Several western countries and companies assisted Iraq when it set out to build its chemical weapons programs in the 1970s. A decade later when Baghdad would use those systems in the Iran-Iraq War, those same nations were largely quiet giving their implicit support to Iraq. The press however was quite active in uncovering where Iraq’s WMD came from.
Two years into the Iran-Iraq War the Iraqi government began turning to chemical weapons. After quick victories in the opening months of the conflict, Saddam Hussein made the strategic mistake of halting offensive operations and attempting to negotiate a ceasefire. When that failed the two sides settled into a grinding war of attrition with Tehran holding a huge population advantage. One of Iraq’s responses was to use chemical weapons.
Iraq’s use of chemical weapons increased in both its application and tactical planning as the war progressed. In 1982 Iraq used tear gas on Iranian troops, followed by the deployment of chemical agents the following year. Their first major use was in the Val Fajr II campaign in the summer of 1983 when mustard gas was deployed. In early 1984 the Iraqi military was using tabun in the Khaybar I campaign in Basra. By the end of the war Iraq was using its chemical stockpiles more and more to deadlier effect. There was no effort to stop Baghdad because it had the support of so many powerful countries.
From the start Iran complained about Iraq’s use of these deadly materials, but the major powers remained silent. Starting in 1983 Tehran tried to publicize Iraq’s chemical weapons programs going to the press and international organizations, but they were initially ignored. The Soviet Union was the largest provider of weapons to Iraq before the war, and almost all the munitions filled with WMD and used in the war originated in the USSR. Moscow had also trained Iraqi forces in the use of biological and chemical weapons starting in the 1960s. Iran singled out Russia in 1984 as a major military supporter of Baghdad including chemical agents, but the Communist government said nothing in response. Later in the year when the United Nations decided to send a team to Iran to investigate the use of WMD, the Soviets objected. France was Saddam’s second largest military supporter and said nothing about the use of chemical weapons. Its two largest newspapers even suggested that Iranians had been injured in factory accidents rather than by Iraqi chemicals. The United States was slightly different. Some members in Congress were opposed to Saddam’s regime and brought up the WMD issue. That led the State Department to condemn their use in 1984. The Reagan administration however was helping Iraq early on in the war, and towards the end of the conflict provided intelligence for Iraqi operations that they knew would include the use of mustard gas and other agents. As Javed Ali wrote in 2001 for The Nonproliferation Review by the end of the war everyone knew Saddam was using chemical agents, but no government was interested in holding Iraq responsible let alone punishing it. That was because so much of the international community was opposed to Iran and its new government, which had just held American diplomats at the U.S. embassy for over a year and was talking about exporting its Islamic revolution. There was another factor for why the world turned a blind eye, the Americans and Europe had assisted Iraq with its WMD.
The United States press was especially good at revealing how America and Europe had helped Iraq build its chemical program. The Washington Post (1) for example documented how in 1975 Baghdad contacted the Pfaudler Company in New York to build a pesticide plant in Samarra. It started the work, but never finished it when it became suspicious about why the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry wanted it to produce four toxic agents that were very close to nerve gas. Germany’s Karl Kolb eventually completed the factory in the 1980s. It became known as the Muthanna State Establishment, and was the country’s largest producer of WMD. The Wall Street Journal (2) uncovered that a U.S. subsidiary of Belgium’s Phillips Petroleum sold pesticide to Iraq in 1983 that was used to produce mustard gas. The paper also found that Germany’s W.E.T. G.m.b.H. sold the Iraqi government $10 million worth of equipment and agents that were also used for nerve gas. These were just a few of many other instances of companies supplying Saddam’s WMD programs. Washington and Berlin actually tried to stop many of these transactions and put in a series of export controls, but because much of the equipment and agents could be used in regular commercial activities there were too many loopholes for these regulations to work.
In the 1980s Iraq had the backing of Europe and America to use weapons of mass destruction against Iran. Both eastern and western European countries had long standing ties with Iraq and saw it as an important market for its weapons and influence in the Middle East. The United States tilted towards Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War because it wanted to contain the Iranian revolution. That was why there was never any serious effort to stop Baghdad when it began using chemical weapons against Tehran. Even when those countries began being exposed as the source for much of the equipment and agents that would lead to Iraq’s WMD programs there was no real change in policy. Ironically, just a few years later the West would change its stance after the Gulf War and want to disarm Iraq, and there would be another round of media on just where these unconventional weapons came from.
1. Ignatius, David, “Iraq’s Protracted Hunt for Chemical Weapons,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 10/3-9/88
2. Fialka, John, “Fighting Dirty Western Industry Sells Third World the Means To Produce Poison Gas,” Wall Street Journal, 9/16/88
Ali, Javed, “Chemical Weapons and the Iran-Iraq War: A Case Study in Noncompliance,” The Nonprolfieration Review, Spring 2001
Central Intelligence Agency, “Impact and Implications of Chemical Weapons Use I the Iran-Iraq War,” Spring 1988
Fialka, John, “Fighting Dirty Western Industry Sells Third World the Means To Produce Poison Gas,” Wall Street Journal, 9/16/88
Guthrie, Richard, “A Chronology of Events Relating to Iraq and Chemical & Biological Weapons 1984,” April 2007
Harris, Shane and Aid, Matthew, “Exclusive. CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy, 8/26/13
Hersh, Seymour, “U.S. Secretly Gave Aid to Iraq Early in its War Against Iran,” New York Times, 1/26/92
Ignatius, David, “Iraq’s Protracted Hunt for Chemical Weapons,” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 10/3-9/88
Kessler, Glenn, “History lesson: When the United States looked the other way on chemical weapons,” Washington Post, 9/4/13
New York Times, “U.N. Panel Says Iraq Used Gas on Civilians,” 8/24/87
Oygarden, Randi Hunshamar, “Chemical Weapons and the Iran-Iraq War, A discussion of the UN Security Council’s response to the use of gas in the Iran-Iraq war 1980-1988,” MA Thesis in History, University of Bergensis, Autumn 2014
Rajaee, Farhang editor, The Iran-Iraq War: The Politics of Aggression, Gainseville: University Press of Florida, 1993