In its May issue, the Risk Report revealed that an individual named Nahum Manbar, cited last year by the U.S. government for chemical weapon proliferation, was an Israeli citizen. It turns out that Manbar is a prominent businessman who, according to the Israeli press, sponsors an Israeli basketball team, owns an Israeli syringe factory, and has steel and real estate interests in France.
After the New York Times printed an op-ed based on the Risk Report’s story, Manbar admitted to the Israeli press that he had sold anti-biological and anti-chemical protective suits to Iran, but claimed he stopped doing business with the Iranians when they asked for “chemical material.”
U.S. government sources, however, say Manbar’s involvement in chemical weapon proliferation was more substantial. “He provided knowing and material support to a BW [biological weapon] or CW [chemical weapon] program of a country on our terrorist list,” a senior U.S. official told the Risk Report. Material support, says a second official, means contributing more than protective suits.
“You don’t get on the sanctions list for selling masks and suits,” says a third official.
According to the U.S. Commerce Department, anti-biological suits are controlled by the Australia Group, a consortium of countries trying to stop the spread of chemical weapons by limiting exports. However, anti-chemical suits, which are widely available and have a variety of uses, are not controlled.
Manbar’s name first appeared in connection with chemical weapons in July 1994, when he and two of his companies, Europol Holding Ltd. of Poland, and Mana International Investments of the United Kingdom, were named by the U.S. State Department in the Federal Register. The State Department was required to let American companies know Manbar and his firms were being punished for “chemical weapons proliferation activities” and were denied the right to sell goods to the United States or the U.S. government for at least a year. But Manbar’s nationality was unknown until the Risk Report revealed it in a list of U.S. sanctions against entities caught sending poison gas ingredients and equipment to Iran and Libya.
On April 28, Manbar told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that “all the authorized elements in Israel were aware of my doings. This is about selling the Iranians anti-biological and chemical suits” to prepare for an Iraqi offensive, he said. “All the dealings with Iran were made through companies in Poland … I am forbidden from elaborating on the issue.”
Reached at his home in France, Manbar told the Risk Report on May 9 he did not sell ingredients for poison gas to Iran. He suggested that U.S. authorities may have been confused because “some of the people who buy equipment for defense are the same people who buy for chemical attack.” But Manbar said when the nature of Iran’s orders changed from chemical defense to attack, he reported the matter to Israeli authorities and severed relations with Iran. “We met with them. When they came in, we took the information. Then we took it to the right people [in Israel] and the answer was nyet — no.”
Manbar denied that his sales to Iran from 1988 to 1992 were for anything beyond defensive equipment. “I have a policy on Israel,” he said. “I will not do something that is against Israel.” Manbar admitted, however, that his Polish firm was a “short-term” company and no longer in business. According to Polish commercial records, Europol was incorporated in Warsaw in 1990 with business in fruits, vegetables and dairy products, and import and export of agricultural products. Manbar also told Israeli newspapers that he “had dealings with” American companies, but told the Risk Report that he did not have any business with American companies.
Manbar’s case is only one in a series of incidents for which the United States has imposed punishments. Fifteen foreign companies and individuals have been cited since early 1994. While punishments are mandatory when the State Department finds a “knowing” and “material” contribution to a chemical weapon program in a terrorist country, punishments also can be imposed at the State Department’s discretion when the contribution is to a country not on the terrorist list. More sanctions are inevitable, a U.S. official says, because “there’s no question that foreign CBW programs are obtaining support overseas.”
Iran and Syria are among the most worrisome programs, the officials add, because the two countries are almost able to make their own ingredients for chemical weapons. Once a country acquires a domestic production capability, it no longer has to rely on imports, virtually all of which are subject to export controls. “Iran has a substantial petrochemical industry,” says one U.S. official. “It’s something that is quite doable for them. That’s one of the unfortunate things about CBW. It’s not that much different from making fertilizer.”
The bulk of poison gas ingredients now going to Iran originate in China, which has a well-developed chemical industry, lax export controls and does not belong to the Australia Group. U.S. government analysts also say proliferators are increasingly using front companies and middlemen to purchase chemicals from a wide variety of sources, sometimes submitting simultaneous orders for the same chemicals in different countries. If those countries belong to the Australia Group, a decision to deny a sale by one country is supposed to be passed on immediately to the others.
Proliferators are also seeking ingredients to make what are known as precursors for poison gas. Precursors are chemicals used in the final stage of the manufacturing process. An oft-cited example is thiodiglycol, a precursor to mustard gas. Thiodiglycol also is used to make the ink in ballpoint pens flow more smoothly. It is controlled for export by the Australia Group, but the two chemicals comprising thiodiglycol are not controlled, which makes them easier to obtain.