Iraq and Iran are pushing headlong into a chemical weapons arms race, raising the specter of a more dangerous and deadly Gulf war in the future, says a respected military analyst visiting the Gulf. Anthony H. Cordesman - legislative assistant to United States Sen. John McCain and author of three books on the Gulf military balance - warns that despite on-going peace talks in Geneva both Iraq and Iran are working to assemble larger and deadlier chemical weapons stockpiles. Iraq, he says, is making a major effort to acquire new biological weapons.
``Behind the scenes there is an absolutely massive effort in chemical weapons,'' Mr. Cordesman says. ``Both sides are arming for war.''
By his estimate Iraq now possesses several hundred tons of mustard gas and other chemical agents. Iran, he says, is approaching a hundred tons of stockpiled mustard gas.
Cordesman, whose current Gulf tour included a recent trip to Iraq, says the stockpiling of chemical arms is part of a region-wide trend toward the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, including long-range missiles and attempts to build nuclear arms.
``The tragedy here is that we have just refought World War I [with bloody trench warfare] in Iran and Iraq and now you have both sides positioning to fight World War III,'' he says.
He notes that Iraq has a critical three-year advantage over Iran in terms of chemical weapons tactics, expertise, and research. And he warns: ``If this war didn't destroy the Iranian Revolution, the next one will.''
Gulf-based Western diplomats say the Iran-Iraq chemical arms race points up a continuing lack of trust between the two Gulf neighbors, the same distrust which has left United Nations peace talks stalled in Geneva over the past three months.
These diplomats see chemical weapons proliferation as a powerful, long-term ingredient in the age-old Iran-Iraq rivalry. They say that Iran is now forced to work toward chemical weapons parity with Iraq to create a credible deterrent against any future Iraqi decision to use chemical weapons against Iranian forces or civilians.
``Possession of chemical weapons is political clout,'' says one diplomat. ``The Iraqis want many options and chemical weapons is one of those options. Whether they use them or not is unimportant but just that they have them.'' He adds, ``The same is true for Iran.''
There is evidence that both Iraq and Iran used chemical weapons during the Gulf war.
Iraq appears to have resorted to chemical weapons attacks more often and on a wider scale than Iran, in many cases to push back advancing Iranian forces before they could break through defensive positions in Iraqi territory. Last summer, Iraq was accused of using chemical weapons against Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq's northern Kurdistan, but no concrete evidence has emerged.
Many Gulf-war analysts say that the most dangerous precedent to emerge from the eight years of fighting in the Gulf War was the suggestion that cheap and effective chemical weapons can help turn a war effort around. Even more compelling is the suggestion that Iran risked losing the war because Iran's Revolutionary Guards were not efficient enough to bolster Iran's own chemical weapons arsenal to match that of Iraq's on the battlefield.
This is the message now circulating in third-world military circles. And military experts say it will take a massive international effort to stem the tide of proliferation.
``In world-wide terms this is probably the most dangerous thing to come out of the Gulf War,'' says a Kuwait-based Western diplomat.
Cordesman says much of the damage is already done. ``There are 40 countries involved in chemical weapons and 10 in biological warfare. My guess is that if that list is several months old there are a heck of a lot more now,'' he says.
Some analysts say the threat of large-scale chemical warfare between Iran and Iraq might be contained in the same way that the United States and Soviet Union have managed to avoid a nuclear showdown over the past three decades. Neither side will want to risk possible retaliation.
But one diplomat from a country in the region is not so sure. ``There is a deterrent for world [nuclear] war because people are afraid that will be the end of the world. But for local wars there isn't such a belief. That is the danger.''
Another diplomat adds, ``The worry is that these countries haven't got the ability to manage a deterrent system in the way the two superpowers have.''
The chemical weapons issue will be discussed in January in a Paris meeting called to reaffirm the 1925 convention signed by 110 nations banning the use of chemical weapons. Iraq, which is a signatory to the convention, has said it will attend the meeting.
The meeting will appeal to some 50 other nations that have not endorsed the convention, and will consider expanding the international ban to include production and stockpiling of chemical weapons.
Drawing the line on chemical weapons
There are measures that analysts say can be taken to help reduce the risks of continued proliferation of chemical weapons in the Gulf.
They differ on the effectiveness of sanctions. Some say a clear line must be drawn and that Iraq has already crossed it. Others say that sanctions against Iraq would be counterproductive, reducing United States influence and driving Iraq toward even more proliferation.
Among other steps suggested to limit the threat of chemical weapons:
Expose and punish the companies and the nations that sell the technology.
Continue to push for progress at Iran-Iraq peace talks, and seek a broader regional accord in the Gulf.
Limit the conventional arms race between Iran and Iraq.
Educate both countries to the risks of chemical weapons, and make clear that nations that use chemical weapons will face severe international sanctions.
Further strengthen mechanisms at the United Nations for investigating reports of chemical weapons use by enabling experts to gain fast access to areas of alleged contamination.