In 1982, Iraq changed the nature of their war on Iran. They began using chemical weapons. At first, it was only tear gas. But, within a year, Iraq was using mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin and soman on, not only Iranian soldiers, but Iranian civilians. The downpour of chemicals was prodigious: the Iraqis later confessed to UN inspectors that they had fired approximately 100,000 chemical weapons on Iran. The cost was tragic: 20,000 Iranians were killed by the chemicals and as many as 100,000 more suffered serious injuries from exposure.
Iran immediately implored the UN for help, but help never came. Though the Security Council refused to act, Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, acting alone, sent no less than six fact-finding missions to investigate. They consistently reported that Iraq was raining down chemical weapons on Iranians. Still, the UN did not act.
Neither did the United States who, as early as 1983, knew with certainty that Iraq had been using chemical weapons. US intelligence had confirmed the "almost daily" use of chemical weapons. But, not only were senior American officials receiving regular briefings on Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, American intelligence was providing the Iraqi military with the location of Iranian troops in full knowledge that the Iraqi military was going to use chemical weapons. They would then help them plan the next set of strikes. The US would play a leading role in blocking the Security Council from stopping Iraq. George Shultz, then the secretary of state, would explain America’s dilemma: "It was a very hard balance. They’re using chemical weapons. So you want them to stop using chemical weapons. At the same time, you don’t want Iran to win the war."
Despite the asymmetrical assault, Iran never responded in kind. They could have: they had the capacity, but not the desire. They lacked the desire on moral grounds. Chemical weapons, the Ayatollah declared in a fatwa, an official religious ruling, were haraam, forbidden by God.
Today, as the US intensifies its economic war on Iran and its threats of "all options on the table," Iran continues to patiently and rationally offer peaceful solutions. If the US ends its economic attack, as promised in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement that the US broke, and congress ratifies it so a future President cannot just pull out again, Iran will formally ban nuclear weapons under Iranian law and sign the additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to hand the International Atomic Energy Agency the means to enforce it.
Iran was never engaged in a nuclear weapons program, so they can’t promise to give up what they never had. They have also promised not to negotiate a new nuclear deal. But, as formulated by Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, Iran can negotiate a new deal without its being new and promise only what they have always promised.
It always was a law in Iran – higher than the law in Iran – that nuclear weapons were banned. They were banned by the same moral law that barred them from using chemical weapons on Iraq though Iraq was raining chemical weapons on Iran: they were haraam, forbidden by God.
Though America’s ally, the shah, occasionally hinted at his desire for nuclear weapons, America’s enemies, the Ayatollahs, never have. They have always ruled that nuclear weapons go against Islamic morality. The founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, first and consistently laid down this ruling; his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has consistently reiterated it. Khamenei has insisted that "from an ideological and fiqhi [Islamic jurisprudence] perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin." In 2003, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa that declared nuclear weapons to be forbidden by Islam. And the supreme leader was neither going rogue nor the exception: "There is complete consensus on this issue," said Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, one of the highest-ranking clerics in Iran. "It is self- evident in Islam that it is prohibited to have nuclear bombs. It is eternal law, because the basic function of these weapons is to kill innocent people. This cannot be reversed.”
So, when Iran offers to formally ban nuclear weapons under the law, they are not giving up anything or negotiating something new: they are merely translating a long-standing law into language the Americans can understand.
And as for the offer to sign the additional protocol to the NPT, that too is not a new compromise by the Iranians. They have historically been willing to voluntarily accept the additional protocol. The new formulation only commits Iran to accepting the additional protocols sooner than they were already committed to under the JCPOA schedule.
The new Iranian position is an opening to deal with Trump in an impossible situation. It allows Iran to address a demand to give up what they never had and to be open to negotiating a new deal while keeping their word not to negotiate a new deal. They are negotiating without negotiating a new deal because the civic law banning nuclear weapons merely translates the existing moral law banning nuclear weapons. And signing the additional protocol to the NPT merely accelerates the existing promise to sign the additional protocol to the NPT. Under this formulation of the offer, Iran can create the possibility – however slim – of talking to Trump without backing off of their promises not to give up anything more nor to negotiate a new deal.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.