“The wars are winding down. The streets are heating up.” This was how Baltimore radio commentator Sean Connolly led off his “minimalist news” broadcast one day in mid-September. It is hard to find a more succinct way to describe the state of the world, the Middle East included, on the cusp of transition from the Reagan years.

Reagan came to office very much in the slipstream of the Iranian revolution, a pivotal political moment decided in the streets but consolidated in the counter-revolutionary war launched by Iraq. That revolution and its confrontational stance towards the US provided much of the political fuel that powered the buildup of US interventionary forces in the early 1980s.

One important corollary to this administration’s fixation on Iran and the Gulf was the elevation of Israel’s standing as Washington’s primary strategic “asset.” This required Washington to override its earlier emphasis on managing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead of pressing Israel to reach some accommodation with Egypt and Jordan regarding control of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon would have more or less carte blanche to deal with the Palestinians there and, of course, in Lebanon in their customary way.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon ended up creating a Lebanese resistance movement and entangling US military forces in the process. Today the American troops are long gone, and the Israelis restricted to a strip along their border. Lebanon has been practically destroyed as a political entity, in no small part as a consequence of these interventions.

The Lebanon disaster has been largely suppressed in the American political consciousness, but the Palestine conflict is another matter. A little less than 10 years after the statues of the shah were toppled in Tehran, the prime US “strategic asset” in the Middle East confronts a popular revolution in its own backyard. The conditions of this struggle are vastly different from the Iran situation, of course. But the enforced silence that usually smothers debate in the United States over American support for Israel has already been disturbed. The new administration that takes over in January will be hard put to adopt the same munificent laissez-faire attitude towards Israel that has characterized the Reagan years.

Reagan administration support for a belligerent Israel was one feature of its Middle East tenure. Another was the more circumspect support of Iraq in its war with Iran. As with Israel in Lebanon, this support led to direct military intervention and American military casualties, though it seems clear that the experience of the Marines in Beirut chastened the administration’s enthusiasm for more extensive involvement in the Gulf.

US backing for Iraq took several forms, including billions of dollars worth of credits for agricultural imports, warships to protect Iraq’s Arab allies in the Gulf, and political interference in the UN negotiations over ceasefire terms. It also took the form of rather restrained official reactions to Iraq’s repeated use of mustard gas and more deadly nerve gas. Both Iran and Iraq have used these weapons, according to UN investigators, but Iraq’s violations have been more frequent and on a much larger scale.

Only in the wake of Iraq’s chemical attacks on its own Kurdish population, in the village of Halabja in March and more recently in the large military offensive against the Kurds following the ceasefire in the war with Iran, did the State Department issue serious warnings to Baghdad. And even those warnings did not include penalties. Many analysts attribute Iran’s military collapse in the spring and summer of 1988 to widespread fear among its troops of further chemical attacks. Washington’s muted criticism when the victims were Iranians, and when its goal was to see Tehran sue for peace, makes its present stance seem somewhat opportunistic.

The most ominous Middle East policy legacy of the Reagan years may be the erosion of constraints against the use of chemical and biological weapons by nation-states at war. This is not the consequence of US inaction alone: we know of no serious protests against Iraq’s chemical warfare attacks by its other important suppliers, including France and the Soviet Union. Perhaps not coincidentally, for years after World War II the only countries possessing chemical weapons were the US, France and the Soviet Union. Now 10 or 20 countries probably have such weapons; in the Middle East the list most likely includes Israel, Egypt and Syria as well as Iraq and Iran. And the US military is back in the business of developing chemical and biological weapons, including a nerve-gas bomb called Bigeye that can be dispatched by carrier-based warplanes.

Washington has not compiled an exemplary record in restraining the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, as the cases of Israel and Pakistan attest. Clamping down on chemical weapons proliferation is much more difficult, since many of the ingredients and manufacturing techniques are common to pesticides as well. According to an investigative report by John Fialka in the Wall Street Journal, Iraq’s State Establishment for Pesticide Production bought 500 tons of the chemical thiodigycol from a Belgian subsidiary of Phillips Petroleum in July 1983. “It was going to a big agricultural user in Iraq,” says a vice-president of Phillips’ specialty chemicals division. It is true that the Iraqi minister of defense, Adnan al-Khairallah, owns a large modern farm along the Tigris. But since thiodigycol had never been ordered in such quantity before (a large order is 20 tons or so) and according to the head of the US Department of Agriculture’s pesticide research it has no agricultural applications, and since it combines with hydrochloric acid to produce mustard gas, company officials might reasonably have taken a second look. Iranians exhibiting mustard gas burns began showing up at European hospitals in 1984. Defense Minister al-Khairallah told reporters in Baghdad in mid-September 1988 that “the general rule is that these [chemical] weapons should not be used…but I would like to say that if this is the rule then for every rule there is an exception.” In 1982 Baghdad Radio warned Iranians that there was “a certain kind of insecticide for every kind of insect.”

While this corruption of the international ban against chemical weapons use is not the consequence of US policy alone, it is fair to ask why more forceful protests were not made once the evidence of such attacks became abundant in 1984. One can imagine that public reproaches backed by private promises to suspend credits for agricultural exports and pipeline projects, for
instance, might have had some impact. Even now the administration is trying to head off a US Senate bill that would cut off credits and exports to Iraq and imports of Iraqi oil, and require the US to vote against international loans to Iraq. George Shultz calls such sanctions “premature.” And the administration is focusing its campaign against chemical weapons
on its favorite nemesis, Colonel Qaddafi.

One consequence of Iraq’s chemical warfare campaign is that it has enabled the Turkish government of President/General Kenan Evren and Prime Minister Turgut Ozal to assume a humanitarian posture by admitting tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds into Turkey while maintaining a draconian martial law over its own Kurdish population. Just this summer the Istanbul
State Security Court indicted an editor and a commentator of Milliyet, one of Turkey’s largest dailies, for publishing an interview with Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan. The prosecution described the interview as “propaganda detrimental to the feelings of patriotism in Turkey.” The two journalists face prison terms of up to 15 years.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "From the Editors (November/December 1988)," Middle East Report 155 (November/December 1988).

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