about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

15 May 2003

Source: Washington Post, May 15, 2003

Iran Said to Be Producing Bioweapons

Opposition Group Names Anthrax as First of Six Pathogens in Intensive Effort

By Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writer

Iran has begun production of weaponized anthrax and is actively working with at least five other pathogens, including smallpox, in a drive to build an arsenal of biological weapons, according to an opposition group that previously exposed a secret nuclear enrichment program in the country.

The group, Mujaheddin-e Khalq, citing informants inside the Iranian government, says the anthrax weapons are the first fruits of a program begun secretly in 2001 to triple the size of Iran's biowarfare program. The push for new biological weapons was launched in parallel with a more ambitious campaign to build massive nuclear facilities capable of producing components for nuclear bombs, said officials of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political arm of the Mujaheddin, which seeks the overthrow of the Iranian government.

"We can say with certainty that the Iranian regime now has the capability of mass production of biological material for weapons use," Alireza Jafarzadeh, the council's U.S. representative, said in an interview. The group has scheduled a news conference today in Washington to release more details.

Although many weapons experts believe Iran maintains at least a rudimentary biological weapons program, few details are known. The CIA, in an unclassified report released this year, said Iran "probably" maintains an offensive biological weapons program and likely "has capabilities to produce small quantities" of biological agents.

The opposition group's claims, if true, would suggest that Iran's pursuit of biological weapons is more aggressive than previously believed.

The Mujaheddin-e Khalq, also known as the People's Mujaheddin, is listed by the State Department as a terrorist group, though weapons experts and intelligence officials say many of the group's past claims about Iranian weapons programs have been largely reliable. The group first exposed a massive nuclear facility built near the town of Natanz to make enriched uranium, which can be used for commercial nuclear power plants or to make nuclear weapons.

In recent weeks, the Mujaheddin has been fighting for survival after some of its Iraq-based military camps came under attack by U.S. forces during the war. Although the Mujaheddin claimed neutrality in the U.S.-led campaign against Iraq, the Bush administration decided to bomb Mujaheddin bases in an apparent attempt to thaw relations with Iran. Later, the U.S. Central Command arranged a cease-fire that allowed the group to keep many of its weapons and maintain its camps. But then the Bush administration decided to actively seek its surrender.

Mujaheddin officials said the timing of the release of their report on Iran's biowarfare program was unrelated to their problems with the U.S. government. Jafarzadeh, the spokesman, said the Mujaheddin had been gathering information about the program for months and had received critical new details from inside the Iranian government within the past few days.

The expansion of Iran's biological weapons program was spelled out in a four-page document called the "Comprehensive National Microbial Defense Plan," which was approved by Iran's Supreme National Security Council in 2001, Jafarzadeh said. The plan called for a tripling of the country's bioweapons production capacity by 2003, and divided responsibilities across a network of research facilities linked to Iran's armed forces or Revolutionary Guard.

A single director coordinates the activities of five government agencies involved in the program and reports directly to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, the officials said. Among the key facilities are the Center for Genetic Biotechnology and Engineering Research, located at Malek Ashtar University in northern Tehran, and new bioresearch facilities attached to Tehran's Imam Hussein University and the Shaheed Maysami complex west of the capital, the officials said.

While Iran in the past has relied on foreign suppliers for advanced equipment such as industrial fermenters for growing pathogens, the country now can produce nearly all the critical parts, the officials said. Jafarzadeh said Iran's biological, chemical and nuclear programs have all progressed rapidly under the leadership of Khatami, a man regarded in the West as a moderate and reformer.

Among the pathogens being weaponized under the plan are anthrax, aflatoxin, typhus, smallpox, plague and cholera, Jafarzadeh said. Mujaheddin officials were unable to produce hard evidence to support the claim, but they described specific research facilities and named individual scientists who were placed in charge of the effort. Jafarzadeh said experts were recruited from several countries, including North Korea, Russia, China and India, to assist the effort.

"The report about smallpox was very carefully assessed and verified," Jafarzadeh said.

No nation is known to have produced smallpox weapons other than the Soviet Union, which destroyed its stocks in the early 1990s. Although various reports have suggested that other nations experimented with smallpox -- most notably North Korea and Iraq -- the claims have never been verified.

Weapons experts reacted cautiously to the group's claims, especially the report about smallpox. But several said the group's description of Iran's bioweapons program seemed plausible.

"It can't be dismissed out of hand," said William Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "There is no doubt the Iranians have been very interested in such weapons. We know they left their calling cards at various institutes in the former Soviet Union seeking to recruit experts in the field."

David Albright, a nuclear weapons expert and former member of a U.N. nuclear weapons inspection team in Iraq, said he could not verify the claims but said the group provided solid leads in the past. "Often their information is correct, in part because they have reliable human sources well placed in the Iranian government," Albright said. "And they release information that you can check -- information that is actionable."