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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 60, September 2001

News Review

Spectre of WMD Terrorism, Proliferation Looms Large

The long-discussed potential of a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is understandably set to dominate much US and international debate surrounding priority responses to the September 11 catastrophe. Intertwined with this issue is the more general concern of the spread of WMD to other states.

On September 16, Republican Representative Christopher Shays, Chair of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, expressed a widespread view that "it's not a question of if there will be a biological or chemical weapons attack, but when, and of what magnitude. ... The bottom line is, a chemical, biological or nuclear attack is a very real possibility. It sends shivers down your back." The following day, former Democratic Senator Gary Hart, co-Chair with former Republican Senator Warren Rudman of the US Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, warned: "This is not the end, this just the beginning. There will be other attacks on this country... The next attack will not be airliners. It will be chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in cities like Denver or Seattle or Nashville..." The Hart-Rudman Commission completed its work in January 2001, releasing a report warning: "A direct attack [involving WMD] on American soil is likely over the next quarter century. ... In the face of this threat, our nation has no coherent or integrated government structures..." (See Disarmament Diplomacy No. 54, February 2001, for more details).

The threat of WMD terrorism is evidently international. On September 16, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw argued that it "should now be obvious to everyone that people who have the fanaticism and capability to fly an airline laden with passengers and crew into a skyscraper will not be deterred by human decency from deploying chemical and biological weapons, missiles or nuclear weapons, or other forms of mass destruction, if these are available to them."

Speaking in Moscow on September 17, US Undersecretary of State John Bolton argued that, in the new international situation, "there has never been more attention to the dangers that terrorists - especially those who might have access to weapons of mass destruction - pose. ... [W]hen in the past it was at one level of priority, I don't think anyone doubts at the moment that it is now the highest priority..." Bolton added that the attacks provide the US and Russia with a ghastly but crucial "opportunity for us jointly to make progress on the proliferation front."

In the view of the Bush administration - a view expressed with increasingly frequency even prior to the attacks - there is a considerable onus on Russia to revise a number of its policies with relation to the export of WMD-related materials and technology, particularly its current support for Iran's civil nuclear programme and military modernisation. In the words of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld (August 16), Russia needs to extricate itself from its "awkward position" on proliferation issues: "That position...is basically: 'Look, America, you establish a policy of remaining vulnerable to ballistic missiles while we are protected by a missile defence system in Moscow...while we continue to work with other countries, like China and Iran and Iraq...with respect to proliferating some technologies that are not very helpful to the rest of the world."

This characterisation, of course, is strongly contested by Russia. With regard to assistance to Tehran, officials frequently point out that all Iranian nuclear facilities operate under IAEA safeguards, adding that only defensive military equipment is sold to the country. Speaking on September 22, President Putin told reporters Russia would be prepared to terminate even these exports if compensated for loss of earnings, but remained adamant that "we must meet commitments we have made under concluded contracts."

On September 7, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) issued its latest study of proliferation trends. The study - Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, July 1 Through December 31, 2000 - paints a darkening picture of the problem, noting: "Countries determined to maintain WMD and missile programmes over the long term have been placing a significant emphasis on increased self-sufficiency and attempts to insulate their programme against interdiction and disruption, as well as trying to reduce their dependence on imports by developing domestic production capabilities." The report examined the current, proven or alleged WMD programmes of nine states - Egypt, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, India, Pakistan - and the activities of key suppliers, named as China, Russia and North Korea.

The report singles out Iran as "one of the most active countries seeking to acquire WMD...technology from abroad," accusing the country of "attempting to develop a domestic capability to produce various kinds of weapons - chemical, biological and nuclear - and their means of delivery." In Tehran on September 10, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamid Reza insisted that Iran, "which has suffered from the use of chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction, has never embarked on production of such weapons... The effects of chemical weapons used against Iran [by Iraq in the 1980s] can still be seen... Iran's defence and nuclear cooperation with other countries is in the framework of international laws and conventions... Iran will use nuclear power for peaceful purposes only. ... US and Israeli accusations [against us] come as Israel's clandestine nuclear programmes pose an imminent threat to the peace and security of the region."

The full unclassified version of the CIA report is available on the Agency's website at http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/bian/bian_sep_2001.htm.

Notes: on September 8, the Pentagon announced the award of contracts, worth a total of $5 billion, to five US engineering companies to assist the destruction of former Soviet military equipment - principally former nuclear-armed missiles, aircraft and submarines - and bolster the security of nuclear materials. The work, part of the US-Russia Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Programme, is scheduled to be completed by 2006. The companies involved are Halliburton International Corporation, Raytheon Corporation, Bechtel National Incorporated, Parsons Delaware Incorporated, and the Washington Group International Incorporated.

On August 21, the US Customs Service opened a programme to help train customs officials in Central Asia detect and prevent illicit trafficking in WMD materials and equipment. According to a US Customs Service Press Release, the three-week training session, held in Hidalgo, Texas, is "designed to help customs and border officials from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan combat the cross-border smuggling of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons components." In the words of Charles Winwood, Acting US Customs Service Commissioner: "There are few missions more critical to US Customs than helping our foreign counterparts combat the spread of weapons if mass destruction. US Customs counter-proliferation training programmes have helped make numerous weapons-related seizures in recent years. We are confident this training will yield similar results."

Reports: Moscow in 'awkward position' on missile defense, Reuters, August 16; Text - curbing smuggling of weapons of mass destruction in Central Asia, Washington File, August 22; US official - Russians help Iran with arms programs, Reuters, September 5; CIA - Iran has active weapon program, Associated Press, September 7; US firms get $5 billion to destroy Soviet arms, Reuters, September 8; Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons, Reuters, September 10; CIA Report examines expanded weapons proliferation, Washington File, September 10; Attack on US raises spectre of germ war or worse, Reuters, September 16; Hart warns of more attacks, says US not ready, Reuters, September 17; US, Russia discuss terrorism, Associated Press, September 17; Russia should halt weapons aid - US, Associated Press, September 17; Russia's Putin weighs choices, Associated Press, September 22.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.