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.

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