Jeffrey LewisIran's Shrinking CW Program

I really love WMD Insights.

I’ve been meaning to link to a recent article by Markus Binder tracking how the IC has toned down its assessment of Iran’s CW capabilities:

In the Sec. 721 report covering the first half of 2003, released in November 2003, we see the beginnings of a process of declining certainty associated with descriptions of Iranian CW activity and capabilities. The report states that Iran “likely has already stockpiled blister, blood, choking, and probably nerve agents” retreating slightly from the previous bald assertion that Iran “has” a CW stockpile. [17] A further reduction is seen in the Sec. 721 report for the second half of 2003, released in November 2004. This report confines itself to stating that “Iran may have already stockpiled blister, blood, choking, and possibly nerve agents.” [18]

Finally, in the most recent Sec. 721 report, publicly released in May 2006, but covering activities in 2004, all reference to stockpiles and delivery systems was removed. All that remained was the statement that Iran “continued to seek production technology, training, and expertise from foreign entities that could further Tehran’s efforts to achieve an indigenous capability to produce nerve agents.” [19] Although Sec. 721 reports are supposed to be released annually, the DNI has not publicly released an update since May 2006, and it is therefore not possible to determine whether or not DNI has maintained or modified its 2004 position. The changes in the CIA’s public reports alone are insufficient to reach a conclusion about the wider U.S. intelligence community’s contemporary assessment of Iran’s CW program or its capabilities. Fortunately, although there have been no further releases from the CIA, we do have access to the assessments of at least two other U.S. government agencies for the period 2004 to 2007.

We now have two more 721 reports from 2005 and 2006. Although both demonstrate the declining trend identified by Binder, the 2006 report contains the judgment that Iran “maintains a small, covert CW stockpile.”

Now, the old estimate was that Iran had “several thousand tons” of CW weapons. So, I started to wonder, what makes a chemical weapons stockpile large? After all, as Secretary Powell observed, “Even the low end of 100 tons of agent would enable Saddam Hussein to cause mass casualties across more than 100 square miles of territory, an area nearly 5 times the size of Manhattan.”

Oh, sorry for bringing that up. I feel all weird and awkward now.

As it turns out, “large” is a pretty elastic term that has been used to describe Libya (23 metric tons), pre-1991 Iraq (690 metric tons) and Russia (40,000 metric tons).

What’s the over/under on the size of the Iranian CW stockpile? 1 ton? 10? 1/10th?


  1. sadi (History)

    bravo…. you guys have guts….keeep the good work iranian children will pray for you.

  2. Markus K. Binder (History)

    I thought I might take the opportunity to add a small update to my original article. Now that we have the two additional 721 reports from DNI we can more clearly see the differing assessments of Iran’s CW capability within the intelligence community. The DNI position that Iran maintained “a small, covert CW stockpile” in 2006 is rather different to DIA’s February 2007 testimony that essentially says Iran has a chemical industry. DIA’s 2008 testimony slightly hardened its assessment of Iranian capabilities by asserting that “Tehran maintains dual-use facilities intended to produce chemical warfare agents in times of need and conducts research that may have offensive applications.”

    In trying to square this stuff up I noticed that Iran had an OPCW Schedule 1 inspection in 2001 and 2003 and has reported a National Protective Program since 2003. Unfortunately OPCW stopped specifying the breakdown of its inspections by country in 2004. However in October 2007 the OPCW reported (S/657/2007) that Iran was one of 18 countries that had met the deadline for submission of annual declarations regarding projected activities and anticipated production in 2008 at schedule 1 facilities.

    On the basis of the admittedly limited information I wonder if perhaps the DNI’s “small, covert CW stockpile” is in any way associated with an Iranian Single Small Scale Facility. At a minimum it seems highly probable that DIA’s “research that may have offensive applications” is associated with the ongoing activities of Iran’s Schedule 1 facility. Based on the available public information DIA’s analysis seems reasonably well-grounded. On the other hand the sudden re-emergence of DNI’s Iranian CW stockpile after several years in which it was absent from public statements and reports is more difficult to account for.

    If DNI’s stockpile is tied to Iran’s declared Schedule 1 facility then assuming that Iran is making a point of not violating CWC thresholds, which may or may not be reasonable, its CW stockpile may be in the range of 10 to 1,000 kilograms of agent. Which barely could be considered small.

  3. J House (History)

    When you are well on your way to an indigneous capability to enrich uranium to bomb-grade fuel, who needs chemical weapons?
    Joining the nuclear club will be status enough, without the need for those nasty chemicals.
    Why launch a salvo of VX when you can send one 20+ megaton warhead downrange?

  4. asghar

    3.5 percent uranium enrichment under iaea monitoring is not bomb grade, and the Iranians suffered 60,000 chemical weapons casualties (US direct assistance to Saddam’s CW noted) but did not respond in kind even though they would have been legally entitled to do so.

  5. DW (History)

    I don’t usually respond to this sort of post, but it is so blatently false and biased, that a response needs to be made. An Iranian CW Program is also a good/effective asymmetric ofensive capability used to exterminate any (real or percieved potential) nusiance or threat, as in Israel or anyone else that wants to attack Iran. Like a besieged fortress, CW and a covert ICBM program are what Tehran thinks will deter its neighbors and world powers…but existance of weapons hasn’t deterred too many determined leaders (no matter how deranged in the past). So, for as much of a deterrant you claim a CW program is, the existance of a CW program would make Iran anything but a “rational actor” – it does give them something to feel less insecure about – an asymmetric/unconventional capability that can create mass casualties against any (potential) agressor when you’re feeling insecure, surrounded and cornered; as long as we’re being frank in these posts – it certainly doesn’t make any nation a rational actor it makes them a nation with mis-guided,grand goals/plans to become a regional power/threat that would make them open-season targets for those that want Iran to mind its own business, solve its own major internal strife/issues and be a team player that is content with the fact that you haven’t been carved up and subdivided amongst your other Middle Eastern neighbors. The possessition of CW and ambitions for ICBMs and nukes make you an irrational player when you want to use them as a negotiating/extortioning tool at the “big boys” table, which you are NOT a member of.
    Open confrontation and indirect conflict are equally as bad and last time I checked, Iran has been openly supporting terror in the Middle East for a lot longer than the US has been fighting in Iraq – but since we (the US and coalition forces) arrived, Iran’s support for terror has gotten far worse…direct attack/open warfare versus indirect support and attack – what is the difference when IRGC personnel are training or cooperating with insurgents – just calling a “spade” a spade – seems to me the cowardly and indirect approach is equally worse – agreed?? Furthermore, rockets rain down somewhere in Israel every single day – and whether Israel chooses to attack their direct attackers or attack those who equip, train and enable them (Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Lybia)to carry out those rocket and mortar attacks is of little difference. If you openly or secretly support those attackers, you are a justifiable target. So spare me the high and mighty “we didn’t do anything to anyone” routine. with regards to the ‘spare me the we want to wipe Israel off the map meme,’ why shouldn’t we take Iran seriously, that is,unless your President is a powerless megalomaniac/puppet/pawn with a foul mouth and a warped and distorted view of history?
    And to answer your question why we can have nukes and Iran cannot – I could give you a list a mile long, but one is sufficient; because we created and are a peaceful part of the nuclear “haves” club and Iran is still part of the “nuclear have not” club and until that changes, the US will do whatever it can to limit the membership of the “nuclear haves” club to whomever it wants to.

  6. Andy (History)

    The Iranian CW program was originally a response to Iraq and their use of CW in the Iran-Iraq war. Now that Saddam is gone, Iran may have simply decided it no longer needs such a capability.

    Furthermore, Iranian doesn’t gain a lot with CW against Israel. First of all, using them would be asking to get nuked and secondly Israeli civil defense is prepared after two scares with Iraq. Also, Iran has a limited number of delivery systems that could deliver such weapons to Israel.

    And FSB, I don’t think Israel is “widely viewed” to have a chemical weapons stockpile as you allege, much less evidence of the necessary modified delivery platforms. CW for the Israeli’s are kind of superfluous when they have nukes, don’t you think? The CWC does allow a small amount of agent and precursor for CW defense – which is understandable considering most of Israel’s enemies DO have CW.

  7. FSB

    DW: The possession of CW and ambitions for ICBMs and nukes make you an irrational player when you want to use them as a negotiating/extortioning tool at the “big boys” table, which you are NOT a member of.

    I am glad you have unilaterally decided Iran is not a big boy.

    In the middle east we do consider Iran a Big Boy. And Allah-willing it will prove it to you.

    As long as some higher authority: eg US is dictating who is and who is not a big boy, you can be sure non-big boy nations will try exactly what Pakistan and Iran are doing to be considered Big Boys.

    Furthermore, if you target Iran with nuclear weapons, she will protect herself

    Who made Israel a big boy BTW?

    Andy, it would appear others disagree with you whether or not Israel has a CW program

  8. hass (History)

    Did you notice that the “shrinking” of the alleged Iranian CW program corresponded with Bolton’s departure as Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security? Hmmmm…..the same Bolton who had falsely claimed that Cuba too had a CW program?

  9. political forum (History)

    Well chemical weapons are largely useless in this day and age. The political fallout is worse than the chemical fallout. Saddam didn’t even try to use them in either 1991 or 2003. It’s all about nukes, which is what the Iranians are going for now.