|WMD transport targeted on high
By Safa Haeri
PARIS - In
a move aimed at making it more difficult for "rogue
states" such as the Stalinist regime of North Korea or
the Islamic Republic of Iran to get sophisticated pieces
needed for their weapons of mass destruction (WMD), 11
industrialized nations, some of them members of the
Atomic Club, decided last week in Paris to step up plans
to intercept ships suspected of carrying such weapons.
While the Proliferation Security Initiative
(PSI), endorsed by the United States, the United
Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the
Netherlands, Poland, Australia and Japan, is not
specifically aimed at North Korea, there is no doubt
that Pyongyang, which Washington and others accuse of
making clandestine shipments of drugs, counterfeit cash
and missiles, is the primary target.
As four of
the 11 nations, namely the United States, Australia,
Japan and France, will send ships to the western Pacific
next week for an exercise simulating an interception,
China, which, with Iran, is the hermit regime's main
political supporter and trading partner, has warned the
PSI group that its decision on inspecting ships in high
seas could be illegal.
But John Bolton, the US
under secretary of state for arms control and
international security, rejected concerns that the
initiative launched by President George W Bush in May
risked breaking international law and said participating
states had agreed a set of guidelines on how they would
carry out interceptions of ships or aircraft.
Next week's "Pacific Protector" exercise is the
first of 10 planned in coming months.
the Ville de Virgo, a French-owned ship carrying 214
aluminum tubes that serve as gas-centrifuge components
for enriching uranium for nuclear bombs, was intercepted
on tips from French and German intelligence agencies as
it was entering the Suez Canal. The shipment, procured
in Germany and unloaded in the Egyptian port of
Alexandria, was destined for North Korea.
police arrested the owner of a small export company and
said they had uncovered a scheme to acquire up to 2,000
such pipes. Investigators said they had concluded that
that amount of aluminum in North Korean hands could have
yielded about 3,500 gas centrifuges for enriching
uranium. A Western diplomat said the intentions "were
clearly nuclear ... The result could have been several
bombs' worth of weapons-grade uranium in a year."
One month later, another ship, loaded with 33
tons of sodium cyanide, a chemical used in making the
deadly nerve agent tabun, also purchased in Germany, one
of the world's leading producers and exporters of toxic
gas, was arrested and inspected before reaching
Pyongyang, via Singapore, according to Western
"There are countries in the
world where you can pay $2,000 to a government minister
and he'll sign anything - and then confirm to you that
he signed it," said Rastislav Kacer, a former Slovak
deputy defense minister who helped lead an investigation
into a similar attempt by North Korea to buy
sophisticated radar equipment. "Documents that are fake
can be made to appear very real," he added, quoted by
Joby Warrick in the Washington Post of August 14.
Pyongyang will be the PSI's first test because
Kim Jong-il's regime has the most advanced nuclear- and
chemical-weapons programs of any rogue state and a
history of exporting arms, one participant said.
Experts on atomic proliferation say the above
two examples are the tip of the iceberg in the huge and
lucrative underground WMD market, as many other
shipments reach their destinations without being
"The clandestine market for atomic,
biological and chemical [ABC] arms as well as missiles
capable of delivering them is very big," said a French
anti-terrorist expert, adding that despite existing
international treaties and tough controls on the export
of such materials, not only regimes that have secret ABC
projects, but also some well-financed and -trained
terrorist organizations are able to shop in this market.
What worries most anti-terrorist experts in
industrialized and democratic nations of the world is
the "marriage of reason" of some "rogue" states and
terrorist organizations, as seen in the case of the
missiles fired by still unidentified terrorists on an
Israeli jetliner on takeoff from Mombassa airport last
November. The missiles, fired from a Russian-made
shoulder-mounted engine, missed the plane that was
carrying 261 passengers. At about the same time, a
suicide car bomb rammed into a hotel in Mombassa, used
by Israeli tourists, killing at least 11 people and
wounding many others.
At the time, former
Israeli foreign minister Benjamin Netanyahu described
the attack as "a very dangerous escalation of terror".
"It means that terror organizations and those
regimes that stand behind them are capable of acquiring
weapons that can bring about mass casualties in every
place in the world," he warned, adding: "Today they
fired missiles at Israeli planes; tomorrow they'll fire
missiles at US planes, British planes, planes from every
A year before, a Russian airliner full
of Israeli passengers was shot down by a missile over
Ukraine in what was termed an accident.
observed that while North Korea has only one land border
with Russia, making it easier for the PSI to control
ships heading for the hermit state, Iran has several
borders with countries that either possess nuclear
technology, such as Pakistan, accused of assisting the
Islamic Republic in its military nuclear-based projects,
or master it, such as some former republics of the
defunct Soviet Union.
"It is extremely easy to
take spare parts necessary for fabrication of [an]
atomic arsenal in trucks crossing almost all Iran's
neighbors, maybe except for Iraq, which is under US
occupation," one expert told Asia Times Online.
According to a report from German intelligence
reported by Taggespiegel, some 70-90 Iranian scientists
are working on Iranian nuclear devices at the nation's
secret sites operated by the Revolutionary Guards. Large
parts of the equipment for both missiles and bombs come
from Pyongyang, via China and Pakistan, where it is
difficult for international agencies to monitor and
control them, Western intelligence sources told Asia
Tehran is under intense pressure
from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about
its current nuclear projects, which the United States
and Israel say are ultimately destined for military
purposes, while Iran insists that they are civilian,
aimed primarily at producing electricity, a claim
rejected by Iranian and Western experts on the basis
that Iran possesses huge natural-gas reserves, the
second-largest in the world after Russia's.
recent report, experts from the Vienna-based IAEA
reported about secret Iranian facilities at the central
city of Natanz for enriching uranium with the help of
centrifuge parts purchased some years ago from probably
China and North Korea as well as on the black markets.
The report brought about closer cooperation
between the European Union and Russia, which is
assisting the Islamic Republic in building its first
1,000-megawatt, US$800 million nuclear-powered
electricity plant at the Persian Gulf port of Booshehr.
On a recent visit to Tehran, EU Foreign and
Security Affairs Minister Xavier Solana warned Tehran
bluntly that signing the additional protocols to the
Non-Proliferation Treaty was not a bargain for which
Iran could expect rewards.
"If you don't sign
the protocols, it would be bad news for you," he said of
the conventions that allow IAEA experts to visit all
Iranian atomic-related sites without prior notice and
Immediately after the
conclusion of last week's Paris conference, Chinese
Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a news
conference in Beijing: "The best way to prevent
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is through
"We understand the concerns of some
countries about the proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction ... But many countries still question the
efficiency and legitimacy of adopting this kind of
measure," Kong added.
China's position on the
PSI plan has been regarded as a determinant of its
success because it controls many of the sea lanes around
the Korean Peninsula, and North Korea uses Chinese air
space to fly shipments to its Middle East trading
partners, mainly Iran, which has been able to build up
advanced medium- and long-range missiles based on North
"Finding and presenting the
best ways and means for preventing and stopping
proliferation and dissemination of weapons of mass
destruction and missiles, as well as components and
parts that facilitate their fabrication, is precisely
what the PSI stands for," a French diplomat associated
with the organization of the group's last meeting
On a practical level, experts
involved in the Proliferation Security Initiative said
they would seek to make life more difficult for ships
with suspicious cargo by getting permission from coastal
states and countries that issue so-called "flags of
convenience" to authorize at-sea interceptions.
The "statement of interdiction principles"
released after the Paris talks contains a commitment to
take action "consistent with national legal authorities
and relevant international law and frameworks, including
the UN Security Council".
"Certainly there are
always questions about legality over these sorts of
issues. Unfortunately international law isn't as strict
and well defined as we would like it to be," Bolton
observed, adding that it would obviously be better from
the point of view of broader legitimacy to have United
Nations Security Council endorsement of these sorts of
operations. But given the fact that China has a veto on
the Security Council, it is doubtful that anything would
get through of which it didn't approve.
Rebuffing concerns that the program could give
the United States and other 10 countries too much power
to stop ships in international waters, Bolton argued
that there is "abundant authority" under existing law to
conduct interdictions, most of which he said take place
in countries' territorial waters.
In cases where
the legal cover isn't clear, the 11 members of the
Proliferation Security Initiative have committed
themselves to change national and international laws to
strengthen those efforts.
The statement from the
11 members calls on states seriously to consider
providing consent under the appropriate circumstances to
the boarding and searching of its own flag vessels by
A senior US official in Washington
said efforts to recruit new members of the initiative
would begin "relatively soon". The next meeting of the
group will be October 9-10 in London.
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