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Saturday, 30 November 2013

Should Iran or Syria Have to Forgo their Nuclear or Chemical Weapons Programs?

Should Iran or Syria Have to Forgo their Nuclear or Chemical Weapons Programs?

The Politics behind the Crusade against WMD

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 30 November, 2013

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

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Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.



In recent months, there has been much concern in the world regarding a potential war between the USA and Syria over the issue of chemical weapons being used in Syria’s two-year-old civil war.  The US declared that the violation allegedly committed by Bashar Assad’s forces was so egregious that nothing short of war would suffice as a suitable punishment.  At the last minute, an intervention by Russia, promising to end Syria’s chemical weapons program, has (for now) halted plans by Washington to punitively bomb Syria.

In related news, the international watchdog that enforces the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

The underlying basis for both actions – the US threat to attack Syria as well as the Nobel prize for OPCW – was the unwritten premise that chemical weapons are morally reprehensible in a way that conventional weapons are not, and that killing people using chemical weapons is somehow more horrific than killing them by conventional weapons.  Whether chemical weapons are truly an utterly unacceptable thing, as they were claimed to be, did not invite any serious debate.  It is today taken as an axiom, and has been ever since the CWC was signed in 1997 and, even before that, since the Geneva Protocol was signed in 1925.

More recently, after much sabre-rattling by the United States over the Iranian nuclear program, the US and Iran appear to have reached an agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful uses.  This has been hailed as a great achievement by the Obama administration and a move towards lasting world peace.  However, what is taken as an axiom is the idea that Iran did not have the right to nuclear weapons in the first place, and this axiomatic faith also goes back a long way – to the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970.

This article shows why such an axiomatic faith in the greater evil of weapons of mass destruction relative to conventional weapons is baseless, and shows that the reasons for developed nations’ complete intolerance to chemical weapons and other “weapons of mass destruction” have nothing to do whatsoever with their concern for human lives, humanitarianism, or world peace, but have everything to do with the maintenance of their own superiority in conventional weapons.


A few days ago, the world greeted the news of a landmark agreement between Iran and major nations of the world, namely the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, and Germany, with relief and hope.  The agreement limited the Iranian nuclear program to peaceful purposes and allowed inspection of Iran’s nuclear facilities by inspectors in return for relief in economic sanctions against Iran.  The relief was due to the fact that the tone of Washington’s pronouncements on Iran had become more and more aggressive in recent months and years, leading to widespread speculation about the imminence of war.  It was implicitly accepted in media reports that Iran had no right to build nuclear weapons; that any efforts by Iran to build them should be seen as illegal; and that the international community was fully justified in punitive sanctions or military actions if Iran refused to disband its nuclear weapons program.

About a month ago, another major standoff that threatened to plunge the world into a US-led war against another middle-Eastern country, Syria, was averted by a promise made on Syria’s behalf by Russia to end its chemical weapons program.  More recently, the OPCW confirmed that Syria is complying with the demands of Washington, Moscow, and other developed nations asking it to destroy its stockpiles, and that the weapons would most likely be out of Syrian control by the end of 2013.

As in the Iranian case, the possibility of war between the US and Syria was spoken about extensively in the international media.  As in the case with Iran, the discussion focused, not on whether declaring war against a country for potentially possessing weapons of mass destruction was right or wrong, but whether the said countries actually did possess the weapons of mass destruction and whether (in the case of Syria) they actually used the said weapons.  It was taken for granted that Syria had no right to have or use these weapons.

These incidents also bring to mind the debates that occurred at the time the US was contemplating invading Iraq in 2003.  At the time, the US administration claimed that Iraq, under President Saddam Hussein, had been clandestinely accumulating stocks of weapons of mass destruction.  President Bush’s address to the American people, announcing the commencement of hostilities, characterized it in these words: “our mission is clear, to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.”  President Bush also mentioned that “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.” 

After the war was over and Iraq had been occupied, the US was unable to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Several of the US’ allies opposed the war before it started on the grounds that there were no proven stocks of WMD in Iraq; that the whole war was being waged simply on suspicion.  The public outcry in the United States, after the war, was one of being cheated into rushing into a war.  People were outraged that the country had been led into a war over the lie of weapons of mass destruction.  As Jeff Flake, Republican Senator from Arizona, said recently, “In anyone's candid moments, they will tell you (that) were it not for the WMD, we wouldn't have authorized use of force there.” 

In other words, it was the suspected presence of WMD that triggered the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.  No one asked the more fundamental question: Why doesn’t Iraq have the right to have these weapons?  That was taken an as axiom – that no countries (excepting a favoured few) should possess such weapons.

Each of these incidents reveals how much care has been taken by the powers-that-be to “frame” the debate surrounding these events in ways that suit them well.  What is framing?  Entman (1993) defines “to frame” as “to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described”  (italics in the original).

In the case of weapons of mass destruction, there are many aspects involved in the debate – should any countries that want them have them?  If so, can everyone have them?  If not, who should and who should not?  What should be the determinant that qualifies some countries to possess WMD and disqualifies others from possessing them?  If someone should not, what should be the penalty against that country if they do possess them? 

The debate in the international media, for several decades now, has been narrowly framed only on the last aspect mentioned, viz., “if someone should not possess weapons of mass destruction, what should be the penalty if they do possess them?”  The other important questions: who has the right to possess these weapons; and what rationale divides the haves from the have-nots; have been conveniently left out of the frame.

In the remainder of this article, I broaden the frame of discussion and debate to ask exactly these questions and then try to answer them.

Syria and The Argument Against Chemical Weapons

A civil war that had been going on for two years in Syria took a sudden turn with news reports that chemical weapons had been used in the civil war, allegedly by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In response, President Obama announced thatFailing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again, that they would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us, and it would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons...all of which would pose a serious threat to our national security.”
This would be followed by many other pronouncements on the utter unacceptability of the use of chemical weapons, leading further to the announcement of the inevitability of war with Syria.  That disastrous situation was averted only because Russia made an offer to guarantee the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons programs.
But Obama’s September standoff was not the first time he had made strong statements on the unacceptability of the use of chemical weapons by Syria or other countries.  A timeline of the Syrian conflict showcases the several statements made by the US President in this context:
August 20, 2012:
"A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama said. "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."
December 3, 2012:
"The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable," Obama said. "And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable."

August 28, 2013:
"We want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, but you’re also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected, and that needs to stop," Obama said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "the accusations of Damascus using chemical weapons put forth by the USA are not backed by credible facts."
President Obama said, "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.”  Obama was referring to the CWC.
John Kerry’s statement on the Syrian chemical weapons situation:
“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable.”
“As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing while chaos swirled around him, the images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound, bodies contorting in spasms, human suffering that we can never ignore or forget.”
“But make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”
“US Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Syrian government forces of killing 1,429 people in a chemical weapons attack in Damascus last week.”

“Mr Kerry said the dead included 426 children, and described the attack as an ‘inconceivable horror’.”

The US Congress passed a resolution authorizing the US to resort to military force in order “to deter Syria’s use of such weapons in order to protect the national security interests of the United States and to protect United States allies and partners against the use of such weapons.”

Analysis: The Rationale Against Chemical Weapons

From the aforementioned, the rationale expressed by the US can be partitioned into the following main concerns:

1.       Usage of chemical weapons breaks international norms.
2.      US national interests are affected.
3.      Chemical weapons cause indescribable suffering and are inhuman weapons.

The first point is undeniable.  The Chemical Weapons Convention went into effect in 1997, and 190 nations are party to it.  Using chemical weapons is clearly a contravention of international law.  What are important to understand is why such a treaty exists in the first place and whether the treaty is consonant with the principles of fairness and equality.  This will be addressed below.

The second point needs some clarification and discussion, and such discussion follows later in this article.  For now, it suffices to say that this is the main reason why the CWC was signed in the first place – to protect US, Russian, British, French, and Chinese national interests, and the national interests of other powerful, developed countries.

The third point is often taken as an axiom in mainstream media discussions of the topic, even though (as will be seen below), there is nothing to indicate that chemical weapons are much worse in inflicting human suffering than any other kind of weapon.  In the next section I elaborate on this in detail, because often this is the emotional wrench that helps convince the common people that chemical weapons are an unambiguous evil.

The Suffering from Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons are of two main types – nerve agents, such as Sarin and VX, and blister agents, such as mustard gas.  Today VX and Sarin are probably the best-known chemical weapons, so it is illustrative to consider how they act on humans.  I quote from the Wikipedia page on Sarin: “Even at very low concentrations, sarin can be fatal. Death may follow in one minute after direct ingestion of a lethal dose unless antidotes, typically atropine and pralidoxime, are quickly administered.”  From the same site, “Initial symptoms following exposure to sarin are a runny nose, tightness in the chest and constriction of the pupils. Soon after, the victim has difficulty breathing and experiences nausea and drooling. As the victim continues to lose control of bodily functions, the victim vomits, defecates and urinates. This phase is followed by twitching and jerking. Ultimately, the victim becomes comatose and suffocates in a series of convulsive spasms.”

This description sounds rather painful, and it contributes to the twisted bodies and faces of the victims that are paraded on TV to explain why chemical weapons are so horrible.  But consider the very first line in the quoted text: “death may follow in one minute.”  So, while the body twists, jerks, vomits, urinates, and defecates, all of it is over in 1 minute.  Lethal doses of VX gas work with similar efficiency.  These agents work so efficiently because they are potent nerve agents – they act by paralyzing the body’s muscles, including those of the lungs and heart, and death follows rapidly.

Compare this with death that accompanies conventional weapons.  Let us think of a regular bomb that is dropped from an airplane in a war.  It will cause an explosion, and death is merciful for those who are in the immediate radius of the explosion.  But the bulk of the sufferers from a bomb are those that are far enough from it to escape immediate death, but near enough it to be perhaps burned partly, to lose their arms or legs, to have shrapnel piercing their bodies, and who suffer in unbelievable agony as they lie on a battlefield, uncared for, with a fatal injury that will take hours or even days to fully kill them.  Compare the 1-minute death from a Sarin or a VX attack with the several hours it may take someone whose leg has been blown off because of a bomb that has been dropped from the skies, or whose entire skin has been burned in a cruise missile attack, and who lies in a hospital, suffering from indescribable pain as doctors attempt to slow down the infection that is taking over his body and will definitely kill him – but in a matter of days or weeks, during which the pain he experiences is a travesty of human existence.

Compare the 1-minute death from a chemical weapon with the lifelong amputation and agony of a person who has lost both his legs in a landmine blast, or who is maimed after being hurt by a cluster bomb.  Both these types of munitions have been recognized as savage and cruel, and many nations have agreed to stop using them – but not the US and several other countries. 

Compare the 1-minute death from a chemical weapon with the pain that someone experiences as a bomb hits the home he lives in, causing the roof to cave in and collapse on him in a pile of rubble, one that is so heavy that he cannot get out of it himself without help, and who then suffocates in this live burial as he runs out of oxygen to breathe – a process that may take hours or even days (survivors in rubble have been known to be alive after fairly long times – but not forever.)

Any which way one wants to view the issue, chemical weapons do not cause more suffering than conventional weapons.  The only exception seems to be mustard gas, which is not usually a lethal chemical weapon, but an incapacitating one.  Mustard gas attacks can leave the victim with lifelong suffering; but then, a person who has 70% burns on his body might suffer the rest of life as well, while simply trying to live.

The “Weapons of Mass Destruction” Bogey

This is one of the cleverest propaganda tricks that have been effectively used by developed countries – one that illustrates all the tricks mentioned by Herman and Chomsky in their landmark book, “Manufacturing Consent.”  The claim has been made that chemical weapons are “weapons of mass destruction,” though what this means in fact has never been made clear.  The sheer symbolism of the phrase “weapons of mass destruction,” especially when that phrase is combined with “chemical, biological, and nuclear” immediately connotes to the layman the picture of the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and so one is left with the impression that chemical weapons cause such massive destruction in a single attack that conventional weapons simply cannot match up to them in the scale of death and destruction.  They are, therefore, evil, and must therefore be banned.

Does this hype match up to the reality?  Let us take some examples, starting with the latest – the chemical weapons attack in Syria.

1.       The chemical weapons attack that took place in Syria is supposed to have, by the US Secretary of State’s own admission, killed 1429 people (as quoted above).  In contrast, the civil war that has lasted for the last two years in Syria has killed upwards of 100,000 people.  All this killing has been achieved by employing conventional weapons.

2.      Let us broaden the scope of the discussion and include nuclear weapons as well, since they are the most well-known WMD.  I have already alluded to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the second World War.  But how many deaths did these nuclear attacks cause?  The best estimates of the number of deaths in Hiroshima are about 66,000 and those of Nagasaki are about 39,000.  Other estimates vary, but the order of magnitude is about right.  For instance, Wikipedia estimates the number of deaths in Hiroshima “within the first two to four months” at between 90,000-166,000.  This takes into account those who had been slowly poisoned by the radiation from the bombs.  In contrast, consider the number of immediate casualties of just one conventional bombing raid on Tokyo, on the night of March 9, 1945 – painful, miserable deaths of people blasted and slowly burned to death in the infamous “firebombing of Tokyo”  - which are estimated at around 100,000.  Can we sanely argue that nuclear weapons are definitively “weapons of mass destruction” and conventional weapons are not?

3.      Continuing with the World War II theme, the firebombing of Tokyo was an art perfected by American generals after much practice in Europe, where Dresden was firebombed in two days in February 1945, killing a total of 27,000 people.  Prior to this, the Allies honed their skills when they bombed Hamburg in July 1943, killing 42,600 civilians and wounding 37,000.  Surely this is the work of a “weapon of mass destruction”?  I would agree.  Perhaps we should outlaw planes and bombs.  That would truly be reasonable.

4.      Coming to more modern times, the United States has had a lot of dictators as good friends in various countries around the globe, and has been very instrumental in helping these friends consolidate their rule, no matter the cost in human lives, so long as US national interest is preserved (i.e., regimes friendly to the United States and opposed to the USSR).  Consider, for example, the US-assisted invasion by Indonesia of East Timor under General Suharto, a war and subsequent occupation that cost about 200,000 lives since 1975 – all achieved without the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.  The US, Netherlands, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, and West Germany all aided Indonesia militarily in this savage attack against an almost defenceless people.  The US provided C-47 and C-130 transport aircraft; destroyer escorts and landing craft; OV-10 Bronco aircraft for counter-insurgency operation; and military training; in all, spending more than $250 million between 1975 and 1979 under the Jimmy Carter (winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize) administration to help Indonesia in this bloody mission.  Indonesia was an important ally of the US, and could never launch such an attack without a green signal from the US; and indeed, this has been confirmed.  The UK spent more than £ 1 million on training Indonesian military personnel, and many senior members of Indonesia’s military were trained in the UK.  So clearly, the deaths of hundreds of thousands are acceptable so long as “WMD” are not used.

5.      The United States ran a clandestine operation, starting in 1975, called Operation Condor that was designed to support right-wing governments throughout South America and repress opposition to Washington-friendly governments, using terror.  The different countries that were targeted in this operation were Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru.  The US provided military aid and technical support to the participant military regimes, and contributed to the deaths of at least 60,000 people. 

6.      The Guatemalan Civil War was supported by the United States in order to foist US-friendly generals as rulers of the small Central American country.  This civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, and led to 700,000 people who died or went missing in this period, was actively sponsored by the US through the CIA.  The CIA trained the Guatemalan military and paramilitary forces on “the tactic of intimidating, kidnapping, or assassinating carefully selected members of the opposition in a manner that will reap the maximum psychological benefit,” the objective being, “to frighten everyone from collaborating with the guerrilla movement”;  conducted training sessions on “contra-subversion” tactics and “how to manage factors of power” to “fortify democracy”; provided instruction in “direct action destruction patrols” and “helicopter assault tactics”; and provided “secret training in the finer points of assassination,” among others.  The US was also generous with military equipment, including Bell UH-1 Helicopters; Jet-Ranger Helicopters; A-37 Counterinsurgency aircraft; laser-aimed sights for automatic rifles; grenade launchers; transport planes; T-37 trainer aircraft; M-16 assault rifles; and training to use all this equipment, including advanced training by American green berets.

7.      No discussion of modern casualties in war would be complete without mentioning Vietnam.  The US was one of the two major players in Vietnam since the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, the other being the North Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh.  The Vietnam War was a horrendously violent war in which chemical agents such as Agent Orange (unquestionably a chemical weapon) were freely used to defoliate the dense Vietnamese jungle.  Although most American media focuses on the loss of American lives in the Vietnam war, which amount to around 60,000, the real catastrophe was for the Vietnamese, who lost between 800,000 and 3.1 million people in the war.  This was a direct result of intense use of conventional weapons by the American military – carpet bombing of jungles, villages, and urban areas.  The war also cost the lives of about 200,000-300,000 Cambodians, and up to 200,000 Laotians

The war included notable events such as
Operation Rolling Thunder, which launched more than three quarters of a million tons of missiles, rockets, and bombs between 1965 and 1968.  In comparison, only about half a million tons of bombs were dropped in the entire Pacific theatre of the Second World War.  This single operation cost the lives of about 90,000 Vietnamese, according to CIA estimates, of whom 72,000 were civilians.  The Vietnam war also included operations such as Commando Hunt, in which more than 20,000 people were killed just in a single, 5-month period.

8.     The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, which resulted in the deaths of half a million soldiers and an equal number of civilians (not including victims of chemical attacks), was sustained in large part because of conventional arms sales from several countries to Iraq, notably Russia, the US, France, Spain, and China.  The US and Germany also actively sold chemical and biological weapons to Iraq, including anthrax, botulin, and cyanide, and helped them with technical assistance in deploying chemical weapons for maximum effect.  The US also helped Iraq financially with billions of dollars in credit and with loosening restrictions on arms sales to Iraq.  President Reagan had decided that Iraq could not be allowed to lose the war.

From the Wikipedia page on the Iran-Iraq war, I quote the following, which shows the
complicity of the west in the chemical weapons program of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war:

“According to Iraqi documents,
assistance in developing chemical weapons was obtained from firms in many countries, including the United States, West Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France. A report stated that Dutch, Australian, Italian, French and both West and East German companies were involved in the export of raw materials to Iraqi chemical weapons factories.  Declassified CIA documents show that the United States was providing reconnaissance intelligence to Iraq around 1987–88 which was then used to launch chemical weapon attacks on Iranian troops and that CIA fully knew that chemical weapons would be deployed and sarin attacks followed.”

From the same wiki source, here’s how America defended Iraq when it was caught using chemical weapons in Iran:

“On 21 March 1986, the
United Nations Security Council made a declaration stating that "members are profoundly concerned by the unanimous conclusion of the specialists that chemical weapons on many occasions have been used by Iraqi forces against Iranian troops, and the members of the Council strongly condemn this continued use of chemical weapons in clear violation of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which prohibits the use in war of chemical weapons." The United States was the only member who voted against the issuance of this statement.  A mission to the region in 1988 found evidence of the use of chemical weapons, and was condemned in Security Council Resolution 612.”

What Saddam Hussein did with those WMDs,
with active US support, is well-known, but in the context of this article, it might be worth recalling some of those horrors:

a.      It is estimated that about 100,000 people in Iran died or were severely incapacitated as a result of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, with the active help of the US.
c.       In June 1987, Iraqi aircraft dropped mustard gas bombs on Sardasht, Iran.  Out of a population of 20,000, 25% are still suffering severe illnesses today.
d.      In March 1988, Iraqi forces attacked the town of Halabja, a Kurd-populated area, with poison gas, killing 5000 immediately or shortly thereafter, and severely injuring 10,000 more.  This is the largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian population in history, and it had the full support of the US, which even refused to endorse a UN resolution condemning Iraq for the use of chemical weapons.
e.      In the Second battle of Al-Faw, Iraqi forces unleashed huge quantities of mustard and nerve gas on the Iranians, after first taking suitable antidotes to protect themselves from the effects of the poisonous gas, helping them win the battle.

9.      And finally, most recent in this list in people’s memories, is the US invasion of Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, which was largely an aerial bombing campaign followed by ground operations.  Estimates for the number of Iraqis who were killed directly or indirectly because of the war run to 100,000.

One can go on and on, for the world’s experience with violent wars is immense, but one thing is clear – that the west does not really care about people getting killed.  It is only too ready to allow, perpetrate and perpetuate killing, both of military personnel as well as civilians, but only on its terms.  It even does not mind the use of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical or nuclear weapons, as long as its allies or the US itself are the countries using those weapons.  The US and other western countries also have no qualms about inflicting extreme suffering and pain on their adversaries, so long as such actions support their national interest.

As the most recent example, the Syrian Civil war, shows, the US is not impelled to take up arms because of the deaths of more than 100,000 people in Syria’s civil war, but feels the need to go to war over fewer than 1500 deaths from a chemical weapons attack.  Compare the approximately 1500 deaths from the chemical weapons attack in Syria (no matter who was responsible) with the figures laid out above, that run into the millions.  If the west, particularly the US, was indeed horrified by death, surely it would not have allowed so many deaths?  Why, then, does the US react with such feigned horror when faced with 1500 deaths when it itself has been complicit in the deaths of millions and when the same Syrian civil war has resulted in the deaths of 100 times the number of dead in the chemical weapons attack?

Even when one considers nuclear weapons, which can truly kill on a mass scale, it should be noted that the capacity of nuclear weapons to kill is not substantially more than that of conventional weapons.  As already noted, the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 caused 100,000 casualties; the number of dead in Hiroshima was estimated at about 140,000; and that in Nagasaki was estimated at about 80,000.  These are large numbers, but note that the numbers killed in a single operation are comparable, irrespective of the type of weapon used.

The only class of weapons among the WMD that should be truly banned from the world in the current world scenario – and the only class that deserves the title – is the class of biological weapons.  Biological weapons are a double-edged sword, for the slightest bit of carelessness can cause the stored weapons to leak out into the country it is being produced in.  Although modern advances in genetic engineering can make it possible for biological offensive weapons to be manufactured in an extremely targeted way, the fact that the process leaves absolutely no room for error makes it too much of a risk for any country to pursue this technology without fear.  The slightest leak from a bioweapons can release a bacterial or viral strain of unequalled potency into the general population, an outbreak that has the potential to wipe out mankind.  It is for this reason that both the UK and the Warsaw Pact brought forth proposals to the UN in 1968 to ban the production of biological offensive weapons, and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was signed in 1972.  In 2011 it had 165 signatories.  It is to be hoped that, in the interests of self-preservation, no country will be foolish enough to use biological weapons in the future, for the weapon can easily recoil on its master.  For the rest of this article, therefore, I will not discuss biological weapons, and the term WMD will herein refer only to nuclear and chemical weapons.

From the foregoing, it should clear that the reason for the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, and other developed countries to oppose nuclear and chemical weapons is neither the numbers that these weapons can kill, nor any more pain in the deaths that they cause.  Even the very term, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” is a misnomer, for it suggests that these weapons kill far more people than conventional weapons do, whereas the truth is that even nuclear weapons only match what conventional weapons can do, and chemical weapons kill far fewer people than conventional weapons do. 

What, then, is the reason that the US was willing to go to war with Syria and Iran for possessing chemical and nuclear weapons respectively?  Why was the OPCW awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping contain the spread of chemical weapons?

The Real Reason for Banning WMD

The real reason why the west fears chemical and nuclear weapons is that chemical and nuclear weapons remedy the asymmetry in warfare that exists today.

Developed countries, such as the US, Russia, France, China, and the UK have large, technologically-advanced defense forces.  To take the US as the main example, no other country today can match the US’ conventional military might.  This military might is based on the prosperity of the US; as a result, lesser-developed countries do not stand a chance of developing the kind of weaponry that a US, Russia, or France have.  To illustrate, a stealth fighter like the F-117A costs about $111 million per aircraft; each B-2 bomber is worth $737 million; the M1-A1 Abrams tank costs about $8.6 million each; the new Gerald Ford class of American supercarriers costs $9 billion each, and costs $7 million each day it runs; and a cruise missile, hundreds of which may be launched in any given war, costs anywhere between $570,000 and $1.45 million each.  It is very hard, if not impossible, for lesser-developed countries to match this simply because they don’t have the money to develop or buy such weapons.

But bring nonconventional weapons into the picture, and this traditional asymmetry is broken.  Even if one bomb carrying VX or sarin manages to hit an American base out of hundreds launched, it renders the Americans helpless.  All the armour of the M1 Abrams tanks cannot insulate its crew from the dangerous chemicals contained in the chemical bomb.  It is impossible to have an army dressed entirely in chemical suits – in many climates, such as the desert, such uniforms would be suffocating and many would die of heat exhaustion.  Were a plane to be able to launch a suicide mission against a $9 billion aircraft carrier and manage to launch its chemical payload even at the cost of being shot, the entire crew of the aircraft carrier becomes ineffective because of the potency of the chemical weapon.  The US soldier may be an “army of one” because of the superior equipment that he carries relative to other soldiers in other armies around the world, but he, too, is human, and will be incapacitated if he encounters droplets of VX.

In short, chemical weapons are an equalizer, the poor man’s weapon, and threaten to upset the applecart of conventional military dominance.  

Because of their efficiency in killing, they neutralize the superiority of conventional weapons.  To prevent this from happening, the US is keen to stop the production and proliferation of such weapons by third-world countries.  In this effort, the US is supported by other countries which are also dependent on their conventional military superiority for their dominant position in the world – countries such as Russia, China, the UK, and France.

The same thing is true with nuclear weapons.  

The US has enough nuclear weapons in its stockpile to destroy the world several times over.  But it vehemently opposes the thought of other countries having their own nuclear arsenal.  When India exploded a nuclear bomb in 1996 and announced itself as a nuclear state, the announcement was greeted with an instant embargo of India.  Pakistan, which followed suit, faced the same treatment.  Why?

In the event that a third-world country were to engage in an armed conflict with the US, and if that country also possessed nuclear weapons, the US could easily “defeat” its enemy, if defeat were to be measured in the number of lives lost.  Given that the US could launch tactical nuclear weapons on a couple dozen of the most important cities and military bases of its enemy, victory is guaranteed for the US.  But if its enemy were to succeed in getting just one nuclear bomb to land on US soil, the US could not handle the impact.  Americans are extraordinarily sensitive to their own people dying in war, so much so that a single person dying often plays on American television for weeks.  Imagine the impact of 100,000 Americans dying because of a single tactical nuclear weapons landing on a major US city.  Even if the American military succeeded in wiping out its enemy off the map, the end result would be a defeat for the US because America cannot handle this kind of death count.  Even an attack like 9/11, which killed around 3000 Americans, shook the US; an attack like Hiroshima would be devastating if it were to happen on US soil.

So America wants to control the battlefield and make it one that it can easily win in, and easily keep its own casualties to a minimum.  This is true as well of Russia, China, France, and the UK.  Chemical and nuclear weapons threaten their ability to control the outcome of a war, and so they must be removed from the control of all potential adversaries.

Nuclear weapons are expensive and require sophisticated technology.  But chemical weapons are cheap to produce, and so are easy for poorer nations to make in large quantities.  This being the case, the US believes it is justifiable to even go to war if any trace of chemical weapons in a potential adversary are detected, to safeguard America’s national interest.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the anti-Iran Campaign

One of the most hypocritical agreements ever enacted on the world stage was the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that came into force in 1970 and was extended indefinitely in 1995.  The NPT requires all “nuclear” states to commit to the non-proliferation of nuclear arms technology – in other words, to agree not to share nuclear arms technology to other countries; and it required non-nuclear states to agree to never try to acquire nuclear weapons.  In return, the nuclear states would help the non-nuclear states with technology transfer on peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

The treaty is hypocritical because it allows the five nuclear states to continue to have nuclear weapons without any guarantees that they will not use them against non-nuclear states.  With the exception of China, none of the five original declared powers has ever agreed to an unambiguous “no first use” stipulation.   On the contrary, as soon as India declared itself a nuclear power in 1998, it issued a commitment to a no-first-use policy.  This has continued despite the fact that its arch-rival Pakistan has not agreed to the same stipulation after it, too, entered the club of nuclear states.

In fact, the US has, on several occasions, threatened to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state.  For 30 years, the US had nuclear weapons targeted at North Korea, then a non-nuclear state.  In 2006, French President Jacques Chirac said that France would not rule out using nuclear weapons against a country that does not have nuclear weapons if it launches a terrorist attack against France.  These are clear violations of the “no first use” principle, but the nuclear “haves” do not seem to care.

In addition, there is no sign of one of the pillars of the NPT, disarmament, taking place.  The current world nuclear powers have more than 20,000 warheads, enough to destroy the whole world several times over, and the major powers have all resisted further reduction, except when it is warranted by economic or technical reasons (e.g., warheads are old and obsolete and new versions are available anyway.  So a decision to scrap an old, worthless missile that might not perform properly today, 30 years after it was built, is often celebrated as a “disarmament” initiative.) 

The fact is that the US, Russia, France, and other nuclear states realize that a nuclear bomb is a powerful deterrent, and so they will never disarm.  The hypocrisy is that they enjoy the security that the nuclear weapon option gives them – anyone attacking them has to be prepared for a nuclear retaliation and hence will think many times over about it – but do not wish to allow other nations to enjoy the same security.

Intellectuals may argue that everyone having nuclear bombs cannot make the world a safer place, but if the countries that are screaming loudest about it, viz., the five major nuclear powers (and most of the intellectuals who argue this line originate from those countries), truly believed it, then they would have completely disarmed by now.  That they have not is a measure of the hollowness of their argument. 

For these reasons, India has always refused to sign the NPT, believing it to be discriminatory.  It has pursued a nuclear weapons program for the same reason that the US has pursued one – to protect itself by giving itself a deterrent against someone who might attack it.  India has sufficient reason to fear attacks from its neighbours, having fought several wars with Pakistan and China since independence.

Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program for the same reason.  They fear attacks from Israel, a formidable enemy as well as an undeclared but known nuclear power, as well as from their Sunni enemies like Saudi Arabia and, naturally, they seek to protect themselves.  What is good for the goose is good for the gander.  It is perfectly within Iran’s rights to do so.  What Washington has done in the past few months and years is act the typical bully.  They have bullied Iran into giving up its nuclear program.  It is an intellectually dishonest move by the US, Russia, and the other great powers, but it is a move that they have taken in their national interest.

National interest is not the same as fairness.  US Presidents, Secretaries of State, and spokespersons often talk about doing something in their national interest as though such a consideration matters to the rest of the world; they need to recognize that the rest of the world really doesn’t care a whit about the US’ national interest.  What they care about is fairness.  As an illustration, I myself would like to walk the streets armed with a Smith and Wesson 500 pistol, an M16 assault rifle, and a hand grenade, all of which I can use to terrorize everyone around me to give me whatever I want without payment, and it would be in my personal interest that no one else be allowed to carry any arms whatsoever.  So my personal interest is guaranteed, but this arrangement is certainly not fair!

As the famous Greek historian and general, Thucydides, says in the Milian Dialog from his famous classic, The History of the Peloponnesian War, “It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?”

I can understand the allure of the “national interest” argument.  Indians recognize how much trouble Pakistan is giving India through their help to and active connivance with Kashmiri terrorists, using even their own regular military to carry out attacks against India.  Unfortunately for India, Pakistan is also a nuclear state, but if India had its druthers, India would be a nuclear state and Pakistan would not be allowed to become a nuclear state because of India’s “national interest.”  That would end the cross-border terrorism in a hurry.

So while the US position (and the position of other great powers) is understandable, it is not acceptable because it is unfair.  And it is about time that the great powers realized this.  While the rest of the world cannot do much to stop the bullies, at least they can call them on their hypocrisy and prevent them from moralizing and sermonizing to the rest of the world.

World Stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction

For all the talk about how WMD are so evil, the big powers have the biggest stockpiles of these weapons.  There has been some progress made in the destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles.  Of the 9 countries known to have had stockpiles of chemical weapons – the US, Russia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Japan, Albania, South Korea, and India – only India, South Korea, and Albania have destroyed their stockpiles within the deadline specified.  As late as 2010, the Russians still had almost half their total stocks (40,000 tons) of chemical weapons intact.  The Americans had destroyed about 90% of their stocks of about 31,000 tons by 2012, but estimate it will take another decade to destroy the remaining 3000 tons of their stocks.

But nuclear weapons are an altogether different matter.  The world has an estimated total 17,300 nuclear weapons, of which the US has 7,700 and Russia 8,500.  The actual number of warheads might be much higher than this because of creative accounting of the number of warheads – many warheads are simply separated from their missiles and then put down as inactive, even though they can be reassembled in a matter of days.  Based on a proper accounting, Russia has 16,000 active warheads and the US has 10,104 active warheads, for a world total of 26,854.  This illustrates the extreme reluctance of the big powers to truly disarm their nuclear capabilities.  This being the case, viz., that a country having more than 10,000 nuclear missiles does not feel safe in fully dismantling a fraction of its total missiles, it is ironic that they should expect that countries that do not have any nuclear weapons should feel safe without them.  If a nation having thousands of nuclear weapons still feels the utility of more nuclear weapons as a deterrent against nuclear aggression, surely the same can be said for the nuclear have-nots?

In fact, the Cold War has shown that the existence of more than one country having huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons is almost a guarantee that none will ever be used in practice.  This line of thought, known as Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD), is based on the idea that if one country uses nuclear weapons against another, the other could retaliate with equal force and thus both countries would be completely destroyed – and so, to prevent such an eventuality,  neither country ever uses the nuclear stockpile they possess.  The US and the former USSR (and now Russia) have proved to the world that having tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in a country’s stockpile actually ensures safety from nuclear attacks.  It should also be noted that the only time nuclear weapons were actually used in war was in 1945, during World War II, when the US was the sole country in the world with nuclear weapons; once other countries, notably the USSR, also acquired the technology in 1948, it became too dangerous for the US to ever consider using them again for fear of retaliation.

It is, therefore, very interesting that the only country in the world that has ever used nuclear weapons against another country, the USA, should lecture other countries and tell them that they should not develop nuclear weapons.  It is meaningless for the US to use the argument that the use of nuclear weapons against Japan was because of “extenuating circumstances” – war is always an extenuating circumstance.  The fact is that had the nuclear bomb not been used against Japan and a ground war prosecuted against it instead, an estimated 100,000 US soldiers would have died.  The use of the atom bomb, therefore, was an efficient (as far as the US was concerned) way for the US to end the war.  It was in the US’ national interest. 

There is no reason to think that, if another similar extenuating circumstance arose in the future, and the US had no fear of a retaliatory attack of the same nature and magnitude, the US would not use nuclear weapons.  For example, if a well-armed Islamic nation was committed to terrorism against the US, and could not be defeated by conventional means by the US, would America forgo the option of using nuclear weapons?  In 1945 the extenuating circumstance was the possibility of seeing 100,000 servicemen dead on the battlefield; in the 21st century it could be the prospect of seeing 10,000 Americans die in a terrorist attack.  As already mentioned, Jacques Chirac has already confirmed that, in such an eventuality, France would not be averse to using its nuclear weapons.

The only protection, therefore, for any country in a world where some countries have nuclear weapons is to possess the same weapons themselves.

The Terrorism Argument

One of the most emotive angles in favour of non-proliferation of WMD is the terrorism angle.  The argument is posited that if a terrorist organization were to get their hands on a WMD, then they could cause chaos.  Maybe they would detonate a nuclear bomb in a big city like Mumbai, Paris, New York, Moscow or Rio.  Or, if a terrorist were to get his hands on sarin or VX, millions might die in an attack on a major city. 

The argument then further goes to say that in a world where a lot of countries possess WMD, terrorists could easily lay their hands on these weapons, and everyone in the world would be at risk.  This would be true simply because there are so many sources of these weapons, as opposed to the current weapons regime where only 7-8 countries possess such weapons.

There is a fundamental flaw with this argument.  The fact of the matter is that chemical and biological weapons are fairly easy to make.  As Dr. Ken Alibek, one of the former key members of the Russian bioweapons program, says, “Some people say it’s difficult to make anthrax – in my opinion, if you have basic microbiology and biotechnology knowledge, it’s not that difficult.”  The same is true with chemical weapons.  As Professor James Tour of Rice University in Texas, USA, says, “A chemist with a Masters level of training can produce Sarin quite easily.”

Nuclear weapons are a slightly different story.  The raw materials for nuclear weapons are hard to get, and making a nuclear bomb is a highly nontrivial job.  An example of the difficulty of obtaining nuclear technology is illustrated by the example of Pakistan, who begged, borrowed, and stole in order to build its bomb.  The suggestion then is that one could steal a nuclear bomb from a country that has it, but these are very high-tech weapons that not everyone can detonate in a proper and planned way. It requires highly experienced and trained personnel. In addition, nuclear weapons are very expensive, which makes it hard for any but the best-funded terrorists to obtain them easily.

So the real danger from a terrorist is the risk of a chemical weapon or a biological weapon attack, since those can be easily engineered; but because they are easy to engineer, they can be done independently of any national program on chemical or biological weapons.  In other words, terrorists do not need to steal chemical or biological weapons from any state; they can easily make these weapons themselves.


Weapons of Mass Destruction are a bogey that has been spread effectively by western media to control other countries from obtaining equalizing technology on the battlefield.  While the motivations on why great powers have chosen to demonize these weapons can be understood, one must resist their attempts to try to take the moral high ground on this issue.  There is no moral high ground.  Killing is wrong.  The attempt to deny other countries the use of chemical and nuclear weapons is simply a power grab – an attempt by the major powers to preserve and defend their superiority in conventional weapons.  The widespread possession of such weapons does not cause any more death and suffering than the use of conventional weapons – it merely makes the world an equal place, and perhaps, might end war as we know it because everyone can equally hurt everyone else.

It is difficult, of course, to compare means of death.  All death is a tragedy, and the true vision of peace is to find a way to end all war.  But for someone to try to pretend that some forms of warfare are worse than others in the interests of furthering their own hegemony betrays a high level of cynicism that others must guard against.

Nobody wants to use any of these weapons against an adversary – as, indeed, no sane country wants war and the inevitable tragedy of death that accompanies war.  But no country would want to be bullied by some countries who do have these weapons and who, in order to achieve their objectives, make threatening statements like “all options are on the table” whenever some other country follows a course of action that is contrary to their wishes. 

If, in order to achieve independence of thought and action, it is necessary for a country to develop its own chemical or nuclear weapon arsenal, it is a worthwhile endeavour in that country’s “national interest,” just as the US sees it fit in its national interest to maintain stockpiles of chemical and nuclear weapons.

References (Not Already Hyperlinked)

Entman, R.M., “Framing: Towards clarification of a fractured paradigm,” J. Communication, 43 (4), pp. 51-58, 1993.