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The legacy of chemical warfare in Iran

April 22, 2013

Twenty-five years ago, in 1988, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja. This atrocity is what we most often talk about when we decry chemical warfare. We do not remember Sadasht and all the other cities in Iran that were also attacked by Iraq. We forget that Iran is a country which has suffered, by far, much more than any other from the terrible effects of mustard gas and nerve gas. This upsets the Iranians today, with good reason.

This problem is discussed by Dr Jean Pascal Zanders in the most recent issue of the Bulletin of the  Atomic Scientists (March 25, 2013). Dr Zanders was, from from 2003 to 2008, director of the Geneva-based BioWeapons Prevention Project and, from 1996 to 2003, director of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at SIPRI. He is now a senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. He discusses the value of the Chemical Weapons Convention and emphasizes that Iran suffered many attacks against both soldiers and civilians. Dr Zanders goes more deeply into the story in a most valuable paper. In this text, Zanders also  notes that “from 1989 onwards US officials indicated several times that Iran rather than Iraq had gassed Halabja, a claim so preposterous that its motive remains a mystery to me until today”.

The world is reluctant to recognize the suffering of the Iranian people, which upsets many Iranians today. They remember that the Westerns powers, who supported Saddam Hussein, had supplied the chemicals for the weapons. They remember that they were prevented from buying even charcoal for the gas mask filters. And they remember that it took a very long time for these powers to condemn the use of chemical warfare against their country and that the USA never acknowledged that Iraq was the perpetrator.

There are today in Iran thousands of victims of chemical warfare agents who suffer from the late consequences, especially damage to the lungs and eyes. They sometimes refer to themselves as the Hibakushas of chemical warfare, thus comparing themselves with the atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today the sanctions against Iran makes medicines and equipment, such as inhalers for those who suffered lung injury, difficult to obtain.

If the West wants to build trust in Iran, this should be remembered and recognized. So should the coup in 1954, when the UK and USA overthrew the democratically elected government and prime minister of the country. If that had not happened, the history of Iran could have been so much more positive!

In his book “Man without a gun,” Giandomenico Piccolo tells the story of how he tried to obtain the release of a group of hostages held by Iran. This was years before the US embassy hostage drama. The Iranians had set several conditions for the release of the hostages, very difficult conditions. And the UN negotiators had nothing to offer, not money, not weapons, not release of Iranian prisoners.

Finally, Piccolo found the key: The Iranians wanted the UN and the West to recognize that Iraq was the aggressor in the war. Everyone knew that this was the case, but the countries who supported Saddam Hussein had not wanted to say so. Finally, the UN Security Council unanimously decided that Iraq was the aggressor. Not much publicity was given to this decision, but Iran was satisfied and the hostages released.

Pride is important. The US pride was badly hurt by the Embassy Hostage drama, and the Americans have not forgotten.

But try to put yourself in the place of the Iranians! They have been and are constantly humiliated by the West. Humiliation does not bring peace.

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