United States Knew Saddam Was Using Chemical Weapons Against Iran

United States helped Saddam Hussein launch some of the worst chemical attacks in history against Iran.

saddam-hussein-1980s

On the same day the United States all but promised military retaliation against Syria for chemical weapons strikes that “should shock the conscience of the world,” constitute “a moral obscenity” and against which”all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability,” Foreign Policy magazine reveals that the United States helped Saddam Hussein launch some of the worst chemical attacks in history against Iran.

In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.

The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn’t disclose.

U.S. officials have long denied acquiescing to Iraqi chemical attacks, insisting that Hussein’s government never announced he was going to use the weapons. But retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, paints a different picture.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,” he told Foreign Policy.

According to recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials like Francona, the U.S. had firm evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks beginning in 1983. At the time, Iran was publicly alleging that illegal chemical attacks were carried out on its forces, and was building a case to present to the United Nations. But it lacked the evidence implicating Iraq, much of which was contained in top secret reports and memoranda sent to the most senior intelligence officials in the U.S. government. The CIA declined to comment for this story.

Now, the degree of US complicity is a bit difficult to discern from the evidence provided by FP. But this much seems plausible:

It has been previously reported that the United States provided tactical intelligence to Iraq at the same time that officials suspected Hussein would use chemical weapons. But the CIA documents, which sat almost entirely unnoticed in a trove of declassified material at the National Archives in College Park, Md., combined with exclusive interviews with former intelligence officials, reveal new details about the depth of the United States’ knowledge of how and when Iraq employed the deadly agents. They show that senior U.S. officials were being regularly informed about the scale of the nerve gas attacks.

But this next sentence is a leap of logic:

They are tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.

At the very least, the Reagan administration didn’t let knowledge that Saddam was using mustard and nerve gas against Iran deter them from providing intelligence support. Given the degree of enmity so soon after the Iran Hostage Crisis, that’s not completely shocking.

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Markey says:

    “The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew.”

    Ahh, the Reagan administration days, helping Iraq target it´s nerve gas on Iranian troops while selling Iran Tow missiles to wack Iraqi tanks..

  2. At the very least, the Reagan administration didn’t let knowledge that Saddam was using mustard and nerve gas against Iran deter them from providing intelligence support. Given the degree of enmity so soon after the Iran Hostage Crisis, that’s not completely shocking.

    I agree that it is not surprising. I have to admit, however, that I think that “complicity” is the correct word–the US government had to have known that there were high levels of probability that our intel would be used for such attacks. That means a level of culpability (and a serious one at that).

  3. It also further exposes the shunning hypocrisy of folks like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Republicans complicit in the use of WMD by Iraq…and then Republicans use trumped up evidence of WMD to invade and occupy Iraq.
    And yet Republicans are still taken seriously by seemingly intelligent people, like James.
    Astounding.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    Of COURSE we knew! This is news? I guess to people who ignore certain people they label “moonbats” it’s news. I listened, at least a little, to those “moonbats” and I knew about this years ago (it was discussed quite a bit in the runup to Iraq!, The Sequel).

    And yes, this is one of many reasons the GOP has zero – no, make that less than zero – credibility for me on foreign policy. We can all hope that Paul the Younger manages to yank the GOP back to sanity on FP, but I doubt it will work.

    Meanwhile, the Democrats practically define mediocre. What a lovely state of affairs.

  6. Franklin says:

    The 80s were a long time ago. So far as I know, we weren’t hellbent on invading countries just to prevent the possibility of future usage of chemical weapons back then. Yes, morally they knew better, but I don’t think it’s quite the same scandal as if the same thing happened today. Am I wrong?

  7. al-Ameda says:

    Everyone else in the world knew that Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iran except the people of the United States. That tells you much about how seriously the American Press covers what is going on in the rest of the world.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    @al-Ameda:

    It’s not so much that nobody in the US knew Saddam was using chemical weapons. It was that they didn’t know that the US government was complicit in it. As well as selling arms to the Iranians.

    The part of me that enjoys playing Civilization can appreciate that, on some level. Man, that was some deliciously nasty sh*t right there. But it wasn’t a game.

  9. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I have to admit, however, that I think that “complicity” is the correct word–the US government had to have known that there were high levels of probability that our intel would be used for such attacks. That means a level of culpability (and a serious one at that).

    Ditto.

    Approach the situation from a criminal perspective. We know that there is bad blood between a person named Iraq and someone named Iran. We’re friends with Iraq, and know he would probably kill Iran given the chance. Knowing that, we still tell Iraq where Iran is going to be at a particular time and mention that Iran will think he’s relatively safe then.

    If Iraq goes and murders Iran, I’m pretty sure we could get pinched for aiding and abetting, and will be changed as an accessory (complicit) to the murder.

  10. merl says:

    Ronald Reagan, traitor and war criminal. No wonder the right wing loves him so much.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    @Rob in CT:

    It’s not so much that nobody in the US knew Saddam was using chemical weapons. It was that they didn’t know that the US government was complicit in it. As well as selling arms to the Iranians.

    Good points Rob. I inferred from my knowledge of the Iraq-Iran war that our government probably did know what Hussein was doing, and no doubt tried to maintain as low a profile as possible during that conflict – after all, considering our animus toward Iran, we were probably pleased to have Iraq/Hussein engage in an 8 year war that resulted in the death of a million Iranians.

    Any American who currently wonders why Iran is wary of the American government is need of a full psychiatric evaluation, or electric shock therapy, whichever one is covered by their health insurance.

  12. @al-Ameda:

    Any American who currently wonders why Iran is wary of the American government is need of a full psychiatric evaluation, or electric shock therapy, whichever one is covered by their health insurance.

    And it dates back until at least 1953.

  13. anjin-san says:

    Given the degree of enmity so soon after the Iran Hostage Crisis, that’s not completely shocking.

    Really?

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Rob in CT: I have trouble with the concept of Ron Paul dragging anyone toward sanity, but otherwise, yes, exactly. The information was available. Apparently only Moonbats can get past the circular logic of, ‘I know we didn’t do that because we’re the good guys, and I know we’re the good guys because we didn’t do that.’

  15. @Steven L. Taylor: Made even worse by RWNJs suggesting Carter should have given the Shah a couple armored divisions to massacre protesters.

  16. Matt says:

    The Iranians were already well aware of this..