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Critics Cite Iran Weapons Loophole

December 27, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Recent statements by an Iranian official has critics worried that Iran may exploit a loophole in the chemical weapons convention treaty approved last year _ one insisted on by conservative U.S. senators.

Citing these recent statements, some disarmament experts say the Tehran government could take advantage of conditions that were meant to protect U.S. interests.

``We have provided Iran a loophole to cheat,″ said Amy Smithson, a weapons expert at the Henry L. Stimson Institute.

U.S. officials had hoped the August 1997 inauguration of President Mohammad Khatami, widely perceived as a moderate, could lead to an Iranian reassessment of its weapons programs. Not long after Khatami took office, in November 1997, Iran ratified the chemical weapons convention.

The treaty bans the use, development, production and stockpiling of all chemical warfare agents and requires the destruction of existing stockpiles over 10 years.

The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in April 1997, only after Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. and his allies set conditions for U.S. participation, including giving the president the right to veto inspections at suspect sites and barring inspectors from taking soil or other types of samples from U.S. chemical facilities out of the country.

Marc Thiessen, a Helms spokesman, said, ``The provisions are designed to stop the treaty from being used for corporate espionage and other forms of espionage.″

Some arms control advocates believe the administration gave away too much to Helms in the negotiations.

Iran had remained largely silent on the issue until a few weeks ago, when Ambassador Mohammad R. Alborozi spoke in the Netherlands at a conference of states that are members of the convention.

Alborozi quickly took aim at the conditions imposed by the U.S. Senate. Expressing regret over the measures, he said, ``that the spillover effect of such an exercise ... can open the door for legislative bodies of other countries to seek derogation from the convention is a matter of serious concern for all state parties.

``If other states follow this pattern, then any outlook for full and unconditional implementation of the provisions of the convention will be in jeopardy. This we regard as a seriously alarming matter.″

At the same time, Alborozi said his government has decided to ``exercise and demonstrate maximum transparency and determination for full compliance with the provisions of the Convention.″

Alborozi did not say whether Iran currently retains a chemical weapons production capability.

Smithson says the Iranian comments were not reassuring, and that by taking a cue from Washington, Iran is in effect saying it too could block a challenge inspection on the basis of national security interests.

Spurgeon Keeny, of the Arms Control Association, agreed: ``When we exempt ourselves from certain provisions, we’re inviting Iran or other countries to question our seriousness.″

A Clinton administration official acknowledged that the conditions leave Washington ill-positioned to argue that other states don’t have the same right. Despite the conditions, the official said, the United States believes it can faithfully comply with the treaty and will do so.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Iran’s willingness to abide by the treaty has been in doubt since the beginning. He said Iran’s membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty has not prevented it from trying to develop nuclear weapons and that Iran also is pursuing a biological weapons capacity despite a treaty commitment not to do so.

Iran has denied it is trying to develop nuclear or biological weapons.

A 1997 Pentagon report issued at the time Iran ratified the convention says chemical weapons were a high priority for Iran because of its inability to respond in kind to Iraq’s attacks during their war in the 1980s. Iran also was motivated by evidence, the report said, that Iraq was developing advanced agents such as VX, a substance of which one or two drops can be lethal.

Helms, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, says that since no weapons inspection regime is foolproof, the ban will not help the situation or enhance American security anyway.

He argues the United States has little to fear from most countries that ratify the treaty. The concern is with those that ratify and cheat and those that don’t join the treaty at all. Indeed, five of the seven nations on the State Department list of countries accused of promoting international terrorism have neither signed nor ratified the treaty: Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Sudan. The two remaining countries are Iran and Cuba.

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