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

Two factors definitely contributed to the change in Iran’s views on chemical warfare: the systematic Iraqi attacks with CW from 1983 onwards and the lack of response from the international community for the Iraqi violations of international law. Iran’s chemical weapons (CW) armament programme started late into the war. Such a programme is complex and involves many phases, including research and development, setting up a production base, weaponisation, offensive and defensive doctrine development, establishment of logistics and operational support, training, and protection and defence. Consequently, Iran cannot be expected to have developed an advanced chemical warfare capability before the cease-fire in August 1988. Iraq, in contrast, is known to have embarked on a CW armament programme in the 1970s (although there are earlier indications[1]), but it still required several years of war fighting before it was able to integrate CW in its overall military operations and field a variety of agents.

In the first three years of the war Iran’s acquisition efforts were almost entirely directed towards the purchase on the second-hand or black market of equipment and spare parts for the weapon systems the revolutionary regime had inherited from the Shah. It is therefore not believed that then acquiring a CW capability was a priority, although in the light of the early allegations of Iraqi chemical warfare it cannot be excluded that the option of retaliation was being considered. The scramble for protective gear late in 1983 and early 1984 seems to suggest that if a CW programme existed then it had not yet progressed very far.

Early reports about Iran’s offensive CW preparations

Many Western reports date the start of Iran’s CW programme to the middle of the 1980s. The first suspicions that Iran might be setting up a domestic production programme appeared in the US press around December 1985.[2] William H. Webster, then Director of Central Intelligence, testified to the US Congress in February 1989 that Iran began to produce CW in the mid-1980s and later used them in retaliation against Iraq.[3] According to several accounts, the earliest efforts appear to have involved the importation of chemical munitions from abroad. It may have obtained stocks of lachrymatory CS in this way, but reportedly realised soon that the agent was of limited military value in open spaces.[4] Syria was also quoted as having offered CW to Iran in the summer of 1985, but it is uncertain whether the transaction occurred.[5] US officials stated repeatedly that Iran had acquired a chemical warfare capability and was on the verge of using CW against Iraq. In April 1985 US intelligence sources said that Iran had moved CW stockpiles up to the front in preparation of the next offensive near Basra, but they were unable to confirm whether it had obtained its chemical munitions from Libya (together with Scud missiles) or produced them domestically.[6] Iran promptly denied the claim, citing its observance of the principles and laws of war.[7] Iran was also said to have made limited use of chemical mortar and artillery rounds captured from Iraq.[8] During their investigation in April–May 1987 the UN experts visited Iraq and saw Iraqi casualties who had been exposed to mustard agent and a pulmonary irritant, presumed to be phosgene. While these cases could might be the first concrete indications that Iran was using CW on a small scale, the investigators noted in their report that the cause of exposure could not be established. They expressed considerable doubt about the Iraqi account of events that led to the contamination and implied that the soldiers might have become the victim of Iraqi chemical warfare activities.[9] The UN mission dispatched in April 1988 after the attack on Halabja and an Iraqi allegation that Iran had used CW at the end of March examined some Iraqi casualties from exposure to mustard agent, but the report made no statement regarding the responsibility for the attack.[10]

Overview of principal sources of CW production claims

After the end of the war in August 1988, several fresh allegations of Iranian CW production and employment were made in the United States. One statement in September 1988 said: ‘Iran began to use the nerve gas Tabun in 1984, shortly after it used mustard gas. It began to use Sarin a few years later.’[11] According to the same statement, Iran launched a crash gas weapon production effort in 1983–84, began limited production in 1985, and significantly increased its production capacity for mustard, cyanide, and nerve agents by mid-1987. It was also ‘actively working on mycotoxins’, a biological weapon.[12] This account may have been based in part on Iranian opposition sources, which had published details on locations of alleged CW production plants and research and development programmes in an effort to discredit the moral high ground the Islamic regime was staking out.[13] However, according to several Iranians living abroad, some of these sources are highly suspect and not credible.[14]

Claims and denials

During the Iranian Val Fajr-8 campaign in February 1986 there was a significant escalation of chemical warfare operations and both sides accused each other of using CW. Tehran strongly denied that it was waging chemical warfare, citing its observance of international law and Islamic principles. It explained that in certain parts of the southern front the enemy positions were very close to each other and that Iraqi pilots occasionally dropped chemical ordinance on their own ground forces.[15] Baghdad did not take up the offer to have the second UN inspection team bound for Iran also visit Iraq, so that there is no independent confirmation of the allegations.[16] Several analyses published in the period May–June 1986 agreed that Iran did not appear to have used CW during the first five years of the war.[17] According to the US State Department spokesperson, Iran may have had access to Syrian CW and be able to manufacture such munitions on a small scale, but until then had not used such weapons.[18] In general very few concrete allegations of Iranian chemical warfare operations were made until after the chemical bombardment of Halabja in March 1988 (see below).

Summary of Iranian statements during the war

From 1984 until the end of the war several Iranian officials are on record asserting that Iran has a CW capability, that it can manufacture its own chemical warfare agents and munitions, and that it will use them if required.[19] The first statements were very tentative and almost certainly intended to deter Iraq from escalating its chemical attacks. On 23 March 1984, during the Friday Prayers, Majlis Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani declared that Iran could easily fill its 155 mm shells with toxic chemicals instead of explosives.[20] This was an exaggeration as Iran almost certainly lacked a domestic CW production capability at that time. (It should be furthermore noted that the designs for chemical and conventional shells differ.) He accompanied his statement with a warning that Iran was not committed to chemical warfare, but that he did not know how long it would be able to hold this position.[21] The Iranian delegate to the United Nations, Rajai Khorassam, echoed Rafsanjani two weeks later and clarified that ‘to resort to retaliation can only be justified when all other means of preventing Iraq are exhausted and still Iraq repeats its crime’.[22] One year later this position had remained unchanged: Khorassam threatened to use CW against Iraq if the United Nations failed to stop the Iraqis from using them.[23]

In December 1987, while presenting the government’s new annual budget to the Majlis, Prime Minister Hussein Musavi announced that his country is producing sophisticated offensive CW. He added that Iran would nonetheless observe international law and not use the CW unless it was forced to do so.[24] The statement went beyond the traditional declaration of ‘possessing the capability to manufacture CW’ and was thought to be the first official confirmation that production had actually begun. However, a few days later he retracted the statement, declaring: ‘The Islamic Republic is capable of manufacturing chemical weapons and possesses the technology. But we will produce them only when Islam allows us and when we are compelled to do so’.[25] The production claim apparently originated with IRNA, which was prompted by a report in the Independent from London that Iran was planning to supply Libya with CW in exchange for Scud missiles.[26] This explanation is unsatisfactory since the Independent article was published two days after the press reports on Musavi’s statement. Musavi rectified his statement only three days after his address to the Majlis. It is therefore conceivable that the retraction followed a dispute between proponents and opponents of chemical warfare in the government, during which the previous position of production capability and the conditions for use was confirmed. A parallel statement by Rafsanjani that Iran can circumvent a UN-imposed arms embargo accompanied the retraction, thus taking away a possible motivation—namely, threatening escalation of the war if the UN Security Council adopted a sanctions resolution—for Musavi’s disclosure.[27] Two weeks later, Minister of the Islamic Revolution’s Guards Corps Mohsen Rafiqdust also reiterated the official line,[28] thus signalling that at least on the surface the government was united again.

The Italian weekly Panorama reported in February 1988 that Iran had officially decided to use CW in its planned offensive against Basra, adding that Rafsanjani was behind the idea.[29] Later statements contradicted the claim. Even immediately after the chemical attack against Halabja in March 1988, the Iranian head of War Information, Kamal Kharrazi, said that Iran had not yet taken the political decision to use CW, but might be forced to do so if the UN Security Council took no action.[30] Rafsanjani made similar comments.[31]

While the statements by Iranian officials can be taken as an affirmation of a chemical warfare capability, it should be noted that they were always made conditionally. The two most often cited conditions were Iraq’s continuing violations of international norms regarding chemical warfare and the unwillingness of the international community to uphold these norms. The statements were often accompanied by an expression of hope that Iran would never have to resort to chemical warfare. This reluctance was based in part on Islamic values and in part on a desire to uphold international law.[32]

Assessment

It cannot be excluded that the realities of the war dictated the Iranian position. Probably until well into 1987 Iran had no capability to mount a significant chemical attack. Musavi’s statement to the Iranian parliament in December 1987 that Iran had begun production of CW coincided with moves in the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran for refusing to accept a cease-fire. The remarks may have been designed to deflect this development by threatening to escalate the war or win better terms for the cease-fire.[33] However, as noted above, he retracted his statement. In 1988 there was a significant escalation of strikes with ballistic missiles against cities, in which Iraq was able to launch more missiles than Iran and reach targets as far away as Tehran, and by the late spring the fortunes of war were turning against Iran. Even if Iran was capable of significantly increasing its output of CW, both quantitatively and in terms of types of agents and delivery systems, it could have had no hope of dominating the escalation of the conflict. Quite on the contrary, Iraq was then feared to possess chemical warheads for its ballistic missiles with which it might strike the Iranian capital. In other words, the statements of possession probably testified to the lack of a significant CW capability. They were a (weak) attempt to deter Iraq. In combination with portrayal of Iran as the victim of gross violations of international law, the prime function of the statements was probably to force the international community via the UN Security Council to restrain Iraq in order to prevent an all-out chemical war.[34] Iran’s failure to achieve this goal, which contributed to its acceptance of the cease-fire, had a major impact on its positions while negotiating the Chemical Weapons Convention and until today influences its views in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and in the meetings of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

Sections

Notes

[1]SIPRI, The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare Volume I: The Rise of CB Weapons (Almqvist & Wiksell: Stockholm, 1971), p. 162.

[2]Andrews, W., ‘Iran feared near turning Gulf War into gas war’, Washington Times, 3 December 1985, p. 1.

[3]Statement of the Honorable William H. Webster, Director, Central Intelligence Agency, Before the Committee on Governmental Affairs, Hearings on Global Spread of Chemical and Biological Weapons, 9 February 1989 (unpublished), p. 10. Cordesman and Wagner claim that Iran could produce hydrogen cyanide, phosgene and/or chlorine gas, referring to Webster’s statement. Cordesman, A. H. and Wagner, A. R., The Lessons of Modern War, Volume II: The Iran–Iraq War (West view Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1990), p. 513, note 88. The CIA director makes no such claim in his statement. Webster’s oral testimony is reproduced in Global Spread of Chemical and Biological Weapons, Hearings Before the Committee on Governmental Affairs and Its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, United States Senate (US Government Printing Office: Washington, 1990), pp. 10–28.

[4]Cordesman, A. H. and Wagner, A. R., The Lessons of Modern War, Volume II: The Iran–Iraq War (West view Press: Boulder, Colorado, 1990), p. 512.

[5]Diaz, T., ‘Syria said to have offered chemical weapons to Iran’, Washington Times, 9 December 1985, p. 4.

[6]Beecher, W., ‘US aides say Iran ready to use toxic gas’, Boston Globe, 19 April 1985, p. 1.

[7]IRNA, ‘WIH: Iran not preparing to use chemical weapons’, dispatch, 23 April 1985. Tehran home service, 23 April 1985 in ‘Statement on US propaganda about chemical weapons usage by Iran and Iraq’, BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, ME/7934/A/6, 25 April 1985.

[8]Andrews, 3 December 1985.

[9]‘Report of the Mission Dispatched by the Secretary-General to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Conflict Between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq’, UN Security Council document S/18852, 8 May 1987, pp. 13–16.

[10]‘Report of the Mission Dispatched by the Secretary-General to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Conflict Between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq’, UN Security Council document S/19823, 25 April 1988, pp. 13–16.

[11]‘The Iran–Iraq War: gas warfare and the prospects for the use of nuclear weapons’, paper inserted in the statement by Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), Congressional Record–Senate, 30 September 1988, p. 13805.

[12]‘The Iran–Iraq War …’, 30 September 1988, p. 13805.

[13]Nejat-e Iran (Clandestine), 24 March 1985, as translated from Persian in ‘Clandestine on Iranian chemical weapons factory’ in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report–Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES), FBIS-NES 25 March 1985, p. 19. Nejat-e Iran (Clandestine), 21 April 1985, as translated from Persian in ‘Regime to use chemical weapons in next offensive’ in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report–Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES), FBIS-NES 23 April 1985, p. 15. Nejat-e Iran (Clandestine), 22 May 1985, as translated from Persian in ‘Nejat-e Iran: chemical weapons being produced’ in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report–Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES), FBIS-NES, as reproduced in Current News, Special Edition no. 1312 (US Department of Defense: Washington, DC, 20 June 1985), p. 65. Iran Liberation, as reported in ‘Iran “now producing chemical weapons”’, Jane’s Defence Weekly, vol. 5, no. 22 (7 June 1986), pp. 1024–25. For details on allegations, see proliferation report.

[14]Zanders, J. P., e-mail correspondence with members of the Gulf 2000 list server, 20–21 September 2000. For further details, see proliferation report.

[15]IRNA, 23 February 1986, in English in ‘Prime minister denies use of chemical weapons’ in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report–Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES), 24 February 1986, p. 15. Deutsche Presse Agentur, ‘Iran says chemical arms used’, Philadelphia Inquirer 14 February 1986, p. C21. Fisk, R. ‘Accusations of poison gas attacks in fierce battles south of Basra’, The Times, 14 February 1986. IRNA, ‘Iran denies using chemical bombs’, Tehran Times, 24 February 1986.

[16]Dunn, P., ‘The second mission to Iran–a personal account’, April 1986, p. 2 as reproduced in 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, 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, November 1987.

[17]Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense and Technology International, vol. 1, no. 1 (April 1986), p. 12. Ember, L. R., ‘Worldwide spread of chemical arms receiving increased attention,’ Chemical & Engineering News, 14 April 1986,  pp. 8-16.

[18]Gwertzman, B. ‘U.S. Includes Syria in Chemicals Ban’, New York Times, 6 June 1986, p. 11.

[19]There have been a few instances in which the Iranian press misquoted their officials. Their statements were later corrected. For example, in November 1986 IRNA quoted Minister of the Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps Mohsen Rafiqdust as saying that Iran had become self-sufficient in the production of chemical and biological weapons. The report was corrected the next day: Iran had become self-sufficient in equipment to protect against both types of weapons. ‘Iran self-sufficient in chemical, biological weapons’, Tehran Times, 11 November 1986, p. 2, and ‘Iran self-sufficient in equipment to protect against chemical weapons’, Tehran Times, 12 November 1986, p. 3. See also note 25 below.

[20]Tehran Domestic Radio, 23 March 1984, as translated from Persian in ‘Hashemi-Rafsanjani discusses chemical weapons’ in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report–Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES), FBIS-NES, 26 March 1984, p. 11.

[21]Tehran Domestic Radio, 23 March 1984.

[22]Reuters, ‘Iranian Says His Country Is Able To Make Its Own Chemical Arms’, New York Times, 3 April 1984, p. 12.

[23]Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), ‘Iran–Chemical weapons’, dispatch KT10 from the United Nations, New York, 22 March 1985.

[24]‘Iran declares chemical weapons in production, missiles deployed’, Washington Times, 28 December 1987, p. 10.

[25]AP, ‘Iranians back off claim for weapons’, Washington Times, 31 December 1987, p. 9.

[26]John, R., ‘Iran can get round UN arms embargo, says Rafsanjani’, Financial Times, 31 December 1987, p. 2. The article in question is Hari, S., ‘Iran and Libya in chemical arms for missiles deal’, Independent, 30 December 1987, p. 1.

[27]John, 31 December 1987.

[28]IRNA, 14 January 1988, in English in ‘Rafiqdust on chemical weapons, arms capability’ in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report–Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES), 15 January 1988, p. 52.

[29]As reported by the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), 26 February 1988, in ‘Chemical warfare planned against Basra’, in English in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report–Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES), FBIS-NES-88-039, 29 February 1988.

[30]Reuters, ‘Iran chemical war threat’, Guardian, 24 March 1988, p. 24.

[31]IRNA, 24 April 1988, in English in ‘Majlis Speaker on possible use of toxic gas’, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report–Near East and South Asia (FBIS-NES), FBIS-NES-88-079, 25 April 1988, p. 64

[32]This position was held especially by Imam Ruhollah Khomeini and other religious leaders, but there are indications the military may have been pressing for a CW capability and retaliation against Iraq. Diaz, 9 December 1985 and Morris, H., ‘Iran military wants to use chemical arms’, Independent, 28 December 1987, p. 1.

[33]Washington Times, 28 December 1987, and Morris, 28 December 1987.

[34]A detailed description of Iran’s frustration with the UN Security Council following the March 1988 attack on Halabja is given in Hume, C. R., The United Nations, Iran, and Iraq (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1994), pp. 151–54.

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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.