Iran’s Shifting Preference?

By Scott McAlister

With the possible passage of the Iranian nuclear deal looming, it is important to look to possible consequences of the deal.  By taking away Iran’s ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon in the near future, how does that affect their overall desire to possess weapons of mass destruction?  In the world of WMD’s, the big three are nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.  It can be argued that nuclear weapons are far above the other two, as they are the only one to cause enormous amounts of damage to a victim’s infrastructure and population.  It is true, a biological or chemical weapons attack isn’t going to take down buildings or level cities, but does that mean they don’t deserve to be feared?  Biological weapons can introduce susceptible populations to deadly pathogens, and can cause mass hysteria when released.  Biological weapons programs are also much easier to hide.  While having a nuclear reactor isn’t a dead give away for building a nuclear bomb, if you are enriching uranium past a certain point, it might send up some red flags (normal enrichment for energy is 3-5%, weapons grade is above 75%, records show Iran had enriched uranium past 20%.)  The scary thing about biological and chemical weapons programs is their ability to hide in plain sight.  Due the dual use of much of today’s biotechnological advancements, an offensive weapons program can be disguised as a facility to create vaccines or research centers for diseases with minimal effort.

This brings us to Iran.  If the deal passes, Iran will realistically be unable to produce a nuclear weapon for at least the next 10 years, loosing a vast majority of its nuclear fuel, decommissioning a majority of its centrifuges, and subjected to thorough inspections.  The question now is, does their inability to produce a nuclear weapon influence them to switch routes and invest in an offensive biological weapons program?  While some hold that nuclear weapons are a class above biological and chemical weapons, to others it’s the notion of possessing a WMD of any form that holds clout.  Does Iran view biological weapons as an equally effective way to convey their message to the outside world?

Iran possesses a highly advanced pharmaceutical industry. Controlling prominent facilities, like the Razi Institute and the Pasteur Institute, that focus on serum research and vaccine production shows investment in ongoing industrial advancement.  They have also completed most of this with sanctions imposed on them by the United States and UN.  Passage of the nuclear deal would lessen those sanctions, freeing them to consider outside trade in the biotechnology realm.  Now take into consideration that the sanctions were imposed partly because of their interest in dual use technology.  In building their biotechnology industry before the sanctions, Iran imported large amounts of dual use technology from abroad.  Iran has said before and will undoubtedly say again that they are against the notion of biological weapons and welcome inspections of their facilities.  The problem being that they have also failed in the past to submit full confidence building measures concerning biological weapons.  Also, as we have seen historically, facility inspections do not guarantee something nefarious isn’t occurring.  Identifying a centrifuge or large fermenter doesn’t mean it’s being used to make weaponized anthrax, but unfortunately, it could be and inspectors would have a very difficult time proving it.  The point here is that a country that possesses a robust pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry, with more trade options in the near future, is an excellent candidate for speculation.  Combined with their known difficulty with providing confidence building measures on offensive intentions, their new inability to build a nuclear weapon, and past speculation of dabbling in offensive capabilities by the US and UN, and you have the possibility of a changing tide.  With nuclear weapons no longer being an option, why not shift stock to a more attainable option?  If Iran truly wants a WMD, whether it be to destroy Israel or strengthen national security, they definitely have the resources to do so within the realm of biological weapons.

References
Norman, Laurence and Solomon, Jay, “Iran, World Powers Reach Nuclear Deal” The Wall Street Journal. July 14, 2015

Corpsman, Anthony H. “Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction: Biological Weapons Programs”. Center for Strategic and International Studies. October 28, 2008.

Charles R. Smith, “Bush Sanctions Chinese Firms’ WMD Exports to Iran,” Newsmax, 8 April 2004, http://archive.newsmax.com.

Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2011,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence, p. 4, http://fas.org

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