Part 2: COVID-19 Toll on Chemical Weapons Victims

Victims of chemical weapons during Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq have proven to be among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. In April 2020, veterans accounted for 7.5 percent of the 4,500 COVID-19 deaths, or about 337 people, the Islamic Revolution Veterans Association reported. Tens of thousands of veterans and first responders from a war in the 1980s were still dealing with the enduring impact of exposure to mustard gas—which attacks the respiratory system—during the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. Many were more at risk than the general population for the coronavirus.

During the eight-year war, President Saddam Hussein’s troops repeatedly used chemical weapons—mustard gas as well as sophisticated nerve agents such as sarin and tabun—against Iranian troops. After the war ended in 1988, the CIA reported that 50,000 troops were casualties of chemical weapons; thousands died. But by 2005, Iran claimed that it had traced 100,000 casualties, many of whom had symptoms that were not detected for years. As of April 2020, at least 75,000 veterans still were receiving medical treatment from exposure to chemical weapons.

Of the more than 65,000 victims registered with the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs: 

  • 517 were severely sick, 
  • 16,486 had moderate symptoms 
  • and 42,935 had mild symptoms.

The lingering impact of chemical weapons is a major issue in Iranian society. About one million soldiers and civilians were exposed chemical weapons during the war, according to the Tehran Peace Museum. Located in the historic City Park, the institution is committed to educating people about weapons of mass destruction and preventing their future use. Survivors of chemical weapons—many still dealing with symptoms—volunteer to give tours and tell their stories.

Docent nametag
A name tag of a museum docent (© Robin Wright)

Between 1983 and 1988, Iraqi forces used mustard gas and nerve agents—and sometimes at the same time. Victims of nerve agents either died or used antidotes to mitigate the effects. Victims of mustard gas had no antidote. Many suffered permanent lung damage as the most serious and enduring effect, but they also suffered severe blisters, skin discoloration, eye disease and blindness. “Many soldiers on the battlefield don't have symptoms, but years later they come to us with problems,” Mostafa Ghanei, a physician at Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences told Science Magazine. Some victims require specialized treatments and expensive medicines procured from abroad.

A mannequin in a gas mask at the Tehran Peace Museum dedicated to the history of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the 1980-1988 Gulf War. (© Robin Wright)

The COVID-19 virus is especially dangerous because it first targets the lungs. Scientists believe the pathogen multiples quickly and attacks the cells lining the lungs that filter out things like pollen and viruses, which can lead to pneumonia.

Iranian officials have claimed their efforts to combat the virus have been hampered by U.S. sanctions, which were reimposed in 2018 after the Trump Administration withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif charged the United States with “war crimes” and “economic terrorism” as U.S. sanctions “literally kill innocents” because of Iran’s ability to acquire medical supplies during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Humanitarian goods—such as medical, educational and humanitarian supplies—have always been exempt from U.S. sanctions. But foreign banks have been hesitant to finance any business with Iran, including medical supplies, in turn limiting Tehran’s ability to buy and ship goods not limited by sanctions.

In October 2019, Human Rights Watch reported that U.S. sanctions were “causing serious hardships for ordinary Iranians. The 47-page report criticized broad restrictions on financial transactions and aggressive rhetoric from the Trump Administration, which has “drastically constrained” Iran’s ability to finance humanitarian imports. Many parties—including the United Nations, three global powers, dozens of U.S. lawmakers, and many former U.S. and European officials, and human rights groups—have urged the Trump administration to ease sanctions on Iran during the health crisis.


Chemical Weapons Use by Iraq (1983-1988)

During the war, U.N. experts concluded that Iraq had violated the Geneva Convention by using chemical weapons against Iran. The following is a list of major attacks when Iraq used chemical weapons documented by the U.S. government, but Iraq also launched many other smaller scale chemical weapons attacks:

  • August 1983 Haij Umran
Mustard , fewer than 100 Iranian/Kurdish casualties
  • October-November 1983 Panjwin
Mustard, 3,000 Iranian/Kurdish casualties
  • February-March 1984 Majnoon Island
Mustard, 2,500 Iranian casualties
  • March 1984 al-Basrah
Tabun, 50-100 Iranian casualties
  • March 1985 Hawizah Marsh
Mustard & Tabun, 3,000 Iranian casualties
  • February 1986 al-Faw
Mustard & Tabun, 8,000 to 10,000 Iranian casualties
  • December 1986 Um ar-Rasas
Mustard, 1,000s Iranian casualties
  • April 1987 al-Basrah
Mustard & Tabun, 5,000 Iranian casualties
  • October 1987 Sumar/Mehran
Mustard & nerve agent, 3,000 Iranian casualties
  • March 1988 Halabjah& Kurdish area
Mustard & nerve agent, 1,000s Kurdish/Iranian casualties
  • April 1988 al-Faw
Mustard & nerve agent, 1,000s Iranian casualties
  • May 1988 Fish Lake
Mustard & nerve agent, 100s or 1,000s Iranian casualties
  • June 1988 Majnoon Islands
Mustard & nerve agent, 100s or 1,000s Iranian casualties
  • July 1988 South-central border
Mustard & nerve agent, 100s or 1,000s Iranian casualties


In March 2003, the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission published a report on Iraq’s weapons programs. It included information provided by Iraq on its use of chemical weapons:

“The war with Iran ended in August 1988. By this time seven UN specialist missions had documented repeated use of chemicals in the war. According to Iraq, it consumed almost 19,500 chemical bombs, over 54,000 chemical artillery shells and 27,000 short-range chemical rockets between 1983 and 1988. Iraq declared that about 1,800 tonnes of Mustard, 140 tonnes of Tabun and over 600 tonnes of Sarin had been consumed during these years. Almost two-thirds of the CW weapons used, were used in the last 18 months of the war.”


Supreme Leader on Chemical Weapons

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly objected to the use of chemical weapons. “War is tough and unfavorable but even war has its own rules. Islam orders us to observe human values during wars,” he said in 1997. “Even when Iraq attacked us by chemical weapons, we did not produce chemical weapons,” he said in 2012. Two years later, Khamenei’s office released an infographic on the 27th anniversary of Iraq’s use of mustard gas and nerve agents near the village of Sumar, Iran. It stated that Iraq launched more than 570 chemical attacks during the war.

Khamenei infographic