SARDASHT, IRAN — The roots of Iran's nuclear ambitions wind through this mountaintop town of pine trees and streams along the Iraqi border. Here, on a crystal-clear afternoon 20 years ago, Saddam Hussein's warplanes unleashed a poisonous rain of chemical weapons, killing as many as 113 civilians and injuring thousands more.
The victims gasped and vomited on rusting buses as they were rushed to hospitals. They dropped dead on the cobbled streets of the town center. They cried out as their eyes burned and skin bubbled.
At the United Nations, Iran protested vehemently, to little avail, about the use of the weapons, which were banned under international treaties. The world's superpowers had little patience for complaints from the Islamic Republic, which supported attacks on U.S. Marines in Lebanon as well as on Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
Once the war ended, an indignant Iran stockpiled chemical weapons and embarked on a crash nuclear program that is now at the center of a global dispute.
"We should at least think about [weapons of mass destruction] for our own defense," Hashemi Rafsanjani, then speaker of Iran's parliament, said two months after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. "Even if the use of such weapons is inhumane and illegal, the war has taught us that such laws are just drops of ink on paper."
For the West, Sardasht is a forgotten footnote in the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. But to many Iranians, the stricken town looms large in the debate about the country's defenses.
"If Iran is developing nuclear weapons, this would derive directly from its experience in the Iran-Iraq war: the knowledge that Iraq would use whatever weapon against Iran and that the international community would close its eyes to it," said Joost Hiltermann, a Jordan-based researcher and author of the upcoming book "A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq and the Gassing of Halabja," about the use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.
The attack and the worldwide lack of concern that followed haunt this Kurdish town.
"I always thought that it is necessary for the world to understand what occurred," said Mostafa Asadzadeh, who lost every member of his immediate family in the attack on Sardasht. "It was a gigantic crime."
Throughout the war, the U.S. contended that each country was using chemical weapons against the other. But a heavily redacted wartime U.S. government assessment details only examples of Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction, including a chemical attack against Iraqi Kurds that is now the subject of a genocide trial in that country.
"Iraq appears to have become more competent in its capability to integrate chemicals into its conventional battle strategy," says the undated document, which was declassified in 1996 and is now posted on the website of the Federation of American Scientists. "As chemical weapons have become more available ... military leaders appear to have accepted them as a tactically useful and effective weapon."
Hussein invaded Iran on Sept. 22, 1980, lured by the prospects of seizing long-disputed oil-rich regions of Iran and beating back a new Shiite Muslim government in Tehran that vowed to spread its recent revolution across the region.
The Iraqi president, whose Sunni-dominated regime suppressed Iraq's Shiite majority, expected a quick victory. Instead, Iraq became bogged down as Iranians rallied behind Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Fighting a country nearly three times more populous than his and facing the prospect of losing the war, Hussein began using chemical weapons to fend off the swarms of fighters on the southern front around 1983. Though banned under international law since 1925, the weapons effectively stopped the juggernaut and killed an estimated 6,500 Iranians during the war.
"Nothing could have stopped us," said Shahriar Khateri, a Tehran physician and war veteran now recognized as his country's foremost authority on the effects of chemical weapons. "The only thing that broke our spirits were the chemical attacks."
First shells, then odors
Sardasht, a run-down but scenic town of 40,000 people, has changed little over 20 years. A single mountain pass along a perilous cliff road leads up into the town, 10 miles from the Iraqi border. Some homes are carved into the surrounding mountain walls. Evergreens and grassy fields coat the hilltops. Faded government propaganda along brick walls exhorts residents to pray. Men in traditional Kurdish baggy pants and cummerbunds walk through busy downtown Sarchawe Square.
It was about 4 p.m. on June 28, 1987, when Iraqi warplanes began circling the town and dropping bombs. Iraqis frequently strafed the town, which housed Iranian troops and was a suspected stronghold of Iraqi Kurdish insurgents. Eight bombs struck the city.
Residents thought little of the bombing. Then the odors came.