What Iran Thinks When It Hears “Chemical Weapons”

First off, a quick programming note: I haven’t been able to post as much recently due to a relatively busy writing schedule these last few weeks. As always seems to happen with side projects, real life obligations intervene to draw you away from them. Fortunately, I’ve managed to finish a lot of that work in the last few days and now have the time to resume posting here with more consistency, just in time for the Iranian presidential campaign to start heating up. I’ll get to that at some point in the near future, but today’s post will focus on an event from the recent past.

In Iran, the issue of chemical weapons usage has always been highly personal and emotionally charged. Iranians have a tortured history when it comes to chemical weaponry. They were famously the victims of some of the most atrocious deployments of chemical agents in modern history when Saddam Hussein used them during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Precise estimates of the number of casualties resulting from chemical weapons in the conflict are difficult to determine, but according to a declassified CIA report, chemical weapons accounted for approximately 50,000 casualties during the conflict.

Many of those who survived these attacks have had to live with permanent disabilities in the decades since, in essence becoming living reminders of the costs of the Iran-Iraq War to go along with the memorials to the dead, which,  as I’ve noted previously, are ubiquitous throughout Iran. According to Robin Wright, the sheer quantity of chemical weapon attack survivors currently living in Iran has made it “the world’s largest laboratory for the study of chemical weapons.”

Last week’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun — which, in all probability, was the work of the Syrian regime — has not done much to diminish Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad, but it has put Iranian leaders in the awkward position of having to find a way to justify that support given their nation’s past. One solution they’ve found has been to condemn the attack itself without any specific discussion of responsibility for it. This also provides Iranian leaders with an opportunity to remind the world that Iran was once the victim of chemical weapons, something they very much believe has been forgotten by the international community (more on that in a moment).

Representatives of more conservative and hardline factions went slightly further in their response, looking to cast doubt on the source of the attacks, either by blaming ISIS or other rebel groups or — in the grand tradition of Iranian conspiracy theorizing — suggesting the involvement of a mysterious “third party”, i.e. the West, looking to justify its desire for military intervention against the Assad regime.

All of this must be viewed within the context of the Iran’s longstanding feelings of victimhood in international affairs. There is a belief in Iran today of what might be called a global “amnesia of convenience.” It is the idea that the outside world either denies or has forgotten what Iran has gone through in its recent history. This is especially true in reference to the Iran-Iraq War. The Persian name for the war, for example, is the “Jang-e Tahmili,” which literally translates to “The Imposed War.” Not only was this war forced upon them, but Iran faced the additional challenge of having to fight this war essentially on its own against an array of world powers who lined up to provide arms and intelligence to Saddam’s forces (Iran-Contra notwithstanding).

This feeling extends into the arena of chemical weapons usage and WMD-proliferation, as well. As Steven Ward points out in Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces, “Because of the international community’s general inaction in response to Iraqi use of chemical weapons, the Iranians regularly denigrated international arms control treaties.” Still, despite these denunciations, suspicions surrounding Iran’s own intentions to develop similar weapons linger.

When Saddam deployed his chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s, he did so with the help of the United States, which provided the Iraqi dictator with targeting intelligence in full knowledge that he would use the information to launch a chemical attack. That the United States government has never fully acknowledged their complicity in these attacks, let alone punished anyone for allowing them, has contributed to Iranian accusations of American hypocrisy in the Syrian conflict.

[As an aside: Reports such as this one in Politico that describe the history of chemical weapons in warfare yet fail to even mention Iran-Iraq tend to support the claim that the atrocities of that war have largely been forgotten by the rest of the world. Oddly, however, I think the picture at the top of that article is actually from Iran-Iraq.]

The lingering resentment over the past in Iran remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to U.S.-Iran reconciliation today. Even the Obama Administration, which took a much softer stance on Iran than the current one, struggled to overcome this perception in its negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. Tangentially, it also makes finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict even more difficult than it already is. More missile strikes or an increased American military presence in Syria will do little to convince Iranians that American intentions in the Middle East are anything but nefarious, and will likely only harden their support for the Syrian regime. This is something that no amount of American ordinance will ever be able to bomb out of existence.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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