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WASHINGTON - Iran has the capability of arming ballistic missiles with biological warheads, Paula DeSutter, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance, told Congress on Wednesday.

This is the first time that an official claim of Iran's ability to launch biological warheads has been made.

Intelligence sources said that such an ability indicates sophisticated technological capabilities, since biological warheads are considered much harder to use than other types. Among other problems, the structure of the warhead differs from that of a conventional one, to facilitate the dispersal of the biological material.

DeSutter's testimony was delivered at a joint session that included Israeli Knesset members as well as members of both houses of Congress. The meeting, part of an ongoing initiative to hold periodic joint sessions of the Congress and Knesset, was attended by Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Congressmen Jane Harman (D-CA) and Curt Weldon (R-PA). The Israeli representatives were four members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee: Chairman Yuval Steinitz (Likud), Omri Sharon (Likud), Haim Ramon (Labor) and Ephraim Sneh (Labor).

DeSutter told the committee that Iran is in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has been working to acquire secretly nonconventional weapons of all kinds. She said that Iran's nuclear program is a genuine threat to both the Middle East and the U.S., since the Iranians are constantly working to expand the range of their missiles. America's current strategy for dealing with the problem is to push for a decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency, formally declaring Iran in violation of the NPT, she added.

Other experts warned the meeting that if Iran's efforts continue unchecked, its nuclear capabilities could outstrip those of North Korea.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia yesterday denied a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper stating that the kingdom was considering acquiring nuclear weapons. "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not considering acquiring a nuclear bomb or nuclear weapons of any kind," the Saudi Embassy in London said in a statement. "There is no atomic energy program in any part of the kingdom and neither is one being considered."