War with Iran or North Korea could involve deadly chemical weapons

War with Iran or North Korea could involve deadly chemical weapons
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Should the United States end up going to war with either Iran or North Korea, there is another concern from the Iraq war era that has not received much public attention: the possibility that former regime elements may use chemical or biological weapons  or set off dirty or nuclear bombs against American and allied troops. Regime holdovers would have potent incentives to use such weapons should the military infrastructure of their respective states be decimated.

Furthermore, they would have nothing to lose, as their wealth and influence is tied to the maintenance of the regime. If the regime falls, so do their livelihoods and grip on power. It is often noted that it is difficult to disperse chemical and biological weapons. While Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria is noticed, we don’t know how many times he’s attempted to launch chemical weapons attacks and failed. Two decades ago, we learned that the Aum Shinrikyo cult attempted multiple chemical weapons attacks in Japan only to be met with abysmal and embarrassing failures. Chemical and biological weapons are difficult to store and successfully disperse.

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Dirty bombs are a little different. Their main effect is psychological, with most immediate casualties coming from the initial blast itself. However, their longer term effects will linger, leaving radioactive particulates in the air for years and exposing both American troops and the general public to radiation. Given North Korea’s crossing of the nuclear rubicon, it’s not unthinkable for a dying regime to make a last stand with its nuclear arsenal.

Former regime elements have potent incentives to gamble for resurrection. The wealth, livelihood, influence and status of holdovers is tied to the survival of the regime they served. If either regime is falling, or falls, they little incentive not to roll the dice. Even if victory is improbable, doing nothing ensures defeat. Should war break out with either, or both, Iran and North Korea, the U.S. can deter such attacks in at least three ways: massive retaliation, asset seizures and war crimes tribunals, and the Desmond Tutu option, also known as amnesty.

Massive retaliation in response to chemical attacks

During the first Gulf War, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker is believed to have implicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons in response to any chemical weapons attack against American or coalition soldiers. Scott Sagan points out that the problem with this is its propensity to beget nuclear proliferation. Furthermore, in the climate of an insurgency, this sort of threat is incredible against a non-state actor. However, the U.S. could credibly commit to conventional massive retaliation. The downside is that, like in Iraq after 2003, it could create sympathy for one-time regime elements which turned into insurgents.

Targeted seizure of assets and war crimes tribunals

A second option is to threaten to seize assets of regime elites and try them for war crimes if they should use chemical, biological or radiological weapons. There are two issues with this option. First, targeted sanctions have been of limited effectiveness, as far as we can tell, in these two regimes. Second, threatening to try individual commanders who deploy such weapons, while normatively appealing, does little to reduce their incentives to gamble for resurrection. Instead, they’re likely to follow the path of Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, who despite being accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court for his actions in 2011, was eventually freed by Khalifa Haftar.

Make a deal (or don’t repeat mistakes from Iraq)

Paul Bremer III made what was arguably the biggest mistake in the early days of the American occupation of Iraq: He dissolved the Iraqi military and enacted lustration against all former Ba’ath members. Former soldiers and teachers were barred from employment, turning the slow burn of a Sunni insurgency into an inferno. While the U.S. should not take any of the previous options off the table, dissolution of either the Iranian or North Korean armed forces and subsequent lustration would be counterproductive. Instead, the U.S. should look to examples from World War II, as well as the South African Truth Commission, for inspiration.

If either regime is falling, the Iranian military and its counterpart, the Pasdaran, can be transformed into forces of stability in a crumbling Islamic republic in exchange for amnesty for their members, including Basijis, in exchange for intelligence and information about the whereabouts of the regime’s weapons of mass destruction. Their elite leaders would be allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains. A similar deal should be struck with members of the North Korean military and intelligence services. Such deals were struck after World War II with several former Nazis in Germany and Austria, as well as partisans of Benito Mussolini in Italy. This helps account for the relative success the U.S. had in rebuilding states after World War II.

The old cliché is right: War should be the last resort. However, as the U.S. spars with Pyongyang and Tehran, the likelihood of war increases. As a result, we need to be concerned with the possibility of regime elements using weapons of mass destruction against U.S. troops. Conventional means of deterrence are unlikely to succeed on their own. Instead, the U.S. should attempt to co-opt former regime elements with access to weapons of mass destruction. We should allow them to keep their fortunes and grant them amnesty in exchange for information about their programs and whereabouts of the world’s most destructive weapons.

Albert Wolf, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan. He previously served as a legislative assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he worked on foreign policy and national security.