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WMD transport targeted on high seas
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.

In April, 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.

German 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 diplomatic sources.

"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 inspected.

"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 state."

A year before, a Russian airliner full of Israeli passengers was shot down by a missile over Ukraine in what was termed an accident.

Experts 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 Times Online.

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.

In a 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 without preconditions.

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 dialogue.

"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 Korean technology.

"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 explained.

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 other states.

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.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
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