Can Iran, Victim of Chemical Weapons, Help Fix the Syria Crisis?

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Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a session of the Assembly of Experts in Tehran on Sept. 3, 2013

As the U.S. Congress embarks on a testy debate on the merits of punishing the Syrian government for its reported use of chemical weapons, a solution may lie in an unlikely place. Iran’s painful history with chemical weapons — combined with its pivotal position in the Syrian conflict — offers the potential for a diplomatic resolution to a confrontation so far defined almost exclusively in the bloodiest military terms, suggest some analysts who follow Iran closely.

The notion may only be that: an idea fragile and ill suited to survive the jostling of an array of governments with competing agendas and bitter rivalries. Certainly no diplomatic breakthrough appears imminent. And Iran, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad both diplomatically and militarily, has condemned the U.S. even for raising the possibility of strikes. But analysts note that U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to delay U.S. military action against Damascus offers space for alternatives, perhaps in the G-20 summit being hosted this week by Russia, which ranks as Assad’s only other state ally.

As it happens, circumstances are something near ideal for drawing Iran into a diplomatic process. The key is the Islamic Republic’s horrific experience with chemical weapons in its 1980–88 war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s unchecked use of mustard gas, cyanide and other chemical weapons against Iranian front lines left Tehran with both a deep abhorrence of chemical weapons and a deep skepticism of the international community that did nothing to enforce the treaties banning their use. The question, analysts say, is what Iran does with those feelings.

(MORE: Diplomacy With Iran Key to Ending Syria War)

If, as a crucial ally of Assad, Tehran can help coax the Syrian dictator to amend his behavior — perhaps by a dramatic gesture such as surrendering its stockpiles of WMDs to a third party, like Russia — the implications would be immense. Not only would chemical and biological weapons exit the Syrian theater, where combatants include Islamist extremists, but the West would also have an encouraging answer to the question of whether the Iranians, represented by a newly elected leadership, can negotiate in good faith on the question of controlling weapons of mass destruction. (Next topic: Iran’s nuclear program.)

“It does present an opportunity,” says Joost Hiltermann, author of A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja. Hiltermann, who is chief operating officer of the International Crisis Group, a respected research organization based in Brussels, says it’s unclear whether Obama was banking on back-channel diplomacy when he announced he would ask Congress for a vote on whether to strike Assad’s forces. He notes the current pause gives the U.N. investigators time to produce their own findings. “I don’t know,” Hiltermann says. “But the fact is we have some time now, and maybe it is the time to explore the possibility of Iran coming to the table and find a way out of the Syrian imbroglio. With the Russians of course.”

There’s little in the foreground to encourage optimism. Russia’s Foreign Minister on Monday expressed skepticism toward what evidence Washington had shared indicating Assad’s forces were culpable for the Aug. 21 attack, which U.S. intelligence calculated killed more than 1,400 civilians, including hundreds of children. Relations between Moscow and Washington have been fraught of late. But Russia has balanced its relations with Tehran skillfully in the past, both building a nuclear reactor at Bushehr and later joining in the economic sanctions that have paralyzed the Iranian economy in hopes of coercing more transparency on its nuclear program. Russia also canceled a 2007 deal to provide Iran with an advanced S-300 air-defense missile system, the parts for which were recently destroyed rather than being shipped.

Away from the limelight, moreover, close observers noted two visitors to Tehran last week: one was the Sultan of Oman, the Gulf state that has maintained good ties with both the West and Iran and has carried messages between Washington and Tehran in the past. The other was former U.S. diplomat Jeffrey Feltman, traveling in his capacity as a U.N. under secretary. The news website al-Monitor listed both visits among the indicators it considered hopeful, if nuanced signs of possible engagement.

“I think the best country that can be a go-between in all this is Oman,” says Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst who teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “The Omanis could start a shuttle diplomacy and get this all sorted out.”

(MORE: Russia and Iran Warn Against Intervention in Syria)

Iran’s appetite for diplomatic involvement is itself unclear. The newly sworn President, Hassan Rouhani, campaigned on vows to end Iran’s international isolation, and he has offered conciliatory rhetoric since taking office. But more-conservative elements in the government, including the Revolutionary Guard, remain skeptical, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is deeply distrustful of Washington. The divide in the regime is playing out in colorful ways: over the weekend, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — an ally of Rouhani, former Iranian President and current head of the Expediency Council — was quoted as saying in regards to Syria: “The people have been the target of a chemical attack by their own government.” A few hours later, the government news agency removed the reference to “their own government,” bringing the statement into congruence with Iran’s official line that the origin of the chemical attack remains unknown.

Javedanfar says Iranian hard-liners are themselves torn on what to do about Assad. Tempering support for him may undermine Hizballah, the Lebanese militia that Iran founded and continues to sponsor, and which has sent its own fighters to reinforce Assad’s forces. On the other hand, strapped for cash and fearing a possible attack on its own territory, Iran cannot afford an open-ended commitment to Assad, Javendarfar argues. The analyst notes that Iran is also uncomfortable with how viciously sectarian the Syrian conflict has grown. Though a Shi‘ite nation, often cast as the rival of staunchly Sunni Saudi Arabia, Tehran prefers to think of itself as leader of the entire Muslim world. It has long supported Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, which is Sunni. “The worse the situation gets, the stronger the voice of those in Iran who want to reach a deal over Syria,” Javendarfar tells TIME. ” This could happen possibly after a U.S. strike.”

What’s not in question is Iran’s attitude toward chemical weapons. On the Supreme Leader’s Google+ page, Khamenei states that 300,000 Iranians were exposed to poison gases in the Iran-Iraq war. Tehran’s Baqiyatallah Hospital affords researchers from around the world access to thousands of survivors of mustard-gas attacks who receive treatment at its Chemical Warfare Exposure Clinic. On an individual level, people die painful deaths each day from complications of exposure to forbidden compounds Iraqi scientists developed at their leisure. And veterans of the war are the core constituency claimed by the Iranian regime, honored on freeway billboards and massive cemeteries.

On a national level, the gas attacks were seared into the very identity of the Iranian Revolution, understood by outsiders, too narrowly, as the public demonstrations surrounding to the 1979 ouster of the U.S.-backed Shah Rez Pahlavi. In the Iranian memory, the revolution takes in the eight years of war that soon followed, a trauma that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, many lost in the human wave attacks that defined the religious zealotry that so alarmed the West — and which Iraqi generals later told Hiltermann prompted them to resort to “unconventional weapons” because their machine guns were overheating. 

Three decades later, perhaps some good can come of it all. “As the only victims of the use weapons of mass destruction in recent history, we reject the development and use of all of these weapons on ideological as well as strategic grounds,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said after the Syrian attack. Hiltermann notes that Iran was among the first nations to sign the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, despite the indifference displayed by world powers during the Iran-Iraq war. “The only one who helped them was the U.N. Secretary-General at the time, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, who agreed to investigate these claims,” Hiltermann notes. “I have to say the work of the U.N. investigating teams was top-notch, very thorough, very objective.”

That might be one bit of history that turns out to matter, if U.N. investigators end up pointing the finger at Assad. Tehran dismisses U.S. findings as a matter of course. But if a body the Iranians see as credible declare their ally used nerve gas on women and children, the mullahs might be stirred to act.

MORE: Syria’s Assad Regime Prepares for an American Assault

73 comments
AriadneEtienne
AriadneEtienne

What I find most interesting about this conflict is that American Fascists (conservatives to everyone else) think that Obama and Al-Quaida are behind this.  Yes, Washington is, apparently, working with Al-Quaida, if you listen closely to Fox, the "think tanks", and the trashy corporate media.  Then you can dive deep into the events and find out that the American Fascists (conservatives to everyone with sense) are really smoke screening the larger corporatist agenda, who is selling arms to Al-Quaida, and other muslim nations to keep this global jihad moving foward.  War is good for business. 

David Mario M. Ratcliff
David Mario M. Ratcliff

This Muslims hates gays women and rape and marry six year olds Edict by the Koran by Sharia Law to this day. Hate Muslims NOT Christians!

Urb
Urb

The best article written for a peaceful end to this conflict to date. Well done Karl.

Rafolin Idiaz
Rafolin Idiaz

can America equipped with weaponry and blood stained hands help Syria?

Mohammad Reza Mohammadi
Mohammad Reza Mohammadi

We are the victims of chemical weapons ... but have u ever asked yourself " who gave saddam chemical weapons ?!?" ... france ? ... france is now seeking for humam rights in a wasteland of syria !!? ? I think that we'd better work on our country's diplomacy and economic ... the game of syria is going to be over

Justin Blurblur
Justin Blurblur

What more proof do you need that USA is controlled by Sunni Arab Jihadists? They have been using USA to fight Shiites since the Iran-Iraq war. They also used USA to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In return, these Jihadists give you 9/11 as a token of their appreciation for your help in Afghanistan. Shiites did not attack Americans on 911. Sunnis did. And yet USA is still supporting Sunni Jihadists. USA = United Sunni Arabia. Stop demonizing Iranians! Al Qaeda has no need for Osama now because they got Obama to fight their battle against Shiites in Syria.

Justin Blurblur
Justin Blurblur

CONGRATULATIONS AMERICANS! Your President & Senate have decided to join the Jihadists from other 80 countries to Jihad against Assad (who does not condone burning of churches unlike Morsi, the guy your President is endorsing in Egypt). It is very clear that your President & Senators decided to join the jihad after listenting to Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, Sunni's top Islamic scholar, who is urging all Sunni Muslims to jihad against Assad in Syria. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELCAgX_slIc

Andrew 'Andy' Thomas
Andrew 'Andy' Thomas

except when it uses depleted uranium and white phosphorus in places like Fallujah where birth defects are higher that those after Hiroshima

Andrew 'Andy' Thomas
Andrew 'Andy' Thomas

yes, chemical weapon attacks supported by the US with authorisation right the way up to Reagan as documents disclosed this fortnight demonstrate. Handed the Iraqi's troop movements so they could gas them on multiple occasions, where was the red line then?!

Iuɐpnoɾɐ ɐɹsɐʞ
Iuɐpnoɾɐ ɐɹsɐʞ

The recent abhorrent developments in Syria once again highlight the fundamental legal, political and moral question on the utility and effectiveness of the use or threat of force to advance humanitarian causes or even national policies. This has been a constant intellectual and practical concern for me over the past three decades. A few thoughts on the current issue and wider implications: 1- Any use of chemical weapons must be condemned, regardless of its victims or culprits. This is Iran's unambiguous position as a victim of chemical warfare. But has it always been the position of those who are now talking about punishing their presumed culprit? How did they react when civilians in Iran and Iraq were victims of independently established massive and systematic use of advanced chemical weapons by their then-friend Saddam Hussein? So, it is prudent to take their assertions at face value now, particularly since the circumstances and available evidence indicate the likelihood of the use of chemical agents by extremist groups. 2-Violence, repression, killing and extremism are repugnant crimes and every actor with influence in Syria must compel the parties to come to the negotiating table. But is a threat to use force the solution? Or does it represent the paradigm and the mentality that have helped to create this humanitarian tragedy and political catastrophe? 3- Are all options really on the table as the US president repeatedly declares? Is every nation with military might allowed to resort to war or constantly threaten to do so against one or another adversary? Isn't the inadmissibility of resort to force or threat of force a peremptory norm of international law? Is there any place for international law and the UN Charter at least in words if not deeds? 4- Can one violate a peremptory norm of international law in order to punish - taking the claim at face value - a violation of law or even a crime? 5- Why in fact has the UN Charter -- and other sources of international law dating back to the 1928 Paris Accord - have prohibited the use or threat of force? Is this a wishful idealism of a bunch of lawyers? Or is it in fact a legal reflection of a political reality? In other words, is war a useful instrument to advance foreign policy or humanitarian responsibilities in the 20th and 21st centuries? Or have war and the use of force been prohibited because they lost their practical utility? 6-Have those who maintain "all options on the table" noticed what these options have brought them and others in the past 100 years? Have they examined empirical evidence of the outcome of wars in the 20th and 21st century, all of which were initiated by those who were assured that their military might will lead to "shock and awe" and a quick victory? Have they not examined the fact that initiators of wars were totally annihilated or failed to achieve their objectives in 85% of the cases? and ... Let us hope that we can avert another catastrophic adventurism.

Ibrahim Mayya
Ibrahim Mayya

I wanna see the B-2 on fire ... USA wants to bomb Syria, we'll be happy to send your soldiers and bombers to hell

Robert Bain
Robert Bain

Iran is the reason we want Syria. They are next.

Levan Shanava
Levan Shanava

come on guys! I wanna see those gorgeous B-2 stealth bombers in action. Seriously now, who do you think provided Syria with chemical weapons? It was either him or Ahmedinejad

Luis Hewitt
Luis Hewitt

hi!! I was thinking on this thing about the war on syria!! and a made this map bellow... and .. it is about the thing I read on the Satanic Verses from Salman Rushdie .. on the book are 3 little historis and on one of this historys the writer tells somthin about a girl who ear somthing from the sky ear one guy call's gibril the guy invite her to cross an ocen to go to the MECA but she have to convence the rest of the people from the town, but end the end all the people desapears on the ocean!! and those who not are convince to go with her .. observe all this all the people walking to the ocean just.. observe how all the people banish and that is all.. so my idea is this!, it is waht happend right now there is no place to cross cuz this gibril is those thing I put on the map!!! and for an inglish it is impossible cross from one side to the other... for me it is the only way to "built a Bridge"!!

Nana Hd
Nana Hd

america wants to control middleeast by supporting isreal

Tony McGrath
Tony McGrath

This really puts a refreshing perspective on the reasons behind Iranian distrust of the West. 300,000 Iranians were exposed to poison gases in the Iran-Iraq war and no western power threatened Iraq with anything and even supplied his armaments. Maybe there is hope from the Muslim world to bring peace to Syria.

Islam Essam
Islam Essam

if USA and the world want to bomb syria for using chemical weapons then we will support them only if they bombed Israel for using chemical weapons in Gaza , bombed america for using chemical weapons in fallujah and vietnam and for using Nuks on japan

Zehra Jafri
Zehra Jafri

Invading other countries is also against intl law

Zehra Jafri
Zehra Jafri

How come your article doesnt mention the number of iranians killed by saddam hussains chemical attack, who was given the weapons by the CIA? Fyi 20,000 iranians were gassed and killed. Where was the outcry? Now compare that to Syria, which is so obviously staged

Etel Dias
Etel Dias

Usa is not on the same side as al queda...it just happens thst the US is trying to stand on the side of victoms and on the side of comdemning the proliferation and use of chemical warfare which is against international law

Sunil Pradhan
Sunil Pradhan

actually the whole crisis is around IRAN as its supporting SYRIA. USA & ISRAEL ultimately wants IRAN under his control may be bit of a ego problem with US

Jon Sacedon
Jon Sacedon

yee iran can help,,, sniff em off ..

Zehra Jafri
Zehra Jafri

Yes they can if diplomacy is given a chance. Bombing and killing more people wont solve anything, especially if the usa is on the same side as al qaeda!

Matthew Bessell
Matthew Bessell

Chemical weapons purchased from USA funding! Thanks Mr. Rumsfeld!

Larry L. Cunningham
Larry L. Cunningham

I would sure give it a try ..... before I set blew wind on the fires of the Middle East!

applefellup
applefellup

America needs to join Israel to knock out both Iran and Syria!!!


If America follows Israel's lead our wars will be blessed. Maybe they will even bring Moshiach!!!


Kahana Chai!!!

mikevolze
mikevolze

You would think that Iran would be willing to help out and put those responsible for justice.  But people don't understand that that's not how the Mullahs work.  In their eyes, killing the enemy through any means necessary is justified, be it with bullets, bombs, gas, or a short rope with a long drop.  Iran is not the solution here as they still brutally and publicly execute first time offenders for things as simple as a drug conviction.  Please, drop trying to get the Mad Mullahs involved and start trying to find a solution for the problem of Iran, and I think that'll lead to a solution for Syria.


http://mullahproblems.wordpress.com

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

This is an excellent analysis. Clearly, a huge opportunity for the West to induct Iran into Middle east peace. Iran is a mature nation with excellent minds capable of some enlightened policies. Iran should and must be invited to help in Syria and the new regime offers an excellent opportunity

shalchia
shalchia

The point is, Iran is as guilty in this mess as the US and the Arab world who supported the rebels. This is a historical opportunity that they can seize, to sit at the negotiation table and solve this problem. Iran as the biggest victim of the chemical weapons and the main ally of Assad can play a key role, and this can prevent further disaster. It`s a good sign though that everyday you see more people convinced that this is the best way to end this conflict. On the other hand Iran should come to his senses and stop supporting Assad unconditionally. Iran should initiate action in removing Assad`s chemical stockpile. And it`s to us to pressure them and support them in doing so. The US should know that what is at stake is not Us credibility, its the lives of thousands of Syrian innocent civilians.

RobertAnnable
RobertAnnable

Memos came out last week showing how the US supported Saddam using chemical weapons against the Iranians and there is considerable evidence that Saddam's chemical weapons came from the US.

mrxexon
mrxexon

@applefellup 

 You can take your zionist warmongeringand stuff it in the proper orifice. 

Israel wants to start something, be my guest. But don't come crying to the US when you get in over your head. And you will. Quickly.

 This is NOT our fight. 

mikevolze
mikevolze

@sridhar.sid Iran is none of those things.  Their preferred method of execution is hanging, via crane.  For first time offenders on drug related charges.  They are neither enlightened or mature.

mikevolze
mikevolze

@shalchia They were one of the largest victims in the 20th century, yet they still support a regime that gassed their own people?  How messed up is that?