Iran’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Discussion


Iran’s Weapons of Mass Destruction

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The fear of unstable and/or unfriendly nations acquiring or building of weapons of mass destruction was a much greater source of fear in the years immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Despite the somewhat more relaxed fears in the public arena concerning weapons of mass destruction, the threat of nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry in the hands of the enemies of the United States is still a very real issue, and will continue to be so as long as the United States has enemies. It can be difficult to determine the extent or even the existence of a weapons program, however. Some rogue nations, such as North Korea and, as it turns out, Iraq, seem to have inflated the progress that they had made with their weapons programs. In some cases this has been done both as a bargaining chip and a threat. By overstating the capabilities of a weapons of mass destruction program, rogue nations have something to offer to abandon in return for concessions from the United States and other countries, and at the same time can threaten other countries with events that are in actuality beyond their capabilities. But this is not the misinformation that carries the greatest danger.

There are also several countries that are suspected of having underestimated their weapons capabilities. Among these nations, which likely pose a much greater risk to the United States than those countries with weapons of mass destruction capabilities known to be overstated, is Iran. Though they have officially ceased all attempts at developing nuclear weapons Iran is actively pursuing nuclear power production, and many fear that the knowledge, expertise, and equipment/substances acquired for this purpose can be used to develop weapons if political tides shift.

There is definitely some side-stepping of the issue and probably outright deception being practiced by the Iranian government.

This makes it difficult to determine exactly how far along their weapons of mass destruction program is, and what work is currently being done to advance it further. What is known is that during the 1990s at least nine Western companies sold Iran dual technology — that is, nuclear technology that can be used both for peaceful means of power production and for producing nuclear warheads.

And the possibility of a nuclear arsenal is only one aspect of Iran’s weapons of mass destruction program that requires attention. More information has been obtained regarding Iran’s chemical and biological weapons programs than their nuclear capabilities, and current intelligence reports estimate that Iran is producing one thousand tons of chemical weapons — mainly mustard gas, phosgene, and several cyanide agents — every year.

There are also indications that the Iranian military is developing a smallpox strain, in addition to other biologically derived delayed-action agents such as mycotoxins and ricin.

Further military intervention in the area of the world where Iran is located present many logistical and political problems, and could invite the use of some of the weapons Iran has already developed. For that reason, diplomacy is likely to be the most efficient and effective tactic at forcing Iran to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs. Increased economic sanctions and encouraging the rest of the international community to isolate Iran could force their hand more effectively than direct military action, and cannot invite reprisal from Iran or its allies. It is doubtful that the programs will be entirely dismantled in five years, but the time is ripe to lay the groundwork for that eventuality.


Global Security. (2006). “Weapons of mass destruction: Nuclear weapons.” Accessed 25 April 2009.

Strategy World. (2006). “Iran’s chemical arsenal.” Accessed 25 April 2009.


When we think of warfare and terrorist attacks, we tend to think of large destructive pieces of machinery — nuclear missiles and/or bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and even the still-too-recent memory of massive airplanes being turned from passenger vehicles into weapons. Not all forces of mass death and destruction come in large packages, however. In the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, several small, standard envelopes were also used in an attempt at terrorist action. Though these attempts were not successful, they highlight an important part of the battle against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Biological agents can be delivered in small and hard to catch ways — via the U.S. mail in what appear to be normal envelopes, for instance — and if the agent is contagious enough the effects of biological warfare can be completely devastating and almost impossible to control. Blowing up a building is certainly one way to cause massive deaths, but once the incident is over, it is over. With many contagious types of biological weaponry, the first instance of the attack is really just the beginning of all the trouble.

The small envelopes filled with white powder that were sent to several people in the immediate wake of the September 11th attacks were actually a form of biological weaponry, used not as part of a war per se but in an act of terrorism. Anthrax, the disease caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis, is one of the most potentially dangerous organisms identified for use in biological weapons.

The type and severity of symptoms varies significantly depending on the delivery method of the agent, which adds to the unpredictability of the agent.

Anthrax is most commonly passed on cutaneously (through skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual or animal).

The type of infection caused by cutaneous infection is easily identified and treated, however, making it rarely fatal. Since 1976, there has not been a single reported case of inhalation anthrax infection in the United States, but despite the difficulty this illustrates in producing an infection this way, it is believed that making anthrax spores airborne is the most likely method of a biological attack.

The disease is far more fatal when the bacteria are inhaled, killing between twenty and forty percent of those that catch the disease, and severely incapacitating many others with respiratory ailments.

Anthrax actually responds very well to antibiotics in most cases, but it must be identified first, and that is difficult.

Symptoms might not appear for two weeks to two months, and the right strain could cause an epidemic before anyone even knew they were sick.

This makes it an ideal disease for use by terrorists or in covert military biological attacks — the attackers’ exposure could be limited and mitigated through the use of preventative treatments, while the population being attacked would be caught unprepared — human cases of anthrax have become so rare that treatments aren’t even available to the general public.

The good news is that a single case raises instant suspicion, and catching it early is the best defense.

Global Security. (2006). “Weapons of mass destruction: Nuclear weapons.”


Strategy World. (2006). “Iran’s chemical arsenal.”


Inglesby et al. (2002). “Anthrax as a biological weapon.” Journal of the American Medical Association, 287(17), pp.

Federation of American Scientists. (2008). “Anthrax fact sheet.”


Inglesby et al.

Federation of American Scientists.

Inglesby et al.


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