Allegations of Iranian Use of Chemical Weapons in the 1980–88 Gulf War – Iran’s defensive preparations

In the 1980–88 Gulf War Iraq repeatedly attacked Iran with chemical weapons (CW). At the beginning of the war both countries were contracting parties to the Geneva Protocol. According to Iranian statements, the first Iraqi CW attack occurred in January 1981.[1]  One of the first independent news reports appeared in August 1982.[2] Iraq gradually integrated CW into its defensive and offensive military operations.

Initially Iran appears to have been totally unprepared for military operations in a chemical environment. Throughout the war Iranian troops remained poorly protected and, in the light of the missile war against cities, the country would have been unable to protect its civilian population from Iraqi missiles armed with chemical warheads. Although CW accounted for only a small proportion of Iranian battle casualties, the threat and the inability to retaliate in kind against Iraqi population centres contributed to the demoralisation of the Iranian leadership, military personnel and civilians.

As a consequence of the lack of protection, training and awareness of chemical warfare, the early Iraqi CW operations, which included the use of lachrymatory agents, easily broke up the Iranian human wave attacks.[3] After Iraq intensified its CW operations towards the end of 1983 reports continued to point to Iran’s inadequate CW defence preparedness.[4] Iran displayed a remarkable degree of naivete and gullibility. Its selection of gas masks, for instance, proved woefully inadequate. In April 1984 Iran awarded a contract for 5000 respirators to an East German company because of the extremely low price of $12 each. Upon delivery the next month they turned out to be ordinary industrial half-masks with goggles suitable for paint sprayers. Earlier the Iranians had acquired South Korean gas masks, which had a loose fitting and only lasted 15 minutes in the field.[5]  In March 1984, during the first UN mission to investigate the Iranian chemical warfare allegations, the UN specialists noted that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards handled unexploded Iraqi chemical ordinance wearing ordinary domestic rubber gloves and without protective garments (except for a gasmask) and overboots.[6] In 1985–86 an Iranian delegate to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva travelled to several European countries (including Spain) to procure active charcoal in order to develop chemical warfare defences in Iran.[7]

An Iranian minister was quoted in November 1986 as stating that Iran had become self-sufficient in protective equipment against chemical and biological weapons.[8] The statement may have been somewhat optimistic. Decontamination equipment was available in 1984. A new chemical decontamination and anti-chemical bomb system known as Deraksh–6 was unveiled in February 1988. It was manufactured by the Isfahan Construction Jihad.[9] In April 1988, Iran announced that it had started the domestic production of gas masks at the Iran Yasa factories, which operated under Iran’s National Industries Organisation. The main motivation to obtain self-sufficiency was said to be large foreign currency savings: Iran could produce them at one eighth of the price of imported masks.[10] During the April–May 1987 visit of the UN experts an Iranian-made 2-piece protective suit was noted, which appeared to have been made of a type of coated nylon and which was impervious.[11]

Iran’s domestic development of protective measures against chemical weapons

For its medical supplies, such as auto-injectors with antidotes for nerve agents, Iran relied on foreign suppliers.[12] Members of the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) had been equipped with self-injectable atropine and were able to use it immediately after an Iraqi attack with the nerve agent Tabun, thus diminishing the effects of exposure.[13] In their 1986 and 1987 missions the UN experts noted the high standards of medical treatment and improvements in protective measures.[14] Laboratories and medical facilities in Iran had relatively dated equipment. During the visit of the UN experts to the Chemical, Biological and Radiological Department laboratories, located in the Supreme Army Headquarters, Sepaha Corps Basdaran near Tehran on 16 March 1984, the Australian team member noted that ‘the laboratories and their equipment were very similar to those at Materials Research Laboratories [in Australia] in the late 1950s and early 1960s’.[15] While visiting the Biochemical and Biophysics Research Centre at Tehran University on 23 April 1987 as part of the third UN investigative mission he noted the ‘equipment was similar to that common in many western-style laboratories of twenty years ago’. Despite claims about the possession of modern analytical instruments such as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance, no such equipment was shown to the UN investigators.[16]

In the last year of the war Iran was also trying to offer the civilian population some protection against CW attacks. As the so-called ‘war of the cities’ escalated, people in Tehran were reported to begin stocking gas masks in their homes in case the capital might be hit by an Iraqi missile armed with a chemical warhead.[17]



[1]‘A chart of chemical attacks by the Iraqi regime, January 1981–March 1988’, document distributed by the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Brussels, April 1988. See also the ‘Statement by Dr. Ali Akbar Velayati, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran before the Conference of States Parties to the 1925 Geneva Protocol and Other Interested States’, Paris, 7 January 1989. However, the first communication to the United Nations alleging that Iraq CW use was only sent on 3 November 1983. ‘Letter dated 3 November 1983 from the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General’, UN Security Council document S/16128, 7 November 1983.

[2]‘Iraq’s scare tactic’, Newsweek, 2 Aug. 1982, p. 5. The agent used was a lachrymator. US officials then claimed that Iraq did not possess lethal chemical warfare agents.

[3]See note 2.

[4]Letter dated 9 November 1983 from the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General, UN Security Council document S/16140, 10 November 1983.

[5]‘Gas-mask salesmen descend on Gulf’, New Scientist, 26 April 1984, p. 7. ‘Masks unmasked’, New Scientist, 7 June 1984, p. 5.

[6]Dunn, P., Chemical Aspects of the Gulf War 1984-1987: Investigations by the United Nations (Materials Research Laboratories, Defence Science and Technology Organisation: Ascot Vale, Victoria, Australia, November 1987), caption to frontispiece.

[7]Zanders J. P., Private discussion with an Iranian official, 23 November 1999.

[8]‘Iran self-sufficient in equipment to protect against chemical weapons’, Tehran Times, 12 November 1986, p. 3.

[9]Tehran Domestic Service, 3 February 1988 in ‘New chemical decontamination system detailed’, as translated from Persian in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report–Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES), FBIS-NES-88-022, 3 February 1988, p. 54.

[10]Tehran Domestic Service, 28 April 1988 in ‘Local production of gas masks begins’, as translated from Persian in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report–Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES), FBIS-NES-88-082, 28 April 1988, p. 57.

[11]Dunn, P., ‘The chemical war–a personal account, or a further visit to Iran and one to Iraq–1987’, 16 October 1987, p. 21 as reproduced in Dunn, November 1987.

[12]‘Gas-mask salesmen descend on Gulf’, New Scientist, 26 April 1984, p. 7. ASA Newsletter, no. 4 (1987), p. 3.

[13]‘Report of the Specialists Appointed by the Secretary-General to Investigate Allegations by the Islamic Republic of Iran Concerning the Use of Chemical Weapons, UN Security Council document S/16433, 26 March 1994, p. 11.

[14]Dunn, November 1987.

[15]Dunn, P., ‘A journey to Iran–a personal account’, September 1984, p. 15 as reproduced in Dunn, November 1987.

[16]Dunn, November 1987.

[17]Morris, H., ‘Iraq sets a dangerous precedent’, Independent, 2 August 1988, p. 12.

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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.