The 59 Tomahawk missiles the US fired at the Shayrat Air Base served to punish dictator Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians.The strikes on April 6 also helped shine a spotlight on Iran’s role in Assad’s repeated use of nerve agents, because the mullahs’ Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were at Shayrat.What the rapid-fire news cycle didn’t say early this month was that Tehran and Damascus jump-started a program to develop a sophisticated Syrian chemicals arsenal as early as 2004.
The British publication Jane’s Defense Weekly reported in 2005 that the Islamic Republic would work with Syria to build an “innovative chemical warfare program.”Iran’s role was to build equipment to produce “hundreds of tons of precursors for VX, sarin and mustard.”Assad first used sarin nerve gas to attack the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013, killing nearly 1,500 civilians, including 426 children.Then-president Barack Obama then infamously retreated from his redline, that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would trigger some kind of military response. Obama reached a deal with the Russians and Assad to remove all chemical weapons from Syria in exchange for no military action.Then-secretary of state John Kerry said in 2014: “We got 100% of the chemical weapons [out of Syria].”Yet, the former head of Syria’s weapons research program, Brig.-Gen. Zaher al Sakat, said last week that Assad hid sizable amounts of sarin gas – and other lethal nerve agents – after the deal was reached with Obama.“They [the regime] admitted only to 1,300 tons, but we knew in reality that they had nearly double that.”Sakat said Assad’s arsenal today may include several hundred tons of sarin.The result of Obama’s tenure for Syria, to cite a Tweet this month by Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard: “President Obama – drew a redline & backed down. He left office 500,000 deaths later, Assad in power & with chemical weapons.”The international community now knows, at least since Assad’s April 4 sarin gas attack on civilians in Idlib province, that Kerry’s assurance was empty rhetoric.The sarin dropped by Assad’s air force in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun killed more than 80 people and injured more than 500 others. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter, in connection with the attack: “US aids Saddam’s use of [chemical weapons] against Iran in ’80s,” adding “then resorts to military force over bogus CW allegations, 1st in 2003 [in Iraq] and now in Syria.”Rewind to 2007. According to a Jane’s report, Iran’s regime and its strategic partner the Assad regime accidentally caused an explosion while attempting to load a chemical warhead onto a Scud-C missile. It killed dozens of Syrian military personnel and Iranian engineers.Once again, sarin gas, along with mustard gas and VX nerve gas, were at play in the 2007 explosion at the factory in Aleppo.According to a WikiLeaks dispatch on Tehran’s role in chemical warfare, “New Zealand assesses that the cooperation is mainly driven by Iran’s desire for increased strategic importance in the region. New Zealand also assesses that Iran’s biotechnology sector is far more advanced than Syria’s, and Iran does not mind sharing its knowledge with Syria.”The mounting evidence of the Islamic Republic’s role in developing Syria’s chemical warfare arsenal coincides with both countries’ efforts to modernize their biological and chemical weapons systems.Germany’s domestic intelligence agencies (the rough equivalent of the Shin Bet) revealed in reports last year that “so-called danger states, for example, Iran and North Korea, make efforts to obtain technology for atomic, biological or chemical weapons.”Iran also seeks “missile delivery systems as well as goods and know-how for proliferation.”An intelligence report from Rhineland-Palatinate said Iran was one of the foreign countries that targeted “German companies” in the German state whose equipment could be “used for atomic, biological and chemical weapons in a war.“Special attention was paid in the period covered by the report to proliferation relevant activities of Iran, Pakistan and North Korea,” the intelligence officials stated.The report added that Iran’s use of chemical warfare could serve to advance its “political goals.”Political goals, based on Iranian jingoism in the Middle East, means the spread of its revolutionary Islamic ideology and the expansion of militant Shi’ite rule across the region. Weapons of mass destruction are central to Iran’s political agenda.An intelligence report from the German state of Baden-Württemberg said that with respect to “nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs,” Iran is not, according to current knowledge, in a position to produce certain production equipment, for example, gas ultracentrifuges. The country must procure essential parts and components from its allies or in the West.In addition to vacuum technology, there is special interest in machine tools, high speed cameras, and climate test control chambers.”The German intelligence reports from 2015-2016 demonstrate that the Islamic Republic is wedded to biological and chemical weapons development.Contrary to Iran’s assertions that it abhors chemical weapons – and would never use nerve agents – growing evidence shows Tehran’s deep involvement in Assad’s nerve agent technology and role in this month’s attack in Khan Sheikhoun.Sadly, missing from the heated debates over punishing Assad is Iran’s complicity.Bill Kristol neatly captured the problem and solution on Twitter: “Punishing Assad for use of chemical weapons is good. Regime change in Iran is the prize.”Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Aftermath of suspected chemical gas attack in Idlib , Syria on April 4, 2017 (REUTERS)