On right, destroyed Libyan missiles pictured from disarmament in December 2003. State.gov, AP
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The Obama administration is investigating whether Iran supplied the Libyan government of Moammar Gadhafi with hundreds of special artillery shells for chemical weapons that Libya kept secret for decades, U.S. officials said.

The shells, which Libya filled with highly toxic mustard agent, were uncovered in recent weeks by revolutionary fighters at two sites in central Libya. Both are under heavy guard and round-the-clock drone surveillance, U.S. and Libyan officials said.

The discovery of the shells has prompted a U.S. intelligence-led probe into how the Libyans obtained them, and several sources said early suspicion had fallen on Iran. “We are pretty sure we know” the shells were custom-designed and produced in Iran for Libya, said a senior U.S. official, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity because the sensitivity of the accusation.

A U.S. official with access to classified information confirmed there were “serious concerns” that Iran had provided the shells, albeit some years ago. In recent weeks, UN inspectors have released new information indicating that Iran has the capability to develop a nuclear bomb, a charge Iranian officials have long rejected. Confirmed evidence of Iran’s provision of the specialized shells may exacerbate international tensions over the country’s alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Mohammed Javad Larijani, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader and the brother of Iran’s former negotiator on nuclear issues, denied the allegation. “I believe such comments are being fabricated by the U.S. to complete their project of Iranophobia in the region and all through the world. Surely this is another baseless story for demonizing [the] Islamic Republic of Iran,” he said in an e-mail.

The stockpile’s existence violates Gadhafi’s promises in 2004 to the United States, Britain, and the United Nations to declare and begin destruction of all of Libya’s chemical arms, and raises new questions about the ability of the world’s most powerful nations to police such pledges in tightly-closed societies.

Gadhafi’s government was “sitting on stuff that was not secure, and the world did not know about it,” a third U.S. official said. “There were no seals and no inventories” by international inspectors, the official added. “That’s a big deal.”

During the recent civil conflict, some foreign powers and Libyan rebels worried that Gadhafi might use chemical weapons, but they were only aware of a previously-declared stockpile of mustard agent in bulk storage at a remote desert site. They were unaware of the filled artillery shells, which posed a much greater threat.

This newly-discovered stockpile will now need to be protected from theft by militia groups or others in the politically unsettled nation. Disposal of the munitions poses an additional challenge for Libya’s new government and allied Western powers, since the chemical-filled shells cannot be readily relocated, and may take as long as a year to destroy in place, according to some estimates.

British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged the discovery in a speech last Tuesday, saying that “in the last few days, we have learned that the new Libyan authorities have found chemical weapons that were kept hidden from the world.” But a senior U.S. official said the White House first heard in September about the presence of the chemical-filled shells at weapons storage depots in the desert; others said the locations were Houn and Sabha.

One U.S. official said Iran may have sold the shells to Libya after the close of its eight-year war with Iraq, in which the Iraqis used mustard and nerve agents against tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers. “These were acquired over many years” by the Libyans, another U.S. official said.

Iran ratified the international Chemical Weapons Convention in late 1997, nearly seven years before Libya, and said it would foreswear such arms because they were “inhumane.” But in a subsequent declaration to inspectors — not previously disclosed — it admitted making 2500 tons of mustard agent near the end of its war with Iraq. It said it then shuttered its program.

Pentagon and CIA analysts have asserted that Iran fired chemical artillery shells at Iraqi troops in 1988, a contention supported by secret Iraqi government documents obtained after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. A 1987 letter, written by Iraq’s military intelligence director and stamped “top secret,” described three Iranian chemical attacks and sought to assess what appeared to be a growing Iranian interest in mustard agent.

“The enemy has chemical bombs/shells,” concluded the letter, part of an archives acquired by the Conflict Records Research Center at National Defense University. It said Iran probably received help from a foreign power in obtaining the chemicals to fill its munitions, and asserted that Tehran was attempting “by various means to reach an advanced stage of chemical agent production.”

In the late 1990’s, the Clinton administration came close to demanding a special inspection of Iran after U.S. intelligence satellites observed trucks bearing artillery shells pulling up to a suspect chemical plant, according to one official. It decided not to do so because officials could not figure out where the shells were being taken and worried that the plant would be cleaned before inspectors arrived.

The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, in an unclassified report to Congress this year, said “Iran maintains the capability to produce chemical warfare agents… [and] is capable of weaponizing CW agents in a variety of delivery systems.”

Iran’s obligation to report any transfer of such shells – if it occurred — is unclear. The convention requires a declaration of the transfer or receipt of munitions specifically designed for use with mustard and similar agents, but does not require reporting of so-called “dual-use” munitions that could be filled with either conventional explosives or chemical agents.

Libya’s new government has said its own forces discovered the stockpile, but whether they had help at the outset from American and allied specialists is unclear. “The freedom fighters [went] . . . to see whether there [were] any arms or anyone who is fighting for Qaddafi, so they were checking every point in the desert,” Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, said in an interview. “That’s how they discovered that there [was] something unfamiliar.”

Since then, U.S. intelligence and military specialists have been examining the nature, origin, and condition of the shells and helping Libya prepare a new, formal declaration about them to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the agency that polices the 1997 treaty banning the production, stockpiling, or use of such arms.

“We are working in great haste and diligence,” a senior U.S. official said.

Four American and diplomatic sources said the shells contain sulfur mustard, popularly known as mustard gas, a liquid that is rapidly absorbed and causes debilitating burns and respiratory damage. Victims are unaware of their exposure for several hours, but then experience accelerating breathing trouble, swollen eyes, widespread blisters, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and in severe cases, loss of sight or death.

The groin and armpits suffer the most, and misery is particularly acute in warm climates like the Middle East. There is no antidote, and recuperation — if possible — takes months of skilled medical care. In 1985, the United States said it had produced 17,400 tons of mustard agent; it has been destroying the agent steadily since then, most recently under international inspection, and around 2700 tons remains.

Libya agreed in 2003, under sustained U.S. and British pressure, to give up all of its work on weapons of mass destruction, and to permit U.S. and international inspection of its declared stocks of mustard and of nerve-agent ingredients. Libya has “provided full and transparent cooperation,” then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair said during a meeting with Qaddafi outside Tripoli in March 2004.

But Libya only admitted to producing aerial bombs, not artillery shells, and U.S. officials watched as Libyans flattened some bomb casings with bulldozers and detonated their burster charges in the desert. In total, more than 3500 aerial bombs were destroyed by the Libyans, according to the OPCW. Some of the casings had been hidden in a garage owned by a top Libyan weapons official, while others were kept at a turkey farm.

“We looked pretty carefully in 2004 and we found no evidence they had the capability to produce a chemical artillery round,” said Donald A. Mahley, a retired Army colonel and deputy assistant secretary of state for threat reduction who headed the American effort to close Libya’s weapons of mass destruction programs. Perfecting the design of accurate, liquid-filled artillery shells is considered much more difficult than the manufacture of sulfur mustard itself.

Mahley added that Libya is “a large place, with not many whistleblowers” under Qaddafi. He said that if the shells were stored for a long time and without unusual precautions, there would be no obvious indications of their presence. One of Qaddafi’s sons commanded an elite artillery brigade, he noted, so perhaps the weapons were assigned to his control as a “reserve.”

The discovery shows, he said in an interview, “we will have to think very seriously about finding inspectors with a different skill set, and about more intelligence-sharing, and about looking widely, not just at declared sites.” Under the CWC treaty, regular inspections are limited to verifying what each nation admits; a provision allowing for so-called short-notice, “challenge inspections” of undeclared sites, at the demand of any treaty member, has never been invoked.

Libya claimed in 2004 that it moved all of its mustard agent — so-named because of impurities that make it smell like the mustard plant — from storage sites in suburbs of the capital to Rughawa, a remote desert village 250 miles south of Tripoli. Around 10 tons of mustard is stored in a half-dozen or so large canisters there, amounting to roughly half of the arsenal that Qaddafi declared.

Although an Italian-made neutralization plant there was inactive during the armed clashes this year, a German military plane flew international inspectors to the site late last month. They verified that nothing was missing, according to diplomatic sources.

The OPCW declined direct comment on its inability to find the hidden sites.

Inspectors will soon “establish whether these sites contain materials that should have been declared previously,” said Michael Luhan, the OPCW spokesman, in an e-mail. “Libyan authorities have advised us they are preparing to declare a detailed description of their contents, and when we receive that our inspectors will promptly visit the country to verify the inventories. Until then we cannot comment or speculate on the outcome.”

Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert and supporter of the international convention who works at the nonprofit Stimson Center in Washington, said “Gaddafi was angling to maintain a weapons capability under the noses of inspectors. It is disappointing but not entirely surprising that a man of that character would do something like this. That is a challenge that exists worldwide. It is a reason why you need to be as vigilant as possible in the inspection process.”

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R. Jeffrey Smith worked for 25 years in a series of key reporting and editorial roles at The Washington...