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Iranian Officials Walk Fine Line On Syria Chemical Weapons

Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the outskirts of Damascus on August 21.
Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the outskirts of Damascus on August 21.
The reported chemical attack in Syria, which the West has blamed on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, puts Iran in a difficult position.

Iranian officials have been walking a fine line recently, feeling the need to condemn the use of chemical weapons while at the same time warning against a military intervention against the Islamic republic's only ally in the region. Given the firsthand experience of Iranians, officials there realize that silence is not an option.

Iranians know all too well the horrors caused by chemical weapons. More than 100,000 Iranian soldiers and civilians are estimated to have been victims of the poisonous gas used by Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Many are still suffering the long-term effects of chemical agents.

Iran's support for Syria, which has already come under criticism by many Iranians, could become even more unpopular as more countries point the finger at the Syrian regime over the suspected chemical attack on August 21.

That does not mean that Iran will discontinue its support for Syria -- public opinion doesn't count for much to a regime like Iran's -- and for now Tehran appears determined to stand by Assad.

To justify its continued support for Damascus, Iran has the option of blaming rebels for the attack or simply ignoring the culprits and calling for the prevention of the use of chemical weapons.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani opted for the latter over the weekend when he acknowledged the death and injury of "a number of innocent people" in Syria and called for preventive action. However, he didn't say who he thought was behind the attack.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran, which is itself a victim of chemical weapons, brings the attention of the international community to this issue, that it should do all it can to prevent the use of such weapons," Rohani said on August 24, according to the text of his comments published on his website.

Unlike Rohani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quick to blame the rebels for the deadly incident in a western suburb of Damascus. "This criminal act has been done by the terrorists, because escalating the crisis in Syria and internationalizing it is in their favor," Zarif was quoted as saying last week in a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu.

Vox Pop: Ordinary Iranians React To Events In Syria

However, a few days later Zarif appeared to take a softer line. In an August 27 interview with official news agency IRNA, Zarif said that "no proof" had been provided by anyone that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. "Most field and intelligence evidence seem to point out that others have used chemical weapons, and they have been given to 'takfiri' (hard-line Sunni Islamist groups) that are active in Syria."

Zarif added that before taking any preventive action against chemical weapons, it should be determined which side used them in Syria. "If rationality and reason prevail, it should be permitted to find out with international consensus and in a transparent way who used these weapons and to what end," he said.

Zarif said Iranians had experienced the suffering caused by chemical weapons. "When we talk about chemical attacks, we feel the pain with our flesh, skin, and bones, and the horror people feel because our people and our civilians were victims of chemical weapons," he said.

A picture of one of those victims was tweeted on August 27 by the Twitter account, which is believed to be maintained by the press office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The tweet, which appeared to be a reaction to the suspected chemical attack in Syria, came after a new report by "Foreign Policy" that says the United States gave Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein tactical and intelligence information that Iraq exploited to gas Iranian soldiers.

"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."

Key parts of the report have been translated and published by a number of Iranian news websites and newspapers.

"Our gassing was not a red line," wrote one Iranian on social media in reaction to the report.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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