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Dispatch | Iran and Qaddafi: Questions over the 'Chemical Warfare' Connection

by EVAN SIEGEL in New York

28 Nov 2011 23:30Comments
khamenei+qaddafi.jpgClaims that IRI sold Libyan dictator mustard-gas shells require more scrutiny.

[ news analysis ] On November 20, iwatchnews.org, the online publication of the Center for Public Integrity, carried a report titled "Iranian Help Suspected in Secret Libyan Chemical Weapons Arsenal." It is no secret that Libya had a chemical weapons program, as did the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to a Defense Information Agency report (cited in Anthony H. Cordesman and Adam C. Seitz, Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Birth of a Regional Nuclear Arms Race? [Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009], 140), Iran initiated a chemical weapon development program in 1983 "in response to Iraqi use of riot control and toxic chemical agents." In April 1984, the Islamic Republic's U.N. representative, Farhang Rajai-Khorassani stated, ''We are capable of manufacturing chemical weapons. If the Iraqis repeat their crime, we may consider using them. But we think that to resort to retaliation can only be justified when all other means of preventing Iraq are exhausted and still Iraq repeats its crime.'' The next year, the American government, citing its intelligence agencies' monitoring of purchases of chemical components used to make chemical weapons as well as monitored radio transmissions, expressed concern that the Islamic Republic was making a major effort in producing chemical weapons (New York Times, April 25, 1985). During the final year of the war, Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi declared that "sophisticated offensive chemical weapons" and long-range missiles had been deployed along the front. In the estimation of one observer, this was "pure propaganda" (Ronen Bergman, The Secret War with Iran [Free Press, 2008], 304).

It is generally believed that, for all that, Iran did not use chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War. However, a search through the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies leads to two documents from Saddam Hussein's military reporting that concern the Iranian use of chemical agents against Iraqi forces, including in a 1983 attack. One possible explanation for this (hinted at in Jim Davis, "A Biological Warfare Wake-Up Call: Prevalent Myths and Likely Scenarios," in Jim Davis and Barry Schneider, The Gathering Biological Warfare Storm [Praeger Publishers, 2004], 300) is that they represented Iranian forces firing captured Iraqi chemical weapons back at their creators.

It was later alleged that Said Karim Ali Sobhani, an Iranian diplomat in Germany, had arranged the sale to Iran of several hundred tons of Indian-manufactured thionyl choride, a chemical used in making mustard gas (but also many other products, such as batteries, medicines, and pesticides). A U.S. Customs Service investigation in Baltimore uncovered evidence that Sobhani had arranged three shipments in 1987 and 1988 "of other chemicals needed to make mustard gas" (New York Times, June 27, 1989). Even after the war ended, there was a flurry of reports that India and Germany were allowing the sale of chemicals whose sale to Iran (and Iraq) had been banned, since they could be used to build chemical weapons. (New York Times, January 29, 30, June 27, 28, 29, July 1, 6; in one article, the reporter, Ferdinand Protzman helpfully reported that "Iran used mustard gas in its eight-year war with Iraq" and quoted one "Vezarate Defa, an official of the Iranian state import authority." Vezarat-e Defa is Persian for Ministry of Defense.) Ultimately, however, American officials were not impressed by the progress the Islamic Republic had made. "The Iranians are simply not that far along," a U.S. official said. "But getting access to precursors is one of the necessary steps in improving capability. This is enough to make a difference."

This blew over after the German government acceded to American pressure to exercise closer supervision over German companies' exports of dual-use exports. (Germany had just recovered from a scandal over exports of such items to Libya. For detailed reportage on German industries' arming Iraq, see Kenneth Timmerman's The Death Lobby.)

At the same time that Tehran was working with German companies, it also built up a working relationship with an Israeli arms merchant, Nahum Manbar, then based in Poland, according to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman. Manbar met one of the Iranians involved in the Iran-Contra scandal while in Vienna. This led him into highly lucrative contracts for Polish tanks and, eventually, anti-chemical, -radiological, and -biological gear. Deals for mortars and ammunition, which were in the works, fell through. All this was done with the approval of the Israeli government, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz. According to Bergman, in mid-1990, Manbar was introduced by his Iran-Contra connection to Dr. Majid Abbaspour, who was, among other things, at the center of Iran's chemical weapons procurement network. Within months they drew up a contract for over $16 million under which Manbar would supply advanced Israeli know-how in this field for the Iranians. More precisely, he tried to "help [Iran] set up factories for the production of two chemical warfare agents, mustard gas and nerve gas." Yossi Mellman, the historian of Israel's intelligence apparatus, went so far as to say that Manbar was "[o]ne of the largest suppliers for Iran's chemical program." According to Israeli intelligence agencies Shin Bet and Mossad, "Manbar seriously and irreversibly damaged Israel's security, they said, noting he sold Iran equipment and information intended for use in building a mustard and nerve gas factory, probably for use against Israel."

The Obama administration believes that the People's Republic of China, despite having ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, is still exporting materiel to Iran that can be used to make chemical weapons.

Ultimately, in November 1997, the Islamic Republic of Iran ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The iWatch article

The article in question reports that "[o]ne U.S. official said Iran may have sold the shells to Libya after the close of its eight-year war with Iraq." Another official said, "These were acquired over many years." "Iran" is said to have made a hitherto unrevealed "declaration to inspectors" that it made "2500 tons of mustard agent near the end of its war with Iraq." Unspecified Pentagon and CIA analysts asserted that

Iran fired chemical artillery shells at Iraqi troops in 1988, a contention supported by secret Iraqi government documents obtained after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. A 1987 letter, written by Iraq's military intelligence director and stamped "top secret," described three Iranian chemical attacks and sought to assess what appeared to be a growing Iranian interest in mustard agent.

"U.S. officials" have reported that "[t]he Obama administration is investigating whether Iran supplied the Libyan government of Moammar Gadhafi with hundreds of special artillery shells for chemical weapons that Libya kept secret for decades." These shells were filled with mustard gas. It continued that "a senior U.S. official" said "the shells were custom-designed and produced in Iran for Libya."

There are a number of problems will all of this.

What governmental institution declared the country's mustard agents? Why do we only hear about it almost a quarter of a century after the war ended? How does a letter written in 1987 substantiate information about an attack that took place in 1988?

And then there is that report we know of through the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies about a chemical attack dating from 1983. Why are iWatch's reporters reticent on this? Did a 1983 attack strain the authors' credulity but a 1987 attack didn't?

Then there is the question of sources. The author does not even raise the issue of the credibility of documents from Saddam's military intelligence that directly contradict the entirety of the remaining sources. Who are the unnamed Pentagon and CIA analysts and why is there no mention of how their views contradict virtually all other reports on this matter? (More on this below.)

Finally, the author shows no curiosity about how the "senior U.S. official" determined the provenance of the shells found in Libya.

The article continues,

In the late 1990's, the Clinton administration came close to demanding a special inspection of Iran after U.S. intelligence satellites observed trucks bearing artillery shells pulling up to a suspect chemical plant, according to one official.

This was certainly news to me, and I could find no other reference to this alleged event. The author shows no curiosity about why this information has taken a dozen years to emerge. Under the Clinton policy of double containment (containing both Iran and Iraq), there were many charges leveled against the Islamic Republic of Iran. An obvious question is, if the Americans had satellite images of shells loading up at a suspect chemical plant, why was nothing said about the matter? This is particularly surprising since this would have occurred around the time the Iranian government had signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Allegations of Iranian use of chemical weapons

Up to this point, the only allegation about Iranian use of chemical weapons in the war with Iraq which was taken seriously was made by Stephen C. Pelletiere, a critic of American intervention in Iraq. If we were to impugn motives to him, it would seem that he was eager to discredit the claim that Saddam had used chemical weapons against his own people. Indeed, this argument was popularized by fringe elements of the anti-interventionist movement, although the Bush administration latched on to them in an effort to ramp up anti-Iran sentiment. This was challenged, most notably by Joost R. Hiltermann, particularly in his book A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja, which provides a forensic examination in agonizing detail of this horror.


iWatch's slogan is "Investigation. Impact. Integrity." But on Iran, it shows a remarkable lack of interest in investigating the impact on the integrity of the American political process of the flood of money sloshing around between hawkish institutions, the People's Mojahedin, and American military and political leaders. A search for "Mojahed" and "National Council of Resistance" came up empty.

Moreover, its discourse on Iran is unrelievedly mainstream. "Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria" are described as the "terror-linked nations." Another article is cheerfully headlined "U.S. Government Iran Sanctions Working," with no thought given to their impact on the people's daily lives. With the exception of Molly Bingham, who has unorthodox views on the Israel-Palestine conflict and produced a courageous documentary about the Iraqi resistance to the American-led coalition's occupation, and, to an extent, Barbara Slavin, iWatch's reporters do not raise uncomfortable questions.

Postscript: Coming full circle

Now that the Islamic Republic of Iran stands accused by nameless, faceless bureaucrats of supplying Qaddafi's Libya with chemical weapons, we read in an item that appeared on Debka.com, the rightist Israeli rumor site, which has been archived there but is available on allied right-wing websites, that

Tehran threw its support behind the anti-Qaddafi rebels because of this unique opportunity to get hold of the Libyan ruler's stock of poison gas after it fell into opposition hands and arm Hizballah and Hamas with unconventional weapons without Iran being implicated in the transaction.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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