Papers from 1983 show diplomats knew of poison before it was used against Iran but did not act because British firm was involved in trade
The government delayed taking action to prevent Iraq obtaining chemical weapons partially because British exporters were involved in the trade, according to Foreign Office documents.
Newly released papers from 1983 show that even before Iraq began widespread use of poison gas to repel Iranian attacks, diplomats were aware of Baghdad’s covert technology programme.
The secret file, entitled Chemical Weapon Manufacture in Iraq, records how officials agonised over whether to intervene. It is released to the National Archives in Kew, west London.
In April 1983, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, the ambassador in Baghdad, Sir John Moberly, telegrammed the FCO and defence intelligence sections about the “manufacture and use of mustard gas by the Iraqi army”.
He added: “The UK company Weir Pumps has supplied a number of pumps to Indian contractors, Somdat Builders, who are building a factory at Samarra to manufacture pesticide.”
Weir Pumps, he said, had been frustrated in its attempts to discover technical information about the project.
Moberly added: “It would therefore seem fairly certain that part of the Samarra pesticide factory may also be used to produce materials for chemical warfare, including the manufacture of mustard gas.”
But the FCO’s arms control department declined to impose export restrictions. A longer memorandum considered whether it was “feasible” or “desirable” to intervene. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was, at that stage, far closer to the west than revolutionary Iran.
An internal letter pointed out that there was no “non-proliferation regime” banning chemical weapons, and noted: “Britain alone could take limited action to control exports, but this would do little good. Global action might eventually be effective but would probably require public presentation of our evidence and would be very slow. Given that the Iraqi programme is already far advanced, I am skeptical about the feasibility of effective action.”
In terms of the desirability of intervening, the letter continued: “Iraq is acting within her rights acquiring [chemical weapons], and this has a bearing on the desirability of taking action against her.”
Iraq would only be breaching international law if it could be proved that it used the weapons first. The memorandum added: “It would be far easier for Iran to bring this case than us. Our own position on CW exports is not invulnerable.
“We do not … at present possess any means of controlling trade in precursor chemicals or chemical-related equipment … The Department of Trade says we could extend the list by administrative action though there could be commercial objections.
“Caution may be in order since our own trade in CS gas has not escaped criticism. Another relevant factor is that a British company, Weir Pumps, has apparently supplied pumps to the Samarra factory under the impression that they were for use in making pesticides.”
An estimated 20,000 Iranians were killed by mustard gas and nerve agents during the war. Many more still suffer lingering after-effects. The Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and precursors, did not come into force until 1997. International outrage over Iraqi use of poison gas was pivotal in changing attitudes.
On the FCO letter in April 1983, a senior official wrote that the UK should take no action at the UN security council or the international court of justice. The FCO did, however, begin to talk to its allies about the issue.
A later telegram to the Baghdad embassy recorded that the FCO intended to “at least slow down and perhaps frustrate Iraqi ambitions in this field”. By July that year, officials were expressing frustration about the US government’s reluctance to release intelligence on French and German companies involved in supplying chemicals to Iraq.
Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.theguardian.com