The day after the presentation of the report on the Article VII tabletop exercise (TTX) held in Lomé, Togo on 29 and 30 May to the states parties of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) and the BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) ran another TTX in the United Nations building in Geneva. This time the focus was on a series of anthrax outbreaks that affected mostly herd animals, but also led to multiple human casualties. The scenario was a deliberate attempt to break with the habitual simulations of increasingly dire human pandemics. After all, the BTWC covers biological weapon (BW) use against animals and plants too.
Today, in the Palais des Nations in Geneva we presented the report on the Tabletop Exercise (TTX) on the Implementation of Article VII of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) and the BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) organised in cooperation with UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament (UNREC) organised in Lomé, Togo on 28–29 May 2019.
Being one of the more obscure provisions in the BTWC, Article VII only attracted state party attention over the past ten years or so. In follow-up to the decision of the 7th Review Conference (2011), parties to the convention looked for the first time more closely at the provision during the August 2014 Meeting of Experts (MX). As it happened, the gathering coincided with the expanding Ebola crisis in West Africa. The epidemic gave urgency to the concrete implementation of Article VII. The daily images of victims and fully protected medical staff broadcast around the world left lasting impressions of how a biological attack from another state or terrorist entity might affect societies anywhere.
From 17 until 28 June I ran an Executive Course on Export Control at the M. Narikbayev KAZGUU University in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), Kazakhstan. Its goal was twofold. First, it tested in a real university setting parts of a master’s course on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) dual-use technology transfer controls I have been developing since February 2018. Its second purpose was to attract interest in organising the full master’s course from other Central Asian academic institutes.
Was Iran responsible for the CW atrocity in Halabja?
The question therefore arises whether the United States may have been politically motivated to place the main responsibility for Halabja with Iran. The allegation came as Washington was visibly tilting towards Iraq. Soon after the US State Department blamed Iran for the events, US officials were quoted as saying that the finding undermined the propaganda advantage Iran was seeking by publicising the attacks.
From this angle, the US assertion might be viewed as an attempt to undermine the moral high ground regarding chemical warfare Iran desperately tried to maintain during the war. The statement, however, may also have been motivated by politics in the UN Security Council. Since the end of 1987 the United States had been unsuccessfully pressing for a resolution imposing an arms embargo against Iran for refusing a cease-fire. While the permanent members remained divided, an opportunity for unity on the issue presented itself just before the Halabja attack. With Iran in the clear position of the victim of Iraqi violations of international law, the chances for success evaporated fast. Blaming Iran for the attack could then conceivably have been a manoeuvre to save the resolution.
In the period of 16–18 March 1988 Halabja and its surroundings were attacked with chemical weapons (CW). According to Iranian figures, there were 12,500 casualties, including more than 5,500 fatalities. A Kurdish researcher later concluded that at least 3200 residents are known to have died. It is impossible to reconstruct exactly the events in and around Halabja. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that the Iraqi military forces were solely responsible for the attack against a civilian target. Yet, shortly after the events sources in the United States began to hint that Iranian troops might have actually killed the majority of the civilians. The latter version assumes that the Iranians had not occupied Halabja and that the Kurdish inhabitants were killed by a chemical warfare agent that was never in the Iraqi arsenal. Most significantly, it suggests that Iran had achieved an advanced stage of assimilation of CW into its military doctrine.
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), 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 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. One of the first independent news reports appeared in August 1982. 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.
Allegations that Iran is a chemical weapon (CW) proliferator originated in part with claims that it had used CW during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq war. Iraq was the principal user of CW during the war. According to Iranian accounts, the first chemical attacks began in January 1981, but independent reports were not published until one and a half years later. Iraqi chemical attacks definitely escalated during the second half of 1983, which eventually led to the first of several investigatory missions organised by UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuellar in March 1984. Despite the overwhelming evidence of chemical warfare, confirmed by the UN missions, the international community represented by the UN Security Council chose not to brand Iraq as the violator of the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in armed conflict. Instead, it repeatedly called upon both belligerents to respect the protocol and only accused Iraq by name of waging chemical warfare in the final stages of the conflict. Iran—internationally isolated because of its inflammatory rhetoric, subversion of governments in the Middle East, and the hostage taking of US embassy personnel following the 1979 Islamic Revolution—meanwhile felt increasingly frustrated by the lack of will to uphold international law and threatened to resort to CW in retaliation.
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.
Brian Rappert and Chandré Gould, The Dis-Eases of Secrecy: Tracing History, Memory & Justice (Jacana Media: Johannesburg, 2017), 261p.
It took me almost a year to write this book review. There are reasons why. First, the book is not that easy to read. While one can read it linearly (that is one page after another, as one would normally do), it instead invites readers to follow the logic of the argument, which entails dashing back and forwards from one part in the book to another. Second, the insights are profound, and the reader needs to let them sink in. Even in a straightforward linear reading mode, it is simply not possible for one to finish the volume in a couple of hours and claim to have understood the authors’ arguments. And finally, closely linked to the second excuse, while following the trails of various issue threads, I was simultaneously trying to figure out why it is so difficult, if not impossible, to use a country’s past experiences with chemical and biological warfare as a point of departure for education and outreach to prevent the re-emergence of chemical and biological weapons (CBW).