Whether Iran launched chemical weapon (CW) attacks against Iraq during the 1980-88 Gulf War has been the subject of a long-lasting controversy. Iraq was responsible for initiating chemical warfare in the early 1980s in blatant violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting CW use in war (since then, more broadly termed ‘armed conflict’). Negotiations for the Chemical Weapons Convention were ongoing and would not be concluded until September 1992. Nothing in the Geneva Protocol prevented Iran from developing, producing and stockpiling CW. Little stood in its way to retaliate in kind.
The Gulf War also took place in the final decade of the Cold War. Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the hostage-taking of US diplomatic personnel in Tehran, the new regime’s hostility towards and efforts to destabilise the traditional Arab monarchies, and a spate of bombings (in some cases via proxies) against Western targets in the Middle East and beyond all contributed to the country’s deep international isolation. Iraq received not so covert material, logistical and intelligence assistance from the USA, West European countries, the Gulf Arab countries and the Soviet Union in efforts to avoid almost at any cost Iraq’s defeat on the battlefields.
Fake news of yesteryear
Then too, public opinion did not look kindly upon chemical warfare. The backers of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, especially in Western Europe and North America, faced an increasing backlash as Iraq escalated toxic warfare against Iranian military and civilian targets and widened such operations in efforts to stem the Kurdish insurgency. Disinformation – the fake news of yesteryear – played an important role in justifying the ongoing support for the Iraqi regime.
One incident, however, raised eyebrows: shortly after the chemical attack against the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, US officials claimed that Iran rather than Iraq was responsible for the atrocity. It resurfaced several times over the ensuing years, and survives until today, even if only marginally.
An old report
On 7 March 2001 the Washington Office of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) of the Monterey Institute of International Studies invited me as Leader of the Project on Chemical and Biological Warfare at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) to address the issue. Of the presentation entitled ‘Iranian Use of Chemical Weapons: A critical Analysis of Past Allegations’ only a report prepared by CNS staff member Ms Merav Zafary was published online. (A PDF printout can be accessed here; the presentation slides here.)
I had also prepared a background research note for the occasion of which a limited number of hard copies were available for attendees. The note remained what was originally intended: a background document that was never published.
Over the years, book authors, researchers and investigative journalists have contacted me about the CNS presentation and my conclusions. Last week a producer for a forthcoming British TV documentary on the Iran–Iraq war wrote to me querying whether Iran had used CW.
Given the enduring interest in the topic, the contents of the research note, including its endnotes, are now published in five parts on The Trench blog.
A few words of caution, though …
Thirty-one years have passed since the atrocity against Halabja. Much has happened in between. My presentation at CNS took place six months before terrorist attacks against New York and Washington on 11 September. The United States chose to invade Iraq in 2003. If anything, it recovered Iraqi intelligence documents, some of which contain battlefield reports alleging Iranian CW attacks by Iraqi officers. However, even if the veracity of these reports can be ascertained, a few munitions do not make a warfare capacity. A discrete bit of information makes little sense without the context of what Iran’s chemical warfare programme might have been.
My research note draws on the assimilation model, which I designed for my PhD dissertation during the early 1990s and subsequently refined while working at SIPRI. Assimilation of a weapons system or arms category into the mainstream military doctrine follows the reconciliation military and political imperatives that drive the armament dynamic. A detailed explanation of the assimilation model and its terminology can be found here (book chapter) and here (PowerPoint presentation). As the structure of the armament dynamic for a particular arms category follows a general pattern, it becomes possible to place discrete bits of information in the relevant section of the assimilation model. Confirmation of the relevance of that information follows uncovering of other data that the model suggests should be present, which in their turn will also need to be corroborated in a similar fashion. Even in the absence of corroborating evidence, sense can still be made of a weapons programme in a country about which very little information of internal decision-making processes is available. The more recent information from Iraqi intelligence documents may add some texture, but do not yet challenge the conclusions reached in 2001. (In addition, the possibility that in their reports Iraqi officers blamed Iran for their own accidents or improper use of toxic agents cannot be discounted.)
A more important factor that may colour present-day reading of the research note is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the European Union on 14 July 2015. Both at the time when the negotiations were approaching their conclusion and after the signing of the agreement and the commencement of its implementation, those questioning the wisdom of formal arms control arrangements with Tehran revisited the allegations that Iran was violating international law when using CW against Iraqi forces. The Halabja allegation resurfaced as part of the broader argument whether Iran can be trusted to fulfil its commitments and would not seek to deceive the verification regime. People making those points on the whole distrusted arms control and disarmament irrespective of the quality and detail of verification mechanisms or the value of international law and international cooperation. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA and current ratcheting up of rhetoric against Iran fit into this ideological mould.
While opinions – however strongly formulated – may draw attention away from the factual elements formulated in the research document, the point remains that these factual elements remain to be disproved (or reinforced, if possible). Much remains unknown about the Iranian CW programme, more so as Iran only declared CW production facilities under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but no munitions. The discovery in November 2011 of undeclared shells filled with mustard agent in wooden crates with Farsi markings in Libya seven years after the country had become a party to the CWC also indicates that much of Iran’s CW production programme (especially after the war with Iraq) has yet to enter the public domain.
It is with the ambition of stimulating further research and informed debate in mind that I have now decided to publish what once was a background note.
- Preface (Background to the original research note)
- Iran’s CW defensive preparations
- Iran’s CW offensive preparations
- CW use against Halabja
- Conclusion: Was Iran responsible for the CW atrocity in Halabja?
 See, for instance, Eisenstadt, M., ‘What Iran’s Chemical Past Tells Us About Its Nuclear Future’, Research Notes, no. 17 (Washington Institute: Washington, DC, April 2014), p. 3. URL <https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/ResearchNote17_Eisenstadt2.pdf>.