In 1997, Iran told the world it had disposed of all its chemical weapons. It became a founding member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and an active presence on the world stage against their use, after an estimated 100,000 Iranians suffered debilitating injuries after Saddam Hussein used mustard gas and nerve agents in dozens of attacks during the Iran-Iraq war.

But while the world has been focused on Tehran’s nuclear programme, reports from inside Iran and statements from the US government point to a growing industry of pharmaceutical-based weapons. “Iran maintains a chemical weapons program that includes… incapacitating agents for offensive purposes,” Nicole Shampaine, the US ambassador to the OPCW in The Hague, told Tortoise. “This is an area that is a significant concern to us.”

Pharmaceutical-based chemical weapons are based on substances such as fentanyl, the synthetic opioid which has ravaged the US. They are aimed at rendering targets unconscious. Leaks from regime-backed universities in Iran appear to show that fentanyl and other central nervous system-acting substances are being developed into aerosolised forms for use on civilians in riot control situations.

These kinds of weapons are often referred to as non-lethal incapacitants, but in practice they can be deadly. In 2002 Russian special forces pumped what is widely believed to have been a fentanyl derivative into a Moscow theatre where hundreds of hostages were being held by Chenyan terrorists. They were successful in regaining control of the theatre, but more than 130 hostages died in the process.

Both the American and Israeli governments say they have intelligence that Iran is developing such weapons, but won’t give more detail. Israel is a known hawk when it comes to Iran. The Biden administration is less so.

Several leaks published by Iranian hackers opposed to the Islamic Revolutionary regime in Tehran appear to show academic papers discussing the development of such chemicals. But it is hard to verify such leaks.

In one case described to Tortoise, a veterinary sedative delivered in very large quantities to a regime-affiliated university in Tehran – with no veterinary programme – later appeared in leaked academic papers describing its use as an incapacitating agent for riot control.

Have they been used? It’s possible. Over several months in 2022 and 2023, thousands of school girls in Iran became sick and with symptoms including vomiting and streaming nose and eyes. Some have claimed this as evidence that the regime used pharmaceutical-based agents (PBAs) against its own citizens in an attempt to bring an end to the anti-hijab protests gathering momentum across the country.

The Iranian government has claimed these were attacks carried out by Iran’s “enemies” – and at other times insisted it was a case of mass hysteria. Attempts by journalists and human rights groups to gather concrete evidence have been unsuccessful.

What’s stopping them? Not much. The OPCW drafted new legislation banning aerosolized use of central nervous system-acting chemical agents in 2021, which designated these weapons as illegal in both law enforcement settings and warfare. The proposal was opposed by Iran, Russia and China – but passed anyway.

Although the OPCW is mandated to prevent the use or development of chemical weapons it does not do spot checks. It is possible for a signatory state to call for a “challenge inspection” on another member nation, although Tortoise understands this has never happened in the organisation’s 30-year history. Even if it were to happen, the challenged state would have plenty of notice before any inspection – enough time to wipe the surfaces clean.

The norm against using chemical weapons is under stress more broadly after the Syrian state’s use of chemical weapons and, more recently, reports that Russia has used riot-control agents, like CS gas, on the battlefield against Ukraine. In this context CS gas is considered a chemical weapon.

What’s more: In a new podcast series Tortoise investigates a German man accused of sending a chemical that can be used to make mustard gas to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. He has been on the run for more than three decades – Tortoise tracked him down.

Source » tortoisemedia