Iran’s Hand in Chemical Attacks by Assad’s Syrian Regime

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A recent string of chemical attacks across Syria, “unequivocally proved” by an independent investigation commissioned by Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, may have involved toxic gases “provided by Iranian military planners to the Assad regime,” the Syrian National Coalition has claimed

Middle East expert Con Coughlin has corroborated this charge, citing “growing suspicions that the Chinese-made chlorine gas canisters used against the Syrian rebels have been supplied by Iran, which recently placed an order to purchase 10,000 chlorine canisters.”

Although these allegations have yet to be verified conclusively, Tehran’s historical fondness for chemical warfare, and its longstanding commitment to the political survival of Bashar al-Assad at all costs, render them more than superficially plausible.

The late Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini first authorised the acquisition and use of chemical weapons in 1987, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq War. By December of that year, Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi announced to the Majlis (Iranian parliament) that “sophisticated offensive chemical weapons” were in production. Soon afterwards, these weapons were deployed on the battlefield against Iraqi troops.

It was not until 1998, however, that Iranian officials publicly acknowledged their wartime chemical weapons project, although they insisted that all aspects of the programme had been terminated immediately after the ceasefire in July 1988. But this proved to be untrue, and by 2005, both American and German intelligence were convinced that the Islamic Republic had “stockpiled blister, blood, and choking agents,”[1] including “S-Lost [sulphur mustard], Tabun, and prussic acid [hydrogen cyanide], perhaps also Sarin and VX.”[2]

This expertise appears to have been shared with the mullahs’ Syrian allies. In July 2007, Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Tehran had signed a secret agreement with Damascus to provide the Assad regime with financial and technical assistance in the development of chemical weapons. The report was dismissed the next day as a “media game” by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini, which must have caused him considerable embarrassment when, just four days later, a number of Iranian scientists were killed in an explosion while trying to fit a Scud missile with a mustard gas warhead in Aleppo.

During the six years since that deal was struck, until the Ghouta chemical attack that left 1,429 people dead, Assad’s forces are believed to have used chemical weapons on at least 14 occasions. Some of the earliest reports of chemical weapons-related activity in Syria during this period mention the supervisory presence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. According to Major-General Adnan Sillu, the former head of Assad’s chemical arsenal who defected in 2012, Revolutionary Guards officers “were always coming to visit and to advise [us on] … how to use the chemical weapons.”

As to what exactly these Iranian officers were advising, the Associated Press reported in December 2012 that communications intercepted by American intelligence revealed the Revolutionary Guards were “urging Syrian regime members to use [their] supplies of toxic Sarin gas against rebels and the civilians supporting them.” Other sources, quoted in Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah, said that Tehran favored the use of chemical weapons “widely and extensively,” and that any decision to employ such weapons would “likely be taken by [Syrian generals] Mamlouk, Qudsiya and Zaitoun and the [Revolutionary Guards] leadership.” Such was the degree of Iranian involvement that, following the massacre in Ghouta, Israeli intelligence assessed that “Iran was testing a range of chemical weapons in Syria.”

Given the apparent lack of compunction in Tehran about resorting to chemical warfare, the world ought to be relieved that the Islamic Republic is not yet in possession of nuclear weapons. Although the regime has been seeking to procure the atom bomb since 1981, its endeavours in this regard have so far come to naught. For this great mercy, we have the dissident People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran to thank.

In 1992, the mullahs came the closest they have ever come to having a nuclear arsenal. In October of that year, a secret deal to purchase four atomic warheads from the newly independent state of Kazakhstan was exposed by the People’s Mojahedin, who had learnt of the agreement from their sources in Iran. The information presented by the group was verified the following year, when the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service reported that a “tapped phone conversation between [senior Iranian officials] Abdolrahmani and Tabatabai-Kia … obtained by a European intelligence service … confirmed that one of the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union sold four [atomic] warheads to Iran.”[3]

Were it not for the People’s Mojahedin, the transaction would likely have gone ahead. However, as a result of the revelation, pressure on the Kazakh government from Moscow forced the sale’s cancellation. It was not until four years later, when Kazakh diplomat and former arms control chief Bolat Nurgaliyev admitted that Iranian officials had indeed sought certain “things” from a major Soviet nuclear facility in his country,[4] that the world realised how perilously close it had come to the unutterable horror of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Since then, the People’s Mojahedin have thwarted the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions on countless occasions, not least by sensationally revealing the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in 2003. Considering the willingness of Tehran to share with Damascus not only chemical weapons technology, but atomic weapons technology as well, there is good reason to assume that a nuclear-armed Iran would be tantamount to a nuclear-armed Syria.

If, therefore, the allegations made by the Syrian National Coalition turn out to be true, and the Islamic Republic really is behind the chemical attacks in Syria, we owe a colossal debt of gratitude to the People’s Mojahedin for ensuring that Syria’s toxic clouds are not mushroom clouds.


Jacob Campbell is a Senior Fellow of the Humanitarian Intervention Centre, Head of Research at Stand for Peace, and Co-Chairman of the Ashraf Campaign (ASHCAM). He tweets @JCampbellUKIPon Twitter.

[1] Unclassified Report To Congress On The Acquisition Of Technology Relating To Weapons Of Mass Destruction And Advanced Conventional Munitions, January – June 2002.

[2] “German Intelligence Services See Iran Possessing Biological, Chemical Weapons,” FBIS, 20 February 2005.

[3] “Tapped Line Said To Reveal Deal On Warheads,” FBIS, 15 January 1993.

[4] “Tale Told Of How Iran Nearly Got Nuke Gear,” Washington Times, 2 November 1996.



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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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