Iran Chemical Weapon Update - 1998

The Risk Report
Volume 4 Number 1 (January-February 1998)

In February 1997, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet named Iran as among the twenty countries that the CIA suspects of having or developing chemical and biological weapons. In May 1996, the CIA told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Iran’s chemical weapon program was “already among the largest in the Third World, yet has continued to expand and become more diversified.” The CIA testified that Iran was “developing a production capability for the more toxic nerve agents,” and was trying to reduce its dependence on imported raw materials.

The CIA estimated the stockpile of Iran’s chemical weapons at several thousand tons in 1996, with agents including sulfur mustard, phosgene and cyanide. The CIA also stated that Iran has the ability to produce a thousand tons of agent each year. Delivery methods for these chemical agents include artillery, mortars, rockets, aerial bombs and possibly Scud missile warheads. A subsequent CIA report noted that during the second half of 1996, Iran obtained the “bulk of its CW [chemical weapon] equipment from China and India,” and has sought to obtain dual-use biological equipment from Asia and Europe.

Iran’s parliament ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in November 1997. As a signatory, Iran is prohibited from developing, producing and stockpiling chemical weapons. Iran is also a party to the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972.

Program history

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported in 1990 that Iran’s offensive chemical weapon program had begun in 1983 “in response to Iraqi use of riot control and toxic chemical agents” during the Iran-Iraq War. According to the DIA, the program began under the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), with the role of the Ministry of Defense increasing over time. U.S. officials credit Iran’s Defense Industries Organization (Sazeman Sanaye Defa), a part of the Ministry of Defense, with assembling the various elements of Iran’s chemical and biological weapon programs.

In April 1984, the Iranian delegate to the United Nations, Rajai Khorassani, admitted at a London news conference that Iran was “capable of manufacturing chemical weapons ... [and would] consider using them.” By 1987, U.S. State Department officials confirmed that Iran had provided chemical weapons to Libya. In December 1987, Iranian Prime Minister Hussein Musavi stated in a parliamentary address that Iran was producing “sophisticated offensive chemical weapons.”

By 1988, Iran reportedly was actively producing phosgene gas and cyanotic agents, and possibly nerve gas. Iran’s indigenous chemical weapon production capability was confirmed in a March 1990 U.S. DIA report which concluded that Iran had created or purchased its own version of sulfur mustard gas, samples of which had been collected by a United Nations team and were shown by independent analysis to be of “different origin than the mustard gas used by Iraq.” The DIA report also stated that a United Nations team had examined Iraqi victims of Iranian chemical attacks who “displayed the effects of exposure to a choking agent ... believed to have been phosgene.”

As Iran’s chemical warfare capabilities grew, it became more difficult to determine which side was responsible for chemical attacks during the Iran-Iraq War. In March 1988, the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq, sandwiched between Iranian and Iraqi forces, was caught in a chemical weapon crossfire. Iranian commanders, believing the village was occupied by Iraqi troops, attacked with cyanide gas bombs and artillery. Iraqi forces replied with mustard gas the next day. Iran charged that Iraq was responsible and turned the catastrophe into a major propaganda event, ferrying journalists to the village to film corpses in the street. However, between 100 and 200 deaths from cyanide gas were confirmed, as many of the victims had blue lips, a common characteristic of cyanide poisoning. In 1990, a Defense Department reconstruction of the last stages of the Iran-Iraq War affirmed that Iranian cyanide gas had been responsible for many of the Kurdish civilian deaths at Halabja.

Chemical warfare production plants have been identified by unofficial sources at Qazum, Al Razi, Bashwir and Damghan. Facilities at Damghan are thought to produce artillery shells and possibly load other weapons with nerve gas. Other reported sites include Marvdasht, near Shiraz, where mustard gas is believed to be produced. A fire reportedly broke out at Marvdasht in 1987, killing 400 persons.

Foreign assistance

Foreign assistance has been vital to Iran’s chemical and biological weapon programs. In recent years China and India have been Iran’s primary sources for chemical weapon equipment and precursor chemicals. Companies in Germany, the United States and Israel have also been involved. In addition, Israel recently voiced concern over Russian assistance.

China

The U.S. State Department has taken steps against Iran’s suppliers by imposing sanctions against both individuals and organizations. In November 1994, Manfred Felber, an Austrian, Gerhard Merz, a German, and Luciano Moscatelli, an Australian, were all sanctioned for engaging in “chemical weapons proliferation activities.” In fact, they all supplied Chinese chemicals to Iran.

In February 1995, the State Department sanctioned three more companies, Asian Ways Limited, WorldCo Limited and Mainway International for chemical weapon proliferation. The U.S. government did not reveal where the companies were based or what they had done, but all the companies had used offices in Hong Kong to send poison gas ingredients from China to Iran. That same month, the companies were denied the right to do business in Hong Kong.

In March 1996, the Washington Post reported that companies in China were providing Iran with “virtually complete factories” suited for making chemical weapons. In May 1997, the State Department sanctioned one Hong Kong company, two Chinese companies and five Chinese individuals for providing Iran with chemical weapon technology. Nanjing Chemical Industries Group (NCI) and Jiangsu Yongli Chemical Engineering and Technology Import-Export Corporation, both Chinese concerns, and Cheong Lee Limited, a Hong Kong company were all prohibited from doing business with the United States for one year. The sanctioned Chinese individuals were Liao Minglong, Tian Yi, Chen Qingchang (aka Q.C. Chen), Pan Yongming, and Shao Xingsheng.

In January 1997, Rex International Development, a Hong Kong-based company owned by NORINCO (a huge Chinese state-run arms manufacturing conglomerate), reportedly handled a shipment of high-grade seamless steel pipes suitable for use in chemical or explosives manufacturing. The shipment went from Spain through Hong Kong to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, and then on to an Iranian chemical weapon plant. Iran’s Defense Industries Organization (DIO) reportedly was the consignee for the deal. Rex International was ordered closed down by the British colonial government shortly before the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in June 1997 and volunteered to cease business under a settlement with the new Chinese government in July 1997.

India

In January 1995, the Washington Times reported that, according to a highly classified German intelligence report, Iran was “only months away from completing a secret poison-gas complex.” According to the report, Indian companies had been involved in the construction of the plant, which was intended for the production of the nerve gases sarin and tabun. The article claimed that equipment, including corrosion-resistant enamel reactors, pipes and pumps, were all being sought by Indian firms from German companies. The Indian companies seeking the goods were identified as Tata Consulting Engineering, Transpek, and Rallis India.

Germany

In June 1989, the West German trading company Rheineisen Chemical Products acknowledged that it had arranged the sale of 257 tons of thionyl chloride, a mustard gas precursor, from a chemical company in India to Iran. Rheineisen, which was owned by an Iranian family, cancelled the contract but denied that the transaction was a violation of West German export law. U.S. officials believed Rheineisen, which had been purchased from its original German owners in 1988, was a front company for Iranian chemical procurement efforts.

The Indian supplier, Transpek Private Ltd., denied that it had any contract with either Rheineisen Chemical Products or Iran, but later admitted that it had sold 60 tons of thionyl chloride to Iran in March 1989 through the government-controlled Indian State Trading Corporation. A Transpek official acknowledged that the contract for the planned 257-ton sale brokered by Rheineisen had been signed in June 1989.

United States

In January 1989, a U.S. Customs Service investigation revealed that an Iranian diplomat posted in West Germany, Seyed Kharim Ali Sobhani, had brokered three shipments of thiodiglycol, a precursor of mustard gas and a controlled commodity, from the United States to Iran in 1987 and 1988 through a West German company. The Iranian agent had instructed the German firm Chemco GmbH to purchase the chemical from Alcolac International of Baltimore, and shipments were routed through third countries (30 tons through Greece in March 1987 and 60 tons through Singapore in June 1987) to conceal their final destinations.

The Customs Service intercepted a third Alcolac shipment of 120 tons in April 1988, substituted water for the chemicals, and tracked the shipment through Singapore and Pakistan to a Tehran firm M/S Ray Textile Industries, that U.S. officials said was a front company for chemical purchases. The responsible officer at Chemco GmbH was arrested and pleaded guilty to violating U.S. export law, but subsequently jumped bond and fled to West Germany, where he could not be extradited or prosecuted under German law. The West German government, under pressure from the United States, forced Tehran to withdraw the Iranian diplomat from its embassy in Bonn.

Alcolac pleaded guilty to a single count of violating U.S. export law for manipulation of documents by its export manager, Leslie Hinkelman, to conceal the fact that the 120-ton shipment of thiodiglycol was destined for Iran. It was later revealed that Alcolac exported four other shipments of thiodiglycol totaling more than 400 tons through Nu Kraft Mercantile Corporation of New York, which were ultimately diverted via Jordan to Iraq.

In January 1997, the Los Angeles Times reported that two business partners, Henry Joseph Trojack and Abdol Hamid Rashidian, had been arrested on charges of conspiring to ship Iran impregnated alumina, a chemical that could be used to make VX and sarin nerve gas. The case is still pending.

Israel

In July 1994, Nahum Manbar, an Israeli citizen, and his companies Mana International Investments in Poland, and Europol Holding, Ltd. in the United Kingdom, were sanctioned by the State Department for engaging in “chemical weapons proliferation activities.” While Manbar admitted to the Israeli press only that he had sold anti-chemical and anti-biological suits to Iran, a senior U.S. official stated in June 1995 that Manbar “provided knowing and material support to a BW [biological weapon] or CW [chemical weapon] program of a country on our terrorist list,” that country being Iran. In May 1997, Manbar was arrested and charged in Israel with “assisting the enemy in its war against Israel, providing information to an outside enemy with the intent of harming state security, and providing Iran with the means to manufacture chemical weapons in exchange for 16m [million] dollars.” The case against Manbar is still pending.

Biological weapons

In 1996, the CIA told Congress that Iran had possessed a biological weapons program since the early 1980s. The CIA said that Iran held some stocks of BW agents and weapons, but that the program was mostly in the “research and development stage.” Delivery of biological agents could be accomplished by the same systems that Iran has for chemical weapons, namely artillery shells and aerial bombs. The CIA also stated that Iran had the “technical infrastructure to support a significant BW program and needs little foreign assistance,” and noted that Iran had “top-notch” biomedical research institutes that conduct legitimate research, which could support a biological weapon program. The CIA concluded that “because of the dual-use nature of biomedical technology, Iran’s ability to produce a number of both human and veterinary vaccines also gives it the capability for large-scale BW agent production.” In June 1997 the CIA reported that Europe and Asia were potential sources of dual-use biotech equipment.

In its 1996 Annual Report to Congress, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) said Iran has produced BW agents and “apparently” has weaponized some. Facilities at Damghan and Karaj have been reported as possible biological weapon development sites.