Chemical attacks on Iran: When the US looked the other way

Iran denounces ‘hypocrisy’ of US air strikes as experts urge Tehran to press Syria to stop future chemical attacks.

Iran chemical weapons veterans
An estimated 7,500 Iranian military and civilians were killed in several Iraq chemical weapons attacks [File: Reuters]
Correction19 Apr 2018
An earlier version of this story identified Sina Azodi, as a doctorate student of philosophy. His major is political science. The article also stated earlier that Abas Aslani, is a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies based in Ankara, Turkey. Aslani is affiliated with an organisation of the same name in Tehran.

US President Donald Trump announced on Friday the operation against Syria, framing his decision as a fight against “evil” while saying days earlier that preventing chemical attacks is “about humanity”.

He lashed out at Iran and Russia for supporting the Assad regime, saying “What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women and children?”

At least 85 people, including many women and children, were killed in Douma in early April, in a chemical attack the US blamed on the Syrian military. There have been several recorded chemical attacks in Syria since 2013.

Trump’s action against Syria, however, rings hollow to those who lived through the dangers of Iraq’s chemical attacks in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.

To some Iranian analysts, the air strikes reflected the “hypocrisy” and “duplicity” of American foreign policy.

When Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to kill thousands of Iranians during the war from 1980 to 1988, not only did the US look the other way, but also “aided and abetted” Iraq in committing “war crimes”, Reza Nasri, an Iran-born international law expert at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (GIIDS) in Geneva, told Al Jazeera. 

“The claim that the recent US attack on Syria was motivated by humanitarian considerations is not consistent with Iran’s own experience as a victim of chemical attacks,” he said.

Arms control experts argue that what happened in Iran in the 1980s should not be an excuse to block moves to hold Syria accountable for its use of chemical weapons. 

Daryl Kimball, executive director, of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, told Al Jazeera that Iran should use its leverage with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to prevent similar attacks in the future.

Others, however, contend that it is not a question of taking action in Syria, but of Trump launching air strikes in defiance of United Nations guidelines, and in the absence of UN-backed inspections.        

Use of chemical warfare had been banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria signed, expands on the prohibition to include the ban on production, stockpiling and use of certain toxic weapons such as sarin and mustard gas.  

Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, an estimated 7,500 Iranian military and civilians were killed by Iraqi troops using nerve gas and mustard agents, according to a report by Shahriar Khateri, a senior official of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.

The report said about a million Iranians were “exposed” to chemical agents during the war. Today, about 75,000 victims still receive treatment for “chronic chemical weapons injuries”.

Bodies of Iranian fighters seen near the town of Halabja, Iraq in March 1988 [File: AP]
Bodies of Iranian fighters seen near the town of Halabja, Iraq in March 1988 [File: AP]

In one of the “first extensive chemical attacks” by Iraq in March 1984, “tonnes of sulfur mustard and nerve gas agents” were used against Iranian troops in Majnoon Islands along the southern border with Iraq. The report also recorded at least 30 chemical attacks against civilians.

Documents from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also showed that the US government knew about Iraq’s repeated use of nerve agents in Iran, but did nothing to stop it. Iraq was then allied with the US against Iran. 

A declassified “top secret” CIA document dated March 23, 1984, showed that the US was aware of Iraq’s use of nerve gas agents against Iranian troops in Basrah, and the plan “to employ it in militarily significant quantities” by late fall of that year.

Another document dated January 28, 1986, showed it was aware of a report that a West German firm helped Iraq establish a factory that produced the lethal chemical agent, Tabun. 

‘Morbid silence’

In a UN Security Council report dated March 1986, inspectors who visited Iran described as “distressing” the number of “chemical casualties” and the extent of their injuries. 

The report said that despite previous UN findings of Iraqi chemical weapons use in 1984 and 1985, attacks continue “on a more intense scale than used previously”.

“Every Iranian – whether ordinary citizen or high-ranking politician – still remembers how world powers and neighbouring countries, remained morbidly silent in face of these atrocities or outright assisted Saddam Hussein in his war crimes, one way or the other,” Nasri, of GIIDS in Geneva, told Al Jazeera.

Sina Azodi, a doctorate student of political science at the University of South Florida, grew up in Tehran during the war. He said he and his family were living in constant fear of a chemical attack in the Iranian capital.

“My father, who was recalled by the military to serve as a reserve captain in the Iranian air force went through so much trouble to obtain gas masks for his family,” Azodi told Al Jazeera. 

It was notable not only that “there was no outrage” from the US and its allies when the chemical attacks took place in Iran, but the US also “used its influence” in the UN Security Council to block any condemnation of Iraq, despite evidence presented by inspectors, Azodi said.

In 1988, Iraq used chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds, killing 5,000, many of them civilians [File: AP]
In 1988, Iraq used chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds, killing 5,000, many of them civilians [File: AP]

According to Foreign Policy, the US also “conveyed” to Iraq information from satellite images, which showed Iran “was about to gain a major strategic advantage” against Iraq in 1988. The US did so “fully aware” that Saddam “would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin”.

In March 1988, Iraq also used chemical weapons in Halabja, home to Iraqi Kurds, who had joined with Iran in fighting Saddam. According to reports, 5,000 mainly women and children were killed of mustard gas and sarin poisoning, and up to 12,000 have died since because of chemical exposure.


Namo Abdulla, an Iraqi-Kurdish correspondent for the television network Rudaw, said the response to the Iraqi chemical weapons attacks in the 1980s and the recent chemical attacks in Syria showed “the unfortunate duplicity of the world we live in”.

“I believe none should get away with using chemical weapons attack,” he told Al Jazeera.

“If there is ample evidence that Assad has used chemical weapons, he should be punished for it, far more strongly than what we saw,” Abdulla added.

Arms control expert Kimball said that, whatever happened during the Iran-Iraq War, the Assad regime should be held accountable.

“I would say what matters is protecting civilians in the conflict in Syria,” he told Al Jazeera.

He warned that despite the air strikes, Syria would continue to use chlorine in future attacks. 

“Chlorine is a common industrial chemical, and the strikes conducted by the US, UK and France have not degraded the ability to build improvised chemical weapons using chlorine,” Kimball said.

He urged Iran to “provide more leadership” in urging Syria to cooperate with UN-backed inspectors. 

“I think it is a stain on Iran’s record of support for chemical weapons victims that it has not used its leverage with Assad to prevent further chemical weapons use.”

Kimball also said that “in an ideal world”, inspectors should have collected evidence first, before the air attacks by the US, UK and France.

Demonstrators gather in Nicosia, Cyprus to denounce US-led air strikes in Syria [File: AP]
Demonstrators gather in Nicosia, Cyprus to denounce US-led air strikes in Syria [File: AP]

According to reports on Wednesday, the fact-finding team from the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has not been able to enter Douma.

With the delay in inspections, there are fears that the Syrians will clean up the site of the attack and “undermine the investigation”, Kimball said.

Vietnam War

Jason von Meding, a senior lecturer at Australia’s University of Newcastle, who has studied the use of chemicals during warfare, including the Vietnam War, said the US-led air attacks only delayed the arrival of inspectors in Douma and the gathering of evidence, which is critical for any prosecution.

Von Meding pointed out that the US also used Agent Orange in Vietnam, resulting in birth defects and disabilities among Vietnamese civilians.

“I don’t think there was a dispute that it was a chemical weapon,” he said. 

“The US tries to say that they have a moral standing in terms of criticising other governments for using chemical weapons, so of course the use of chemical weapons in Vietnam stands against that proposition,” he told Al Jazeera. 

Abas Aslani, an Iran-based journalist and visiting scholar at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, said it is Iran’s policy to “condemn any chemical attacks, regardless of who has carried it out”.

He said Iran understands the importance of accountability in war because it was also a victim of chemical weapons. 

“The issue is, before doing any air strikes, there needs to be an investigation on where they were used and who used them,” he said, noting the importance of a UN mandate to give legitimacy to any response.

In Iran’s experience, the US and other Western powers looked the other way, while continuing to support Saddam, Aslani said.   

Azodi, the political analyst studying at the University of South Florida, added that military strikes alone cannot bring a political solution in Syria.

“Iran and Russia are big players and their roles cannot be ignored or denied.”

Source: Al Jazeera