TEHRAN — Gholam Delshad, 42, is a living reminder of the horrors caused by chemical weapons.
The Iran-Iraq war veteran is among tens of thousands of Iranians who survived the repeated chemical attacks launched by Iraqi forces during the eight years of fighting in the 1980s. Now that painful legacy is complicating Iran’s stance in dealing with Syria, perhaps Tehran’s closest ally.
“They can take your life away from you when you’re living,” said Delshad, who was a volunteer soldier and just 14 years old when he was injured in an Iraqi chemical attack. His respiratory problems mean that he cannot complete a sentence without coughing, and he regained his sight only after many years, when he received a retina transplant from his sister.
Iran still contends that Syrian opposition forces, not the Syrian government, launched the Aug. 21 chemical attacks that have left Bashar al-Assad’s regime facing international pressure to relinquish its arsenal or face military strikes. But the toll that Iran still faces because of the use of chemical weapons in the war has led Tehran to voice a particularly uncompromising stand.
Any use of chemical weapons would be a “crime against humanity,’’ the new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in a recent English-language television interview with the state-run Press TV. He said that Iran’s history as a victim means that its stance would be the same “regardless of who the culprits or victims are.’’
Since last month’s alleged attack in Syria, programs about the history of the Iraqi chemical attacks have been broadcast repeatedly on state television, along with interviews of military and government officials condemning their use.
During the Iran-Iraq war, which ran from 1980 to 1988, Saddam Hussein’s army made more than a dozen documented mustard and nerve gas attacks on Iran, including civilian targets. Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, including those deployed against Kurds inside Iraq in 1988, are widely considered to have been the deadliest employment of weapons of mass destruction since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945.
An estimated 20,000 Iranian soldiers were killed immediately by chemical weapons during the fighting, and tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians over time have developed illnesses related to chemical exposure. In the Iranian city of Sardasht, the site of some of the worst Iraqi attacks, at least a quarter of the population of 20,000 suffers illnesses related to a 1987 strike.
There is no indication that Iran responded by using chemical weapons of its own. Many Iranians, including many veterans, say they would not tolerate it if their government were to use chemical weapons in the future.
“Anyone and any country that uses weapons of mass destruction or nuclear or chemical weapons must be punished,” Delshad said. Interviewed by telephone from his home in Shiraz, he is among about 100,000 Iranians who receive government-funded compensation or medical attention for wounds and illnesses resulting from the Iraqi chemical attacks. In his southwestern Iranian city, there are nearly 5,000 people receiving treatment for chemical-related medical conditions
Another Iranian victim, Amineh Vahhab-zadeh, said, “I’m ready to protest against chemical weapons use anywhere in the world and by anyone.” Vahhab-zadeh, who was a medic on the front lines for nearly five years during the Iran-Iraq war, suffers respiratory, digestive and skin problems from the chemical weapons attacks.
Seyed Hadi Kasaei-zadeh, a reporter for the state-run Mehr News Agency who is also an advocate for Iranians injured by chemical warfare, said the question of who was responsible for the Aug. 21 attacks is essential to answer.
“It is important to know who used chemical weapons in Syria, because if it was Assad, which to me seems unlikely, then the Iranian people and our government have to reconsider our support for him,” Kasaei-zadeh said.
Kasaei-zadeh has made repeated visits to the affected areas in Sardasht and suffers from skin problems that he says are related to exposure to high levels of toxins in the water supply.
“You see many people coughing in Sardasht. Some of them do not have proper resources or enough money to pay for medical care, so they use narcotics for pain relief or become traffickers themselves to get money for treatment,” said Kasaei-zadeh, who thinks authorities are not doing enough to care for those harmed by chemical warfare.
Iran’s strong denunciations of chemical weapons come as the United States and its allies continue to assert that the Tehran government is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has said its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes.
Kasaei-zadeh and others interviewed say that Iran’s experience with chemical weapons and its Islamic values make it inconceivable that Iran would employ weapons of mass destruction.
“We know that our government would never use chemical, nuclear or any other mass-destruction weapon, as it is against our religion,” Kasaei-Zadeh said.