Iran's Forgotten Weapons

January 26, 2005

Publication Type: 

  • Articles and Reports

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile
  • Chemical

Related Country: 

  • China
  • Russia


Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin

With the world's attention focused on Iran's nuclear progress-and what to do about it-scant consideration has been given to Iran's chemical weapon and ballistic missile programs. Combined, these pose a more imminent threat than Iran's nascent nuclear effort, and they reveal Iran's continued commitment to developing unconventional weapons. These programs are being built with help from Russia and China, whose companies are helping Iran improve the range and accuracy of its missiles, and to master the indigenous production of chemical agents.

In its latest estimate, released last November, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reported that Iran's chemical weapon stockpile probably includes blister, blood and choking agents like mustard, cyanide and phosgene, and that Iran is suspected of working on more deadly agents, like VX nerve gas. In addition to the bombs and artillery shells that stand ready to deliver these agents, Iran is now able to mass produce its Shahab-3 missile, which is estimated to travel over 800 miles. This puts Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Caucasus within its range. Often cited as a platform for a prospective nuclear warhead, the missile could also deliver a chemical payload.

But more than just a military menace, Iran's missile and chemical programs show how little support there really is for stopping the spread of mass destruction weapons. Chinese and Russian companies-often state-backed-have long been helping Iran, despite repeated pledges by Russia and China to clamp down on such illicit trade. Since 2000, the U.S. State Department has punished groups of Chinese or Russian proliferators to Iran thirteen times. Chinese firms have been particularly egregious: since December 1, ten have been sanctioned by the State Department for selling Iran mass destruction weapon material. Most of the companies produce missile or chemical items.

In an interview with Iran Watch, a senior U.S. official confirmed that "Iran is still getting essential help from China and Russia." For missiles, Chinese companies are providing "solid propellant and guidance," while Russian companies are sending "liquid fuel technology and engineering know-how." These exports will allow Iran to launch its Shahab-3 (based on North Korea's No-Dong missile) faster and with greater accuracy. To make chemical warheads for the missiles to carry, Iran has been able to buy glass-lined equipment from Chinese firms. This gear, according to the official, "is what you need for indigenous chemical weapon production."

One of Iran's most dependable helpers is the China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO), a big state-sponsored enterprise that the State Department has censured five times since 2003, most recently in early January, for spreading missile technology to Iran. According to the U.S. official, NORINCO has shipped metals and chemicals useful in missiles, as well as other items classified at the top level of sensitivity under international export controls.

Iran's other state-sponsored helpers include China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC) and China Great Wall Industries Corporation. CPMIEC sold missile guidance components (such as gyroscopes and accelerometers) that the official says "were extremely helpful." Such specialized gear is needed to allow a missile to fly farther while retaining its accuracy. According to the official, guidance is the "long pole in the tent of missile technology."

From Russia's Baltic State Technical University Iran received missile training. This reportedly included a missile education center set up in Iran to facilitate Russian technology transfer. According to the U.S. official, our government "is not confident that this activity has ended." From the Moscow Aviation Institute, Iranian technicians learned about rocket propulsion and guidance. The State Department punished the Institute's Vadim Vorobey in April 2004 for his special help in facilitating this assistance. Vorobey reportedly traveled to Iran a dozen times between 1996 and 2000 to work on missile projects. Also, Russia's now defunct Moso Company sold Iran specialty steel for missile fuel tanks.

To produce chemical agent for the missile to carry, Iran has been able to buy glass-lined equipment from a number of Chinese firms. This equipment is resistant to corrosion from the specialized ingredients needed for poison gas production and therefore helps in handling such material. In April 2004, the State Department censured China's Zibo Chemical Equipment Plant for selling glass-lined equipment to Iran. This marked the third time the company was singled out in as many years. Zibo is one of the few Chinese firms capable of manufacturing large-sized glass-lined vessels. Its illicit activities should be easy for China to keep track of and shut down. The State Department has also censured several other Chinese companies for transferring glass-lined equipment to Iran. These include the Liyang Chemical Equipment Company and the Nanjing Chemical Industries Group. The latter was cited as long ago as 1997 for "knowingly and materially contributing to Iran's chemical weapon program."

That the activities of Russian and Chinese firms have continued despite repeated censuring by the United States proves that Russia and China are at best indifferent to the key role their companies play in improving weapon programs in Iran. China and Russia seem to value their commercial ties to Iran more than they do their international commitments to stopping proliferation. Indeed, China concluded a preliminary energy deal with Iran-worth an estimated tens of billions of dollars-in October, as the debate over Iran's nuclear program was heating up. And Russia has promised to continue selling Iran nuclear technology, which provides an important source of income for Russia's underemployed nuclear industry.

In order to convince China and Russia to change their ways, the United States must do more than just revoke the U.S. trade privileges of firms that do little or no business with the United States anyway. These penalties have not inspired a change in behavior. Instead, the administration needs to place dangerous transfers to Iran nearer the top of its bilateral agenda with both governments and be willing to impose meaningful penalties if Russia and China continue to balk at enforcing export controls.

Failure to do so would not only benefit Iran's chemical weapon and missile programs, but could also impair the Bush administration's quest to haul Iran before the U.N. Security Council for its nuclear transgressions. Why should Russia and China be expected to punish Iran for violating its international nuclear obligations if both countries allow their own firms to violate international export control laws with impunity?

By virtue of their indigenous capabilities and their seats on the Security Council, China and Russia have the power to help stop proliferation to Iran or to fuel it. The United States must convince them to switch sides. Pushing Russia and China to start punishing their export control violators would be a good start.