News and opinions on situation in Iran
18/1/05 Iran’s Nuclear Posture and the Scars of War by Joost R. Hiltermann

January 18, 2005

(Joost R. Hiltermann, Middle East Project director for the International Crisis Group in Amman, is completing a book on chemical weapons use during the Iran-Iraq war and consequences of international silence. He wrote this article in his personal capacity. He can be reached at

In waging war on Iraq, one of the points the Bush administration sought to prove was that President Bill Clinton’s policy of dual containment had failed — that despite a decade of threats, sanctions, military action and UN-led disarmament, Iraq had continued to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Iraq, of course, was not the only target of dual containment. So was neighboring Iran, which likewise was suspected of having secret programs for building weapons of mass destruction and was seen as a destabilizing force hostile to US interests.

If dual containment failed, it is not because Iraq managed to escape from its strictures. Iraq, it turned out, had no WMD in March 2003, and probably did not have any for most of the preceding decade. Dual containment failed because mounting evidence suggests that Iran is the country that has made significant advances in developing non-conventional weapons, so much so that some experts see the country’s emergence as the Middle East’s second nuclear power (after Israel) as likely within two or three years.

It is even likely that Saddam Hussein was so acutely aware of the gathering danger across the border that for purposes of deterrence he kept up the pretense of hiding WMD, while declaring formally — and truthfully — that his arsenal had been dismantled by UN inspectors. The comprehensive report on Iraq’s WMD “program-related activities,” filed on September 30, 2004 by former inspector Charles Duelfer, certainly suggests as much. Iran, too, has issued repeated denials that it is pursuing WMD, demonstrating its innocence by placing its signature beneath all the key multilateral restraints the world has designed to put a brake on the development of such weapons: the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and others.

Following revelations about its clandestine nuclear research in 2002, Iran pledged to allow UN inspections of the research facilities, then denied access to undeclared sites. In October 2003, Iran promised the trio of Britain, France and Germany that it would cease enriching uranium, only to resume enriching it less than a year later. Under another deal with the “European Three,” concluded in November 2004, Tehran again agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, while continuing to insist that any such activity would aim only at a peaceful nuclear program. The most recent deal has held so far, but Iran’s behavior has failed to allay international suspicions, particularly those of the United States.

Whether Iran’s nuclear program is strictly peaceful or intended for military purposes has not yet been established, but the program’s potential is beyond doubt. Why is Iran engaged in this apparently dogged pursuit of WMD concealed by an endless series of dodges, half-truths and quasi-concessions it fails to implement?


To understand the psychology of Iran’s behavior, we have to look back to the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq fought a bloody eight-year war, initiated by a reckless Saddam Hussein, perpetuated futilely by a vengeful Khomeini regime and ending in a stalemate with neither having scored territorial gain but both having suffered staggering losses of life. By conservative estimates, some 400,000 Iraqis and Iranians were killed in the war. What finally compelled the Iranians to sue for peace was Iraq’s escalating resort to ever more lethal chemical weapons as a means of subduing relentless Iranian “human wave” assaults that threatened to overwhelm its heavily fortified positions.

Chemical weapons are first and foremost weapons of terror, causing mass panic instead of inflicting huge casualties. Unequipped and untrained, Iran’s ragtag army of “volunteer” foot soldiers was easy prey for poison gases, which dispatched them in flight. In the final years of the war, Iraq’s chemical bombardment of Kurdish civilian areas, both in Iran and Iraq, and the threat to similarly target Tehran eroded the popular morale that had underpinned the war effort of both Iranian military forces and Iraqi Kurdish insurgents.

Iraq’s non-conventional capabilities exposed a near fatal vulnerability in Iran’s defenses. What was almost worse was that Tehran’s repeated remonstrations with the United Nations fell virtually on deaf ears. For six years, Iranian diplomats wrought ever more sophisticated legal arguments to persuade the UN that it should have an institutional interest in upholding the relevant precepts of international humanitarian law. In particular, the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices,” was directly on point. The UN’s failure to uphold such precepts, the Iranians said, would undermine its credibility and impartiality, while giving rise to a regional arms race.

Not only were Iranian claims of Iraqi chemical weapons use largely ignored at the time, Iran was declared a liar and a hypocrite (not entirely without justification, as both sides committed atrocities during the war). Eventually — adding insult to injury — the chemical charges were turned on the Iranians themselves, even if no convincing evidence of Iranian chemical weapons use was ever produced. The United States, initially neutral in the conflict, increasingly tilted toward Iraq, preferring a drawn-out stalemate between the two belligerents (who thus no longer would pose a threat to either Israel or the West’s access to reasonably priced Gulf oil) or perhaps a victory by a weakened Iraq, but under no circumstances an Iranian one. Yet Iraq’s growing resort to poison gas on the battlefield as well as against civilians became somewhat of an embarrassment to the Reagan administration.


At first, when journalists stood on the verge of exposing Iraq’s wartime use of chemical weapons in the spring of 1984, Washington moved preemptively to condemn the Iraqis, slapping a ban on the export of chemical precursors to both Iraq and Iran. Internal documents show that US officials had been aware of Iraq’s conduct for at least six months. Their condemnation came not a moment too late, because Iraq stood accused of the first recorded use of a nerve agent (tabun) on the battlefield. Then Donald Rumsfeld, President Ronald Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East, undercut this stern message when he traveled to Baghdad to explain that Washington’s position had been merely one of principle. Rumsfeld assured Iraq’s foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, that the Reagan administration’s support for the war against Iran and normalization of relations remained “undiminished.” On November 26, 1984, the Iraqis were rewarded with the resumption of the diplomatic ties that had been severed since the June 1967 war. During Iran’s next “final” offensive, in the spring of 1985, Iraq proved undeterred, deploying more sophisticated chemical weapons delivery systems in countering the enemy.

By 1987, when the Iraqi regime started attacking Kurdish civilians (in both Iran and Iraq) with gas, Iraq’s sponsors in Washington were forced to engage in further damage control. Buoyed by the defeat of their bureaucratic opponents in the Iran-contra scandal, they had stepped up their support of a regime that most agreed was unsavory but saw as a necessary bulwark against the spread of Islamist radicalism in the sensitive Gulf region. They plied the Iraqis with satellite intelligence of Iranian troop movements and encouraged allied Arab states to provide them with military hardware. These measures led the Iraqis to believe that they enjoyed Washington’s benign tolerance of their war effort, whatever the means deployed. The result was more lethal chemical agents, used more massively than before, targeting now also civilian populations. The policy reached its apex with the wholesale gassing of the large Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, an attack in which several thousand civilians perished.

When evidence of civilian chemical casualties first emerged in April 1987, the Reagan administration moved from preemptive condemnation to active disinformation in an effort to diffuse Iraq’s responsibility for waging chemical warfare. By blaming both sides equally, Iraq would effectively be let off the hook. By the fall of 1987, word was out that Iran had begun to respond to Iraqi chemical weapons outrages in kind. Baghdad repeatedly made such claims, and now Washington chimed in. Iran thus had to fight off accusations of perpetrating precisely the kinds of atrocities from which it had always claimed it had refrained out of deference to moral principles rooted in humanity and religion (not to mention that it lagged years behind Iraq in developing these weapons). Whatever voice it had on chemical warfare — the only rhetorical edge it had enjoyed over Iraq in the war — was now drowned out by contrary claims that directly challenged the moral high ground it had professed to be taking. Iran’s own admonitions that it might eventually have no choice but to wage chemical warfare of its own certainly did not help.


Initially, Iraqi claims that Iran was using chemical weapons had no empirical basis, and so they set about creating one. This was simple, since Iraq had a ready supply of chemical casualties of its own. These derived from two sources: gas dispersed incompetently by its own forces, and poorly manufactured, leaking munitions. There is substantial evidence that Iraqi airplanes routinely but unintentionally gassed their own ground forces. These self-inflicted casualties were often due to shifting winds, and they were especially likely to occur along the front lines where both sides’ troops were entrenched in close proximity. The problem became more acute when Iran acquired American Hawk anti-aircraft missiles as part of the Iran-contra deals. Iran’s new missile capability forced Iraqi bombers to fly at much higher altitudes, which greatly enlarged the field of dispersal of the various gases dropped.

A post-war CIA report confirms the blowback problem. In attacking Iranian troops with chemical weapons, the CIA said, Iraq demonstrated “relatively little regard for the safety of Iraq’s own troops who were in or near the chemically contaminated area…. Regardless of Iraq’s rationale, large numbers of Iraq’s own troops were killed or injured during Iraqi chemical attacks.” Iraqi soldiers and pilots, interviewed in Iraq and elsewhere over the past four years, corroborate this conclusion. One pilot asserted that Iraqi planes accidentally bombed their own forces on many occasions with both conventional and chemical weapons. These mistakes, he said, caused many casualties. Moreover, he said, “Saddam Hussein was able to use the Iraqi victims as evidence of Iranian chemical weapons use.”

Iraq’s chemical casualties were served up to visiting UN chemical experts in 1987 and 1988. Although the latter stated they were unable to establish that these were the victims of Iranian gas attacks, the public impression was left that indeed they were; in private conversations in the UN corridors in New York, however, the experts made clear that in their minds these soldiers were victims of Iraq’s careless use of its own chemical munitions.

When Iraqi planes gassed Halabja, the embarrassment potential was such that Washington went into disinformation overdrive. It took a week before the rhetorical counter-attack was ready for public display, but it was spectacularly successful. By suggesting deviously and on the basis of the flimsiest evidence that not only Iraq but also Iran had used gas in Halabja, State Department spokesmen lifted the onus off the Iraqis. Declassified cables show that US diplomats were then instructed to propagate this myth and dodge the “What’s the evidence” question with the stock “Sorry, but that’s classified information” response. They found a receptive audience. After all, why should anyone care? By taking American hostages, sponsoring the bombings and kidnappings carried out by Hizballah, and threatening the Middle East with an Islamic makeover on the Khomeini model, Iran had found itself in the international doghouse. Security Council Resolution 612 (May 3, 1988) condemning the Halabja atrocity came a long two months after the event and cast its disapproval on both governments in equal measure. In the final analysis, the only evidence for the convenient claim that Iran used chemical weapons during the war is that the US government said so. Somehow, this sufficed.

The naked deception over Halabja, received with hosannas in Baghdad, gave the Iraqis the green light they needed to gas the war to an end. In a series of lightning counter-assaults against Iranian troops and Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas they used chemical weapons on the first day of each offensive to terrorize their adversaries, then pummeled the demoralized and retreating forces with tons of conventional munitions. They also threatened to place chemical payloads on the long-range missiles with which they had started bombarding Tehran, prompting a mass evacuation of civilians. Within three months, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini acquiesced to drinking from the “cup of poison,” acknowledging Iran’s inability to carry on and agreeing to a humiliating ceasefire.


Iran and Iraq emerged from the war badly scarred, but to the Iranians the profound feeling of having been virtually alone, and — at least on the chemical weapons issue — of having been right and yet scorned, left perhaps the deepest scar. The young and inexperienced Islamic Republic learned two important lessons from its experience: first, never again allow yourself to be in a position of such strategic vulnerability and second, when you are facing the world’s superpower, multilateral treaties and conventions are worthless. They decided to act on these insights.

It is generally accepted that toward the end of the war Iran had gained the capability to field its own chemical weapons. Parliamentary speaker (and future president) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani declared two months after war’s end that “chemical bombs and biological weapons are poor man’s atomic bombs and can easily be produced. We should at least consider them for our defense…. Although the use of such weapons is inhuman, the war taught us that international laws are only drops of ink on paper.” In the 1990s Iraq was removed as a strategic threat, and Iran became an enthusiastic participant in international negotiations aimed at banning chemical weapons. In due course, after ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, Iran complied with its obligation under the convention to report its possession of chemical weapons, and these were subsequently destroyed under international supervision. Nevertheless, there are persistent suspicions that Iran continues to have an active chemical weapons program.

If the suspicions are correct, the program would be an indisputable legacy of Iraq’s repeated use of gas during the war and the failure of the international community to put an end to it. Moreover, the world’s ability to challenge Iran on any programs it may have today is reduced dramatically by the Iranian perception that it has nothing to protect it from WMD in the hands of a regional power, such as Israel, but its own WMD deterrent. The current standoff over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program is a graphic illustration of the problem.

Where to from here? How the nuclear question plays out will depend in part on how the internal debate unfolds inside Iran. One option that should be given serious consideration is the idea of a “grand bargain,” whereby Iran would give up its nuclear weapons program, cease its military support of Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups, and desist from running interference in Iraq in exchange for international support for its peaceful nuclear industry, guarantees of protection from regime change and other hostile military endeavors, and full reintegration into the community of nations. The Bush administration, whose accusations about Iran’s nuclear weapons program are undermined by its track record of WMD claims in the run-up to the war in Iraq, would be prudent to work toward this goal before the nuclear genie successfully springs its confines.


A footnoted version of this article is available online at:

For background on Iran’s nuclear program, see Kaveh Ehsani and Chris Toensing, “Neo-Conservatives, Hardline Clerics and the Bomb,” in Middle East Report 233 (Winter 2004). To order back issues of Middle East Report or to subscribe, visit MERIP’s home page:

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