In a quiet neighborhood of the Tajrish district of Tehran, on the foothills of the Alborz Mountains, a green thirty-thousand-square-feet sanatorium hosts hundreds of veterans of the Iran-Iraq war who still suffer from their war wounds. The majority of these veterans have resided in Asayeshagh Sarollah, only one of numerous sanatoria throughout the country, since the early days of the war, which began in the summer of 1980, lasted for eight years, and claimed the lives of one million people on both sides. The residents of Sarollah count for a fraction of the estimated 100,000 victims of chemical weapons used by the Iraqi regime during the eight-year war. These “living martyrs,” as they came to be known in Iran, are the forgotten soldiers of a war without winners.
A reporter from Sharq, a Tehran daily, wrote recently that during a visit to the sanatorium, Mr. Mohseni, a twenty-year resident, pulled him aside, making sure that they are away from the eyes of the keepers, and whispered in his ears, “Up to last year, the country used to celebrate Veterans Week, this year we observed Veterans Day, soon we’re going have just a moment of silence in honor of the dead.” With Saddam Hussein’s trail under way in Baghdad, many Iranian victims of his aggression hope that “finally the world will hear,” as one paraplegic veteran muttered to the Sharq reporter, “our story.”
As it happens, the world will not hear their stories during Saddam Hussein’s trial. The invasion of Iran is missing from the 12 counts of indictment against the former dictator, and evidence and testimony about the atrocities carried out under his command will not be presented to the court. The conspicuous absent of his war crimes against Iranian civilians, and his widespread use of chemical weapons from 1982 to the final days of the war in 1988, raise serious questions about the objectives of this trial. Sweeping Saddam’s atrocities against Iranian citizens under the courtroom rug could only mean that this trial is more about a political theatre for the legitimacy of the new regime and its American backers, than a genuine thirst for justice.
In September of 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded the province of Khuzestan, in the southwest of Iran and launched air and rocket attacks against major Iranian cities. The invasion led to one of the longest running full-blown wars of the last century between the two countries. Since even the former UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar declared Iraq in 1991 the aggressor in the war, it remains bewildering that Saddam Hussein is not going to be tried for his crimes against Iranians. He ordered the use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and revolutionary militia, approved the indiscriminate bombing of Iranian cities, and for eight years targeted city neighborhoods with long-range scud missiles.
The Iraqi judiciary has announced that the twelve counts of the indictment were put together for cases that had documented and unambiguous evidence. But this is true of the Iran-Iraq war. There is no dearth of documentationfrom satellite photos of the use of chemical weapons to living survivors of these attacks, all could easily be presented in a court of law. What this trial lacks is political will on the part of the United States, the Iraqi government, and the Islamic Republic to bring forth these charges.
The Americans have the most at stake in this trial. Not only is the White House trying to use the proceedings as yet another justification of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration also intends to conceal the misguided policies of its predecessors, especially during the Iran-Iraq war. Indicting Saddam for his Iran-Iraq war crimes will inevitably raise questions about the role of the United States in encouraging and lending support to his war machine. As declassified documents from the Reagan Administration clearly indicate, from 1980 to 1984, the US government steadily provided political, intelligence, and military support for Saddam Hussein’s regime. Reagan officials believed that the Iraqi invasion would contain the Islamic revolution and would thereby block its “domino-effect” in the region. For example, in an April 8, 1981, cable from Secretary of State Alexander Haig to the United States Interest Section in Iraq (at the time, the US did not have full diplomatic relations with Iraq), the Secretary sent a personal message to Sa`adun Hammadi, the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, noting that it is important that “our two countries be able to exchange views, freely and on a systematic basis.” This message initiated a long series of negotiations and high level visits between Baghdad and Washington, throughout the Iran-Iraq war, and eventually led to the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two governments.
By early 1982, American support for Saddam’s regime intensified after Iran deflected the invasion and forced Iraqi troops back across the border into a defensive position. Measures already underway to upgrade US-Iraqi relations were accelerated, and in February 1982, the State Department removed Iraq from its list of states supporting international terrorism. The decision was made after the United State’s own intelligence reported the massive use of chemical weapons by the Iraqi forces against Iranian “human wave” offensives. In spite of congressional objections, Reagan administration’s rehabilitation of Iraq lifted barriers for direct military and technological aid to Saddam’s regime. American corporations exported helicopters, dual use insecticides, and the Department of Defense shared with Saddam’s regime satellite photos of Iranian army’s strategic positions.
Officials from the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs informed Secretary Shultz of the additional information they had acquired on Iraqis “almost daily” use of chemical weapons. In March 1983, they noted, “We also know that Iraq has acquired a CW [chemical weapons] capability, presumably form Western firms, including possibly a US foreign subsidiary.” Meanwhile, on December 20, 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy for President Reagan, traveled to Baghdad and met Saddam Hussein without raising any concerns about his war crimes (see their infamous handshake in the video clip on the National Security Archive link). In March 1984, the Islamic Republic introduced a draft resolution to the UN Security Council condemning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. The State Department instructed the US delegate to the United Nations to get the support of other Western missions for a motion of “no decision” regarding Iran’s draft resolution. The US successfully campaigned to block the Security Council from naming Iraq in its final resolution against the use of chemical weapons.
In light of this history, shouldn’t the Iraqi court hold US policymakers accountable for their support of Saddam’s war crimes? Shouldn’t the misguided policy of proxy wars against whomever the US government deems its enemy be tried in this court?
Why doesn’t the Islamic Republic take its case to the court? The Islamic Republic follows a policy of appeasement towards the post-Saddam government of Iraq. Although as recently as last week the Iranian Minister of Justice, Ayatollah Shahroudi, announced that they would submit charges against Saddam to the court, all the players in the political scene of the two countries know that the angry press conferences in Tehran are for domestic consumption. The Iranian government does not intend to demand reparations from the new regime in Iraq for the destruction and misery the war inflicted on its citizens. As an editorial in the daily English language Iran News stressed recently, despite the fact that UN Resolution 598 (by which Iran agreed to a cease-fire) expressly stated that Iran was entitled to billions of dollars of was reparations, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been indecisive and ineffectual in pursuing their rightful reparation claims.
While maintaining good relations with the new regime in Iraq might explain one side of the Islamic Republic’s reluctance to pursue criminal charges against Saddam, the other pertinent factor is the question of why the Iranian side continued fighting the war after they repelled the initial Iraqi invasion. This is a question that is revisited every year at the anniversary of the Iraqi attack, a question the answer to which might point to questionable dealings and war profiteering among Iranian government officials. Introducing additional indictments on the Iran-Iraq war might result in calls for an investigation into the reasons for perpetuating the war for another six years, when a peace agreement was feasible after Saddam’s forces were fended off in 1982. Who made what decisions, when and why are not quite the type of questions the Iranian side would like to see explored during Saddam’s trial.
The Iranian victims of Saddam’s brutality deserve justice. Let this justice lead to the indictment of the tunnel vision, short-sided, and one-dimensional American foreign policy, or shed light on the role of those who prolonged the Iran-Iraq war. Those who make decisions to commit murder, corporations which benefit from destruction, and policy makers who tried their best to shield Saddam at the height of his atrocities from the censure of international community should join him at the seat of the accused!
n is a professor of history and sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of the forthcoming book Islam and Dissent in Postrevolutionary Iran. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org