The Losers’ Narrative: Expatriates with Agendas and America’s Dangerously Distorted Iran Debate—And A Challenge to Abbas Milani


When we published Going to Tehran, we expected that its critique of America’s prevailing Iran mythology would spark sharply negative reactions from individuals and constituencies whose identities are bound to this mythology.  The sharpest so far came in mid-March, when The New Republic published Abbas Milani’s “The American Voices of the Islamist Regime in Iran:  Two Former U.S. Officials Make the Case for Accommodation.”

The New Republic and Milani (among other affiliations, a TNR contributing editor) have had us in their sights for some time.  With our book out, TNR and Milani are after us with renewed vigor.  We submitted a response to Milani’s article, which The New Republic just published, see here.  (TNR allowed Milani to write a response to our response, which one can also read by clicking on this link).  We append our piece below.

As you will see, dealing with the issues we raise in our critique of Milani and his work is essential if the United States is ever to have any hope of having a remotely rational and informed debate about how to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  To this end, we hereby issue a challenge to Mr. Milani to debate us, publicly, on our differences over how to interpret the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and political history.

Here’s what we have in mind:  a ninety-minute debate, held in front of a live audience and videotaped for wider distribution.  The location at which the debate would take place as well as the designation of a host/moderator would be negotiated between Mr. Milani and us.  Given that there are two of us and one of him, Mr. Milani could choose to have a partner join him in debating us; alternatively, if he preferred to go it alone, we would stipulate in advance that he would have as much time to speak as the two of us combined.

In terms of substance, the debate would be divided into three thirty-minute segments, each dealing with one of the following questions:

–Is the Islamic Republic the legitimate product of the Iranian Revolution?

–Is the Islamic Republic today a legitimate political order?

–Can and should the United States pursue better relations with the Islamic Republic as it is presently constituted?

In each 30-minutes segment, each side would speak for 10 minutes apiece. Then, each side would question the other for 5 minutes apiece.

We hope that Mr. Milani will take up our challenge.  In the meantime, here is our article, as published in The New Republic.

Up For Debate:  Do Insiders or Outsiders Have the Clearer View of Iran?

While Abbas Milani ostensibly offers a review of our book, it serves a more useful purpose by illustrating how Iranian expatriates and Iranian-Americans with an animus against the Islamic Republic warp our ongoing Iran debate.

Americans have let disaffected expatriates with no popular base in their countries of origin distort important policy discussions before—from the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco and the ongoing embarrassment of America’s Cuba policy to Iraqi expatriates’ bogus claims about Iraqi WMD, Saddam’s ties to al-Qaeda, and the Shangri-La of post-Saddam Iraqi politics prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Milani’s article exemplifies how expatriates with no direct contact to on-the-ground reality in Iran are now distorting debate with agenda-driven fantasies.

Two seemingly small mistakes underscore Milani’s disregard for empirical truth.  He describes us as living in Maryland; actually, we live in Virginia, as stated on the “About the Authors” page and the back jacket flap.  Also, Milani aspires to undermine our credibility by linking us to the University of Tehran’s Seyed Mohammad Marandi, whom we acknowledge as our colleague and friend and whose writings and statements we cite. Specifically, Milani holds,

“Virtually all [the Leveretts’] knowledge about Iran comes from what they call their Iranian ‘interlocutors,’ or high-ranking Iranian officials, or their friend and occasional co-author Seyed Mohammad Marandi, whom they introduce as ‘a scholar well connected with Iranian foreign policy circles.’  In truth, Marandi is not just himself a polished ideologue of the regime, but through his father—a physician to [Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei—he is connected to the very center of power.”

Leaving aside Milani’s subjective caricature, his objectively testable statement that Seyed Mohammad’s father, Alireza Marandi, is “a physician to Khamenei” is false.  Dr. Marandi is a neonatologist—a pediatrician specializing in the care of premature infants.  (In the 1970s, he held a faculty post in neonatology at a U.S. medical school.)  Claiming that he treats the 73-year-old Khamenei is ludicrous.

Though seemingly small, this is revealing of Milani’s modus operandi.  The claim that Dr. Marandi is Khamenei’s physician comes from Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an expatriate filmmaker who presented himself after Iran’s 2009 presidential election as defeated candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s international representative.  To enhance his allure to Westerners, Makhmalbaf published online articles purporting to catalog Khamenei’s personal and political corruption; in one, Makhmalbaf describes Alireza Marandi as Khamenei’s physician.  The allegations were unsubstantiated—not least because Makhmalbaf was never in a position to know the things he claimed to.  But Milani’s reliance on Makhmalbaf’s tabloid nonsense is typical:  he prefers a manufactured claim from someone who could not possibly know it is true (Makhmalbaf says Alireza Marandi is Khamenei’s doctor) over easily verified reality (Dr. Marandi is a neonatologist).  That is all too characteristic of how expatriate Iran “experts” distort America’s Iran debate.

In this regard, Milani’s career is instructive.  Born in Iran in 1949, he came as a teenager to California, where he completed high school, attended college, and embraced Maoist Marxism.  After earning a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Hawaii, he returned to Iran and was imprisoned by the Shah’s government for his Marxist views.  After the revolution, Milani taught at the University of Tehran before moving back to California in 1986.  For years, he taught at a small Catholic college, publishing intermittently in obscure nonacademic outlets.  Then, in 2001, a group of wealthy Iranian Americans endowed a fellowship for Milani and his Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution; he also began teaching as a visiting professor in Stanford’s political science department.  In 2005, prosperous Iranian-Americans endowed the directorship of Stanford’s (one-man) Iranian studies program for him, a platform from which he depicts Iran as a nation longing for secular liberalism.  Milani—who has never earned tenure at Stanford—has this platform because donors sharing his goal of ending the Islamic Republic paid for it.

Contrary to Churchill’s observation that “history is written by the victors,” Americas have let their understanding of contemporary Iran be shaped largely by “losers”—Iranians who lost their struggle for power after the Shah’s departure in January 1979.  Protecting the losers’ narrative motivates Milani’s (remarkably long) screed against us.

The losers’ narrative can’t afford for the Islamic Republic to be perceived as a legitimate expression of the Iranian people’s aspirations.  So Milani must attack our argument that Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding father, cannot rightly be said to have “captured” what should have been a secular liberal revolution, because “there would have been no revolution without him.”  Milani thunders, “The Iranian revolution was conducted in the name of freedom, dignity, and independence, and not for a government where one man claims to represent the voice of God.  Only regime apologists dispute this fact.”

But consider these facts: Every prominent anti-Shah figure—including leaders of the secular liberal National Front, the more religious but still liberal Liberation Movement, the communist Tudeh party, and even the mojahedin-e khalq (MEK)—acknowledged that only Khomeini had the popular standing to mobilize ever larger segments of Iranian society into mass action.  And at every major juncture in the Islamic Republic’s creation—the March 1979 referendum on the nature of a post-monarchical state, the August 1979 elections for an assembly to draft its constitution, and the December 1979 referendum ratifying that constitution—Khomeini asked for and received the public’s overwhelming support.

Why is Milani entitled to exclude these facts from discussions of the revolution’s true character or the legitimacy of the political order that emerged from it?  Why are he and other expatriate opponents of the Islamic Republic allowed to dismiss as “apologists” those who point out that it has achieved more progressive outcomes in alleviating poverty, delivering health care, expanding educational access, and (yes) expanding opportunities for women than the Shah’s regime ever did?

The losers’ narrative also animates Milani’s fulminations against our assessment of America’s role in the Iran-Iraq War.  While conceding that we “rightfully criticize the Reagan administration for not seriously condemning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, and for the tragic downing of an Iranian passenger plane by the American carrier Vincennes in 1988,” he denounces our critique of U.S. support for Saddam’s war of aggression—for the losers’ narrative can’t allow the Islamic Republic to be seen as a legitimate entity defending legitimate national interests.

Milani pretends to refute us by quoting Mark Gasiorowski that “a CIA officer gave two briefings [to Iran’s new government] in mid-October [1979] warning…that Iraq was making preparations for a possible invasion of Iran.”  But what Gasiorowski recounts is analytic speculation, a year before Saddam attacked; what we document is far more concrete and timely.  We cite the Agency’s then-Iran desk officer, speaking on the record, on CIA acquisition of hard human intelligence on Saddam’s plan to invade three weeks beforehand; we quote then-vice president Mondale that Washington did not try to stop Iraq because “we believed that this war would put further pressure on the Iranian government.”  We also tell how Washington took Iraq off the state sponsors of terrorism list so it could support Saddam, working with allies to make sure Baghdad had steady supplies of weapons and military technology—including technology to produce chemical munitions used against Iran.

Likewise, Milani condemns our account of the 2003 “non-paper” that Tehran sent to Washington via Swiss diplomats, proposing an agenda for comprehensive realignment of relations—for the losers’ narrative can’t afford that the Islamic Republic be perceived as anything other than implacably hostile to America.  Milani claims we have “no source or support” for writing that the paper was “vetted by both [then president] Khatami and Khamenei.”  Not so; the Swiss ambassador who relayed it officially reported to Washington on his conversations with Iranian officials regarding its vetting by Khatami and Khamenei, and other Iranian officials have authenticated it.

The Bush administration rightly rejected the proposal, Milani writes, “because its spirit and its specifics went against everything that the Iranian regime, and particularly Ayatollah Khamenei, has said and done before [its] miraculous appearance.”  This ignores a long record of Iranian cooperation with U.S. requests for help—to free American hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s, to get weapons to Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s, and, after 9/11, in Afghanistan and against al-Qa’ida—in the hope of improving relations.  Every time Tehran tried cooperating in this way, Washington pocketed it, shut down the dialogue, and put more sanctions on Iran.  Even so, Iranian leaders—including Ayatollah Khamenei—remain open to better ties, provided America is serious about realigning relations and ready to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate interests.

Milani charges that, in assessing electoral accountability and checks and balances in the Islamic Republic’s constitutional order, we “cunningly overlook” Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and other clerics who are “close to Khamenei,” don’t like elections, and want them abolished.  If there is cunning here, it is in Milani’s creation of an alternate
universe, where alleged clerical views at odds with the Islamic Republic’s constitution are attributed to Khamenei and considered more reflective of reality than actual events.  We don’t overlook figures like Mesbah-Yazdi—and we don’t exaggerate their influence.  As we write, “To this day, there are legalist clerics (usually described by Western media as ‘ultraconservative’) who disdain the constitution’s republican components as deviating from purely clerical rule.  They have not, however, been able to eliminate electoral competition from the system.”  And Khamenei remains clear in his view that elections are vital to the system’s workings.

Likewise, we don’t ignore the Revolutionary Guards’ economic role or high-level political contestation—among different conservative factions as well as between conservatives and reformists.  We simply refuse to treat these as either new or indicative that the system is coming apart—unlike Milani and other Iran “experts” who have said for years the Islamic Republic is verging on collapse.  It’s not—but that doesn’t fit with the losers’ narrative, either.

America is at a critical juncture in its relations with Iran. Washington can either “go to Tehran,” as we recommend—“coming to terms” with the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate interests—or, at some point the United States will end up going to war against it.  We believe that the latter course would prove catastrophic for America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally.   But choosing the wiser alternative will require Americans to disenthrall themselves from those who, for their own reasons, paint a false picture of today’s Iran.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Responding to the New York Times About Going to Tehran

Today, see here, the New York Times published our response to Laura Secor’s review of our book, Going to Tehran, which the Times ran earlier this month.  We append the text of our letter to the editor below.  (Ms, Secor’s reply is also available by clicking on the link above.)               

To the Editor:

To encourage constructive debate, we will address two of the larger issues raised in—and by—Laura Secor’s review of our book Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms With the Islamic Republic of Iran (March 3).

Secor’s journalistic record identifies her as someone with a preference for remaking the Middle East along Western liberal lines.  But this preference can all too readily end in the robust application of American military power, as we saw in the case of the Iraq war.  Indeed, Secor arguably contributed to that war by publishing an article that provided a platform for Kanan Makiya, the leading intellectual voice in the United States for Ahmad Chalabi’s notorious Iraqi National Congress, to make his case that American military action would lead to secular liberal democracy in Iraq.  

More important, she seems to have learned nothing from the colossal damage that the Iraq war has done to America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally.  Instead, she has shifted her prism toward Iran—where, she holds, no legitimate politics can take place until the end of Islamist governance.  It is, of course, her right to hold that view.  But given her appallingly bad judgment regarding Iraq, assigning her the task of reviewing a book like ours, which challenges American elites’ “conventional wisdom” about the Islamic Republic so that the kinds of mistakes made regarding Iraq would not be repeated regarding Iran, only guarantees that the book will not be treated seriously.

Second, Secor clearly does not like our argument that, for most Iranians living inside their country, the Islamic Republic is a legitimate if flawed political order, with greater pluralism and vastly more progressive outcomes on a host of economic and social indicators than the shah’s secular, pro-Western regime.  Yet she offers no objective evidence that the argument is mistaken.  She dismisses our reliance on “opinion polls taken under repressive conditions.”  But those polls—14 methodologically sound studies, conducted by Western polling groups as well as by University of Tehran researchers—provide some of the best and most objective evidence of what Iranians actually think. 

Many responses in these polls belie Secor’s assertion of a repressed population — including sharp criticisms of the Interior Ministry and no increase in the percentage of respondents saying, after Iran’s 2009 presidential election, that they supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  (Before and after the election, the polls consistently showed that Ahmadinejad’s victory, with just over 60 percent of the vote—which is what the official results say he got—was eminently plausible.)  More generally, the results are remarkably consistent—meaning that, if respondents were lying, they did so in the same percentages on the same issues across 14 different surveys conducted at different times.  That has never happened in the history of polling, and is a powerful indicator of these polls’ internal validity.

The polls point to a conclusion Secor cannot face:  The Green movement did not lose its struggle with Iran’s established order because of brutal repression; the movement lost because, even at its height, it did not represent anything close to a majority of Iranians.  In 1978-79, when Iranians took to the streets against the shah and were gunned down by the thousands, protests grew larger.  (Likewise, when Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square in 2011 and were killed by the hundreds, demonstrations got bigger.)  In Iran, even opposition sources admit that under 100 people died in clashes with security forces following the 2009 election—and yet the Greens retreated, because the constituency for overturning the Islamic Republic was too small to support their bid for power, whether at the ballot box or on the streets. 

Americans face a stark choice regarding Iran.  We can come to terms with the Islamic Republic, accepting it as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests. Alternatively, Washington can continue on its present course—but that ultimately means going to war.  If, in the present climate, with Middle Eastern publics becoming more mobilized and politically relevant, the United States launches another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, the resulting damage to America’s strategic position will make that done by the Iraq war look almost trivial by comparison.  Perhaps that’s O.K. with Secor.  But your readers deserved a fairer treatment of the analyses and arguments raised in our book.

McLean, Va.


Obama’s Choice: Real Diplomacy with Iran—or War


Our latest article, “Obama’s Choice:  Real Diplomacy with Iran—or War,” published by Al Jazeera and Huffington Post argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the risk of a U.S.-initiated military confrontation with the Islamic Republic during President Obama’s second term is rising, not falling.  For the Obama administration “has made an ill-considered wager that it can ‘diplomatically’ coerce Iran’s abandonment of indigenous nuclear fuel cycle capabilities”—a bet that, over the next year or so, will be increasingly seen as having failed.

If, before this happens, Obama “does not change course and accept Iran’s strategic independence and rising regional influence—including accepting the principle and reality of internationally-safeguarded uranium enrichment in Iran,” he “will face a choice as fateful as it is unpalatable.

–He could, in effect, admit that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to dictate strategic outcomes in the Middle East.”

–Or, to avoid acknowledging this reality, he could succumb to “pressure from Israel and its friends in Washington” and “launch another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern state of weapons of mass destruction it does not have.”  Obama would launch such a war “not to remove a chimerical ‘existential threat’ to Israel, but to protect Israel’s military dominance over its own neighborhood.  This would prove disastrous for America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally.”

The only way out of this self-generated dilemma, we argue, “is serious diplomacy, that treats Iranian interests in a serious way.”

We encourage you to go online at either or both Al Jazeera and Huffington Post to leave comments, Facebook likes, etc.  We also append our piece below:

“Contrary to conventional wishful thinking in American policy circles, developments in the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 and the Iran-related messages coming out of President Obama’s trip to Israel strongly suggest that the risk of a U.S.-initiated military confrontation with Tehran during Obama’s second term are rising, not falling.  This is because Obama’s administration has made an ill-considered wager that it can “diplomatically” coerce Iran’s abandonment of indigenous nuclear fuel cycle capabilities.  This is dangerous.  For it will become clear over the next year or so—the timeframe Obama himself has set before he would consider Iran able to build nuclear weapons—that the bet has failed.  If the administration does not change course and accept Iran’s strategic independence and rising regional influence—including accepting the principle and reality of internationally-safeguarded uranium enrichment in Iran, it will eventually be left with no fallback from which to resist pressure from Israel and its friends in Washington for military strikes at least against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The just concluded technical discussions in Istanbul between Iran and the P5+1 should dispel triumphalist optimism about the prospects for progress in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.  After higher-level political talks in Kazakhstan last month, some prominent Iran experts declared that U.S.-instigated sanctions had gotten the Iranians back to the table, perhaps ready to make a deal along lines dictated by the Obama administration.

But a sober reading of the Istanbul meeting says otherwise:  Iran has not been “softened up” by sanctions.  (Based on our observations in Iran, only those who haven’t been there recently could possibly think that sanctions are “working” to bring Iran’s population to its knees and change official decision-making.)  Tehran’s conditions for a long-term deal remain fundamentally what they have been for years—above all, U.S. acceptance of Iran’s revolution and its independence, including its right to enrich under international safeguards.  Just as importantly, the Obama administration is no more prepared than prior administrations to accept the Islamic Republic and put forward a proposal that might actually interest Tehran.  And Obama’s ability to modify sanctions in the course of negotiations—or lift them as part of a deal—is tightly circumscribed by laws that he himself signed, belying the argument that sanctions are somehow a constructive diplomatic tool.

In Istanbul, U.S. officials provided more details about the proposal advanced by the P5+1 in Almaty (itself a slightly modified version of a proposal initially tabled last May).  And their Iranian counterparts had essentially the same negative reaction as before.  The proposal calls on Iran to stop enriching uranium at the 20-percent level needed to fuel an internationally safeguarded research reactor in Tehran that makes medical isotopes, to ship abroad most of the 20-percent enriched uranium it has already produced, and, in effect, to shut down the new enrichment site at Fordo it has built inside a mountain to protect it from being bombed.  In return, Iran would receive only marginal sanctions relief:  Washington would waive, for six months, the imposition of recently legislated measures threatening to sanction third countries that supply gold or other precious metals to the Islamic Republic.

In Istanbul, Iranian representatives rejected the American terms as lacking in “balance between what they are asking and what they are offering.”  U.S. negotiators told the Iranians that, after six months, Washington might be willing to temporarily waive more consequential banking and financial sanctions—but that it would then also demand “more significant steps” from Tehran.  In Istanbul, the U.S. side declined to say what those might be.  Privately, though, Obama administration officials say that their goal remains a complete halt to Iranian enrichment.

This is a recipe for diplomatic failure and, before the end of Obama’s presidency, strategic catastrophe.  The United States is reaching the end of its ability to threaten ever more severe sanctions against third countries doing business with Iran—but rarely implement such “secondary” sanctions—without eroding the deterrent effect of the threat.  At the same time, America cannot actually impose secondary sanctions on major international players like China without risking serious diplomatic, economic, and legal blowback.

Moreover, Tehran will continue developing its indigenous nuclear capabilities.  Iran is now enriching at the 3-4 percent level needed to fuel power reactors and at the 20-percent level needed to fuel its research reactor.  It will continue to expand and update its centrifuge infrastructure, and could easily begin enriching at higher levels—for maritime reactors, in connection with its space program, or for other legitimate purposes.  All will be done under International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring, and the Agency will continue to report that Iran is not diverting nuclear material from its declared nuclear facilities.  But this will do nothing to alleviate Israeli concern that a nuclear-capable Iran is an unacceptable challenge to Israel’s freedom of unilateral military initiative—or Israeli pressure on the Obama administration to degrade Iran’s nuclear capabilities through war.

Under these circumstances, Obama will face a choice as fateful as it is unpalatable.  He could, in effect, admit that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to dictate strategic outcomes in the Middle East.  This is reality, but a reality that any American president would be loath to affirm so openly.  Or, to avoid acknowledging this reality, he could launch another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern state of weapons of mass destruction it does not have—not to remove a chimerical “existential threat” to Israel, but to protect Israel’s military dominance over its own neighborhood.  This would prove disastrous for America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally.

The only way out of this self-generated dilemma is serious diplomacy, that treats Iranian interests in a serious way.  But this would require the Obama administration to do something that not even a re-elected President Obama has shown a willingness to do—to accept the Islamic Republic of Iran as an enduring political entity representing legitimate national interests, and to come to terms with it as an unavoidably important player in the Middle East.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Explaining Going to Tehran


We are pleased to share a couple of extended radio interviews we’ve done recently regarding our book, Going to Tehran.  One, click here, is a podcast that Flynt did with George Kenney for Electric Politics; it was just posted today.  Kenney is a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer who was the first American diplomat to resign (in 1992) in protest against U.S. policy toward the former Yugoslavia.  He became an articulate public critic of important aspects of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy; for the last several years, he has produced and hosted the Electric Politics podcasts.

The other interview, click here, is an hour-long conversation that both of us had with the stalwart Scott Horton a couple of weeks ago (and which has not lost its timeliness).

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Halabja and America’s Support for Using Chemical Weapons Against Iran


As Americans and others around the world note the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (the American military commenced hostilities on March 20, 2003), it is equally appropriate to recall another anniversary connected to wars of aggression in the Middle East—the 25th anniversary of Iraqi chemical weapons attacks against the town of Halabja, in Iraqi Kurdistan (on March 16, 1988).  For those who want to appreciate what happened at Halabja—and the context in which it happened—we highly recommend a post by Jean-Pascal Zanders, Senior Fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, on Dan Joyner’s excellent  We append a substantial excerpt from Zander’s excellent post below but highly recommend reading it in its entirety, see here.

Halabja marked something of a turning point in the United States’ scandalous support for Saddam Husayn’s war of aggression against the Islamic Republic—including his use of chemical weapons against civilian as well as military targets.  Ever since the Iraqi military had started using chemical weapons in 1982 and Iran had started complaining about it to the United Nations Security Council, the United States had blocked any Security Council action on the matter.  As we recount in Going to Tehran, UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, acting on his own (because the Security Council wouldn’t support him), sent six fact-finding teams to investigate Iraq’s use of chemical weapons between 1984 and 1988.  Their reports consistently confirmed Iran’s charges—and just as consistently, the United States refused to let the Council act.  As then Secretary of State George Shultz later explained, Washington blocked international pressure on Iraq to stop using chemical weapons because “you don’t want Iran to win the war.”

It was only after the Iraqi military was caught red-handed in a chemical weapons attack on Halabja—again, not located in Iran, but in Iraqi Kurdistan—that even the United States felt compelled to let the Council take formal notice.  But when it finally adopted Resolution 612 in May 1988, the Council (at U.S. insistence) merely condemned “the continued use of chemical weapons in the conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq,” without specifying who had been using them, and exhorted “both sides to refrain from the future use of chemical weapons,” though no credible charges that Iran used chemical weapons have ever been advanced.”

American complicity in Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iran went beyond protecting Iraq from international sanction for its violations of international law.  As we lay out in Going to Tehran, the United States took Iraq off the state sponsors of terrorism list so it could support Saddam’s war of aggression, working with allies to make sure Iraq had steady supplies of weapons and military technology—including technology used to produce the chemical munitions that Iraqi forces used against Iranian targets, and at Halabja.

So read Zander’s post.  And if you’re American, as we are, think about what your country was promoting in its support for Saddam’s use of chemical weapons—against Iran as well as against Iraqi Kurds.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Thinking of Halabja—25 Years Later Today

Jean-Pascal Zanders

16 March marks the 25th anniversary of the chemical warfare attacks against the Kurdish town of Halabja.  Since the First World War it was one of the few cases wherein chemical weapons (CW) were deliberately used against a civilian target.  Human Rights Watch documented over 3,200 deaths and many times that number of other casualties.  Since then, thousands more of people have succumbed to their injuries or preventable infections affecting organs damaged by exposure to gas.  Many women also suffered extensive genetic damage, thus passing the consequences of the gas attacks down the generations.

The town of Halabja in northeast Iraq has become a modern-age symbol condemning chemical warfare.  Together with Ieper, a medieval town in the Belgian province of West Flanders.  On 22 April 1915, the day on which scientific research, industrial production and military art finally found each other, German Imperial troops released a chlorine cloud from thousands of canisters buried in the trenches on the northern flank of the Ieper salient.  Two years later, in the night of 12–13 July 1917, the town became associated with the first use of a new chemical warfare agent—mustard gas (which the French subsequently called ‘Yperite’).  Mustard was also one of Iraq’s agents of choice against both the Iranians and the Iraqi Kurds.

The Iran–Iraq war lasted twice as long as the First World War:  from 1980 until 1988.  Iraqi use of toxic chemicals against Iranian soldiers was first reported in 1982, but by the end of 1983 press outlets told of widespread usage of mustard gas and tabun, a nerve agent.  In April of the next year, a UN team of experts confirmed chemical warfare.  From then onwards, Iraqi chemical attacks escalated, reaching a first peak in 1986 in the southern marshes.  Two years later Iraqi forces had also assimilated CW for offensive operations and employed them with increasing effectiveness until Iran’s capitulation on 8 August 1988.

Possibly earlier, but definitively from 1987, Saddam Hussein opened a second chemical front against the Iraqi Kurds in the north.  Names of towns such as Erbil (Hewlêr in Kurdish) in the north of the country or Penjwin, east of Sulaymaniyah, recurred frequently in interviews I had with Kurdish Peshmergas coming for a break to Belgium.  They recounted chemical strikes against agrarian communities in north and east Iraqi Kurdistan.  They described how eating the vegetables from their fields poisoned women and children many weeks after a CW attack.  Unwittingly, they ingested the mustard agent that had settled on the bottom side of the leaves.  The Peshmergas also depicted bombing raids high in the mountains, after which the mustard gas rolled down the mountain sides, penetrating deep into any cave sheltering Kurdish fighters.

About two years later, when listening again to my recordings from 1987, I recognised another town being referred to—Helebce, since then better known in the West as Halabja.  The local population had risen up against Saddam Hussein, who brutally crushed the revolt.  Half of the city fled to Iran, about 15 kilometres to the east, according to the interview.  When Kurdish guerillas fighting alongside Iranian troops ‘liberated’ Halabja on 15 March 1988, supreme vengeance against an insurrectionary town came the next morning in the form of a gas cloud.  Attacks were to continue until the 18th.  Privately I have always been convinced that the 1987 uprising together with the ‘betrayal’ of the Iraqi Kurds seeking to break Baathist control over northeast Iraq with Iranian help in 1988 provoked the extraordinary escalation of chemical warfare against Kurdish guerillas and civilians alike.  From that perspective, Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Kurds through August and September 1988 merely systematised the Halabja method on an even grander scale.

Indelible impressions

A few weeks after the attacks against Halabja, members of the Kurdish community in the Leuven area (where many Iraqi Kurds stayed with relatives and local acquaintances for a breather from combat) took me to the Erasmus hospital in Anderlecht, just outside Brussels.  It had accepted four or five victims of chemical warfare for treatment.  One was an Iranian soldier badly affected by mustard gas; one was a boy aged around five recovering from the chemical attacks on Halabja; the remainder were farmers from a wide area surrounding the town…

[M]y Kurdish hosts tore me away from the Iranian soldier.  He was by far the worst victim of gas exposure in the hospital (he was to die not too long after my visit).  His skin looked blackened where white ointment did not fully hide it. Lesions from the vesicles covered parts of his body and his difficult, assisted breathing betrayed internal injuries. A faint, but unforgettable smell of decayed flesh penetrated the dominant odour of disinfectants. He had fallen victim to mustard gas outside of Halabja, possibly being one of the soldiers along whose side the Peshmergas were fighting against Saddam Hussein. The Kurds, however, did not spare a thought for him…

The other face of Halabja

This incident was my first concrete exposure to the deep ethnic, cultural and religious cleavages in the Middle East, difficult to bridge and a perennial source of misunderstanding and hostility.  It also shows why Halabja can never be a symbol for Iran’s suffering from CW in the way Ieper does for all chemical warfare during the First World War…

Iran’s own Halabja is called Sardasht, a municipality without much military significance across the border north of Sulaymaniyah.  Saddam’s air force hit the town on 28 June 1987, almost nine months before Halabja.  Although initial reports of CW victims were low, it soon emerged that almost three quarters of a population of 12,000 had been exposed to the toxicants.  Some 130 people died, most of them civilians.  The international press barely noticed this strike on a target with hardly any military significance.

Sardasht emblemised Iran’s predicament.  The Islamic revolution of 1979 bought the country few friends.  With the hostage taking in the US embassy, pent up anger over Washington’s unwavering support for the Shah’s repressive regime exploded into the open.  The new leadership also refused rapprochement to the Soviet Union.  Meanwhile it called for Islamic uprisings against the corrupt, autocratic leaders in the Gulf and beyond.  When Iraq invaded its neighbour, Saddam Hussein presented himself as the bulwark against Persian territorial designs and Islamic revolutionary fervour.  Although the United States and the USSR found themselves on the same side of the war; having lost a major regional ally, Washington nevertheless sought to pry Iraq away from the Soviet sphere of influence.  The tide soon turned against Iraq, but the international community could not afford to let it lose the war.  Such geostrategic calculations were to clash with international law.

When Saddam Hussein ordered the first chemical attacks, he breached the 1925 Geneva Protocol.  Both Iran and Iraq had been party to the agreement for many decades.  To Iraq, CW were a force multiplier that arrested the incessant Iranian human wave attacks when it was about to lose the war.  National governments expressed their outrage, but the UN Security Council, while condemning the chemical attacks, never specified Iraq as the perpetrator for the duration of the war with Iran.

Countries adopted national sanctions and restricted access to certain chemical warfare agents and their precursors, but, absent a specific designation of responsibility under international law, applied them to both belligerents.  The Geneva Protocol did not deny Iran the right to retaliate in kind, but international ‘evenhandedness’ certainly precluded it from achieving a CW capacity before the war’s end.  The international stance had its moral merit.  This, however, did not apply to the refusal to assist Iran with defensive countermeasures, including gasmasks, decontamination equipment, other types of individual and collective protection or prophylaxis.  In 1985–86 an Iranian delegate to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva even had to travel to several European countries (including Spain) to procure active charcoal in order to develop chemical warfare defences in Iran…

Just like Trotsky concluded after Russia’s capitulation to Germany in 1917, those experiences convinced Iran of the need to overcome technological backwardness in order to survive.  They also taught the country that international law does not guarantee international justice, and it harbours deep misgivings about international promises for assistance.  Adding insult to injury, US officials from 1989 onwards several times indicated that Iran rather than Iraq had gassed Halabja, a claim so preposterous that its motive remains a mystery until today.

Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, autarky in all security-related matters drives today’s political leadership.  Most Iranian politicians of all persuasions, as well as much of the population, belong to the generation that grew up on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war.  War is therefore not necessarily a state of affairs they will seek to avoid in the pursuit of national interests.  Nor do international confrontation or the threat of war particularly frighten them.  Layer upon layer of fresh economic and political sanctions only confirm convictions that had eight long years to take root in the blood-soaked trenches along the Iran-Iraq border.

Halabja therefore also symbolises the long-term fallacy of short-term interests.  It is the one lesson the world does not seem to have learned.