement activities provide strong evidence of this.

The Iranians state that nuclear energy is required to meet their present and future energy demands. They argue for using their own oil and natural gas reserves to generate hard currency revenues, rather than wasting them on domestic consumption. At the same time, Iran's nuclear power program could be used to legitimize its attempts to acquire capabilities in sensitive phases of the nuclear fuel cycle -- such as uranium enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing -- related directly to nuclear weapons development.

At this stage, Iran's scientific and technical base remains insufficient to support major nuclear programs. The Iranians recognize their dependence on foreign assistance and are encouraging younger Iranians to study abroad to gain needed technical expertise.

Chemical Program

Iran's offensive chemical warfare program began in 1983 in response to Iraq's use of mustard gas against Iranian troops. By 1987, Iran was able to deliver limited quantities of blister (mustard) and blood (cyanide) agents against Iraqi troops using artillery shells.

Iran has been producing chemical agents at a steadily increasing rate since 1984, and has cumulatively produced at a minimum several hundred tons of blister, blood, and choking agents. Tehran has weaponized some of these chemical agents -- a weapons stockpile to support ground combat operations. In addition, Iran could attempt to deliver chemical bombs against targets such as airfields, ports, or oil installations across the Persian Gulf.

Iran has increased defensive and offensive chemical warfare training for its ground forces in the last two years. Furthermore, it is making efforts to buy defensive chemical equipment from foreign sources, perhaps a prelude to acquiring indigenous production capability.

Although Iran has signed the CWC, its efforts to establish an independent chemical production capability and a wider program to put chemicals into battlefield weapons cast doubt on its adherence to the agreement.

Biological Program

Iran began its biological warfare program in the early 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. It made agreements with numerous countries for cooperative research, scientific exchanges, and technology sharing. The Iranians are conducting research on toxins and organisms with biological warfare applications.

With their biotechnical support structure, the Iranians are capable of producing many different biological warfare agents. Iran has evolved from piecemeal acquisition of bioprocessing equipment and is now pursuing complete biological production plants that could be converted to producing biological warfare agents. Some of its major universities and research organizations may be linked to its biological warfare program.


Iran first acquired SCUD-B ballistic missiles from Libya and North Korea and used them during the Iran-Iraq war. Later it received SCUD-B and SCUD-C missiles from North Korea, and CSS-8 missiles and other material from China. Iran fired nearly 100 SCUD-B missiles at Iraq from 1985 to 1988. As was the case with chemical weapons, Iran's motivation to improve and expand its ballistic missile force results from the war with Iraq, during which Iran could not respond adequately to Iraqi missile attacks on Iranian cities.

Missile Type Estimated Range (Kilometers) Source
SCUD-B 300 Libya and North Korea
SCUD-C 500 North Korea
CSS-8 (converted SA-2) 150 China

Iran has a two-track ballistic missile program. In addition to acquiring SCUD missiles and missile-related equipment from North Korea, it also seeks to establish its own missile production capability. Its production program is planned for both liquid-fueled and solid-propellant missiles. As part of the process, Iran has already begun assembling missiles using foreign-made components and eventually it may produce these components domestically. Further, it is actively attempting to acquire other assistance and missile-related technology from a variety of foreign sources for its goal of producing an MRBM.

With its current inventory of missiles, Iran can strike targets in neighboring countries, including oil installations and ports in Saudi Arabia. With a longer range missile, such as the North Korean NODONG, it would be able to strike targets in Israel and in most of Saudi Arabia and Turkey.


Iran has Chinese land-based and shipborne antiship cruise missiles and Russian air-to-surface missiles, and has experience in employing some of them in combat conditions. During the Iran-Iraq war, for example, Iran fired at least 10 coastal-based Chinese missiles at Kuwait, one hitting a U.S.-flagged oil tanker. Iran will continue to rely on China as its supplier of cruise missiles. In addition, Iran has artillery and aircraft that can deliver chemical and biological agents and Russian-made Su-24 fighter-bombers that could deliver nuclear weapons.

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