Conflict & Justice

Q & A: American inconsistency on chemical weapons, from Saddam to Assad


White House Press Secretary Jay Carney listens to a question during a daily press briefing at the White House on August 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. Carney answered questions about US Secretary of State John Kerry's earlier statement that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was "undeniable."


Brendan Smialowski

Foreign Policy magazine reported on Monday that recently declassified documents reveal the United States gave key intelligence to Saddam Hussein’s military in 1988, enabling Iraq to unleash chemical weapons against Iranian troops. The US was fully aware of Hussein’s plan to use nerve agents, the report indicates.

US officials have long denied their part in the Iraqi chemical attacks, and have insisted that Hussein’s government failed to announce he was going to use the weapons. Retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona — a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes — painted an entirely different portrait when he spoke to Foreign Policy.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,” he told the magazine.

The documents shed light on points of American international relations worth remembering – the US has a long history of shifting alliances in the Middle East, aligning itself with its economic and geo-political interests of the moment. Administrations have for decades been faced with the question of protecting their moral values or their interests in the region.

Reza Marashi is a research director at the National Iranian American Council and former officer of the US Department of State’s Office of Iranian Affairs. Marashi says that while government documents released in 2003 already revealed US complicity in Iraq’s deployment of chemical weapons against Iran, the new documentation is important because of timing – their release comes as the Obama administration is reportedly planning a military response to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, apparently crossing a "red line" he mentioned last year.

Sarah Parvini: What was your initial reaction after reading the Foreign Policy article?

Reza Marashi: The interesting part was new information coming to light, reinforcing what we already knew. The timing was interesting too. This event is a major Iranian grievance, and declassifying the documents has the potential to clear roadblocks between the US and Iran. The timing is quite fortuitous.

SP: How does the release of additional CIA information play into US involvement in Syria?

RM: The issue of hypocrisy and double standards pertains to the foreign policy of many countries, and it can be pointed out in numerous instances. Countries don’t make foreign policy decisions based on cookie-cutter approaches to morals or interests. At some point, you reach a fork in the road where you have to choose, “Are we going to protect our interests or our values?” You can’t have both. The Reagan administration made the decision to protect its interests; the US will have to make that decision again.  

SP: Why are these documents important, if we already knew this happened?

RM: I’m in favor of declassifying documents. I think it's important because in the bigger scheme of things, the more information we have available the more we can a get sense of why the United States makes certain decisions. We need to make sure we are acknowledging all of history as a way of not letting the government off the hook. Knowing our history allows us to better hold the government accountable if mistakes were made.

SP: On a more personal level, what are some of the stories you’ve heard from those in Iran affected by the Iran-Iraq war and the use of gasses like sarin?

RM: This was a seminal experience in the short history of the Islamic Republic. There are no two stories that are alike, but the common thread you hear is that a significant amount of Iranians feel the international community turned their back on Iran. They feel international law is not reliable. This in turn has informed a generation of decision makers in Iran, who think that it’s good to interact with international community, but that you can’t trust them. That is an overarching Iranian prerogative and it's connected to this experience of having a blind eye turned.

That was always the biggest impact for me, seeing how this affected people and their families and seeing the cemeteries of veterans. It’s a sight to see and not in a good way.

SP: How do you see that playing out in today’s politics?

RM: Actually, just [Tuesday] the new president, [Hassan] Rouhani, said publicly that Iran condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria because they suffered similar attacks in Iran. He said the international community should unite against use of chemical weapons. He even posted it on Twitter. It shows the degree of impact this has had on the Iranian psyche. It’s part of Iranian identity. It shapes different people in different ways, but it has shaped just about everybody.

SP: What could this mean for US-Iran relations going forward?

RM: There's going to be two schools of thought in Iran. One will say we should sue the US because they admitted their crimes. Others will say “All right, this confirms what we knew and if we make progress in terms of talking to the US there could be an apology for this.” People in the middle will note this and say, “OK, at best this allows us to stop the hardliners in Iran from using this as an excuse and at worst it confirms what we already knew.” 

SP: How does this affect American credibility ahead of a possible Western strike in Syria? 

RM: This has minimal impact. Releasing these documents isn’t a make-or-break thing. The use of chemical weapons in Syria is what guides our decision-making process, as well as political pressures at home and abroad. Those are the guiding principles. If the US is smart, this is what they’re thinking: It’s much easier to go to Iranians and say, “OK these documents came out and you yourself are against the use of chemical weapons. Let’s go think of a way we can hit Assad.” That's a message that should be conveyed. We haven’t been willing to talk to Iran about Syria, and we should.

Sarah Parvini is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles, Calif. Her work has been featured in various news outlets, including The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The Atlantic, among others.