Raging violence between Israelis and Palestinians has raised fears of a wider war in the region. For background on the possible use of weapons of mass destruction in future conflicts, we provide summaries on the chemical and biological weapon capabilities of countries in the Middle East adapted from a forthcoming Carnegie study, Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (June 2002). Next week's analysis will assess regional missile arsenals.
Israel's Chemical and Biological Weapon Capabilities
Israel possesses advanced chemical and biological weapons capabilities, although it is not known what type or how many offensive agents it currently has. Israel is believed to have had sophisticated chemical and biological weapons programs for several decades which are centered at the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) at Ness Ziona, some 10 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. There, Israel reportedly has conducted advanced research on both chemical and biological warfare.
Lacking authoritative information, non-Israeli publications have made many claims about Israel's CBW capabilities, from the trivial to the most sensationalist. The government of Israel, as part of its traditional deliberate ambiguity policy, has neither confirmed nor denied those reports. Acknowledging the difficulties in assessing Israel's CBW programs and capabilities, Avner Cohen recently characterized Israel's capabilities in these fields in the following way: "A near-consensus exists among experts-based on anecdotal evidence and intelligence leaks-that Israel developed, produced, stockpiled, and maybe even deployed chemical weapons at some point in its history." As to biological weapons, however, Cohen appears more cautious and tentative: "It would be logical-given the experience with Iraq-that Israel has acquired expertise in most aspects of weaponization, with the possible exception of testing. Although it is probable that Israel has maintained some sort of production capability, it is highly doubtful that Israel engages in the ongoing production or stockpiling of BW agents."
A 1990 DIA study reported that Israel had an operational chemical warfare testing facility. In an oblique Israeli reference, the authoritative Middle East Military Balance produced by the Jaffe Center notes, "The chemical and biological capabilities of Syria, Iraq and Iran are matched, according to foreign sources, by Israel's possession of a wide range of such weapons." Israel has signed but not yet ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention and is not a party to the Biological Weapons Convention.
Iraq's Chemical and Biological Weapon Capabilities
The absence of UN monitoring since 1998 has aroused concerns that Iraq again may have produced some biological warfare agents. Iraq currently maintains numerous science and medical facilities furnished with dual-use equipment where potential BW-related work could easily take place. According to UN estimates, Iraq possesses the technology and expertise to reconstitute an offensive biological weapons program within a few weeks or months. Iraq's continual refusal to disclose any details about its biological weapons program have lead U.S. officials to conclude that Baghdad maintains an active program, in spite of Iraq's ratification of the BWC in 1991. "The United States strongly suspects that Iraq has taken advantage of three years of no UN inspections to improve all phases of its offensive BW program. The existence of Iraq's program is beyond dispute, in complete contravention of the BWC." In the absence of further monitoring, the current status of the Iraqi chemical weapons program is also unknown. Iraq maintains the expertise to resume chemical agent production within a few weeks or months. However, to attain former levels of production, Iraq would need significant amounts of foreign assistance.
Iran's Chemical and Biological Weapon Capabilities
Although Iran is a member of the Biological Weapons Convention, U.S. intelligence reports claim that Iran currently maintains an offensive biological weapons program. The Iranian program is believed to include active research and development, agent production and weaponization.
In May 1998, after acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Tehran acknowledged past Iranian involvement in chemical weapons development and production. Like the Iranian BW program, the chemical weapons program began in the 1980's during the war with Iraq. Officials claimed that the Iranian CW program was dismantled at the war's end. U.S. threat assessments, however, contend that Iran's chemical weapons program remains intact. It is believed that Iran possesses a stockpile of weaponized blood gases, and blister and pulmonary agents.
Egypt, Syria, Libya and Sudan's Chemical and Biological Weapon Capabilities
There is considerable evidence that Egypt started a biological weapon research program in the early 1960s that produced weaponized agents. In 1996, U.S. officials reported that Egypt had developed biological warfare agents by 1972 and that "there is no evidence to indicate that Egypt has eliminated this capability and it remains likely that the Egyptian capability to conduct biological warfare continues to exist." Currently, Egyptian officials assert that Egypt never developed, produced or stockpiled biological weapons. Syria has a biotechnical infrastructure capable of supporting limited agent development but has not begun a major effort to produce biological agents or to put them into weapons, according to official U.S. assessments. Libya is also believed to have a program, but it has not advanced beyond basic research and development. Sudan is not believed to have a biological weapon program, but U.S. officials have repeatedly warned of Sudanese interest in developing a program.
Egypt was the first country in the Middle East to obtain chemical weapons and the first to use them. It reportedly employed phosgene and mustard gas against Yemeni royalist forces in the mid-1960s. It is believed to still have a research program and has never reported the destruction of any of its chemical agents or weapons. Like Egypt, Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and U.S. officials believe it has a significant stockpile of the nerve agent sarin. A 1990 intelligence assessment reported that Syria had weaponized these chemicals in 500-kilogram aerial bombs and warheads for its Scud-B missiles. Libya once had a substantial chemical weapons stockpile. It produced at least 100 metric tons of blister and nerve agents before it closed its Rabta plant in 1990. It may still have some chemical weapons and is suspected of trying to re-establish its offensive chemical weapon capability and an indigenous production capability for weapons . Sudan is also believed to have an active interest in acquiring the capability to produce chemical agents, but is not believed to have done so yet. Libya is not a member of the CWC; Sudan is.
- "Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East," the First Analysis Piece in This Three Part Series
- Israel Country Resources Page
- Iraq Country Resources Page
- Iran Country Resources Page
- Deadly Arsenal: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (June 2002)