Intelligence Report: The road to disarmament

If Syria’s chemical weapons are destroyed and Iran’s nuclear program is slowed down, WMD disarmament will gain momentum in the Mideast, and Israel could find itself next in line.

UN expert holds sampels from an alleged attack in Damascus. (photo credit: AMIR HASHEN DEHGANI / FARS NEWS / REUTERS)
UN expert holds sampels from an alleged attack in Damascus.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to the US in late September to meet President Barack Obama and to address the UN General Assembly, he intended to demand publicly once again clamping down on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and removing the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons.
The pro-Israel Wall Street Journal reported, however, that in a private conversation with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Netanyahu expressed his readiness and even encouraged the US administration to reach a diplomatic solution – accept Russia’s compromise – to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal, and thus make the threat of a military strike redundant.
Anyway, as the old saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the international community manages to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal, it will not only make the world a slightly safer place, but will also improve Israel’s strategic posture.
Motivated by various reasons, Syria began to research and develop its chemical weapons (and biological weapons, which no one talks about and are under the radar of international discourse) in the late 1970s.
First and foremost, the chemical weapons were developed for deterrent purposes, aimed to counter and challenge Israel’s nuclear weapons that everyone believes Jerusalem possesses. But Syria also wanted to have chemical weapons (the poor man’s nuclear weapons) to deter Turkey and to compensate for Israel Air Force superiority.
Over the years, Syria amassed a huge cache of chemical weapons – the third largest in the world after the US and the former Soviet Union.
According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Syria is one of five states that neither signed nor acceded to the universal Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that went into force in 1997. The CWC prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons. The other four states are Angola, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan. Two states – Israel and Myanmar – signed the universal convention in 1993, but have not ratified it.
However, in 1968, Syria did accede to the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonousor Other Gases.
Over the last 30 years and more, under the Assad dynasty, Syria time and again denied having chemical weapons. Its statements – the last one in 2012, already in the midst of the civil war – proved to be flat lies.
Israeli, American and French intelligence agencies estimate that Syria poses a range of lethal chemical agents, including mustard gas and nerve agents, such as sarin, tabun and VX. It also possesses the binary technology, a form of two chemical products called precursors, attesting that Syria has acquired considerable knowledge of chemical weapons. Its delivery means include airplanes, missiles and artillery.
According to these intelligence assessments, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) near Damascus is the hotbed for the production of the toxic agents. The site, or rather its parking lot, was hit a few months ago, reportedly by the IAF. But the targets were not its laboratories and production halls but a convoy of trucks loaded with advanced anti-aircraft missiles to be smuggled to Hezbollah in Lebanon.The disarmament of chemical weapons is a long and expensive process. The US-Russian understanding estimates that it will take up to nine months.
If the deal is successful – Syria’s full cooperation still remains doubtful – it will lead to a historical irony. Syria’s chemical weapons proved the strategic vision of the Assad regime. Indeed, the weapon systems served as a deterrent – but against an unexpected adversary. Instead of deterring Israel or Turkey, they prevented (with Russian backing) an American strike. Yet at the same time, the use of the weapons on the outskirts of Damascus last August brought about its downfall.
Even if President Bashar Assad holds onto power, a “chemical weapons-less” Syria, wracked by civil war, is going to be even weaker than before.
This is good news for Israel. One more country is removed from the list of states threatening the existence of Israel. Syria will be the third enemy country after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya to be dismantled of its weapons of mass destruction.
The common thread in these three cases can be termed “coercive diplomacy” – a combination of tough diplomacy backed by either threats to use military force (in the cases of Libya and Syria) or a war (in the Iraqi case).
Coercive diplomacy is also the method being adopted against Iran. And it is working, or so it seems. Israel and the West are putting pressure on Iran to scrap elements of its nuclear program that are clearly for military purposes. The measures being used are sticks and carrots. The sticks include threats of a military attack, diplomatic pressure and harsh economic sanctions. The carrots are the incentives – lifting the sanctions and the reacceptance of Iran into the international fold.
The evidence that the coercive diplomacy is on the verge of success to force Iran to change its course is in abundance. First and foremost is the state of Iran’s economy. Its economy is in shambles and deteriorating day by day. Iran is struggling to sell its products, mainly oil, which is its main source of income, for hard currency.
According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran’s oil revenues have dropped by 45 percent, costing the economy about $150 million a day in lost earnings. This means Iran has lost nearly $100 billion over the past year and a half or so. As a result, industrial production has fallen by 40 percent; unemployment has risen by a third and is reaching a level of nearly 20 percent among the general population and 30 percent among the younger generation; and consumer prices have gone up by 80 percent.
If the trend continues, it is a recipe for economic and political disaster. It will lead to civil unrest and may eventually cost the Iranian oligarchy – a corrupt partnership between Shi’a clerics and Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – their power. And the oligarchy knows it very well.
Even Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the ultimate authority in the country, realizes this. This is the main reason why he imposed his will over the arch-conservative ayatollahs and IRGC generals, and agreed that the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani would be elected as the new president.
It’s a marriage of convenience. The purpose shared by all of them is to save the economy and the regime by persuading the world to lift the sanctions. Practically, it is a survivalist struggle. To this end, Iran is ready to present itself – on the surface at least – as a state ready to compromise.
In his first news conference after being elected three months ago, the soft-spoken and Western-educated Rouhani (he holds a PhD from Glasgow Caledonian University) promised that “if the United States shows goodwill and mutual respect, the way for interaction will be open.” Friendly letters have been exchanged between Obama and Rouhani.
Recently, too, the newly elected president tweeted New Year’s greetings to Jews celebrating Rosh Hashana. So did his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, also a Westerneducated shrewd diplomat and official. Zarif went even further by criticizing former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his Holocaust-denial obsession.
As a gesture of goodwill to transform Iran into a more open society and depart from its brutal past, Rouhani ordered the release in September of 11 prominent political prisoners, including human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. All these are good signs.
Rouhani is due to be accompanied in New York by Siamak Moreh Sedgh, the sole Jewish member of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, to impress the US Jewish community that new winds are blowing in Tehran.
In a recent television interview with an American channel, Rouhani said that Iran would never “seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons” and that he had “full power and complete authority” to strike a nuclear deal.
The decision, sanctioned by Khamenei, to transfer authority over the nuclear issue from the hawkish National Security Council to the Foreign Ministry led by Zarif is another indication of that direction.
However, Netanyahu, who is also set to address the UN General Assembly, is very skeptical. He has not changed his four demands outlined exactly a year ago in his red-lines speech to the UN. Iran must stop enriching uranium at all levels; it must remove enriched uranium from the country; it must close its underground Fordow nuclear enrichment facility near Qom; and it must stop the plutonium track – the construction of its nuclear reactor near Arak.
Yet it’s clear even to the prime minister that not all four demands will be met in full, if at all. Though he won’t admit it publicly, Netanyahu will settle for less.
Certainly the Iranian tone has changed, but is it a real and essential change or just cosmetic surgery, a face lift? The Iranian pudding looks promising but is it really tasty? Will Iran really mean business and is Tehran ready to strike a real nuclear deal with the West? Only time will tell. And time is running out. Iran is already on the verge of building its first nuclear bomb. It has the know-how, the technology and the materials to do so in a matter of months, if it wishes.
If indeed a deal is struck and Iran’s nuclear program is slowed down, one can say that the non-conventional disarmament process is gaining momentum in the Middle East. In such a case, sooner or later, Israel’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs will also be targeted. But if the indications from Iran prove to be once again hollow, the Syrian case will not be a precedent but just an isolated and unrelated event.