By Greg Thielmann
As the international community seeks to craft an appropriate response to the Syrian government’s August 21 use of chemical weapons (CW), ghosts from the Iran-Iraq War haunt the deliberations. As the late Jonathan B. Tucker observed in his 2006 book, War of Nerves: “The failure of the international community to punish Iraq’s flagrant violations of the 1925 Geneva Protocol had a deeply corrosive effect on the legal, political, and moral norms constraining the spread of chemical arms.”
Advocates of a military response to CW use by the Assad government argue that a military strike would enhance the credibility of U.S. threats to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, those who had been hopeful about improved prospects for negotiating a nuclear settlement with the more moderate government of Iranian President Rouhani fear the diplomatic backlash from a U.S. attack on Iran’s closest ally. So Syrian CW use confronts the United States with an already difficult policy decision, further complicated by its impact on the Iran nuclear issue. Yet there may be a way to make lemonade out of the Syrian lemon.
One of the most powerful lines in Secretary Kerry’s August 30 call to action was the following: “[H]istory would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understandings of decency.”
Of course, turning a blind eye is exactly what the United States did during the eight-year war ensuing from Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980. Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians throughout that conflict, killing tens of thousands. Reminiscent of the latest atrocity from Syria’s military, was the Iraqi military’s March 1988 slaughter of 3,200-5,000 Iraqi citizens with poison gas in the Kurdish town of Halabja in a single day. History now records that massacre as the largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian-populated area in modern times.
In his August 30 speech, Kerry makes an understated reference to Iran having been “a victim of chemical weapons attacks,” and then in an odd non sequitur, argues that failure to respond to Syria would embolden Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. He does not mention U.S. economic and intelligence support during this period for Saddam Hussein, who was the perpetrator of those CW attacks. Nor does he speculate on what impact this historical experience might have on the current views of the new government in Tehran.
I think it is reasonable to assume that the Iranian regime does not credit the United States with any principled opposition to chemical weapons usage. Iran’s Supreme Leader and many of those around him appear convinced that the ultimate U.S. goal of the nuclear negotiations as well as U.S. policies toward Iran’s ally, Syria, is regime change in Iran.
It is therefore dubious that U.S. military strikes against Iran’s ally Syria would necessarily convince Iran to accept greater transparency in its nuclear program. Indeed, Hussein Mousavian, a former nuclear negotiator for Iran, speculates that “a military stirike on Syria could be a spoiler” for efforts by the Rouhani government to overcome the hostility between the United States and Iran.
However, it is also possible, if ironic, that some straight talk about the past could help limit the potential damage to six-power nuclear negotiations with Iran that may otherwise occur as a result of any U.S. military strikes. There would be a number of suitable fora for issuing joint statements reinforcing the international taboo against CW use, including the upcoming meeting of the G20 countries in St. Petersburg and meetings of the UN Security Council following the UN inspectors’ report.
For the United States Government to be willing to expand on the principles laid out in the recent remarks of both Obama and Kerry with an explicit statement about Iran’s experience could be beneficial. Understanding that national governments find it difficult to apologize for anything, a simple U.S. or multilateral statement of “regret” for the world’s silence when Iran was suffering so egregiously from CW attacks could open up new possibilities for U.S.-Iranian diplomatic dialogue.
This would surely resonate emotionally with large segments of the Iranian population, certainly among the estimated 100,000 Iranians still suffering today the effects of CW use more than two decades ago. And the plugged-in generation will see close parallels in Russia’s attempt to blame the Syrian opposition for such use to the U.S. Government’s initial attempt to hold Iran responsible for Halabja.
Even Iranian leadership circles are still deeply affected by Iran’s diplomatic isolation during the Iran-Iraq War, even in the face of Iraq’s massive WMD attacks. Recent evidence that former president Rafsanjani cited CW use by the Syrian government suggests that there may be a more widespread understanding of Assad’s culpability for the August 21 attack than Iran’s official line acknowledges.
Moreover, acknowledging that this shameful tolerance of past CW use by Iraq may have contributed to the willingness of Assad to unleash these heinous weapons in the present would strengthen the credibility of the administration’s very specific justification for a military response. At the very least, it would better position the United States for withstanding the potentially negative effects internationally from whatever military action it ends up taking.
U.S. credibility on the CW issue would also be enhanced by some explicit references to all of those countries that remain outside the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) – especially Syria’s regional neighbors of Israel and Egypt. Blunt talk about how countries standing outside the CWC undermine nonproliferation prospects would also reinforce the justification for taking forceful measures to strengthen international norms. Moreover, this diplomatic tack would be consistent with a good-faith pursuit of the Middle East WMD-Free Zone conference to which the United States agreed at the 2010 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.
Finally, the negative Iranian reaction would also be mitigated by an explicit invitation to the Rouhani government to join the other involved parties to the multilateral negotiations over Syria first proposed by Russia and the United States. Iran is part of the problem; it needs to be part of the solution as well.