Chemical Wonders

Joost Hiltermann

Predicting what will start a war, and when, is an unrewarding business. Long-term trends (‘causes’) are often clear enough, but not the proximate causes, or triggers. We can assess the comparative significance of competition for resources, hunger for power, the nature of political systems, the psychology of leaders. What precipitates a conflict, though, may be a sudden, unforeseen event: an accident, misreading or miscalculation, or a temperamental leader’s flash of hubris. Often, of course, it is a combination of such things. Yet there is nothing inevitable about the outbreak of conflict. (Bear in mind when I say this that I work for an NGO that operates on the premise that conflicts can be prevented.)

We face the same obstacles in analysing what will bring a war to an end, and how long it will take – or, to put it differently, what would persuade the warring parties to seek to reach peace. Take the war in Syria. Its participants blundered into it, responding to each provocation by their adversaries with an escalation of their own, so that gradually a local popular protest turned into a civil war wrapped up in a regional power struggle folded into a confrontation between superpowers that so far has cost more than a quarter of a million lives and displaced almost 11 million Syrians – about half the population – within and outside the country’s borders. How will it end? How can it be ended, when the participants themselves show no sign of being ready to end it?

The Iran-Iraq War offers as useful a case study as any in how conflicts begin and are brought to an end. The war started in September 1980, when Saddam Hussein, perceiving a significant threat in Iran’s recent Islamic Revolution, sent his troops across the border with the intention of dealing his neighbour a quick and humiliating blow. He was worried that the Islamic Republic’s radical ideology and revolutionary zeal might incite Iraq’s majority Shia population to revolt against his own secular rule. He also sensed a momentary weakness on Iran’s part, as the new regime was busy eliminating its internal enemies. Strategically, he hoped to rein in Iran’s hegemonic pretensions in Iraq and the Gulf, a region with a significant Shia population.

After eight years of war, and hundreds of thousands of dead and injured on both sides, Iran’s younger generation was dangerously depleted, its troops exhausted and its population demoralised. The new republic had also become isolated internationally as a result of the 1979-81 US hostage crisis. By contrast, Iraq, while vulnerable on a number of fronts, was gathering strength with the help of Arab and Western support. Yet the war was brought to an end, and what clinched it, Pierre Razoux argues in his new history of the conflict, was the Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. This made possible a rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow, which the Soviets were eager to achieve, afraid that a defeat for Iran would permit the US to extend its influence in the Gulf. According to Razoux, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed that if the Soviets put pressure on Iran to end the conflict, Washington would persuade Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to facilitate the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The broader point is that no headway can be made in negotiations for peaceful settlement of local conflicts until the international context allows for it. Arguably the war in Syria won’t end without an agreement, or at least an accommodation, between Iran and Saudi Arabia – which, in turn, would have to be facilitated by Russia and the US. It is heartening that, despite their significant differences, both Russia and the US are now sponsoring an inclusive process to end the war in Syria.

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In Iran, the experience of the war still reverberates. A great deal continues to be written about military and strategic decision-making during the war. Yet the Iranian debate, while valuable, is limited. Controlled by the Revolutionary Guard war research centre, it overemphasises military strategy, highlights the heroism of Iranian soldiers, and reflects a very particular perspective, based as it is on a daily record (thirty thousand cassette tapes) of wartime discussions between commanders.

In Iraq, the study of history is hardly a priority now, with its middle class severely damaged by two wars (Iran then the first Gulf War), 13 years of crippling UN sanctions, then the second Gulf War and the mayhem ensuing that continues to this day. What remains of the educated elite is just trying to get by, or trying to leave. US military researchers debriefed Iraqi generals after 2003, but their views are useful only in relation to wartime decision-making and operational matters; some of their more outrageous claims about the regime, or about Iran or the Kurds, went unchallenged by their questioners, who appeared knowledgeable about individual battles but clearly had little or no understanding of the political and historical context in which they took place. The Kurds themselves, who chose Iran as their ally in an attempt to free themselves from the Iraqi yoke and suffered grievously in consequence, have undertaken very little historical inquiry, with the exception of a few autobiographical accounts.

So we have reason to be grateful to Razoux, who between chapters zooms out of the battlefield to focus on the international power struggles and diplomacy that helped shape various confrontations in the war. What emerges is that the mindsets driving state policy in Iran and Iraq today, or the actions of sub-state actors, including Islamic State, are largely rooted in the instincts that propelled the war in the 1980s. The war wasn’t simply a conflict between two states but a clash between two cultural traditions, political philosophies and nations – all intertwined – that transcended state borders: Arab v. Persian, Sunni v. Shia, secular v. theocratic.

Each side drew on its religious traditions in its propaganda, using a coded language that would be clearly understood by the other, and was meant to injure. Saddam had a particular knack for it, referring to the war in its entirety as his ‘Qadisiyyah’ (to invoke the decisive defeat of Persians by Arab Muslim forces in 636 ce), and naming the ballistic missile with which the Iraqi military struck cities as far away as Tehran the al-Hussein, not after himself but after Hussein ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib, the third imam of Shia Islam, who was killed and beheaded by his (Arab Sunni Muslim) rivals in the battle of Karbala in 680.

Battles deriving from the seventh-century schism between Sunni and Shia continue to be waged in the popular imagination. The divide, which concerns lineage more than religious practice (although it has evolved ritual differences as well), is deep, but doesn’t necessarily generate violent intercommunal conflict. There have been long historical periods of peaceful commingling and extensive intermarriage. Politicised by the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, however, it now drives the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. To put the genie back in the bottle will require Iran and Saudi Arabia to find a new balance of power in the Gulf, but even this may no longer be enough to suppress the region’s conflicts.

What emerges in illuminating detail from Razoux’s study is the impact of the power struggle between Ayatollah Khomeini’s two protégés, the men he promoted and protected till the end of his life in June 1989, and left in charge of a house divided by their rivalry: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Hosseini Khamenei. Rafsanjani was the gregarious son of wealthy pistachio farmers, Khamenei the ascetic product of a Shia theological seminary. The war was Rafsanjani’s handiwork, especially after mid-1982, once Iran had succeeded in expelling Iraqi forces from its territory. He continued to press the case for continuing the fight even in the face of the growing realisation that Iran couldn’t sustain it. As the war drew to a conclusion, he made sure that his mentor, Khomeini, took the responsibility for ending it, thereby securing his own political survival.

By contrast, Khamenei alternately supported and opposed continuing the war, making sure never to contradict the Supreme Leader. Razoux may be correct when he says that Rafsanjani made the only mistake of his long political career by allowing Khamenei to succeed Khomeini, giving him the last word on all major decisions. As a result, over time, Rafsanjani has largely been sidelined, though this has done little to temper his ambition or cramp his ability to promote his disciples, including the current president, Hassan Rouhani. They belong to the political wing that, while wanting to preserve the revolution and the regime it produced, sees the value of opening Iran up to the outside world – an approach Khamenei fears will be the beginning of the end.

Razoux gives a good account of Rafsanjani’s push to establish the Revolutionary Guards and Basij volunteers as rivals to the army, which the ruling clerics associated with the shah and the revolution’s secular wing. The use of militias to counteract established state institutions as a way of protecting the Islamic Revolution is a model that Iran is replicating today in Lebanon (Hizbullah), Iraq (the Popular Mobilisation Forces) and Syria (the National Defence Forces). But healthy state institutions would potentially be far more effective in projecting Iran’s power beyond its borders.

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The crisis over Iran’s nuclear aspirations has its origins in the war too. The shah had established the programme under US tutelage; Iran’s revolutionary leaders cancelled it, saying the use of nuclear weapons contradicted the principles of Islam. Once the Iraqi nuclear threat had been removed by the Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor in June 1981, Iran no longer felt the need to pursue a nuclear path. But Iraq’s extensive use of poison gas during the conflict forced Iran’s leaders into a recognition that they had left the country dangerously exposed. (To be clear, both sides repeatedly committed atrocities during the war, targeting civilians at will and, in Iran’s case, dispatching children to the front for suicidal tasks such as minesweeping.)

Iran’s frequent, emphatic remonstrations with the UN, based on its careful reading of international law, were largely ignored. It had, in its view, made rightful, reasonable and responsible appeals to the world’s highest political body and been rebuffed. It was only then that Iran’s revolutionary leaders considered restarting the nuclear programme; they also decided to build up their own arsenal of chemical weapons so as to be able to counter Iraq. (The war ended without Iran having deployed these weapons. Iraq, in addition, had started to develop biological weapons, but at war’s end had only reached the testing stage.)

The deal between Iran and the existing nuclear powers, concluded last year, shouldn’t be seen merely as a political fix to a technical problem. The decision to pursue nuclear weapons is primarily rooted in fear and can only be adequately addressed by a building of trust. In this respect, the US and Iran still have a long way to go. One of the potential obstacles will be the US’s perceptions of Iran’s role in the region, and its support of proxies in Lebanon and Syria in particular. But Iran argues that Western states have no business throwing their weight around in the Middle East, that Western military interventions, rather than solving problems, have created a whole host of new ones, and that the root cause of instability – the failure to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict – remains unaddressed. Moreover, Iran claims it has legitimate security interests in the region, and that Syria is a long-time partner which came to Iran’s aid when its existence was threatened in the 1980s; it is only reasonable, from Tehran’s perspective, that Iran should support the Assad regime now that it finds itself besieged. (What Iran leaves unsaid is that one of its primary motivations is its need for a corridor through Syria to its principal ally, Hizbullah in Lebanon.) As for Iraq, Iran has an abiding interest in seeing a nominally friendly Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, presiding over a weak state in no position to threaten its neighbour.

Finally, Razoux highlights the critical role of oil, which, even if it wasn’t the casus belli, informed the actions of all the key players, Iran and Iraq included, as in their repeated targeting of oil infrastructure and shipping. One way of describing the war in the most basic terms is that it pitted Iran’s vastly greater reservoir of young men against Iraq’s easy access to loans, credit and bank guarantees, which it used to finance its war machine. When Saudi Arabia, prodded by the US, began flooding the market with oil in July 1985, precipitating a dramatic drop in the price to below $10 per barrel, it caused severe financial difficulties in the Soviet Union and Iran, as well as Iraq. Saddam’s backers in Riyadh helped him out with new loans; after the war, the debt added to the pressure on an Iraqi economy struggling to revive itself, eventually resulting in the Kuwait fiasco. But Iran suffered the most, its income reduced by a half or even two thirds in a very short time. This, and the continuing high rate of casualties, resulted in a surge of domestic criticism of the war that could no longer be ignored or appeased. It would still take three years for Iran to sue for peace, and another three for the Soviet Union to collapse, but the US-Saudi manipulation of oil prices may have been a determining factor in both cases.

This part of the story has echoes today, even though the circumstances are quite different. In the face of a falling oil price, in part caused by the extraction of shale oil and gas in the US, Saudi Arabia has refused to reduce output (it argues, reasonably, that others will promptly seize its market share), and this is placing enormous pressure on Russia, Iran and Iraq, as well as Saudi Arabia itself. There is no overt manipulation, but everyone knows that Saudi Arabia – which has built up significant financial reserves and imposed austerity measures – is likely to be in a better position to weather the storm than states which are strapped for cash and may face a reduced capacity to project their power abroad. The longer Saudi Arabia can hold out, the thinking perhaps goes, the harder it will be for the others to maintain their level of engagement in Syria.

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There is another important dimension to the war, to which Razoux doesn’t quite do justice. Some twenty years ago, not long after I began researching Iraq, I noted that Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s had lost not only their lives but also their history. The pervasively repressive Iraqi police state and the mayhem caused by the Iran-Iraq war had made it more difficult to gain access to Iraqi Kurdistan, and more dangerous to stay there. The Iraqi regime’s widespread use of poison gas and the systematic murder of tens of thousands of noncombatants went largely unnoticed, unchallenged and unpunished. At that time, in 1994, not a single serious study of the post-1975 history of the Iraqi Kurds had been published. Moreover, the Kurds’ decision to ally themselves with Iran in the war, which the West castigated because of the Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis, resulted in a bias in Western intelligence reporting on the conflict that is glaringly evident in declassified documents from the time.

The basic facts are straightforward. In 1975, when Saddam and the shah struck a deal over the contested Shatt al-Arab waterway (the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates as they reach the Gulf), Iraqi Kurds, who had fought an insurgency with the shah’s support, were hung out to dry and faced imminent total defeat. The rebels under Mustafa Barzani fled into exile in Iran; their families were deported to camps in southern Iraq. Subsequently, the Kurdish movement split along political, ideological and linguistic/geographical lines, and by the time Saddam started the war with Iran in 1980, the two main factions, under Mustafa’s son Masoud Barzani and his rival Jalal Talabani, were pursuing shifting alliances with neighbouring states, just as the Kurds have often done and still do today, the better to compete with each other. In 1983, Barzani’s fighters served as Iran’s scouts in battles in corners of Iraqi Kurdistan, while Talabani entered into a one-year truce with Saddam; meanwhile, the two groups were fighting each other in the mountains, either directly or through tribal proxies.

Three years later, Iran had managed to convince the two leaders to work together under Tehran’s authority. By opening a front in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran hoped to relieve pressure on its forces in the south, and by early 1987 the strategy had been so effective that Saddam saw the need to mount a counterinsurgency. He appointed his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid as overseer of security operations in the north. In February 1988 the regime launched what it called the Heroic Anfal Operation, a six-month-long campaign in eight numbered stages designed to cover all of rural Kurdistan. Each stage was preceded by the extensive use of chemical weapons against Kurdish strongholds: this drove people out of the countryside and into the arms of the Iraqi military, which dispatched them in convoys to execution sites in the south. It’s estimated that between eighty and one hundred thousand people, most of them civilians, died this way.

In a separate operation, as part of the war, the Iraqi regime attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja with poison gas in March 1988 after it was captured by a combination of Iranian and Kurdish forces. The attack killed thousands of civilians, while leaving the fighters, who had protective clothing, mostly unscathed. (This wasn’t the first Iraqi gas attack on a population centre: that took place in the Iranian Kurdish town of Serdasht in June 1987.) Significantly, the Iraqi army couldn’t have been as successful as it was in dislodging Kurdish villagers, who had grown inured to constant shelling and air attacks, had events at Halabja not sent a powerful message as to what might befall them if they stayed. After Halabja, as chemical clouds wafted down in selective locations during the Anfal campaign, the merest rumour or hint of a gas attack would be enough to send people running, just as the army intended.

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Regrettably, the scarcity of research on the Kurds I observed in 1994 hasn’t markedly improved since. Razoux’s otherwise excellent study is no exception: in these matters his book strays even from the basic facts, including the events and timing of the Anfal campaign. This is quite unnecessary, as access to Iraqi Kurdistan hasn’t been a problem for more than twenty years, and the war generation is alive and there to be interviewed. Yet without a proper understanding of what happened in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1980s and how it has shaped the Kurds’ worldview it’s hard to grasp what drives them today, and what sacrifices they would be willing to make to avoid ever again falling under Baghdad’s rule, regardless of who is in charge (which today, arguably, is nobody). Iraq’s Kurds are engaged in a long struggle for greater autonomy – and ultimately independence – that includes a demand for absolute control of additional territory, including its oil. This struggle is far from settled, and Western states, by providing unquestioned military support to the Kurds in the fight against Islamic State, are aggravating local conflicts that will persist beyond IS’s defeat, should it come to that. What happens in and around Mosul is likely to be of particular importance.

Razoux has a somewhat limited understanding of the extent and significance of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons throughout the conflict, but especially during its final year. Poison gas may, to some, be merely one tool among many to be used on the battlefield, but its psychological impact – the terror it inflicts, especially on civilians, who are usually unprotected – can be enormous, a so-called force multiplier. For Iraq’s military, it was an asymmetrical advantage. Iran’s forces were reaching exhaustion point in early 1988. Knowing this, the Iraqis dropped huge quantities of gas onto Iranian lines on the first day of each of the five stages of the Tawakalna ‘ala Allah operation, a few months after the attack on Halabja. The gas attacks preceded a concerted effort with conventional weapons to drive demoralised troops out of the remaining pockets of Iraqi territory Iran was holding. The gambit was an overwhelming success; little actual fighting was required during these final ‘battles’ of the war.

At the same time, the Iraqi regime had found a diabolic way of eroding Iranians’ morale at home. The ‘war of the cities’ had involved direct missile attacks on Tehran in February 1988, prompting a massive evacuation of its population. Days after the Halabja attack the Iraqi media began broadcasting threats that Iraq would place chemical warheads on its modified Scud missiles, the al-Husseins. Now Iranians fled Tehran in even greater numbers, while its hospitals began preparing for the arrival of large numbers of casualties from chemical strikes. For many Iranians this was a psychological turning point.

In the event, Saddam failed to make good on his threat: he may have realised he didn’t need to. In hindsight it’s clear that the actual and threatened use of chemical weapons proved instrumental in undermining public support of the Iranian war effort, just as it had done wonders in draining the Iraqi Kurdish countryside of a population that had enabled the rebels to move about with ease. The impact of this smart, strategic, depraved use of poison gas is missed by Razoux, as it is by many others writing on the war. This is surprising, in that the significance of the gas attacks wasn’t lost on the international community, which gathered for the Paris Conference on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons immediately after the war; some years later, this led to the adoption of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Iraq’s escalating use of chemical weapons – greater quantities, ever more lethal and diverse agents, and an expanding set of targets reached over larger distances – may have been the precipitating factor in Iran’s decision not to pursue any longer a conflict it had come to acknowledge it couldn’t win. But this alone wasn’t enough to end the war. A combination of structural factors – dwindling oil revenues, international isolation, a decline in recruits to what was essentially a volunteer army, war exhaustion, popular demoralisation, the US engaging Iran in naval battles in the Gulf, and a changing international context with the thaw in the Cold War and the start of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in May 1988 – paved the way for Iran’s obstinate leader finally to bow to reality. To predict what may bring the Syrian civil war to an end, or the war in Yemen, or any other of the world’s current conflicts, will require a close analysis of the key factors influencing the course of events in each case, and of what might be needed to tip that course in the right direction.