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A Poisonous Affair

America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja

Book Review: A Poisonous Affair

By Joost Hiltermann

Reviewed by Jill M Parillo, PSR Security Program Coordinator

An important read for anyone concerned with the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction, A Poisonous Affair opens up a new chapter in the history of chemical weapon use and development in the Iran-Iraq War. It is likely that a core purpose of this book is to influence today’s policy makers, by arguing that it is possible for, and the responsibility of, powerful nations (like the United States) to take a stronger stand in the international arena against the use of weapons of mass destruction in warfare.

Joost Hiltermann’s book provides an historical account of the Iran-Iraq War, along with a comprehensive analysis on the effect that the international community had on Iraq’s continued development and use of chemical weapons.  Detailing Iraq’s motivations and incentives, Hiltermann starts out with Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980. Iraq “was motivated by a combination of fear and opportunity,” writes Hiltermann. (Pg. 22) He continues with Iran’s successful counteroffensives until 1982 and recounts six more years of war, including Iraq’s chemical gas attacks. Hiltermann chronicles the gas attacks from 1983 onwards, but notes that they could have started as early as 1980. (Pgs. 26-40)  Hiltermann argues that, the absence of strong international condemnation for Iraq’s chemical weapon attack on Halabja in 1988 could have given Iraq incentive to continue development and use of these weapons in warfare.  Hiltermann writes,

The absence of an early, strong and unequivocal international condemnation of Iraq for its chemical weapons use, within the context of the Western tilt toward Iraq, had several dramatic consequences: It sent signals to Iraq that the regime could continue, and even escalate, chemical weapon use- which it did, with the Halabja attack as climax… (Pg. 16)

A lot of emphasis is put on the atrocity committed by Iraq for its use of chemical weapons. However, Hiltermann does not leave out Iran’s failure to end the war at a much earlier date when it had the chance.  Hiltermann writes,

Nor can Iran claim a moral high ground, certainly not after 1982 when, having booted out the invaders, it rejected a ceasefire and prolonged the war for six senseless years. (Pg. 228)

Hiltermann makes a somewhat contentious assertion that the absence of strong international condemnation for Iraq’s chemical weapon use “stands at the root” of Iran’s motivations to create a nuclear weapons program.  This is somewhat contentious, since some Iran experts describe Iran’s driving motivations differently.  For example, Karim Sadjadpour, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Iran expert, has said that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “believes that if he compromises as a result of the [U.S.’s] pressure, it’s not going to strengthen the argument of those in the State Department who argue for a conciliatory approach to Iran, it’s going to strengthen the argument of people like [Vice President] Dick Cheney who say, ‘see, the pressure’s working, let’s turn up the heat even more.’” (1)  Hiltermann’s statement is also somewhat contentious, because it asserts that Iran has a developing nuclear weapon program.  The most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran states that Iran stopped its nuclear weapon program in 2003. Furthermore, Iran continually claims that its nuclear enrichment program is for civil nuclear energy production. (2)

Nineteen years later, victims of Iraq’s chemical attacks are still dying horrible deaths.  In reviewing A Poisonous Affair in the Middle East Journal, Mike Amitay, Senior Policy Analyst for the Middle East, North Africa and Central Eurasia at the Open Society Institute, raises important questions about regions that were chemically gassed.  Amitay asks, “Is it possible that widespread reports of elevated cancer rates, birth defects and other medical disorders stem from ongoing environmental contamination?”  Hiltermann’s book forces us to consider which policy choices may have ended, and which may have provoked, the atrocious gassing of these innocent civilians during the Iran-Iraq War. It also provokes inquiries, such as Mike Amitay’s, which bring into question the international community’s lack of attention and assistance for the thousands of victims that are still suffering from these unethical attacks today.

1. Karim Sadjadpour, “Revolutionary Guards Have Financial Interest in Keeping Iran Isolated,” Council on Foreign Relations, Interview, May 29, 2007.
2. “Iran Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” National Intelligence Estimate, National Intelligence Council, November 2007. Also see; Michele Kelemen, “Iran’s Ahmadinejad Defends Nuclear Program,” National Public Radio (NPR), December 10, 2007.

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