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GANNETT NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT

Weapons making way to hostile governments pose risk for United States

By JOHN YAUKEY
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — The regime-ending mistakes of Saddam Hussein were not lost on the ruling mullahs of Iran.

Instead of pursuing banned weapons underground as the ousted Iraqi leader did after the first Persian Gulf War, Iran, by most accounts, is pressing forward with a nuclear weapons initiative in full view of the world.

Only it's disguised as a civilian energy program.

The strategy, intelligence analysts say, is to get as close to weapons production as possible while abiding by international nonproliferation restrictions, then start making warheads when the United States is caught in a vulnerable position that discourages pre-emptive strikes.

Much like it is now.

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If Iran succeeds, an anti-American theocracy that supports both terrorists and the eradication of Israel would be able to strike anywhere in the Middle East with nuclear weapons and draw the United States into a cataclysmic conflict.

"You just don't want to go there," said Miriam Rajkumar, a co-author of "Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction." "A nuclear Iran would exacerbate so many problems in the Middle East."

That's just one of the many nightmare scenarios the intelligence community is confronting as weapons of mass destruction seep from the thaw of the Cold War into a clandestine coven of hostile governments and terrorists that trade in murky black markets.

And it isn't just adversaries that threaten national security.

Russia, a U.S. ally against terrorism, sits atop the world's largest WMD arsenal with frighteningly inadequate security and legions of ambitious arms dealers. If Pakistan's shaky President Pervez Musharraf falls to Islamic extremists, so goes his nuclear arsenal.

Here are the four most dangerous places:

Russia

Sometime in the 1990s, according to recently declassified intelligence reports, authorities intercepted 3 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from a car in Prague, Czech Republic.

The material, stolen from an engineering institute southwest of Moscow, was about a third of the mass necessary to make a nuclear weapon. The seizure led to the capture of a Ukrainian and a Belorussian, both with nuclear backgrounds.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, so did its iron grip on the world's largest arsenal of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons scattered from Russia's Arctic coast to Kazakhstan.

Since 1993, the International Atomic Energy Agency has investigated 175 cases of attempted nuclear smuggling, many of them involving elements of the former communist regime.

According to congressional security estimates, 60 percent of Russia's 20,000 nuclear warheads and 600 tons of weapons-grade material is not under adequate security.

Much of Russia's 40,000 metric tons of nerve gas and other chemical agents have not been sufficiently safeguarded because Moscow will not allow U.S. experts to engineer security upgrades, according to a General Accounting Office report.

At the Shchuchye chemical weapons repository in the Ural Mountains southeast of Moscow, there are about 2 million shells filled with sarin, VX and other nerve agents. One of these 85-millimeter shells contains enough chemical agent to kill thousands of people and can easily fit into a briefcase.

"I was photographed fitting chemical shells into a suitcase to demonstrate how easy it is to just cart them away," said Indiana's Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, one of the leading advocates for helping the Russians secure their arsenals.

At Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea, the Russians dealt with 100 tons of biological agent simply by burying it, with minimal security.

The human element in the Russian equation is cause for equal concern: thousands of WMD scientists making less than $50 a month, some thought to be freelancing in Iran under cover as civilian energy experts.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., on a tour in 2000 of Shchuch'ye, Russia, demonstrates the portability of an 85 millimeter shell containing sarin, a deadly nerve gas. (Gannett News Service/office of Sen. Lugar)

Five years ago, former Russian Gen. Aleksandr Lebed jangled American nerves by declaring that several Soviet-era nuclear "suitcase bombs" were missing. Reportedly built in the 1970s, these devices are capable of destroying half a city.

Russian authorities followed the announcement by vigorously denying that any nuclear weapons were missing. That assertion was followed by denials that Russia ever built any "suitcase nukes."

Later, Aleksey Yablokov, an adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, testified to Congress that he was "absolutely sure" the KGB had amassed a large arsenal of suitcase weapons.

Iran

For a country that claims it just wants nuclear energy, Iran is going about it in highly suspicious ways.

Iran is trying to build a uranium enrichment facility it claims is meant to produce fuel for the energy reactors it is constructing at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. The enrichment equipment also could be capable of producing weapons-grade nuclear material. Iran has no need to enrich uranium for fuel since Russia has agreed to supply the fuel it needs, but Iran is building the plant anyway.

Iran also wants to produce heavy water, a liquid containing a form of hydrogen that's useful in making bomb-grade plutonium, yet its energy reactors will use only ordinary water.

The United States and Europe recently challenged Iran to prove its nuclear program is for energy only by submitting to aggressive inspections, an option Tehran initially refused but is now weighing if only to buy time.

"The conclusion is inescapable that Iran is pursuing its 'civil' nuclear energy program not for peaceful and economic purposes, but as a front for developing the capability to produce nuclear materials for nuclear weapons," said John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Iran is known already to have blister, blood and choking agents, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

Combine all that with well-established connections to terrorists in Lebanon and the result is unacceptable to both Washington and Jerusalem.

Iran is a well-known benefactor of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, supplying them with sophisticated weapons and $100 million a year in funding. Hezbollah was responsible for a 1983 truck bombing in Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. Marines, and has enough operatives in the United States to pose a terrorist threat here, according to Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Israel - believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, although it will neither admit nor deny that it has the weapons - has said it considers nuclear weapons in Iran an "existential threat."

Israel's Mossad spy agency predicts that Iran's program will be "irreversible" in 18 months. Mossad has reportedly mapped out a route its bombers would take to destroy Iran's reactors in a mission similar to one Israel launched against an Iraqi nuclear plant near Baghdad in 1981.

But based on U.S. and Israeli intelligence, Iran has spread its nuclear program across at least several production facilities, making a successful pre-emptive strike difficult.

A pre-emptive attack by Israel would be seen by the Arab world as part of a collusion with the United States, further eroding America's already thin credibility among Muslims.

Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it can legally back out with 90 days notice. If Iran is allowed to use the treaty as cover for an illegal weapons program, it would set a dangerous precedent, igniting similar ambitions in Egypt, Turkey and even Saudi Arabia.

A Russian soldier, shown in this image from videotape, examines one of thousands of artillery shells filled with lethal nerve gas at the Russian chemical weapons storage site near Shchuch'ye. (Gannett News Service/Russian Army Archives)

Pakistan

Third World countries eager to go nuclear or acquire chemical or biological weapons once needed help from a superpower.

Now they're approaching Pakistan, which has a nuclear arsenal and a well-documented record of selling deadly technology to some of the planet's most dangerous regimes, including North Korea.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, is known to have visited North Korea extensively during the early stages of its nuclear program. Meanwhile, Pakistan's Ghauri liquid-fuel ballistic missile is an identical copy of the North Korean Nodong missile, indicating some bartering.

Khan has been a frequent visitor to Iran as well, according to U.S. intelligence, while two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists have admitted to holding "academic" discussions with Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan's volatile politics and restive Islamic radicals are cause for further concern.

Sympathy for Afghanistan's ousted Islamic Taliban regime is rampant among Pakistan's cash-strapped military, which freely sells equipment without approval from the government, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Politically, Pakistan is secular - but for how long?

The Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, an alliance of six fundamentalist Islamic parties, has established near-autonomy in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. A radical Islamic government in Islamabad in charge of nuclear weapons would pose a perilous threat to both U.S. and Indian security.

"Pakistan is now leaking dangerous technology," said Joseph Cirincione, director of Carnegie's Non-Proliferation Project. "If it destabilizes, it will hemorrhage the stuff."

Thus far, Pakistan's President Musharraf has been able to keep the conflict with India over disputed Kashmir restricted to occasional flare-ups. But radicals have advocated turning it into a jihad against Kashmir's Hindu occupiers.

An Indo-Pakistani nuclear war would kill millions and potentially plunge the world into an uncontrollable new arms race.

North Korea

There could scarcely be a more worrisome addition to the nuclear family than Pyongyang's wildly unpredictable Stalinist leader Kim Jong Il. U.S. intelligence estimates that Kim could already have one to three nuclear weapons and the capacity to make at least a half-dozen more.

The evidence all indicates that North Korea can launch missiles across most of eastern Asia and possibly to Hawaii and Alaska, and it has a record of selling advanced weapons technology to Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Pakistan.

According to both American and Russian intelligence, North Korea possesses large stocks of the nerve agents sarin and VX that were made at as many as eight chemical weapons facilities. Russian intelligence has reported that North Korea is experimenting with anthrax, cholera, plague and smallpox, and might have weaponized some of these lethal pathogens.

U.S. officials have accused Kim's regime of selling drugs and missiles and counterfeiting currency to raise money. But would Kim sell fissile material on the terrorist market?

Kim has not been linked to any known terrorists, but he has been caught peddling weapons to the governments that support them.

Late last year, U.S. forces boarded a North Korean freighter in the Arabian Sea that was carrying a load of medium-range missiles bound for the Middle East.

The Bush administration has thus far had little success in containing North Korea's weapons program as talks with the rogue nation continue to founder. The more immediate concern is whether Kim will test a nuclear weapon soon, as he has recently threatened. A successful test could easily kick off an Asian arms race, with security implications for Americans as the nuclear dominos fall.

Analysts predict that Japan would bolster its conventional arms and reconsider its nuclear taboos if North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. South Korea would do the same.

The volatility would almost inevitably push China to expand its nuclear arsenal. India, a longtime foe of China, would follow suit, as would India's archenemy Pakistan.

So how close is a test?

North Korea recently announced that it had finished processing 8,000 spent fuel rods from its Yongbyon nuclear plant into enough weapons-grade plutonium for up to a dozen warheads.

Making matters worse, air sensors on North Korea's border with South Korea have revealed elevated levels of krypton 85, a gas released during fuel-rod processing. The gas appears to be emanating from somewhere other than the Yongbyon nuclear site, indicating that North Korea might have a second weapons processing facility.

"This is one of the most intractable problems in the world," said Choi Young-jin, chancellor of South Korea's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.