Four US nuclear experts in a new report say the Obama administration must impose tougher economic sanctions against Iran and use warplanes and missiles against Iranian nuclear sites. They warn terrorist groups could obtain a nuclear weapon and use in the U.S. or obtain chemical or biological weapons for use against the U.S. They say four pounds of anthrax—in a suitcase—carried by a fighter through tunnels from Mexico into the U.S. are guaranteed to kill 330,000 Americans within a single hour if it is properly spread in population centers.
It is imperative for the United States to develop and implement a comprehensive nonproliferation strategy for the Middle East (defined by this report to include North Africa). Factors lending urgency to this need include the threat of proliferation in and by Iran, the vulnerable Syrian chemical arsenal, the challenges and opportunities posed by the Arab revolutions, the relatively frequent prior use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, several regional states already possessing WMD, and a tense and unstable regional security situation. That’s according to a new report entitled The Project on U.S. Middle East Nonproliferation Strategy by Co-Chairs: David Albright, Mark Dubowitz, Orde Kittrie, Leonard Spector, Michael Yaffe.
The U.S. government has in recent years invested considerable resources on intelligence Community, diplomatic, military, and other nonproliferation efforts to detect, interdict, deter, and defend against proliferation in the Middle East. Relevant treaties; high-level diplomatic initiatives; U.N. Security Council, coalition, and unilateral sanctions; strategic trade controls; and military measures (both defensive and, potentially, offensive), are all in play. Intelligence capabilities of the United States and its allies are an instrument of crucial, crosscutting importance, providing both essential knowledge regarding activities of concern and tools for disrupting them. This report reviews these nonproliferation efforts in light of the paradigm shifts sweeping the region and recommends a comprehensive set of improvements, adjustments, and innovations designed to maximize U.S. (and allied) effectiveness in achieving these nonproliferation goals in the evolving Middle East.
These U.S. nonproliferation efforts in the Middle East have been complemented by a set of poorly funded (and sometimes uncoordinated) collaborative and cooperative programs to promote nonproliferation norms and practices among Middle Eastern governments, civil society, and other local partners. Obstacles to spending Department of Defense funds on such cooperative threat reduction and related efforts in the Middle East were recently removed, permitting significantly expanded U.S. activities in this sphere. The report therefore also includes a comprehensive set of recommendations for how the United States can and should more effectively assist Middle Eastern governments and other local partners to develop their own nonproliferation capacities, cultivate a culture of nonproliferation responsibility, and enhance regional cooperation on nonproliferation issues.
Increase the credibility of the U.S. military threat. The combination of economic sanctions and covert actions may only succeed in preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons if paired with a crystal clear message to Iran’s leaders that it is futile for them to continue to seek such weapons because U.S. military action ultimately will prevent them from succeeding. In other words, it may be necessary to make clear to Iran’s leadership that it is mistaken if it thinks Iran can simply endure
sanctions until such time as an Iranian nuclear test results in the West accepting an Iranian nuclear arsenal as a fait accompli and consequently lifting sanctions on Iran.
In order to increase the credibility of this U.S. military threat, the U.S. should:
1. Undertake additional overt preparations for the use of warplanes and/or missiles to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities with high explosives
2. The President should explicitly declare that he will use military force to destroy Iran’s nuclear program if Iran takes additional decisive steps toward producing a bomb. Possible triggers could include producing weapon-grade uranium or separated plutonium, expelling IAEA inspectors, construction of additional covert nuclear facilities, or undertaking significant additional weaponization activities.
3. Increase Iranian isolation, including through regime change in Syria and deepening Iran’s diplomatic isolation.
4. Prepare for the possibility of a surprise Iranian test. Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would be dangerous for several reasons, none of which would be adequately addressed by containment. Nonetheless, since intelligence can be imperfect, we must take steps now to prepare for the possibility that we will wake up one morning and discover that Iran has acquired a nuclear weapon despite the United States’ best efforts.
Iran can save itself, according to the report, if it accepts the terms set by the authors. In other words, Iran has to accept the terms set by the report which are as follows:
1. Suspension by Iran of the following proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities: (a) all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA; and (b) work on all heavy water-related projects, including the construction of a research reactor moderated by heavy water, also to be verified by the IAEA;
2. Provision by Iran of such access and cooperation as the IAEA requests to be able to verify the suspensions and to resolve all outstanding issues, as identified in IAEA reports;
3. A full accounting and resolution of all outstanding questions about Iran’s past and any current (as of the time of agreement) nuclear weapons related activities;
4. Complete closure of the Fordow facility and any other deeply buried enrichment facility that is either complete or under construction; and
5) Iran’s binding agreement to intrusive and comprehensive inspections that are at a minimum as stringent as those outlined in the IAEA’s Additional.
Could non-states acquire a nuclear device
According to a 2002 study by the National Research Council, “the basic technical information needed to construct a workable nuclear device is readily available in the open literature…the primary impediment that prevents countries or technically competent terrorist groups from developing nuclear weapons is the availability of SNM [special nuclear material], especially HEU.” Similarly, a 1977 study by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment found that, “a small group of people, none of whom have ever had access to the classified literature, could possibly design and build a crude nuclear explosive device…Only modest machine-shop facilities that could be contracted for without arousing suspicion would be required.”
Estimates, published in recent years, of the chance that terrorists will detonate a nuclear bomb in a U.S. city within a decade range from 1 percent to 50 percent. Such estimates are based more on guesswork than science. Even if the correct probability is on the lower end of this range, the priority placed on preventing such a detonation must take into account the devastating consequences of such an attack. Detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon in a major city could kill more than 500,000 people and cause more than $1 trillion in damage. Given these consequences, even a low probability is enough to make it a top priority for the United States to prevent terrorist group acquisition and use of nuclear weapons.
The Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism (also known as the Graham/Talent WMD Commission) assessed in 2008 that “terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.” The basis of this judgment was the commission’s “belief that the widespread and growing availability of biotechnology, combined with the relative lack of security awareness in the life sciences community as compared to the nuclear industry, makes biological weapons the more attractive and readily available weapon of mass destruction for terrorists.”
The damage caused by any particular biological attack will depend on various factors including the infectivity and lethality of the pathogen (disease-causing agent) or biotoxin (poisonous substance produced by a living organism); the dissemination scope, magnitude, and means (e.g., aerosol dissemination or food or water supply contamination); and the length of time it takes to detect and treat those who are exposed or have become ill.
Chemical weapons have been the weapon of choice in each of the confirmed WMD attacks in the Middle East since World War II.346 In addition, the vulnerability of Syria’s chemical weapons during that country’s civil war makes them the sophisticated WMD most likely to fall into the hands of a Middle East terrorist group within the short term.
The damage caused by any particular chemical weapon attack depends on various factors including the lethality of the chemical used; the dissemination scope, magnitude, and means; and the length of time it takes to detect and treat those who are exposed. During World War I, the use of several different types of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, resulted in 90,000 deaths and more than 1 million casualties.
1. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates
While a number of terrorist groups have sought weapons of mass destruction over the years, “al-Qaeda is the only group known to be pursuing a long-term, persistent and systematic approach to developing weapons to be used in mass casualty attacks,” according to Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy.350 Mowatt-Larssen notes, “al- Qaeda’s efforts to acquire a nuclear and biological weapons capability were concentrated in the years preceding September 11, 2001.”351 However, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have continued to seek WMD until the present day.
The relatively well-documented key events in al-Qaeda’s past efforts to justify and operationalize the acquisition of WMD provide insight into both potential future al-Qaeda efforts and how another Middle Eastern terrorist group or other non-state actor might acquire WMD. Al-Qaeda’s first known attempt to use WMD against the United States was the car bomb detonated under the World Trade Center in New York City in February 1993. The goal of Ramzi Youssef, who masterminded the attack, was to “engulf the victims trapped in the North Trade Tower in a cloud of cyanide gas.”
In August 2011, The New York Times reported that U.S. officials believed that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) “is trying to produce the lethal poison ricin, to be packed around small explosives for attacks against the United States” in shopping malls, airports, or subway stations. Ricin is “so deadly that just a speck can kill if it is inhaled or reaches the bloodstream.”376 A month prior to the report, Michael E. Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that, “The potential threat of weapons of mass destruction, likely in a simpler form than what people might imagine but still a form that would have a significant psychological impact, from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, is very, very real.”
belonging to al-Qaeda…if all of a sudden, as a result of some actions, these weapons were to fall into the hands of terrorists who could take a totally irresponsible attitude towards them, this would be a very serious development….”
Indeed, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is operating in Syria as Jabhat al-Nusra, has apparently already conducted mass casualty attacks in Iraq using chlorine gas, an industrial chemical employed as a chemical warfare agent in World War I. The attacks, numbering a dozen or more, took place in 2006 and 2007, during the height of the civil conflict Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is operating in Syria as Jabhat al-Nusra, has apparently already conducted mass casualty attacks in Iraq using chlorine gas, an industrial chemical employed as a chemical warfare agent in World War I.
Various U.S. officials have expressed grave concern that Hizbollah or other extremists could acquire Syrian chemical weapons. For example, Defense Secretary Panetta told CNN, “It would be a disaster to have those chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands, hands of Hizbollah or other extremists in that area.” When he mentioned other extremists, Panetta may have been referring to jihadists such as the Jabhat al-Nusra group in Syria, or to the many Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which have long had a presence in Syria.
In August 2012, President Obama said, “We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people…we have been very clear to the Assad regime—but also to other players on the ground—that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” According to various sources including a major general who defected from the Syrian military, Syria’s Assad regime is considering transferring chemical weapons to Hizbollah.
However, Stratfor also cautioned that Hizbollah would have strong incentives not to engage in a chemical weapon attack on Israel’s armed forces or population, as Israel would likely respond with massive retaliation and be seen internationally as having just cause for doing so.
It might not be inconsistent with such logic for Hizbollah to acquire Syrian chemical weapons as a deterrent intended to be brandished but not deployed in case Israeli troops enter Lebanon as they have done in the past. Of course, once such a deterrent is acquired, the possibility of its use—in extremis, by an undeterrable leader or rogue actor, or due to miscalculation—is always present. The Israeli government is concerned enough about the prospect of Syrian chemical weapons being transferred to Hizbollah that it has made clear it will take military action if it detects such a transfer.
Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip, attempted for several years to use WMD. For example, in 1999, Israeli and Palestinian authorities foiled a Hamas chemical attack. In 2001, Hamas laced suicide bombs with pesticides and rat poison. In January 2002, the Times of London reported that “Israeli intelligence chiefs believe that Palestinian bomb-makers are trying to acquire lethal toxins to use in future suicide attacks.” A few months later, Hamas issued a statement saying, “When we reach that stage using chemical weapons, the gates will be opened to launch suicide attacks with Allah’s help.” In August 2002, an indictment issued against the head of the Hamas cell responsible for a March 2002 suicide attack in Netanya, revealed that Hamas operatives “intended to use…cyanide in the near future for a mass attack.” The March 2002 bombing itself was reportedly meant to include cyanide, but a technical malfunction prevented this from occurring.
In 2003, the Israel Defense Forces reported that a manual, titled “The Mujahedeen Poisons Handbook,” had been published on a Hamas website. The manual detailed “how to prepare various homemade poisons, chemical poisons, poisonous gases, and other deadly materials for use in terrorist attacks.” In June 2006, Haaretz reported, “Hamas operatives in the West Bank have experimented with adding toxic chemicals to their bombs.”
However, there are fewer reports in recent years of use or attempted use of WMD by Hamas. Even before Hamas gained control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, it was reported that “on its website, Hamas has admitted that it has not used chemicals to more devastating effect because of the fear of Israeli reprisals.” Now that Hamas controls a territory, the likelihood of Hamas choosing to engage in a large-scale WMD attack appears relatively low, especially considering the likelihood of an “immediate and massive” preemptive or retaliatory strike by Israel. Although Hamas-conducted chemical and/ or biological attacks would create panic among the Israeli populace, from a cost-benefit analysis, such attacks might not make sense for Hamas.
As with Hizbollah, Hamas seems most likely to acquire WMD not for immediate use but as a deterrent intended to be brandished in case Israeli troops threaten to enter Gaza as they have done in the past. Of course, once such a deterrent is acquired, the possibility of its use—in extremis, by an undeterrable leader or rogue actor, or due to miscalculation—is always present.
On PressTV, Dr. Ismail Salami, an internationally published author of several books and hundreds of political articles, says the report which is co-authored by Mark Dubowitz, who runs the Zionist Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and David Albright, a physicist who heads the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and who was responsible for concocting lies and myths about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and drawing the country into an abysmal vortex of destruction and devastation, the report can be but seen in the light of yet another overtly brash attempt by the US to push ahead with further militarism in the Middle East.
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