A Given Definition of “Exceptional”: Chemical Warfare


Gas victims, Halabja, Iran, March 16, 1988

Gas victims, Halabja, Iran, March 16, 1988

WC read the recent, excellent New York Times feature on the experience of U.S. soldiers in Iraq who encountered the moldering remainders of Saddam Hussein’s chemical warfare munitions. And it set WC to wondering: large-scale manufacture of chemical weapons involves very difficult chemical syntheses. Likely beyond the capabilities of Iraq and Iran, although WC’s readers will recall both sides used extensive amounts of banned chemicals. Hussein killed more than 5,000 Kurds in Halabja in a single raid on March 16, 1988.

Massive amounts of war gases implies massive amounts of precursor chemicals. Where had Hussein and, for that matter, the Iranians, gotten them? It seemed improbable they had manufactured them.

As it turns out, a very substantial of the precusror chemicals for the war gases – mustard gas and sarin, among others – were made in the United States. You read that right: the U.S. chemical industry supplied both sides with chemical agents in the Iran-Iraq War. To a considerable extent, the injuries suffered by U.S. soldiers dealing with the discarded war gas systems in Iraq trace to products made in the U.S.

Even better, Saddam’s famous, and nearly non-existent, weapons of mass destruction that were the pretext for the U.S. invasion of Iraq trace to tons of precursor chemicals manufactured and sold by the United States.

A given definition of “exceptional” indeed.

Maybe WC’s readers already know all this stuff. The report was written in 2008. But it was news to WC.

Jonathan B. Tucker of The Monterey Institute of International Studies wrote a long paper in November 2008 documenting the Unites States’ role in providing chemical precursor ingredients to Iran and Iraq. It’s a fascinating, disturbing read.

For example, to make mustard gas,a blistering agent, inexpensively and in large quantities, you need a precursor ingredient called thiodiglycol, or TDG. Like many precursor chemicals, TDG is a “dual-purpose” chemical. It has legitimate industrial uses as well as being a key ingredient in mustard gas. Because it is a dual-purpose chemical, TDG is on a list of substances that can only be exported under license. But, at least back in the 1980s, it was alarmingly easy to evade those export restrictions. Happily, in this case the manufacturer was particularly stupid about the altered shipping document, and and especially conscientious Customs Special Agent named Dennis Bass.

Despite incompetent prosecution staff errors and bail-jumping defendants, eventually most of the guilty parties were punished. The Dutch prosecutors, in particular, did a fine job putting the nastiest of the group in jail.

But the policing efforts came long after the war gases had been used. The system for regulating the precursor chemicals completely failed. Of course, the United States also supplied Saddam Hussein with the technology for delivery of the war gases, if not the the shells themselves. We let our fear of the Ayatollah and Iran move the country into an ill-considered near-alliance with Saddam Hussein. We’ve been paying the price ever since.

Did the U.S. turn a blind eye, or softer enforcement, towards the distribution of the precursor chemicals? Were there genuinely 500 metric tons TDG re-directed without the knowledge of the U.S. government? It’s possible. We’re still paying for that, too.

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