If there were any doubts that the United States under President Donald Trump was trying to pick a fight with Iran over anything—that Washington had no real agenda with its belligerent anti-Iran rhetoric and moves other than just flicking mud at the country and its rulers in hopes that something would stick—they were dispelled on November 22.
That’s when Kenneth Ward, the US envoy to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), used his slot during the group’s annual meeting to accuse Iran of violating international treaty obligations by maintaining a toxic arms program.
“The United States has had longstanding concerns that Iran maintains a chemical-weapons program that it failed to declare to the OPCW,” he told those assembled. “The United States is also concerned that Iran is pursuing central nervous system-acting chemicals for offensive purposes.”
Beyond the facts behind the US allegations, the chemical weapons allegation further damaged Washington’s credibility and potentially neutralized any legitimate concerns about Iran’s actions.
“This is essentially the strategy of this administration,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and Obama administration national security official. “They conjure up any claims regardless of veracity and see what sticks, whether nuclear files, a new chemical weapons case, or drumming a case for Iran’s malfeasance in terrorism and Yemen.”
The Trump administration’s timing was suspect, coinciding with the latest quarterly report card by the International Atomic Energy Agency certifying that Iran was in compliance with its obligations under the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Ward’s evidence of the chemical weapons program was thin. He alleged that Iran had failed to declare a production facility for the filling of aerial bombs and insisted Tehran maintains a program to obtain banned toxic munitions. He dredged up 1980s weapons shipments to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya by Iran that were discovered amid the toppling of his regime in 2011.
There might be some substance to the US claims. Like many nations of the world, and most in the Middle East, Iran has had a years-long chemical weapons program.
Iran also has the unique status of being one of the few countries in the world that were victims of chemical weapons attacks in the modern era during the 1980 – 1988 Iran-Iraq War, and has been an active and vocal member of the OCPW since its 1997 founding.
Despite pointing to religious edicts which bar the use of weapons of mass destruction, Tehran has staunchly defended and covered up for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as it launches chemical weapons and chlorine bomb attacks on rebel-held areas.
“It would not be surprising if Iran is hedging its bets in the chemical weapons area, given how much we are finding now that it has hidden away and may be maintaining from its nuclear weapons program,” said Andrea Stricker, a senior nonproliferation policy analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security.
Much of the rest of the world was unimpressed by the allegations. Neither before, during, nor after the presentation was there much concern about Iran’s chemical weapons program in Western capitals. Ward’s show only hardened the frost between Washington and its longtime European allies, including those who worked with America—sacrificing business opportunities and expending political capital—to draw Iran to the negotiating table after years of excruciating talks that culminated in the JCPOA.
“We are on cold terms with the US because they don’t work with us as partners,” one European diplomat explained. “We address real stuff: state terrorism, nuclear proliferation, ballistic missiles. We are just not in a systemic anti-Iran coalition.”
Iranian officials and other experts have also contended that the evidence the US is pointing to is dated and ambiguous. “Even when you produce washing powder there are chemicals that could be used for weapons,” a source close to the Tehran government quipped.
“The Iranian position is ‘we are pioneers in fighting chemical weapons,’” said the source. “We are one of the main nations in the creation of OPCW. We see that fight against the use of chemical weapons as part of Iranian interests and a foreign policy value.”
Even if Iran was technically in violation of some aspect of the chemical weapons treaty, the Trump administration’s move baffled many. Ward is considered a close ally of National Security Adviser John Bolton, an Iran hawk who also played a role in the build-up to the disastrous 2003 Iraq War. That conflict was famously launched on the basis of a weapons of mass destruction program that turned out to be a hoax based on forgeries, lies, and manipulated intelligence.
On social media, observers mocked Ward’s presentation as a dangerous rerun of the false case against Iraq. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter denounced the allegations as “not just obscene” but “dangerous.” In Brussels, as well as Washington, observers wondered why the US—if it were attempting to convince world powers to give it the benefit of the doubt on Iran—would choose a tactic that revives memories of the traumatic path toward war in Iraq.
While Europe and perhaps even some constituencies in Russia and Asia would like to see Iran modify its behavior, no one would want to sign up for a Trump crusade against the Islamic Republic that looks so much like a possible prelude for violent regime change.
“The fundamental problem Trump has is that none of these guys wants to work with the US on Iran because they know or strongly suspect that the goal is not curbing Iran’s bad behavior, but toppling the regime,” said a former senior US national security official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “You don’t have to read too much between the lines to see that.”
Borzou Daragahi is an International correspondent for The Independent. He has covered the Middle East and North Africa since 2002. He is also a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @borzou.