Thinking of Halabja Today – 25 Years Later

16 March marks the 25th anniversary of the chemical warfare attacks against the Kurdish town of Halabja. Since the First World War it was one of the few cases wherein chemical weapons (CW) were deliberately used against a civilian target. Human Rights Watch documented over 3,200 deaths and many times that number of other casualties. Since then, thousands more of people have succumbed to their injuries or preventable infections affecting organs damaged by exposure to gas. Many women also suffered extensive genetic damage, thus passing the consequences of the gas attacks down the generations.

The town of Halabja in northeast Iraq has become a modern-age symbol condemning chemical warfare. Together with Ieper, a medieval town in the Belgian province of West Flanders. On 22 April 1915, the day on which scientific research, industrial production and military art finally found each other, German Imperial troops released a chlorine cloud from thousands of canisters buried in the trenches on the northern flank of the Ieper salient. Two years later, in the night of 12–13 July 1917, the town became associated with the first use of a new chemical warfare agent—mustard gas (which the French subsequently called ‘Yperite’). Mustard was also one of Iraq’s agents of choice against both the Iranians and the Iraqi Kurds.

The Iran–Iraq war lasted twice as long as the First World War: from 1980 until 1988. Iraqi use of toxic chemicals against Iranian soldiers was first reported in 1982, but by the end of 1983 press outlets told of widespread usage of mustard gas and tabun, a nerve agent. In April of the next year, a UN team of experts confirmed chemical warfare. From then onwards, Iraqi chemical attacks escalated, reaching a first peak in 1986 in the southern marshes. Two years later Iraqi forces had also assimilated CW for offensive operations and employed them with increasing effectiveness until Iran’s capitulation on 8 August 1988.

Possibly earlier, but definitively from 1987, Saddam Hussein opened a second chemical front against the Iraqi Kurds in the north. Names of towns such as Erbil (Hewlêr in Kurdish) in the north of the country or Penjwin, east of Sulaymaniyah, recurred frequently in interviews I had with Kurdish Peshmergas coming for a break to Belgium. They recounted chemical strikes against agrarian communities in north and east Iraqi Kurdistan. They described how eating the vegetables from their fields poisoned women and children many weeks after a CW attack. Unwittingly, they ingested the mustard agent that had settled on the bottom side of the leaves. The Peshmergas also depicted bombing raids high in the mountains, after which the mustard gas rolled down the mountain sides, penetrating deep into any cave sheltering Kurdish fighters.

About two years later, when listening again to my recordings from 1987, I recognised another town being referred to—Helebce, since then better known in the West as Halabja. The local population had risen up against Saddam Hussein, who brutally crushed the revolt. Half of the city fled to Iran, about 15 kilometres to the east, according to the interview. When Kurdish guerillas fighting alongside Iranian troops ‘liberated’ Halabja on 15 March 1988, supreme vengeance against an insurrectionary town came the next morning in the form of a gas cloud. Attacks were to continue until the 18th. Privately I have always been convinced that the 1987 uprising together with the ‘betrayal’ of the Iraqi Kurds seeking to break Baathist control over northeast Iraq with Iranian help in 1988 provoked the extraordinary escalation of chemical warfare against Kurdish guerillas and civilians alike. From that perspective, Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Kurds through August and September 1988 merely systematised the Halabja method on an even grander scale.

Indelible impressions

A few weeks after the attacks against Halabja, members of the Kurdish community in the Leuven area (where many Iraqi Kurds stayed with relatives and local acquaintances for a breather from combat) took me to the Erasmus hospital in Anderlecht, just outside Brussels. It had accepted four or five victims of chemical warfare for treatment. One was an Iranian soldier badly affected by mustard gas; one was a boy aged around five recovering from the chemical attacks on Halabja; the remainder were farmers from a wide area surrounding the town. Iraqi chemical strikes had neither been limited to 16 March, nor to the town of Halabja, it became clear to me. Joost Hiltermann later confirmed this impression in his detailed study ‘A Poisonous Affair’ (2007).

Two things struck me during that visit. The local Kurdish community treated the young boy as one of their own. He was slowly recovering from a low red blood cell count (possibly from a cyanide breakdown product after tabun exposure), and by the time I visited him he was already sitting up surrounded by pretty expensive toys. Most striking was a large replica with moving wings of an F-14 jet, with which the child was playing most of the time I was there. The treating physician told me of his incomprehension of why the boy had been given so many war-related presents. He also remarked on how the boy winced whenever a commercial jetplane flew over, an observation that added to his puzzlement. Three years later, when I was intensely following developments in the war over Kuwait, my son was both restless and agitated. After asking in a supermarket for a small, but accurate metal model of the A-10 close air support aircraft, which he recognised from TV newscasts, he settled down markedly. It seemed as if by holding the object of his anxiety, he was able to control the source of his angst. The Kurdish boy had definitely seen Saddam’s fighter-bombers up close.

The second lasting impression was how my Kurdish hosts tore me away from the Iranian soldier. He was by far the worst victim of gas exposure in the hospital (he was to die not too long after my visit). His skin looked blackened where white ointment did not fully hide it. Lesions from the vesicles covered parts of his body and his difficult, assisted breathing betrayed internal injuries. A faint, but unforgettable smell of decayed flesh penetrated the dominant odour of disinfectants. He had fallen victim to mustard gas outside of Halabja, possibly being one of the soldiers along whose side the Peshmergas were fighting against Saddam Hussein. The Kurds, however, did not spare a thought for him. This somehow offended my unconscious belief that victims of chemical warfare are all equal. At least, I knew of no such distinctions being drawn between Allied and German gas casualties of the First World War. In Belgium, common cause is against chemical warfare, full stop. And 25 years ago, the suffering in the trenches was all still part of national living memory.

The other face of Halabja

This incident was my first concrete exposure to the deep ethnic, cultural and religious cleavages in the Middle East, difficult to bridge and a perennial source of misunderstanding and hostility. It also shows why Halabja can never be a symbol for Iran’s suffering from CW in the way Ieper does for all chemical warfare during the First World War. For a while Halabja stood for all atrocities committed during Saddam’s reign of terror; the new Iraqi regime now commemorates the Halabja attacks as a national tragedy. Iran widely publicised the gassing in the weeks and months after the air raids. Halabja, however, lay in occupied territory. UN experts could not enter the town without Iraq’s authorisation. Although access to the victims transferred to Iranian hospitals was possible, lack of onsite verification diminished the value of the findings. Moreover, most victims were not Iranians, but Kurds—an ethnic group whose members living inside Iran also suffered from violent oppression by the theocratic rulers.

Iran’s own Halabja is called Sardasht, a municipality without much military significance across the border north of Sulaymaniyah. Saddam’s air force hit the town on 28 June 1987, almost nine months before Halabja. Although initial reports of CW victims were low, it soon emerged that almost three quarters of a population of 12,000 had been exposed to the toxicants. Some 130 people died, most of them civilians. The international press barely noticed this strike on a target with hardly any military significance.

Sardasht emblemised Iran’s predicament. The Islamic revolution of 1979 bought the country few friends. With the hostage taking in the US embassy, pent up anger over Washington’s unwavering support for the Shah’s repressive regime exploded into the open. The new leadership also refused rapprochement to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile it called for Islamic uprisings against the corrupt, autocratic leaders in the Gulf and beyond. When Iraq invaded its neighbour, Saddam Hussein presented himself as the bulwark against Persian territorial designs and Islamic revolutionary fervour. Although the United States and the USSR found themselves on the same side of the war; having lost a major regional ally, Washington nevertheless sought to pry Iraq away from the Soviet sphere of influence. The tide soon turned against Iraq, but the international community could not afford to let it lose the war. Such geostrategic calculations were to clash with international law.

When Saddam Hussein ordered the first chemical attacks, he breached the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Both Iran and Iraq had been party to the agreement for many decades. To Iraq, CW were a force multiplier that arrested the incessant Iranian human wave attacks when it was about to lose the war. National governments expressed their outrage, but the UN Security Council, while condemning the chemical attacks, never specified Iraq as the perpetrator for the duration of the war with Iran.

Countries adopted national sanctions and restricted access to certain chemical warfare agents and their precursors, but, absent a specific designation of responsibility under international law, applied them to both belligerents. The Geneva Protocol did not deny Iran the right to retaliate in kind, but international ‘evenhandedness’ certainly precluded it from achieving a CW capacity before the war’s end. The international stance had its moral merit. This, however, did not apply to the refusal to assist Iran with defensive countermeasures, including gasmasks, decontamination equipment, other types of individual and collective protection or prophylaxis. In 1985–86 an Iranian delegate to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva even had to travel to several European countries (including Spain) to procure active charcoal in order to develop chemical warfare defences in Iran. (I have detailed Iran’s defensive and offensive CW efforts in a study published by the Swedish Defence Research Agency in December 2003.) Often the Iranians were conned, leaving no option for the country to start developing its indigenous capacities—for CW defence as well as offense.

Just like Trotsky concluded after Russia’s capitulation to Germany in 1917, those experiences convinced Iran of the need to overcome technological backwardness in order to survive. They also taught the country that international law does not guarantee international justice, and it harbours deep misgivings about international promises for assistance. Adding insult to injury, 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. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, autarky in all security-related matters drives today’s political leadership. Most Iranian politicians of all persuasions, as well as much of the population, belong to the generation that grew up on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war. War is therefore not necessarily a state of affairs they will seek to avoid in the pursuit of national interests. Nor do international confrontation or the threat of war particularly frighten them. Layer upon layer of fresh economic and political sanctions only confirm convictions that had eight long years to take root in the blood-soaked trenches along the Iran-Iraq border.

Halabja therefore also symbolises the long-term fallacy of short-term interests. It is the one lesson the world does not seem to have learned.

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46 Comments on “Thinking of Halabja Today – 25 Years Later”

  1. Mark says:

    Thank you for the posting this – I was unaware of the backstory to this detail.

  2. Arend Meerburg says:

    Jean-Pascal, an excellent article. When the use of CW by Iraq started, the Iranian delegation in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) kept us well informed, but being the NATO slaves of the USA we were not allowed to seriously condemn the CW use. It was shameful! My only comment: why do you say in the 3rd paragraph that Iran capitulated? The end of that terrible war was more complicated, I think.

    Arend Meerburg, former member of the delegation of The Netherlands to the CD

    • JP Zanders says:

      Arend, thanks for your comments. ‘Capitulation’ in English has more meanings than ‘capitulatie’ in Dutch (formal military surrender). I used it in a more literary sense of ‘give way’; ‘cease to resist’. I actually had Khomeini’s metaphor of ‘having to drink the poisoned chalice’ in mind. I agree with your assessment that the cease-fire was a complicated affair.

  3. Dan Joyner says:

    A truly excellent post, Jean-Pascal. Full of fascinating observations and important insights.

  4. Joseph raji says:

    “Capitulation” means surrender. There is no way Iran surrendered to Iraq. What Iran realized was that the odds were so much against it with world powers support for Iraq with technology and cash from Persian Gulf monarchies, it had no choice but to accept cease_fire.

    Thanks.

  5. Dan Joyner says:

    I just saw this article in the NYT by Vali Nasr (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/18/opinion/why-iran-may-be-ready-to-deal.html). I largely agree with it, with a few exceptions on details. But what really struck me is the similarity of some of Nasr’s observations, to those Jean-Pascal made in this post:

    “Iran’s leaders already suspect that America’s real goal is to overthrow their Islamic republic; at the same time, their citizens bitterly resent the sanctions, and generally support the idea of an Iranian nuclear program. Their leaders remember the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein violated international law by using chemical weapons and was never punished for it. Iran’s leaders concluded that they were vulnerable to aggression by their better-armed Arab neighbors, and that international agreements offered no protection.

    In other words, insecurity drives Iran’s nuclear ambition, and it leaves Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, convinced that if he were to give up Iran’s nuclear program entirely, as Libya did in the last decade, he would only invite the fate of Muammar el-Qaddafi. That logic — if Iran is going to face sanctions anyway, better to face them with the bomb than without — has produced a saying in Tehran these days: “Better to be North Korea than Iraq.” Still, Iran’s leaders and citizens clearly want the sanctions lifted, and they may now be signaling a way out of the deadlock.”

    • Cyrus says:

      The Iranians seem to have concluded that they nuclear talks are theater meant to drag out the standoffi long enough for the US to induce regime change there (and are probably right) but the Iranians do not believe that nukes would provide them with an advantage which is why thety have consistently offered to place additional restrictions and limitations beyond the requirements of the NPT or AP. They are not “now” signalling they want the sanctions lifted – they have demanded this all along.

    • “a saying in Tehran these days: ‘Better to be North Korea than Iraq.'”

      That may be what the people are saying, but I believe the leaders know better. Iran has no use case for nuclear weapons. North Korea really doesn’t either, but it has better use cases than Iran does. For one thing, they may actually have a functional – if undeliverable – nuke, whereas Iran does not and never could before being attacked by the US and certainly Israel.

    • Mohammad says:

      “a saying in Tehran these days: ‘Better to be North Korea than Iraq.’”
      Or, Vali Nasr has claimed so. I am suspicious of the real source of this “saying”, as I’ve only heard that from Western commentators. I don’t have contact with Iranian officials, and Vali Nasr might have heard this from his contacts in Iran, but even if that is the case, I don’t believe that it is such a widespread sentiment as being warranted to be given such prominence in an Op-Ed.

      • There is a persistent insistence that there simply must be officials in Iran that buy this idea of “breakout” as a potential deterrent… though no one can identify who thinks this, and in reality there are several officials stating on the record why even having actual nuclear bombs would not serve Iran’s interests but would instead create greater instability and invite greater hostility. But the claim persists.

  6. yousaf says:

    PM Netanyahu wants to wish all of you a happy 10th anniversary of the Iraq War and sends this video along 😉

  7. Mohammad says:

    Very insightful article by a well-informed author. Thank you.

    The second-to-the-last paragraph is truly a gem, it should be required reading for every single Western policymaker working on Iran matters. As an Iranian having been raised in Iran, and still living here, I confirm that you have accurately captured the prevailing mood here: that we cannot rely on the untrustworthy Western world and international institutions which are dominated by Western powers, no one will help us (as evidenced by past events), international law is only applied selectively, so we have no option but to rely on ourselves and become strong. This is instilled by official statements, schoolbooks and the media and reinforced by the very reality of sanctions and pressure, but I think the fundamental cause of this line of thinking was Saddam’s invasion of Iran and Iran’s loneliness throughout the war (it’s often said here that “the whole world was against us during the war with Iraq” or “we were fighting the whole world”). Iran learned the hard way that it cannot rely on anyone but itself to preserve its basic security, independence and sovereignty. This is very, very significant in explaining Iran’s overall behavior and I cannot stress it enough.

    The paragraph also reminded me of a post by Mark Hibbs over at Arms Control Wonk which described a meeting between the IAEA and Rafsanjani (Iran’s former president and commander-in-chief during the war with Iraq) on nuclear matters, touching on the issue. Excerpt:

    “…Nonetheless, the IAEA’s meeting with Rafsanjani had an extraordinary moment: During the discussion, Rafsanjani at one point became very emotional and nearly broke into tears when he described having witnessed the results of a battlefield poison gas attack on Iranian front soldiers during Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq, ordered by Saddam Hussein. Rafsanjani had described a state of affairs during that war when, after the poison gas attack, and the virtually absent response to it by the rest of the world, as one participant in IAEA-Iran diplomacy related, the very existence of the Iranian state was at stake.

    The first Iraqi chemical weapons attack on Iran was in 1983. My understanding is this: Iraqi chemical attacks provoked Iran to mull how to most effectively respond to such an attack in the future. The world was virtually silent when those attacks on Iran were carried out…”

    • yousaf says:

      Indeed. “Often the Iranians were conned, leaving no option for the country to start developing its indigenous capacities—for CW defence as well as offense.”

      This also applies the assertion that Iran has been sneaky in nuclear matters.

      That may be true, but why has it been sneaky?

      One has to dig a little into the history to find out why.

      The IRI stopped the Shah’s nuclear program in ~1980. In 1983 they went to the IAEA to help set-up a research level facility for U enrichment fuel cycle. The IAEA agreed and was very receptive to the idea. Then the USG intervened politically to stop the IAEA from helping Iran.

      This was documented by Mark Hibbs in the journal “Nuclear Fuel” on August 4, Vol. 28, No. 16; Pg. 12 (2003) — excerpted here:

      http://www.iranaffairs.com/iran_affairs/2007/12/irans-not-so-hi.html

      One can debate whether that was a smart thing or not on the part of the US, but what is beyond question is that it was politically tainting the IAEA. Of course, now under Amano, such politicization is far worse, as documented by wikileaks and expressed by NAM.

      A bigger problem than anything nuclear-related that is going on Iran right now is the politicization and subjectivity — not to mention the technical incompetence noted by Bob Kelley — at the IAEA.

      That is not to excuse questionable things Iran did (and allegedly did) in the past, but, in my view, procedures and documents need to be less political and more technical at the IAEA. A possible consequence of business as usual at the IAEA is loss of faith in, and subsequent collapse of the non-proliferation regime.

      • Actually Iran did not develop “CW offenses” as is claimed. Iran did announce, after years of trying to get world attention to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons (hindered by US interference) that it would develop the chemical agents, and did so however Iran never weaponized those agents. It was a bluff, basically, intended to attract intl attention to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons.

        “Iran did not declare a chemical weapon stockpile, but rather a past production capability.”
        Weapons of Mass Destruction: An Encyclopedia of Worldwide Policy, Technology, and History by Eric A. Croddy, James J. Wirtz and Jeffrey Larsen (Dec 22, 2004) page 95.

        ————

        As for Rafsanjani’s exasperated view of international law:

        “The [Iran-Iraq] war taught us that international laws are only drops of ink on paper.”
        – Rafsanjani, Islamic Republic News. Agency, October 19, 1988

  8. JP Zanders says:

    Cyrus, not to get into another semantic discussion, but a ‘production capacity’ is part of offensive preparations. I personally feel that discussions focus too much on the weapon, and not on the infrastructure, military & civilian personnel (incl. scientists, technicians, etc.) and processes that underly the acquisition or maintenance of such a weapon capacity.

    More to the point, Iran did produce chemical weapons and declared to the OPCW that it had destroyed those before entry into force of the CWC. The lack of precision on when and how Iran destroyed those munitions is a point that occasionally comes up in OPCW meetings. It is also the subject of bilateral consultations (in accordance with Art. IX of the CWC) between the USA and Iran. A snapshot of the dialogue is available from the Wikileaks collection.

    • Mohammad says:

      Not to necessarily disagree with you, but to clarify Iran’s official position according to the WikiLeaks cable you linked to:
      “As it has been stated in initial declaration (1999) Iran
      has produced 20 MT of Sulfur mustard and 4 MT of Nitrogen
      Mustard, and destroyed them all before EIF. Iran does not
      possess any CW as declared in A2 form.

      With regard to munitions it should be stated that the CW agents were never weaponized.”

      • JP Zanders says:

        Thank your for this careful reading and pertinent comment.
        According to Article II of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a CW is defined, together or separately, as
        (a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes;
        (b) Munitions and devices, specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of those toxic chemicals specified in subparagraph (a), which would be released as a result of the employment of such munitions and devices;
        (c) Any equipment specifically designed for use directly in connection with the employment of munitions and devices specified in subparagraph (b).

        Consequently, the term ‘weaponisation’ makes little sense in the chemical (or for that matter, biological) context. ‘Weaponisation’ comes from the nuclear area and is being transposed to other fields without much thought. Furthermore, mustard agent is not a dual-use chemical; it has no other purpose than being a chemical weapon. In the early 1980s, when Saddam Hussein began using the agent, soldiers were pushing oil drums filled with the agent out of helicopters. There are many delivery systems for chemical warfare agents.

        Probably what the Iranian diplomat meant to say is that the volumes of agent produced were stored (and therefore destroyed) in bulk rather than filled into shells or bombs. That, however, does not mean that Iran did not develop or produce and stockpile delivery systems (which, according to the CWC, are also CW even if empty). The volumes mentioned by the diplomat are of the same order of magnitude as the Libyan programme, which also focussed on mustard family of agents.

        As far as I can assess, Iran only manufactured 1st generation chemical weapons (agents used in WW1) and never had an extensive or advanced programme. Whatever its nature, it was offensive (to come back to the orignal comment).

      • Mohammad says:

        Thank you for taking the time for providing such a thorough clarification.

    • Mr Zanders I have no doubt about your point, nevertheless lets remember that this was and remained a “production capability,” developed whilst under actual attack with chemical weapons while the world looked the other way, with the connivance of the US.

  9. Iranian@Iran says:

    The West’s history of dealing with Iran is truely evil. Also, Iran never capitulated to Saddam and his evil backers.

  10. pirouz_2 says:

    This is an amazing post. A very accurate description of those days and an excellent portrayal of the western imperialistic behaviour.

    The points regarding the Western hypocrisy, and the direct role played by western powers in mass murdering civilians have been talked about by others too; however there are two points mentioned in this article, which I find often missing/neglected (or in some cases even denied) in comments regarding Iran-Iraq war:

    1)The Geneva Protocol did not deny Iran the right to retaliate in kind, but international ‘evenhandedness’ certainly precluded it from achieving a CW capacity before the war’s end.
    2)…them with increasing effectiveness until Iran’s capitulation on 8 August 1988.

    These two points very often seem to be neglected or even denied in comments written about or referring to those days.
    I have seen many people commenting that Iran never used CW against Iraq eventhough Iraqies were using it against them so even in self-defence they did not resort to WMDs. Well this is not a very accurate description of the situation. Iran did not have the CW capability before the end of the war!
    Also it is very often being said Iran emerged “victorious” from Iran-Iraq war. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The usage of the word “capitulation” is very much to the point. In fact capitulation is the best word to describe what happened.

    • Iran developed a chemical weapons capability and announced it on national radio.

      • Pirouz_2 says:

        When was it that they made this announcement, before or after 8th of Aug. 1988?

      • JP Zanders says:

        I would also like to see the reference to this announcement on national radio. None of the Iranian diplomats I spoke to over the past 14 years have ever mentioned this. Quite on the contrary, Rafsanjani always hinted at the possibility, but couched his threats to move towards CW production in so many conditions that it was widely percieved as a means to force the international community to act in accordance with the Geneva Protocol. The world’s first evidence that Iran had moved towards CW production came with the CWC declaration on production facilities.

      • Cyrus says:

        It was announced after the end of the war that Iran had developed a chemical weapons capability before the war ended. In fact Iran had been loudly and repeatedly warning before the end of the war, that it could resort chemical weapons if the world didn’t stop Saddam’s chemical attacks. Iran’s representative to the UN explicitly said so openly in 1987. But in any case to say that Iran didn’t use chemical weapons against Iraq simply because it didn’t have the capability to manufacture the stuff is silly since Iran not only imported the precursors (which have civilian applications) but Iran already had a chemical production capability (insecticides,fertilizers, petroleum products etc)

      • I should add that while Iran had started making ambiguous statements about making chemical agents as early as 1984, by 1986 it was saying so officially. In fact none other than Mir-Hosain Musavi, then PM and later to be the head of the so-called “Green Movement” announced this openly in Parliament in 1987 too. So Iran’s 1998 declaration to the OPCW was not really the first time that the world learned of Iran’s chemical program.

  11. Cyrus says:

    By the way, while we’re on the topic, it would be interesting to see if any additional information has been discovered about potential Biological Weapons use during the Iran-Iraq war. There were allegations of “yellow rain” used on Iranian troops, confirmed “with certain proof” by a Dr. Herbert Mandl at the Toxicological Institute in Ghent, Belgium, after tests on several Iranian battlefield victims of Iraqi chemical weapons who had been sent to Vienna and Stockholm. At the time it was assumed that the Soviets had provided the stuff to the Iraqis but subsequently there were reports of German and Japanese connections. The issue just died away.

    Some sources:
    1- TOXINS ARE REPORTED IN IRAN TESTS (NYT); Foreign Desk March 11,
    1984, Sunday Late City Final Edition, Section 1, Page 14
    http://nyti.ms/WGhqkq

    2- http://cns.miis.edu/wmdme/flow/iraq/seed.htm

    • JP Zanders says:

      Dr Mandl is Austrian. He referred to tests done in Belgium. The head of that laboratory was Dr Prof. Aubin Heyndrickx. The latter was involved in a very controversial claim of mycotoxin (yellow rain) use in Southeast Asia because he violated theprinciple of preserving the inegrity of the chain of custody.

      I do not recall a specific assertion by him that Iranians had actually been exposed to mycotoxins, but I do have an original of his report on Halabja (his assistant was one of the first to be on the scene with Medecins sans Frontieres) in which he makes a statement to the effect that no mycotoxins were discovered, but their use by the Iraqis cannot be excluded.

      I also do not recall any other source suggesting mycotoxin use against Iranians that does not contain a reference to Heyndrickx. Please note that Dr Mandl in the NYT item does not claim to have first hand evidence.

      • Very interesting. Has anyone actually checked to see what happened since then? Thank you. Were there any follow-up investigations to determine the issue, one way or another? Along the same lines I was always curious whether “Gulf War Syndrome” was found in the vets of the Iran-Iraq war as with the US vets.

      • JP Zanders says:

        As to your first question, I am not sure what you are referring to. However, if it concerns the follow up to the mycotoxin allegations, few people really took them seriously, so nothing much happened. The author of the allegations was later publicly disgraced, condemned for fraud, and forced to retire from the university for inappropriate advances to students in exchange for exam grades.

        As to your question on GWS, I am not aware of parallels. When I studied the issue while at SIPRI, there were many pointers to anti-CBW medical prevention measures (including vaccination cocktails and pre-treatment tablets against nerve agents), exposure to toxicants such as insect repellents, etc., in combination with extreme stress that facilitated the crossing of the blood/brain barrier by toxic substances. These types of toxicants are unlikely to have been available to the 1980-88 Gulf War belligerents.

        Similar types of symptoms have been found among Western (I know of a case study of Belgian military personnel) in the Former Yugoslavia. Again pointers to preventive measures, but also to industrial toxicants (e.g., soldiers being billeted on polluted industrial.estate). But the claims were also disputed.

    • Cyrus says:

      Thank you for the additional information Mr Zanders however I have to say that whatever disgrace befell the fellow based on his extra-curricular activities is besides the point of whether the allegations of bio weapons use were resolved one way or another. I suppose we will never know for sure now.

      • JP Zanders says:

        Disagree here: it reflects on a fundamental attitude towards truth and methodology, as well as the perception of power to propagate ‘truth’. This has been very clear in other allegations he made, including the use of CW in Angola and machinations to transfer then the most advanced chemical agent monitors to South South Africa, despite global embargo.

        But I agree, it may distract us from the topic of this posting and your specific question. I just wanted offer some context as to why he lost all credibility in the scientific community from the early 1980s onwards.

  12. Pirouz_2 says:

    I had never seen the link that Mr. Zanders provided in an earlier message before, and this part of it was a surprise for me:

    “Sulfur Mustard was stored in Imam Hossein facility since the beginning of its production in September 1987 till the deactivation of that facility in 1988 then the stocks were transferred to Ali Abad facility for safety reasons.

    Even more interesting is the date of the destruction of the chemical agents(given in the same document): February 1991 (ie. the date when Saddam’s war machine was destroyed)

    Now the question becomes *if* the dates given by Iran are accurate, given the fact that Iran never used any chemical weapon –even against Iraqi soldiers- while it was being pounded into a humiliating capitulation with thousands of its civilian citizens (and soldiers) being killed by chemical weapons, then why on earth bother producing the thing to begin with? For bluffing? What sort of bluffing is this, that you are openly threatening your enemy with retaliation in kind, and let alone stopping him, he is using his CW more and more brazenly? And you don’t even show any of your chemical stockpile to any of your enemies’ patrons or to some international body to make your bluff slightly more credible? Then why on earth should you even bother producing it? why not just doing verbal bluff and hope that it would scare Iraqies off?

    More importantly *if* using CWs is such a big “no no” that you would not even use it in self-defense when you are being hammered by CWs into a humiliating submission and if you are producing it just for the sake of a bluff (a bluff which obviously was not working), then why wait until Saddam’s debacle and the destruction of his war machine in Feb 1991 to destroy your own stockpile?

    My feeling is that it is a possibility that Iranians were very hard trying to produce CW towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war, but either they could not produce them in time or at least not in any meaningful quantity to significantly affect the outcome of war. The bitter experience of the war however, had made them not to give up on the idea of a determent (not a bluf but a real determent) and they only gave that up when the enemy was no longer a threat (ie. Feb 1991)

    • I’m not sure what your point is since there were multiple reports by US intelligence agencies before the war ended that claimed Iran had indeed started producing the agents in response to Iraq’s chemical weapons use. In fact there were allegations made by the US of continued CW development in Iran even after it ratified the CWC but. The allegations of continued CW development were never verified, and by 2003 US intelligence sources had backed-off on those claims (in Dec 2008 the OPCW outright denied the allegations & today the US merely asserts that Iran has civilian chemical plants that could make chemical weapons if and when needed… Which is the case for any country with a chemical industry.) Iran delayed the ratification of the CWC in order to wait for the US and Russia to do so first, and there were continued disputes and wrangling over restrictions on the international sale of industrial chemicals etc, which can be seen in Iran’s ratification statement.

    • This is essentially the same situation as Iran’s alleged “nuclear weapons program” pre-2003.

      In essence, as long as Iran is faced with an “existential threat” – whether from Saddam’s nukes or his CW – Iran will reluctantly consider producing an equivalent threat. This fits in with Iranian policy that the survival of the Islamic Republic supercedes everything else, including Islamic law which prohibits such weapons.

      Once said threat is removed – either by the end of the Iran-Iraq war, or the overthrow of Saddam by the US in 2003 – Iran quite logically ceases to do any more development of such weapons and forbids their use.

  13. Pirouz_2 says:

    Cyrus;
    I don’t deny that Iran has destroyed its chemical agents and chemical weapon plants. Nor do I have any suspicion that Iranians are trying to develop chemical weapons in a clandestine way.
    What does not make sense to me is that Iran had a significant stockpile of CW between 1987-1988, a stockpile significant to retaliate against Iraq in kind and change the outcome of the war and they did not do it. It does not match the personality of Mr. Khomeini, nor does it match the personality of Mr. Rafsanjani, “to drink the cup of poison” and not retaliate using CW. Neither one of these gentlemen were Gandhi-like pacifists (FAR FROM IT).
    Nor does it make any sense to me to make all these chemical agents if they thought it was such big sin to use them. Why would they make a stockpile that they are not going to use (even when they are under attack) only to destroy it after Saddam was rendered militarily ineffective? So if they kept it until the danger from Saddam was over, I think that suggests that perhaps usage of CW in self-defense was not such an unthinkable thing in Mr.Khomeini/Mr. Rafsanjani’s calculus. And if it was not such a big “no no”, then I can’t see why they would not use it in self-defense against Iraq in 1988 if they really had them in enough quantities.

    My main concern with the line of argument which claims Iran had the chemical weapons and nontheless did not use it even at the cost loss of territory to Iraq (at the time of Iran’s capitulation to 598 Iraq managed to re-occupy some of Iran’s territories thanks to its usage of CW), portrays a wrong dovish image for Mr. Khomeini and Mr. Rafsanjani.

    • Mohammad says:

      There’s no need to be a Gandhi-like pacifist to fear the unintended political repercussions of a chemical attack, especially if you are a Shia leader and the targeted people are mostly your Shia brethren whom you have consistently portrayed as being unwillingly subdued by the villain Saddam and his Baath Party, and especially if you have previously portrayed the chemical attacks as the ultimate in unjust, unislamic warfare and as the ultimate criteria for bloodthirstiness, and especially if you have consistently portrayed yourself as the plain clear victim.
      Remember that Iran reluctantly entered the War of the Cities, only after its larger cities had come under intense air raids by Iraq. Even then, it portrayed its own retaliatory attacks as exclusively meant to deter further attacks on its cities, and always claimed that it did not want to harm the Iraqi people (it tended to stop such attacks when Iraq did so). In some cases it even publicly announced its missile targets beforehand and advised the Iraqi civilians to leave those cities. Using chemical weapons would totally destroy Iran’s credibility and influence in its foreign and domestic audience.

      The CW preparations might have been intended for potential extreme cases, e.g. had the more populous Iranian cities come under CW attack.

      • pirouz_2 says:

        “There’s no need to be a Gandhi-like pacifist to fear the unintended political repercussions of a chemical attack”
        Well the person of “Gandhi” was not my main point. But when atrocities like Halabja and Sardasht is happening and you are losing Iranian territory because of Saddam’s usage of CW, I would say having the CW and not to use it against Iraqi military when it is not even against Geneva Protocol, is quite high in the scale of passivity.

        “especially if you are a Shia leader and the targeted people are mostly your Shia brethren whom you have consistently portrayed as being unwillingly subdued by the villain Saddam and his Baath Party, and especially if you have previously portrayed the chemical attacks as the ultimate in unjust, unislamic warfare and as the ultimate criteria for bloodthirstiness, and especially if you have consistently portrayed yourself as the plain clear victim.”

        Nonetheless Iranian government explicitly and openly threatened to resort to CWs if Iraqies did not stop using them.

        “Remember that Iran reluctantly entered the War of the Cities, only after its larger cities had come under intense air raids by Iraq.”

        Yes reluctantly, but nonetheless it entered the war of cities didn’t it? Same argument applies to CW. No one is saying that Iranians would be very happy and eager to use CW.

        “Even then, it portrayed its own retaliatory attacks as exclusively meant to deter further attacks on its cities, and always claimed that it did not want to harm the Iraqi people (it tended to stop such attacks when Iraq did so)”

        Precisely. The same argument applies to CW.

        ” In some cases it even publicly announced its missile targets beforehand and advised the Iraqi civilians to leave those cities.”

        Now this part does not make much sense to me. SCUD type missiles have no accuracy. How did Iran manage to “warn” Iraqi civilians before hands? They advised the whole population of Baghdad to leave the city?

        “Using chemical weapons would totally destroy Iran’s credibility and influence in its foreign and domestic audience.”

        And that “influence” and “credibility” helped Iran a great deal in Iran-Iraq war….how?

        According to Mr. Rafsanjani: “The [Iran-Iraq] war taught us that international laws are only drops of ink on paper.”

        Incidentally would using CWs against military targets in retaliation when your own population is being killed by your enemy’s usage of CW and you are losing national territory harm Iran’s “credibility” more than occupying a foreign embassy and taking people with diplomatic immunity as “hostage” and not to release them until one side of the presidential elections in US has won the elections?

        “The CW preparations might have been intended for potential extreme cases, e.g. had the more populous Iranian cities come under CW attack.”

        I would say Halabja and Sardasht were quite extreme enough.

      • Mohammad says:

        I’m not sure if Iran was losing significant national territory because of chemical attacks. After all, at last, Iran was able to regain all of its territory without resorting to CWs, despite Iraq’s use of CWs. Iraq tended to use CWs in cases (like recapturing Fav) when they were trying to regain Iraqi territory captured by Iran.

        Nonetheless Iranian government explicitly and openly threatened to resort to CWs if Iraqies did not stop using them.
        Well I guess there’s a huge difference between making threats and doing things.

        I would say Halabja and Sardasht were quite extreme enough.
        Halabja was not Iranian territory. Sardasht was a small town, and a relatively isolated case of attacking a purely civilian area.

        They advised the whole population of Baghdad to leave the city?
        Yes, I believe so. But it could have been a humanitarian gesture.

        And that “influence” and “credibility” helped Iran a great deal in Iran-Iraq war….how?

        Incidentally would using CWs against military targets in retaliation when your own population is being killed by your enemy’s usage of CW and you are losing national territory harm Iran’s “credibility” more than occupying a foreign embassy and taking people with diplomatic immunity as “hostage” and not to release them until one side of the presidential elections in US has won the elections?

        Iran’s “target audience” has always been its own population and the “Arab street”, not the West. It has always tried to project an image of both being oppressed by and resistant to Western hegemony (which supported Saddam’s invasion), and caring for the plight of ordinary Muslims. Chemical attacks wouldn’t help that cause during the war with Iraq.

  14. […] 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 […]

  15. Rob Lewis says:

    “The second lasting impression was how my Kurdish hosts tore me away from the Iranian soldier.”

    Is it possible, Dr Zanders that your Kurdish hosts minimised contact with the Iranian solider because they were eager to conceal the role and presence of the Pasdaran/Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Iranian army (delete as applicable) inside Halabja prior to the gas attack?

    Also, do you know who facilitated the passage of these victims to the Erasmus hospital?

    • JP Zanders says:

      If my memory serves me well, the soldier was located some 20km outside of Halabja. Together with a farmer, he was the first indication to me that an area much larger the town of Halabja had been attacked with CW. I have no recollection that his military affiliation played any role in the Kurd’s attitude towards him. It struck me much more as a case of community solidarity and maximisation of emotional impact on Belgians (and the Belgian press) through the child victim. The treating physician invited me to return another day for in-depth discussions as he totally objected to the strategy.

      As to your second question, I believe that it followed an Iranian request to have victims from Halabja treated in hospitals abroad. Belgium had accepted victims from previous attacks since 1984, who were all treated in Ghent. This was the first time a hospital in the Brussels area was involved. I do not think that after Halabja any further CW casualties were transferred to Belgium.

      • Rob Lewis says:

        Insightful answers, thank you. I was unware that such a large area had been subject to attack. The extent to which Iranian troops may or may not have been in Halabja in the hours and days leading up to the attack remains unclear to me.


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