Commemorating 40 Years since the Start of the Iraq-Iran war: From Sardasht to Hiroshima

Commemorating 40 Years since the Start of the Iraq-Iran war: From Sardasht to Hiroshima

By Mr Jaroslav Krasny, Independent researcher and a Ph.D. candidate at Hiroshima University, Japan

August 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These attacks constituted the first – and hopefully last – use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict. While the city of Hiroshima in particular is undoubtedly a symbol of the need for nuclear disarmament and a beacon for peace, the city’s relationship to the use of chemical weapons remains mostly unknown (see below). While Hiroshima is a synonym for the destruction and suffering caused by nuclear weapons, Iranian cities and villages bordering Iraq, such as Mariwan and particularly Sardasht, are synonyms for yet another form of terror: that of the use of chemical weapons.


Cities for peace

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which is dedicated to the commemoration of those who perished in the nuclear explosion, played an indispensable role in helping to set up the Tehran Peace Museum in Iran’s capital city. The Tehran museum was founded with a similar mission to that of its Japanese counterpart: to promote peace among nations and commemorate those who lost their lives from the use of chemical weapons, and those who suffered or are still suffering from the horrible effects of these weapons. The Tehran Peace Museum is also the seat of the Iranian chapter of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) “Mayors for Peace”. The NGO, established by a former mayor of Hiroshima, Mr Takeshi Araki, has its headquarters in Hiroshima and a Special Consultative status with the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council. Tehran is a member of this organisation with the status of an Executive City. Hence, the continued suffering of the victims of both chemical and nuclear weapons constitutes a dark connection between the two cities. While 6 August 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, 22 September 2020 marked 40 years since the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 – a brutal conflict lasting eight years that included the massive and widespread use of chemical weapons by Iraqi forces under the regime of Saddam Hussein against both the Iranian military and civilians. While chemicals such as “Agent Orange” were used extensively during the Vietnam war, they were categorised as herbicides or defoliants and were not regarded as chemical weapons in terms of either their design or purpose. However, the chemical agents that Iraq deployed during the Iran-Iraq war – sulphur mustard (a vesicant) and tabun (a nerve agent) – could clearly be categorised as chemical weapons.


The use of chemical weapons

The Iran-Iraq war saw one of the most extensive deployments of chemical weapons on the battlefield since the First World War. However, unlike the latter war, the Iran-Iraq war was characterised by the extensive use of chemical weapons against civilians. This was a serious violation of the laws of armed conflict, including the 1925 Geneva Poison Gas Protocol, which Iraq became a party to in 1931. Iraqi troops first used chemical agents in 1981 against the villages of Helaleh and Ney-Khazar, during attacks in which the Iraqi army reportedly used vomiting agents. Sporadic use of chemical agents then followed in August 1983 on the Piranshahr and Haj-Omaran battlefields and in November 1983 on the Panjvien battlefield. However, the first internationally recognised large-scale attack occurred in 1984 with the use of sulphur mustard and nerve agents against Iranian soldiers on Majnoon Island. From then onwards chemical weapons were used against Iranian troops and the civilian population until the end of the war in 1988. In March 1984 Iran asked the UN to investigate Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. In response to this request the UN dispatched a fact-finding mission in the same month, followed by similar missions every year until the war ended in 1988. The conclusions released as official UN documents confirmed Iraq’s use of sulphur mustard (mustard gas or yperite) and organophosphates or nerve agents such as tabun. These findings were submitted to the UN Security Council, which released two statements on 13 March 1984 and 21 March 1986 condemning the use of chemical weapons. However, not even UN Security Council Resolutions 612 or 620 secured an end to chemical attacks by the Iraqi regime. Further chemical attacks against cities continued, including on Sardasht on 28 June 1987, villages around the city of Mariwan in March 1988, and villages around the cities of Sarpol-e-Zahab and Gilan-e-Gharb in May-June 1988. The most notorious attack using chemical weapons was the one on Halabja, where on 16 March 1988 Saddam Hussein’s forces gassed more than 5,000 Iraqi-Kurdish civilians, including men, women and children. This attack was one of the most despicable uses of chemical weapons against civilians in human history, and had directly targeted medical centres and field hospitals, in direct violation of humanitarian law and the accepted customs of war. 

The UNMOVIC report of 2003 documented that 1,800 metric tons of sulphur mustard, 140 tons of tabun, and over 600 tons of sarin were used against Iran between 1983 and 1988. Over a million Iranians were exposed to chemical agents, with more than 100,000 receiving emergency treatment. Half of these injuries were moderate to severe, with approximately 5,500 immediately dying from exposure. However, tens of thousands still suffer from the long-term health effects of their exposure to these chemicals. In 2011 approximately 65,000 Iranians were registered as receiving care for chronic chemical weapons injuries. This number does not include approximately 40,000 veterans who were not registered and approximately 20,000 civilians with chronic injuries resulting from exposure. These injuries include chronic respiratory and pulmonary diseases, ocular damage and blindness, and even cancer, since sulphur mustard is a carcinogenic.


From Iran to Hiroshima

While some of the most severely affected Iranian victims were treated in Japan as early as 1988, official exchange visits between Hiroshima and Iran started in March 2004 when a Hiroshima World Peace Mission visited Tehran. After returning to Japan one of the mission’s members, Mrs Shizuko Tsuya, invited a group of chemical weapons survivors to the annual Hiroshima Peace Ceremony. Their visit also included medical check-ups at Hiroshima University. Local doctors had experience of conducting such check-ups and administering proper treatment since they had previously been administering treatment and conducting studies into the chronic exposure of workers to chemical agents at the Okunoshima Island poison gas factory that operated in Hiroshima during the Second World War. In 2006 a medical exchange agreement was signed between by Dr Kouki Inai of the Hiroshima University Department of Pathology and a medical research centre in Tehran to allow Iranian medical staff to be trained at the Hiroshima University Department of Pathology and Kure Kyosai Hospital.  


United by war

Sardasht and Hiroshima are therefore two cities united by the suffering caused by humanity's worst creations – chemical and nuclear weapons. While in 1993 the world finally prohibited chemical weapons as a whole category, including their manufacture and possession, the Iran-Iraq war veterans are still fighting their own battles. Their situation has been made worse by the deadly new COVID-19 virus, to which they are particularly vulnerable due to their pre-existing health problems resulting from the exposure to chemical agents during the Iran-Iraq war. Their situation is made even worse by the current lack of medical supplies in Iran due to the imposition of American sanctions against that country, which in the context of the global pandemic can only be described as immoral.

The global community has seen the re-emergence of chemical weapons use during the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The experiences of the victims of chemical weapons serve as important testimonies to the unacceptable suffering that these weapons cause. It is imperative to reflect on these testimonies, which clearly indicate that it is time to call for strict adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention and to regard the non-use of chemical weapons as part of customary law in terms of which no derogation is permitted.


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Mr Jaroslav Krasny, GCSP Alumnus Diplomatic Tradecraft for Non-Diplomats Training Course April 2018has been living in Japan for the past 12 years and is currently an independent researcher and a Ph.D. candidate at Hiroshima University, Japan. He received his undergraduate degree in International Strategic Studies from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan and his Master’s from his current alma mater, Hiroshima University.

Mr Krasny specializes in the law of armed conflict and its relation to weapons and targeting as well as WMD non-proliferation, arms control and security policy. He is currently working on his Ph.D. dissertation that is concerned with the use of low-yield nuclear weapons in an international armed conflict.