Politics & Policy

Syria’s Pals at the Chemical Weapons Convention

The treaty, “neither verifiable nor enforceable,” will protect Assad, not his potential victims.

With Russia on his side, Syria’s President Bashar Assad has now agreed to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which is meant to eliminate chemical weapons from the world once and for all. Having thrown this bone to the White House, which has accused him of killing at least 1,429 people last month with poison gas, perhaps Assad feels safer. But should we?

Odds are that in agreeing to sign the CWC, Assad knew he was enrolling in a treaty that is cumbersome to apply and easy to manipulate. Indeed, U.S. authorities believe that Russia, now proposing to help rid Assad of his chemical weapons, has itself been cheating on the chemical-weapons treaty. According to the State Department’s 2013 report to Congress on compliance with the CWC, “the United States assesses that Russia’s CWC declaration is incomplete with respect to chemical agent and stockpiles.”

Syria’s closest ally, Iran, joined this treaty in 1997. But the same State Department report notes that, “due to a combination of irregularities in the Iranian declaration and insufficient clarification from Iran,” the U.S. cannot certify that Iran has met its treaty obligations or rule out that it has retained an undeclared chemical-weapons stockpile. Last year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reported to Congress that “Iran maintains the capability to produce chemical warfare (CW) agents and conducts research that may have offensive applications.” 

In 2004, Libya’s dictator, Moammar Qaddafi, signed on to the CWC, declaring his chemical-weapons stockpile for inspection and elimination. When Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011, the new Libyan government found two chemical-weapons sites he had not declared. Today, nine years after joining the treaty, Libya is still not entirely cleared of chemical munitions.

Few seem to remember, but when the Chemical Weapons Convention came before the U.S. Senate for ratification in 1997, a parade of American defense and diplomatic experts protested that it would make the world more dangerous, not less. Among those testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had served as President Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations. Kirkpatrick warned that the treaty was “neither verifiable nor enforceable.” Calling it an exercise in “wishful thinking,” she predicted it would provide a false and therefore dangerous sense of security. About the same time, in an editorial headlined “Here Come the Spies,” the Wall Street Journal warned that with the treaty’s provisions for multilateral supervision of scientific exchange, technical training, and international inspections, there was wide scope for espionage.

The Senate ratified the CWC anyway. In 1997 the treaty entered into force. To implement it, an international body was set up called the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Headquartered in an eight-story building in the Dutch capital of The Hague, the OPCW currently employs some 450 staffers and has an annual budget of more than $99 million.

It was the OPCW that provided the chemical-weapons inspectors for the United Nations team that visited Syria last month (their report is expected shortly). It is also the OPCW that now looks likely, perhaps in partnership with Russia, to oversee Syria’s compliance with the treaty.

It was a statistic from the OPCW’s website that President Obama cited last week when he said it was not his credibility that was at stake in Syria, but “the international community’s.” Obama said: “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.”

The long list of OPCW members — that is, signatories who have ratified the CWC — includes 186 of the U.N.’s 193 member states, the Holy See, and two Pacific-island affiliates of New Zealand, the Cook Islands and Niue (combined population, roughly 14,000). Apart from Syria, there are six U.N. member states that have not joined the treaty: Egypt, Israel, Angola, Burma, South Sudan, and, most worrisome, North Korea — which, according to last year’s report by DNI Clapper, has a longstanding chemical-weapons program and a stockpile of chemical agents.

The OPCW is independent of that mother of all international organizations, the United Nations. But it works in close contractual partnership with the U.N., enjoys U.N.-style diplomatic immunities, and replicates many of the U.N.’s practices — including some of the U.N.’s worst pitfalls. Like the U.N., the OPCW has no actual power to force individual members to comply with its rules. It depends substantially on good faith, of which some countries have more than others. When a country signs on, it must provide the OPCW with a declaration of its chemical-weapons facilities and stockpiles. International inspectors from the OPCW check on what a country declares and verify whatever is destroyed. But it is not the OPCW’s job to go hunting for undeclared stockpiles. In a recent phone interview, an OPCW spokesman explained, “We don’t just go into a country and rummage around.”

In theory, under the terms of the treaty, one country can confront another by presenting credible evidence of any illicit activities and asking the director general of the OPCW to send a team to conduct an anytime, anywhere “challenge inspection.” But though the director general, Ahmet Uzumcu of Turkey, touts this feature on the OPCW website, it has so far proved an option that no one wants to exercise. In the 16 years since the treaty entered into force, there has not been a single challenge inspection.  

The OPCW also suffers from the same moral equivalency that besets the U.N., which accords all members the same privileges, regardless of whether they are terror-sponsoring tyrannies or open democracies.

The case of Iran clearly illustrates the problem. Since 2006, the U.N. Security Council has targeted Iran with multiple rounds of sanctions over its rogue nuclear program. But at the OPCW, that’s no bar to hiring Iranians as chemical-weapons inspectors. In 2009, according to a State Department secret cable published by WikiLeaks, U.S. authorities were alerted by the French to the OPCW’s employment of an Iranian inspector who had previously worked for Iran’s Melli Agrochemical Company — a U.S.-sanctioned “known CW proliferator” with “a record of buying nerve agent precursors on behalf of Iran’s defense ministry.”

In a phone interview this week, a spokesman for the OPCW said that because Iran is a member of the organization, its nationals have been included in the staffing ever since the OPCW opened for business in the late 1990s. “It’s a policy,” he said, and “perfectly appropriate.” Presumably, the same privileges would extend to Syria. Asked how many Iranians are on staff now and in what jobs, and whether the former Melli Agrochemical employee is still on the payroll, he said the OPCW does not give out such information.

The OPCW also follows the U.N. custom of allocating seats on its governing board and other bodies more on the basis of geographical blocs than of merit. This benefits Iran, a member of the Asian bloc, in which it wields clout as a supplier of oil to countries such as China. Iran currently holds a seat on the OPCW’s 41-member executive council, the governing body that supervises the organization’s work. While Iran has just one vote on the council, it also has access to all the council’s information and a voice in the debates. From accounts of these proceedings in State Department cables published by WikiLeaks, it appears that Iran devotes considerable energy to blasting the U.S. and to interminable wrangles over procedure. One confidential U.S. cable from 2009 reports that the Iranian delegation had delayed the council’s “noting” of a report on U.S. compliance activities: “The Iranian delegation once again challenged the meaning of the term ‘to note,’ and foreshadowed hours of needless discussion on standard English vocabulary.”

It gets worse. After Iran won that seat, an English-language Iranian news outlet, the Tehran Times, bragged that the OPCW members had just “unanimously re-elected Iran to the Executive Council.” If that is true, it would mean the U.S. went along with the choice. When I phoned the U.S. embassy in The Hague to ask if the U.S. had really agreed to Iran’s reelection, I was told to e-mail the question, which was then referred to the State Department in Washington, which did not respond.

The OPCW has three main subsidiary bodies — panels that help guide the organizations’s work. Iran sits on all three of them. Iran’s Mahmoud Esfahaninejad is one of eleven members of the Advisory Body on Administrative and Financial Matters, dealing with the OPCW’s budget (to which the U.S. is the biggest contributor, chipping in 22 percent, or about $20 million per year). Iran’s Mohammad Abdollahi serves as one of 25 members of the Scientific Advisory Board, which monitors scientific and technological developments. And Iran’s Djamchid Momtaz holds one of the 20 seats on the Confidentiality Commission, tasked with resolving disputes that might arise on such matters as military and data security, and the confidentiality and verification provisions of the treaty. 

At the OPCW’s 2011 General Conference, Iran’s ambassador to the Netherlands and envoy to the OPCW, Kazem Gharib Abadi, was elected as one of ten vice chairmen for the session. Tehran hosted an OPCW international training course in 2009, to teach governments how to escort visiting chemical-weapons inspectors. And last November, an Iranian deputy foreign minister, Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh, unveiled a monument at OPCW headquarters, donated by Iran to honor the victims of chemical weapons. Recalling Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Iranians in the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War, but somehow overlooking Iran’s current, sanctions-violating nuclear program and suspected chemical-weapons ventures, Akhoundzadeh pledged his country’s devotion to “a world free of all categories of mass destruction.” The OPCW’s Turkish director general was on hand to thank him and to praise Iran for its commitment and support.

As for the rest of the CWC international community, some are more concerned with red lines and international norms than others. Sudan, listed by the U.S. since 1993 as a state sponsor of terrorism, currently sits along with Iran on the OPCW executive council — which Sudan chaired in 2001–02, just before it embarked on its genocide — which, granted, was carried out with conventional weapons. Today, the executive council is chaired by Ukraine, a suspected hub of weapons shipments to Syria’s Assad regime. The director of the OPCW’s secretariat for policy-making organs is Russian.

This is what lies behind the grand label of the Chemical Weapons Convention, with which Assad, with an assist from Russia, now hopes to shield himself from any real penalty for using chemical weapons.

— Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.

Claudia RosettClaudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. She joined the Wall Street Journal in 1984 and become the editorial-page editor at the ...


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