The 1925 Geneva Protocol, an international treaty, specifically disallowed the use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare. While there were other instances of violations of the treaty, by far the most high-profile is the case of the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980-1988. Partly because of the international reaction to Iraq’s fairly heavy use of chemical weapons in that conflict, the war changed the way that people think about the use of chemical (and perhaps to an extent also biological) weapons in modern warfare (Ali 2001, 43). This paper will examine the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War, and speculate about the effect the episode had on the US Army’s Chemical Corps (CBRN).
The war is generally understood to be a consequence of Iraq’s (more specifically, Saddam Hussein’s) desire to avenge certain previous losses to Iran, such as the territory lost to the latter with the 1975 Algiers Accord, which ceded to Iran control of the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway. However, even Hussein would probably not have been foolish enough to invade Iran were it not for two crucial factors: (i) the weakening of Iran that followed upon the occupation of the United States’ embassy in Iran in 1979—which led to a deterioration of relations between Iran and the US; and (ii) the political chaos that Iran suffered in the wake of its revolution, beginning in the same year (Polk 2009, 149).

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Despite gaining an early advantage, Iraq began to lose ground in the war by 1981. Furthermore, in that same year, Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in Iraq, setting back their nuclear program by many years. As a consequence of these factors, and doubtless others, Saddam decided to begin to use chemical weapons in its war with Iran. The agents in question were primarily nerve gas, and so-called ‘blister agents’ such as mustard gas. As an internal study at the Strategic Studies Institute puts the point: Iraq was motivated to find a solution to the impact of Iranian human wave infantry attacks which—like that of the Chinese attacks on U.S. forces in Korea—was devastating. The unpredictability of the attacks was very demoralizing, but the psychological impact on individuals caught up in the insensate violence of them was worse (Pelletiere and Johnson 1991, 97)

There was a learning curve for Iraq in its use of chemical weapons, however. The command or the soldiers did not realize that mustard gas is heavier than air, and so will sink to the lowest point available to it. Early in 1983 Iraqis actually tried to use the gas against an Iranian force that had captured a position atop a mountain—the gas instead plagued Iraq’s own troops, refusing to defy the law of gravity. By the end of the same year, however, Iraq was using mustard gas to deadly effect against the Iranian forces, causing “hundreds of chemical casualties” (Ali 2001, 48). Mustard gas does not normally kill—at least right away—but it severely disrupts troops’ ability to carry out simple tasks such as marching in a straight line and aiming a rifle, and causes serious injuries. Though it was not enough to enable them to win the war, Iraq’s use of chemical weapons definitely had an impact.

More important for present purposes, however, is the significance of its use of chemical weapons—and the international response to it—had for subsequent theorizing about the use of such weapons in warfare. At least at the time, there was not the international outcry that one might have expected (even when it became generally known what Iraq was doing). Part of the reason for this is that the United States in particular, and the West more generally, did not particularly care what these two Middle Eastern states did to each other—as long as their own interests were in no way threatened. Furthermore, to the extent that it did care, the West had a vested interest in not seeing Iraq completely defeated. Iran has always been more powerful and a greater overall threat than Iraq, the latter’s bold invasion of the former notwithstanding. “The Iran-Iraq War demonstrated the limitations of arms control agreements that do not contain appropriate mechanisms to respond effectively to instances of noncompliance” (Ali 2001, 55). Another author noted that the international response to Iraqi behavior was “muted and ineffective” (Cole 2002, 20).

Another factor that pointed in the same direction is that Iraq’s transgression of the Geneva Protocol was not the first. Chemical weapons had been used to some extent in World War II; Egypt used them in Yemen in the early 1960s; the United States used herbicides and agent orange in Vietnam; and some maintain that the former Soviet Union used chemical weapons in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia at the end of the 1970s (ibid.).

Eventually, however, there were changes made, both internationally and in the US, partly as a result of Iraq’s open use of chemical weapons. In 1994 Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch authored a report on the counterproliferation of chemical and biological weapons. He argued that biological weapons, in particular, were not being pursued aggressively enough, and proposed a large increase in the Federal budget for developing biological and chemical weapon detectors.

It is interesting to note that the aforementioned Strategic Studies Institute report—which is entitled Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War—does not have much at all to say about how Iraq’s use of chemical weapons resulted in any policy or defense changes. It simply describes, in clinical, factual terms, how Iraq used the weapons, and what we can learn from their use. Its authors write, for example, “In summary, chemical agents are effective in degrading command and control, fire support and lines of communication” (Pelletiere and Johnson 1991, 99). Moreover, the CBRN website has little to say about the matter. Another document, prepared by the Rand Corporation and entitled Preparing the U.S. Army for Homeland Security does not name any lessons learned from Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. It does not discuss the issue at all (in its 328 pages), except to note that Iraq has (or had) the weapons, and has used them (Larson and Peters 2001).

Also interesting is the fact that in 1986 the United Nations’ Security Council officially condemned Iraq for using chemical weapons, citing its violation of the Geneva Protocol. This is not surprising in itself, though United Nations’ proclamations are not known for their efficacy. What is interesting is that the United States was the only member of the Security Council that voted against the condemning statement (Evison et. al. 2002). There could be several different reasons for this. One is that the US was using, or planned to use, chemical weapons itself at some point. (As it effectively did in Vietnam.) Another is that it still wanted to back Iraq against Iran. Still a third option is that the US has and continues to develop both biological and chemical weapons of its own. Whatever the case, the fact strikingly illustrates the lack of international response to Iraq’s transgression of the Geneva Protocol.

Given a lack of actual evidence, therefore, concerning what the US Army’s Chemical Corps (CBRN) has learned or taken from Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, one must speculate. Given the general lack of response to, or even interest in, Iraq’s actions it seems unlikely that the CBRN has learned anything decisive from the episode. At most it seems that the Iran-Iraq war helped to raise general consciousness about the issue of chemical weapons.

  • Ali, J. (2001). Chemical weapons and the Iran‐Iraq war: A case study in noncompliance. The Nonproliferation Review, 8(1), 43-58.
  • Cole, L. A. (1996). The specter of biological weapons. Scientific American, 275(6), 60-65.
  • Evison, D., Hinsley, D., & Rice, P. (2002). Chemical weapons. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 324(7333), 332.
  • Larson, E. and Peters, J. (2001). Preparing the U.S. Army for Homeland Security. Rand Corporation.
  • Pelletiere, S. and Johnson, D. (1991) Lessons Learned: The Iran-Iraq War. Strategic Studies Institute. U.S. Army War College.
  • Polk, W. R. (2011). Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, From Cyrus to Khamenei. Macmillan.