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 surveillance by drones, U.S. and Libyan officials said.
The discovery of the shells has prompted a probe, led by U.S. intelligence, into how the Libyans obtained them; 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 the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the accusation.
A U.S. official with access to classified information confirmed that there were “serious concerns” that Iran had provided the shells, albeit some years ago. In recent weeks, U.N. 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 Gaddafi’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 it raises new questions about the ability of the world’s most powerful nations to police such pledges in tightly closed societies.
Gaddafi’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.
During the recent civil conflict, some foreign powers and Libyan rebels worried that Gaddafi might use chemical weapons, but they were aware only 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 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, because the chemical-filled shells cannot be readily relocated and, according to some estimates, may take as long as a year to destroy in place.