When It Comes to Chemical Weapons, the U.S. Has a Lot of Explaining to Do

Though our government denounced the recent Syrian attack, during the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. backed Saddam’s use of nerve agents to kill tens of thousands of Iranians.

Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus, August 21, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Aug 27, 2013· 5 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

There is an unbearable familiarity for me in the videos that captured the spastic limbs and lifeless faces of the victims of Syria’s recent chemical attack. I’m reminded of disturbing images I peeked at through my fingers decades ago.

In the 1980s, I was just starting grade school—as small as some of the recent Syrian victims—when my Iranian-American family began going to protests in Southern California to shout our opposition to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons to kill off Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War.

Between the nightly news, photos on picket signs and interviews with survivors and victims’ families that aired on local Iranian-language newscasts, I’ll never forget what it looks like to die the violent, shuddering death that comes with chemical nerve agents, or to be disfigured by gas that fuses skin to bone and blinds.

Well, I won’t forget what it looked like in the moments before a parent would remember to say, “negah nakon!” (“don’t look!” in Farsi), or I’d get scared enough to cover my own eyes without being asked.

In those flashes of awful bloodless carnage, a pacifist was born in me.

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out against the use of “the world’s most heinous weapons” on Monday, I felt a deep agreement with his outrage.

Heinous is right, I thought.

While Kerry accused the Syrian government of having used chemical weapons against its own people, UN inspectors dodged sniper bullets to begin their investigation near Damascus—an urgently necessary truth-finding mission that I wholeheartedly applaud.

But Kerry’s condemnation of Syrian leaders stung, too, when paired with this week’s revelation that under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. supported the use of chemical weapons against Iran, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths during the Iran-Iraq War.

That’s right. Long before Hussein was a declared enemy of the United States, the Iraqi dictator was in bed with American military and intelligence forces in a bloody eight-year war against the Islamic Republic.

Unlike the current debacle in Syria, the perpetrator wasn’t in dispute when the Iraqi dictator used chemical nerve agents and mustard gas against Iranians. The current finger-pointing free-for-all in Syria—where the regime blames rebels and the rebels blame the regime—is shameful in itself.

Iran began alleging Iraqi chemical attacks in 1983, but lacked evidence to make its case at the United Nations prior to the declassification of top-secret reports this week, according to Foreign Policy.

Though the allegiance between Baghdad and Washington was openly known during the Iran-Iraq War, which stretched from 1980 to 1988, American officials always denied they knew the Iraqi despot planned to use chemical weapons in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol and other international agreements.

War is always deadly, but chemical weapons have long been reviled around the world under what the Red Cross calls “an ancient taboo against the use in war of plague and poison.”

Retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the war, told Foreign Policy in the exclusive report, “The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew.”

That means the U.S. was supplying Iraqi military with key movements of the Iranian military to ensure maximum impact of the devastating weapons, according to Foreign Policy.

“We already knew.”

Or, plainly, Iraq pressed the button, but the United States told them where to target the nerve gas.

I wonder if Francona’s sudden admission after years of silence is indicative of an aching conscience.

In 1988, Hussein was so pleased with the American intelligence that helped him pinpoint masses of Iranian soldiers, he invited Francona (then a Major under Col. Walter Patrick Lang) to tour captured Iranian trenches, where “evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons littered the ground in the form of atropine injectors used by desperate Iranians to stave off the horrific effects of nerve gas,” according to David Crist’s book, The Twilight War.

In one day alone, an estimated 1,500 rockets filled with nerve agent fell on Iranian front lines, killing tens of thousands of soldiers, according to Crist, who is a federal historian.

Like me, Francona must have seen some unforgettable sights that day.

And so, almost 30 years ago, while my relatives hid in basements in Tehran or fled to the countryside while Saddam rained SCUD missiles on urban, civilian targets, my life on this side of the world meant frequently attending protests under sunny skies.

My family gathered with hundreds of other Iranian-Americans and Iranian immigrants who had so much faith in American principles and democracy—and sorrow for what was happening to Iranians—that we stood on the lawn of the Federal Building in Los Angeles to ask for the U.S. to act. As hunger strikers sipped tea in tents, we chanted “No More War, We Want Peace” and solicited honks of support from passing cars on Wilshire Boulevard.

Even then I knew there was plenty of enmity to fuel America’s tacit consent for Iraqi war crimes.

Relations between Iran and the United States ended after revolutionaries stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, taking hostages for 444 days. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini routinely called for “Death to America” in speeches. I grew up with the implicit understanding that for many Americans, that awful incident and Khomeini’s vitriol would be the first thing they thought of when I introduced myself as a daughter of Iranians.

Still, I am appalled the U.S. government helped Saddam, a violent madman by all accounts, in those notorious chemical attacks. It’s a shameful departure from the moral high ground this country rightly maintains in so many other facets of my life—my freedoms as a non-religious woman journalist, for starters.

The good news is it’s not too late for the U.S. to do the right thing.

Even if American officials made formal acknowledgment of their role in chemical warfare against Iran tomorrow, they will have done so at lightning speed compared to earlier offenders.

In 1935, fascist Italy launched a chemical weapon campaign against Ethiopia in violation of the Geneva Protocol, killing an estimated 15,000 Ethiopians in more than a dozen attacks, some of which lasted for days.

Ethiopian King Haile Selassie beseeched the League of Nations in 1936 to intervene to stop the Italian aircraft that spread “over vast areas of territory, a fine, death-dealing rain.”

It took until 1996 for the Italian government to admit using chemical weapons against Selassie’s people, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

If history is any indication, the international community can’t afford to wait for Syria, or any nation or political body, to voluntarily take blame for the use of chemical weapons.

So, the question is: how can the United States call on a known despot to come clean about using chemical weapons this month when the greatest superpower in the history of time has swept its involvement in the use of such weapons under the rug for decades?

The United States should set an example for the world, showing that a superpower democracy behaves with transparency and humility, by acknowledging what happened during the Iran-Iraq War. Who knows, it could even serve as a crucial opening volley in the long overdue rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran (I won’t hold my breath, but I’ll hold on to hope that it will happen in my lifetime).

In the meanwhile, I hope it’s not too late to get to the bottom of what happened in Syria.

Today, I hope America chooses not to use military intervention in Syria, especially not before a speedy and thorough investigation on the use of chemical weapons is complete.

Today, international investigators must be allowed to settle the score of history on this fresh hell.

Today in Syria, the people deserve confirmation of this atrocity before any other conversation is had about reactions, military or otherwise.

Because no matter what happens, history was made when the chemical weapon was used, in the dead of night, against civilians near Damascus.

What happens next is the province of tomorrow.